wBUWcOKBy Tom Platt. “In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains,

On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,

In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,

The good deeds a man has done before defend him.

Repeating that final line through drunken tears, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) quotes his role model J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb, as he continues to realize his place in the daunting (and terrifying) rabbit hole that is artificial intelligence.

Ex Machina, the directorial debut from writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), discusses a barrage of difficult questions pertaining to Nathan’s newly created AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander). We follow Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) after he wins a company wide sweepstakes to spend a week with the great and mysterious Nathan, a master programmer since he was thirteen, and an extremely successful computer genius living in total seclusion. In the days that follow Caleb looks to perform a Turing test to see if Ava is truly intelligent in a manner that transcends her programming.

Not surprisingly, Ex Machina carries with it quite a few lofty ideas. Questions about consciousness, sexual identity, life, humanity, nature, and necessity are all raised, and in turn discussed through an endless barrage of dialogue. The great achievement of Garland’s film is its thought provoking nature, but its presentation as a series of discussions about the very questions it raises doesn’t exactly leave much room for audience participation.

In spite of it’s endless navel-gazing, none of the dialogue feels forced or even extraneous. Garland has hit a strange balance where he both shows and tells: We watch beautiful moments as Ava seamlessly discovers and alters her tactics in order to adapt to her ever-changing environment. The story itself consistently has the viewer reevaluate what is human, and whether or not this new technical achievement will be a blessing or a curse.

Ex-Machina-Gallery-02 - EditedNathan’s character draws heavily from both Oppenheimer and Jackson Pollack, two men of considerable stature who broke new ground in their particular fields, which leaves us with an arrogant albeit considerably tortured soul. At first Nathan revels in his work as being worthy of gods, however, soon enough he is quoting the Bhagavad Gita with the same remorse as Oppenheimer after the detonation of his atomic bomb. (“I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”) In Nathan’s mind, he stands alongside Prometheus, and that thought nags at him with the ceaseless questions of necessity.

Is AI a necessity? Can it be perfected to feel compassion? Or will it resort to sociopathic tendencies and “become death, the shatterer of worlds”?

Nothing in Garland’s world feels out of place and nothing expresses this better than Ava’s sound design. The hums and whirs chosen to surround her semi-external hardware are both soft and defined. As she moves about we are reminded again and again that this woman is a machine, and how that shouldn’t bother us. We accept it as a flaw as one might a crooked tooth or a nervous twitch, we still love her all the same. Like Caleb, we must decipher our own feelings for this machine… or is it a real woman? What even makes a woman? And what makes a man? And what makes a gray box?

What Ex Machina presents is an artificial intelligence that shows an increasingly complex set of skills. From speaking, to wanting, to manipulating for personal gain, we are asked not only what creates consciousness but also: what signifies life? Is Ava alive? If so it’s difficult to watch her trapped in this research facility like some sort of test subject. But, then again, isn’t that exactly what she is? Is Ava alive, or is she an experiment? Can she be both? “When do we let the dog off the leash?” may seem cruel in Ava’s case, but the question stands.

It is this sort of discussion Ex Machina yearns for from its audience. The presentation of the film purposefully gives you varying sides to the argument so as to build appreciation for all points involved. The pitfall being it’s unyielding exposition: While there are beautiful themes at play they are overwhelmed by a plot that, by it’s structure, requires unrelenting explanation. We aren’t shown anything that is not discussed later in the film through dialogue, and while that dialogue is very well written and the performances are wonderfully acted, it’s hard for all this explaining to not get tiresome. Any and all thoughts or questions must be saved till the end of the feature presentation. To pay homage to Godard, Garland sure gave it a solid try, but shouldn’t it be possible to do better?

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