Director : Alex Garland
Writer : Alex Garland
Stars : Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Release year : 2015 (imdb)
For the uninformed viewer, Ex Machina might seem just a good claustrophobic futuristic sci-fi thriller. However, if you examine this film closely, you notice that it comes packed with a handful of philosophical ideas, pertaining mostly to the field of artificial intelligence and the philosophy of mind. It boldly asks deep questions such as: can a machine think (or feel)? What is consciousness? What defines a human being?
Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive computer genius and business magnate behind the revolutionary search engine Blue Book, summons Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a software engineer and one of his employees, to his bunker-like research facility. The aim is for Caleb to perform a variant of the Turing test on Nathan’s AI. The test is then conducted in a series of sessions between Caleb and the humanoid Ava (Alicia Vikander). As time passes, Caleb becomes puzzled about Nathan’s true intentions, quickly developing feeling towards Ava who exhibits genuine human traits.
Before judging the film’s artistic merit, let us first discuss some of the issues it addresses. Early in the story, Nathan informs Caleb that Ava has already passed the Turing test. What is a Turing test – you might ask? It is test (first hypothesized by Alan Turing in 1950) of a machine’s aptness to manifest intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. Although it is not the focus of modern scientific and commercial AI research nowadays, it still provides an academic template to discuss the “thinking machine” question. It’s safe to assume it was used for this very purpose: to ponder the question of whether or not a machine can think, whether it is truly conscious or mere philosophical “artificial” zombie.
The film also had the courage to tackle one of the trickiest problems in modern philosophy of mind, namely “the hard problem of consciousness“. Concisely, some philosophers (Chalmers and Lowe to name but two) argue against the widely accepted materialistic view of consciousness, instead positing the existence of subjective, irreducible and individual instances of conscious experience or qualia. The hard problem is explaining how and why we have these phenomenal experiences. In this regard, the movie refers to the thought experiment known as the knowledge argument or Mary’s room. Originally formulated by philosopher Frank Jackson to support his thesis of epiphenomenalism. The experiment takes Mary, a brilliant scientist who knows all there is to know about the neurophysiology of vision and has a very thorough understanding of the physical qualities of colours as well as their effect on the brain. Yet she has been confined in black and white room, interacting with the outside world via a black and white monitor; One day, Mary is released from her room and sees a colourful flower field. Will she learn anything new?
Of course, a movie as futuristic as this one would not miss the chance to examine the hypothesis of technological singularity, albeit rather briefly, with Nathan revealing that Ava is the first instance of strong AI.
All intellectual debate aside, Ex Machina remains a very well-crafted piece of cinema. The remote and overly sophisticated and sanitized mansion spreads a mood of alienation and eeriness. The internal and external rhythm (cuts, shot duration, camera angles and lighting) successfully create a claustrophobic feeling. The techno/dark ambient score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow create and sustain a supplement of anxiety and discontent. The tight scripting gives the story momentum with each detail revealed, culminating in a predictable but logical ending. The three central performances are top-notch, the outwardly easy-going yet sharply machiavellian Nathan contrast with the straightforward and candid Caleb; but it was Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Ava the linchpin of the whole enterprise. Not to mention the amazing special effects which present an Ava so transparently machined yet uncannily human, with a design reminiscent of both the robot in Metropolis and the augmented-cybernetic woman in Ghost in the Shell.
The movie abounds of interesting and deep philosophical discussions, subtly scattered throughout its script. It answers some, and leaves some to rumination. On top of that, it is a testimony of Garland’s talent and artistic verve. It epitomizes and perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the current era.