Can a machine pass for a human? It’s the biggest question around one of the most important ideas in computers: The Turing Test. Put simply, could a machine fool a human into thinking it was a human if the human couldn’t see that it was a machine. It’s a fascinating thought experiment with all sorts of philosophical and technological implications and also has a likelihood of being a reality within our lifetime.
But writer/director Alex Garland approaches the question from a more dramatic angle: would a human knowing he was interacting with a machine conclude that the machine had personhood? The human is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a gifted programmer who works for a tech company and wins a contest to meet CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). While at Nathan’s secret home, Caleb becomes part of a secret Turing Test to determine the nature of Ava (Alicia Vikander), an AI embodied in a humanoid machine. But Caleb quickly finds himself taken aback both by Ava’s behavior and Nathan’s dark outbursts.
The story is structured as a series of sessions between Caleb and Ava and the conversations and events surrounding those conversations. Each conversation cleverly serves a dual purpose of attempting to determine Ava’s personhood as well as subtly pushing forward the plot. Alex Garland weaves theme, characters, and story seamlessly into conversations that are packed with ideas but natural enough to never be lectures. As a result, Garland crafts one of the most thoughtful and smart pieces of science fiction committed to film.
By shifting the core question of the Turing Test to whether or not a machine could deceive a human who doesn’t know the nature of the machine to whether or not a human that knows he is talking to a machine would treat it as a person, the story becomes relational. The test is not so much a test as it is exploring whether or not humans can create a humanlike relationship with a machine.
Ex Machina is not afraid to go there and explore how this would also mean there be an emotional and sexual component to the relationship. It is not simply enough that the machine passes as a human being in Nathan’s eyes, there’s a sexual component to being human that machines would need to be able to replicate. Sexuality is something already easily emulatable in a machine, it’s the emotional and intelligent component that has yet to be achieved.
The three core performances sell the drama of what would otherwise be an awkward film. Oscar Isaac is one of the great chameleons working in the business, able to melt into the role. His ability to be charming and disarming one moment and then downright psychotic the next makes for an off-kilter and upsetting performance.
Domhnall Gleeson is initially played as the naive, enthusiastic dupe, but he’s keenly smart and quickly aware of how he might be part of a game of manipulation. While he initially appears as an audience stand-in, it’s not long before he starts pushing back against the situation he finds himself in and begins to ask himself and Nathan questions about the true nature of what is happening.
Alicia Vikander gives the great performance of the film. Both otherworldly and human, she walks the fine line between stiffly mechanical and something close enough to human to be decieving. The performance never comes off as robotic, nore does it come across as someone acting like their acting. She’s able to capture this sense of desperately trying to be human but more through watching how humans act than actually being one.
The end result is a film that mostly takes place as conversations between three people and several moments of action. It’s gorgeously shot, well-framed and executed with a sense that Garland has already been around the block once (according to Karl Urban, he shot most of Dredd). It’s rare a writer/director comes upon the scene with such an intelligent and thoughtful film on the first try. The fact that it might be among the best pieces of science fiction of its time is even more astounding.
© James Blake Ewing 2020