26 January 2015

"That's Not the History of Man — That's the History of Gods"

Last week was a week of movie connections. On Monday, I saw Selma with David Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivola, who were also in A Most Violent Year, which also starred Oscar Isaac, who was in Alex Garland's new film Ex Machina, which I watched on Saturday. Ex Machina is also a film with many connections, although other than Isaac, it stars only a handful of characters. It is a fun and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller about one man's ambitious and megalomaniacal effort to build the ultimate artificial intelligence and secure his name in the history books.

At the start of the film, wide-eyed young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to spend one week with Nathan (Isaac), the brilliant, mysterious and reclusive CEO of his company, BlueBook, which is named for Wittgenstein's notebook and runs the world's biggest search engine. Caleb is dropped off by helicopter in the middle of nowhere, which is in fact where Nathan makes his home and runs his research lab. "I'm hot on high-level abstraction", Caleb tells his boss, quick to impress and seriously in awe of Nathan and the luxurious, high-tech lifestyle his boss leads, but Nathan just tells him to relax and they can be buddies.

Nathan soon reveals that the reason for Caleb's visit is that he wants the coder to run the Turing test on his newest AI creation, which he has named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Don't worry if you don't know what the Turing test is, because Caleb expositions it very well! Ava has Alicia Vikander's face and human arms but an undeniably robotic body, made of metal and glass, and as she moves, her joints whir slightly in a not unpleasant way. On a side note, every time Caleb says, "Ava", I kind of expect her to reply, "WALL-E", but alas, she does not.

As her 'father' owns the world's biggest search engine, Ava has the benefit of vast, vast amounts of data input from people's searches, and micro-expression data from image and video uploads. Caleb is impressed by Ava's ability to look, act and converse like a human and he also wonders whether it is possible for him to be attracted to an AI — she certainly seems to have taken a shine to him. But as the week progresses, Caleb is learning more about his boss, as well as about Ava, and not all of it is good. Nathan appears quite unstable at times, often getting wildly drunk and being rude and handsy with the help, and just generally giving the impression that he wants to build the best AI because he wants to be the best and to prove it to the world. For the second time in as many movies, could Oscar Isaac's ego be his biggest downfall?

Ex Machina is Garland's directorial debut and I was seriously impressed. Yes, it's a bit silly in places, but he has created a taut, intense thriller that will leave you guessing as to the outcome. Isaac and Vikander, in particular, put in brilliant performances; Gleeson is mainly playing the same character he usually plays, but he makes a likeable foil to his boss and his boss's AI. There is a lot of really interesting AI research going on in the real world at the moment, which is one of the reasons why Ex Machina is so compelling and so powerful. Garland makes us wonder how long it will be before Ava-like AIs are created—if they haven't been created already—and what might happen to humanity when it happens.

It's also nice to see another film about computer science, after the early stages of the field being depicted in The Imitation Game. And was it just me, or did I see a painting of Ada Lovelace on one of Nathan's cool, stark walls? If so, good on Garland and the film-makers.

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