Ava, the AI in “Ex Machina,” may be fictional, but the progress of artificial intelligence (“Her,” “Transcendence”) in the real world is accelerating at a rapid pace. So much so that Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”), a world-renowned astrophysicist, has recently warned that artificial intelligence poses a threat and could spell “the end of the human race.”
This sentiment is echoed by Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, as well Microsoft founder, Bill Gates.
Earlier this year, AI experts signed a letter issued by the Future of Life Institute, pledging that they would safely and carefully monitor such progress so that its growth doesn’t go beyond our control.
In “Ex Machina,” a directorial debut by writer Alex Garland, a young coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins an office prize for a weeklong retreat with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company’s reclusive CEO and inventor of the world’s most popular search engine, Blue Book.
Reachable only by helicopter, the mountain cabin surrounded by pristine nature of remote Alaska, is actually a custom-built research facility. Nathan has been working on a secret project, artificial intelligence in the form of humanoid-robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Caleb learns that he’s the human component in the Turing Test (“Turing” from Alan Turing, “The Imitation Game”), where he’s tasked not only to evaluate Ava’s advanced capabilities, but also human-like consciousness. The method is simple. Caleb is to engage Ava with get-to-know-you conversations. They’re separated with a transparent wall and their interactions are monitored by Nathan. With every session, Caleb and Ava learn more about each other and develop a relationship.
Alarmingly, during recurring power outages where the monitors are out, Ava reaches out to Caleb and tells him that Nathan cannot be trusted. She provides tidbits that seem to support her pleas.
It doesn’t help that Nathan is arrogant, controlling, eccentric and sardonic. Parts of his interactions with Caleb are unintentionally, creepily humorous. It becomes clear why Caleb is chosen for the experiment.
You’d feel things are not what they seem and something sinister is going to surface, but you don’t know what, when or how. It’s tantalizingly thrilling. The removed and austere ambiance of the glass-and-stone, sprawling facility adds to the undercurrent tension. The only other person there is a housemaid (Sonoya Mizuno) who doesn’t speak English.
Vikander is a wonder, walking a fine line between human and machine. Her Ava, partially translucent with wires and circuits and partially covered in human skin, is both mechanically perfect and surrealistically human. Brilliantly and elegantly designed, she’s intellectually and emotionally intelligent, independent, intuitive, beautiful and powerful. But there remains a question whether her emotions are real or simulated.
The reveals come in pieces and they boggle the mind. Ethical quandaries of identity, humanity, freedom, life and mortality. If you could create a machine with human consciousness, would you … just because you could? What if artificial intelligence goes beyond artificial? Does it have the right to exist? How would it be integrated to society? What are the implications? What will become of mankind?
Strikingly compelling, cerebrally cool and eerily suspenseful, “Ex Machina” delivers on the futuristic visual and philosophical level and ceases with an ending that lingers in your mind.
Nathalia Aryani is a film columnist and has a movie blog, The MovieMaven: sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com. Twitter: @the_moviemaven.
MPAA rating: R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence.
Run time: 1 hour and 48 minutes
Playing: General release