Women exploited on the road to human extinction

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Ex Machina (MA). Director: Alex Garland. Starring: Alicia Vikaner, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac. 108 minutes

In an illuminating piece of synergy, the screening of Ex Machina — acclaimed genre screenwriter Alex Garland's directorial debut — was led by a trailer for the upcoming 'final cut' of Ridley Scott's 1982 noir sci-fi thriller Blade Runner. Scott's film, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, is renowned as much for its attention to philosophical questions about the nature of humanity as for its groundbreaking production values. It sets highly sophisticated, artificial humanoid life forms (Replicants) alongside the lives of 'real' men and asks: Which is more human?

Ex Machina takes Blade Runner's questions about what is the essence of humanity, and the ethical and moral implications when humankind adopts the mantle of Creator, and deconstructs them in a highly contemporary context. It takes place in the fortress-like, palatial home/research facility of programming genius Nathan (Isaac), owner and creator of the (fictional) search engine juggernaut Bluebook. He has enlisted the help of one of his employees, naïve but astute coder Caleb (Gleeson), with the final stages of his latest, top-secret project. 

The project in question is an artificial intelligence (AI) that approximates human consciousness. It will, Nathan believes, be an accomplishment of evolutionary proportions (a belief that no lesser than Stephen Hawking would share). The affable but megalomaniacal Nathan is happy to accept the mantle of 'god', but knows that as a mere mortal he (or at least his species) will ultimately be superseded by his creation. Still, it is a frontier that must be plied: technological advancement, the pinnacle of human achievement, should not be restrained.

Ex Machina addresses such esoteric notions explicitly and implicitly, but is not bogged down by them, instead drawing from them a palpable sense of existential dread, that underpins its more straightforward, thrilling plot. Caleb's task is to conduct the Turing test (a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human) on the AI, which has been built to appear like a young woman named Ava (Vikander). Caleb's series of conversations with the captivating Ava form the core of the film. 

There are numerous mysteries to draw the viewer in. The case for Ava's 'human' intelligence — evidenced by her ability to make jokes, her sophisticated flirting with Caleb, her indulgence of creative urges — is persuasive. But is it 'real' intelligence, or simply an intricately programmed illusion? And is there a meaningful difference? What’s more, it becomes increasingly clear that Nathan's character and motivations are not what they first appear to be. Caleb begins to sense that he is a pawn in a larger game. But is it Nathan who is manipulating him, or Ava? 

Ex Machina raises further questions that are immediately topical and further heighten the horror of its premise. Caleb learns that Nathan has been able to refine Ava's software thanks to his unmitigated access to Bluebook users' (who consist of 95 per cent of the internet-using population) internet search data, as well as to their telecommunications. As such the film plays on the very realistic fear that our extravagant internet use leaves us vulnerable to nefarious forces, be they corporate or governmental (data retention, anyone?).

Caleb, too, wonders if his ostensibly nonsensical attraction to Ava is due to her design being based on a review of his internet pornography profile — something that Nathan does not deny. This not only highlights again Nathan's exploitation of individuals' private data, but points to another theme in the film, which is the exploitation of women's bodies — it is no coincidence that Ava and the models that preceded her replicate idealised versions of the female form. Indeed Nathan's and even Caleb's relationship to Ava is fundamentally exploitative and voyeuristic.

Though dense with ideas Ex Machina is ultimately a thriller, and aside from the occasional well-placed comic relief its suspense rarely lets up. This is testament to Garland's skill as writer and director, but also to the strength of its three central performances, especially that of Vikander. Two weeks ago I described this Swedish actor as a 'rising star'; here she again proves her versatility and prowess with a studiously physical and deeply subtextual performance that is utterly captivating. In her hands Ava truly seems more human than human.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Ex Machina, Alex Garland, Alicia Vikaner, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac

 

 

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Existing comments

This so called exploitation you are pointing out is wowserism masquerading as moralism. It is a movie. People like seeing attractive women in movies. If I was going to make a robot, I might as well make it a pretty robot. It is drawing a long and tortuous bow trying to call this exploitative. And, exploitative of who? The female form generally? For exploitation to exist and thus have moral implications, it must be exploitation of an actual person.
Michael | 21 May 2015


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