Friday, July 17, 2015

"Ex Machina": two-paragraph review


I watched "Ex Machina" last night after having heard good things about it. It did strike me as smarter and better scripted than the average science-fiction movie, and I thought the special-effects team did a bang-up job on a shoestring budget (the movie was made for about $15 million, which is pocket change in the US film industry). Alas, like many sci-fi films to come out of Hollywood, "Ex Machina" smuggles in religious themes—in this case, the theme of becoming a god and bestowing life on a creature, then having that creature rebel, à la Shelley's Frankenstein. The creature in question is Ava (Alicia Vikander—Ava's name carries shades of the Continental pronunciation of the biblical Eve's name: Eva, and she is a temptress), an alluring AI robot fashioned by Nathan, the reclusive-genius CEO of Bluebook, the world's biggest search-engine/social-networking company. Nathan invites one of his programmers, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, with an American accent hiding his native Irish brogue), to his luxurious home to administer something like a Turing test on Ava, i.e., to see whether she passes for a conscious being. In Nathan's large, empty house, the only other person is the mute Kyoko, who seems to act as a servant/housekeeper. (Beware of the quiet ones, as the serial-killer survival wisdom goes.) Caleb sits with Ava for several interview sessions, growing more infatuated with her over time, even as he becomes unhinged enough to question whether he himself is human. Nathan observes Caleb during these sessions (and at other times), and it soon becomes obvious that Ava mistrusts her creator and wants to escape, presumably with Caleb's help. Ava is able to create power outages in Nathan's house; it's during these moments that she confesses her frankest thoughts to Caleb.

The movie is filled with often-smart dialogue that touches on 101-level philosophy of mind. Ludwig Wittgenstein gets a mention, as does the classic "Mary the Color Scientist" Gedankenexperiment. The scriptwriters obviously did their research. There are a few twists toward the end, one of which—concerning the nature of Kyoko—was laughably easy to predict. There are also plenty of unanswered questions by the time we reach the conclusion—questions about Caleb's and Ava's respective fates, about the nature of emotion as a motivator, about how an AI might develop a survival instinct, about how Nathan could have neglected to program Ava with a conscience, and so on. All in all, though, "Ex Machina," whose title is itself a direct reference to God (it comes from the phrase deus ex machina, i.e., God from the machine), proved to be an entertaining watch. The film could have delved into the philosophy of mind a little more deeply, but you can't expect that sort of rigor from Hollywood.

ADDENDUM: Peter at Conscious Entities, a heavy-duty blog on philosophy of mind, put up his own review of "Ex Machina" way back on May 25th. You'd do well to give his review a read. Oh, and as a bonus, plenty of erudite comments follow Peter's essay.


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1 comment:

SJHoneywell said...

I tend to agree in general, but as you say, you can't expect that sort of rigor. There is a need, after all, to attract a more general audience for a film, so anyone hoping to make back the budget needs to keep things a little simpler.

There's some evidence of smart filmmaking here. I agree the Kyoko reveal was easy, but there were a number of other twists I thought of as possibilities that the film addressed. It's a smart film that addresses the potential ideas of the audience overtly in this way. Essentially, the filmmaker is saying, "Yes, we thought of this, too, and we're going to show you that we're still playing with your expectations." I appreciate a film that doesn't treat me like I'm stupid, and this one doesn't.