Longtime Seven Days readers will know the name of Bina48, a "socially advanced robot" created by Hanson Robotics for the Terasem Movement Foundation in Lincoln. They may have read Megan James' 2013 interview with Bina48, and the dire predictions that followed in Judith Levine's Poli Psy column. Efforts to create a humanlike artificial intelligence, Levine warned, could have "consequences many of us consider unspeakable."
Now we can see a movie that hashes out those issues — and that, while hitting many standard science-fiction tropes, still reaches a few unsettling conclusions.
Bina48's oddball conversational style suggests that she may not yet pass the Turing test — that is, while humanlike, she's unlikely to fool an interviewer into mistaking her for a person. That classic test for AI is at the center of Ex Machina, the directorial debut from novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, The Beach).
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer who's just won an unusual contest at his tech company. The prize is a trip to the remote home of billionaire CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who wants Caleb to probe the humanity of his new creation, an android called Ava (Alicia Vikander).
The film is essentially a three-character drama that unfolds in the chilly confines of Nathan's private kingdom, a rigorously modernist compound situated in a rugged mountainscape. There Ava, a perplexing combination of soft, expressive facial features and visible circuitry, lives sequestered behind glass panels like an imprisoned princess in a fairy tale. Well schooled in AI theory, Caleb is eager to subject her to a Turing test. But both Nathan and Ava have a few surprises for him.
Garland seems to be aiming for a combined vibe of Harold Pinter, Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg; the movie is a series of coldly beautiful shots and cerebral conversations, some of them glacially paced. While we may tire of Caleb and Nathan's boilerplate debates about AI — with Nathan playing the devil's advocate and pointing out that human beings, too, are full of "programmed" responses — the film's ominous undercurrents keep us awake and attentive.
Some of those undercurrents come from the stark setting, others from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury's creepy score, still others from the performances. Isaac finally lets loose in the role of a hard-drinking bad-boy genius with no sense of boundaries; his Nathan is charismatic and awful in equal measures, and all too human. Caleb initially comes off as his fresh-faced foil. But, as Gleeson's previous roles have shown, he has a talent for dissecting "nice-guy" characters to reveal not-so-nice motives. (For a compelling thematic counterpart to this film, watch him in the "Black Mirror" episode "Be Right Back.")
Then there's Ava, the enigma at the center of the plot. When Caleb asks Nathan why he chose to give his creation a sex, let alone a flirtatious sexuality, he initiates a critique that reverberates through subsequent scenes. Why are female androids in fiction and film almost invariably seductive? What fantasies do they embody — and how might an AI herself feel about that programming? Vikander (A Royal Affair) draws us into Ava's plight while still giving her a plausible, off-putting alienness. Viewers may find themselves siding with her against the two men, even as they wonder if they'd feel safe alone in a room with her.
Inducing that queasy ambivalence is the greatest accomplishment of Ex Machina — which, like all robot movies, is less about robots than about how humans feel about themselves. Judging by this film, Garland is pretty fed up with the arrogance of millennial man — a creature that insists on his superiority to machines even as he relies on the internet's collective brain for much of his daily cognition. Whether Bina48 and her kind have anything better to offer the world has yet to be seen.