by Nicole Martin
I love film, and I love to discuss film. It’s similar to dissecting a great book with friends who have all read the same title, but without having to wait months for said friends to finish the book! Good film can provide the same outlet for my critical thinking, as it can be hard for me to put away my philosophy degree and not wonder, “But why?”, sometimes to my boyfriend’s dismay. Recently we viewed the new film Ex Machina directed by Alex Garland, which is still showing at the Cedar Lee Theatre for those of you in the Cleveland area.. I could not stop thinking about this movie for days and I would highly recommend seeing this film as it is sure to be a standout work from 2015. The film attempts to tackle some ethically challenging and especially timely topics, such as humanity, the morality of artificial intelligence, women as objects and even digital privacy. Sound a little too heavy for you? Aside from the sci-fi philosophizing, there are some laugh-worthy moments, some amazing special effects and the whole thing plays out like a slow-burning thriller that I’m sure Hitchcock would have appreciated.
The film stars a new favorite of mine, Oscar Isaac, star of noteworthy films like Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year and soon to be Apocalypse in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse movie (insert fangirl squeal here). Alongside Isaac are actor Domhnall Gleeson (About Time) and actress Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair). I found all of the acting performances to be wonderful, compelling and drove the film forward in such a way that it could not have moved without a great cast. Isaac plays Nathan, a very believable, muscled and bearded “bro” type who also happens to be a computer programming prodigy and owner of the wildly successful search engine Bluebook (think Google here). Gleeson’s character, Caleb, is a much different man – a meek, innocent programmer for Bluebook who wins what he thinks is a random company lottery that will allow one lucky employee to visit the company CEO’s private home for some good ol’ employer and employee bonding for an entire week. Caleb arrives at Nathan’s secluded, minimalistic compound via helicopter and is given a special badge that Nathan explains will take away the “awkwardness” of being in someone’s house and not know where he is allowed to explore.
Almost immediately, Nathan reveals that the true reason Caleb was asked to visit is because the building is actually a research facility for AI (artificial intelligence) and Caleb is going give the latest AI the Turing Test to determine whether this machine can be distinguished from a human. (As an aside, the Turing Test is named for Alan Turing, hero from the amazing film depicting his important work during WWII in The Imitation Game which you simply must see if you haven’t already.) Caleb agrees to help administer the test, and seems shocked to discover the AI, Ava, is very beautiful, child-like and is being held seemingly like a prisoner. Mysterious power outages begin occurring at the facility, a strangely quiet housemaid appears and Nathan’s drinking problem becomes a clear issue. Something feels wrong here from the moment Caleb steps through the front door, but you are never quite sure what it is that is wrong, or what has yet to go wrong because neither Nathan or Ava seem particularly reliable or trustworthy. Ava soon seems to develop romantic feelings for Caleb while Nathan cautions him to stop analyzing her and think about what he feels. Both claim the other is lying to him. But who will he believe? Who will you believe? The film will surprise you more than once by the time the final credits role.
Without spoiling any of the movie’s best moments, I’d like to reflect on some of the more interesting aspects of this movie from the perspective of a female viewer. I felt that Ava and the other AI’s that you see throughout the film, whom are all women, show somewhat of a microcosm of femaleness as “the other”. Caleb and Nathan are the only two men present in Ava’s life, ever, and they have complete control over her. Both are entranced by her in their own way, and each examines her from a safe distance attempting to understand her. Both male characters exhibits a bit of a stereotype with Nathan as the successful, aggressive and powerful man and Caleb as the sensitive, thoughtful, lonely man who may be Ava’s knight in shining armor. The way that Ava manipulates one of these two was intriguing to me as it seemed like something a human woman would do if necessary to survive in a world where your best weapon is to exploit other’s feelings for you. There are a couple of scenes that were particularly hard for me to watch as a female – – scenes pertaining to AI’s who were tortured and kept as sentient, sex toys. The objectification of these women is quite absolute, (we literally see closets of female AIs) and various scenes gave me a very uneasy sensation that I was now looking at these “others” through the sort of distanced male lens that is so often set upon women in real life.
I couldn’t help but think how many people may watch this movie and think such AI would only be a logical step forward from such creepy inventions as the silicone “Real Dolls” (do a quick search if you aren’t sure what I mean or watch Ryan Gosling date a Real Doll in Lars and the Real Girl). I urge you to think about the implications that gender plays in the film as you watch it unfold and what sorts of real-life ethical issues this could speak to. Stephen Hawking has expressed concern for this sort of AI being developed and cautioned that it is dangerous saying, “”The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” I agree, but there is value in the hypothetical AI that we can study in books and film, because this AI imparts upon us a backwards version of the Turing Test, forcing us to look at what makes us human and sets us apart from the machine.