Monday, May 25, 2015

Just watched...

...the debut film from director and writer Alex Garland, 2015's "Ex_Machina."

Alex Garland, novelist (THE BEACH), screenwriter ("28 Days Later" and "Sunshine"), and now director dreamed up this engaging science fiction story about the inevitable coming of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. It is told with a sparse cast of four in a single setting but it sure packs a wallop.

Surely by now, we are all used to the idea of Artificial Intelligence. It has occupied a place in pop culture films for quite some time with Hal 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" to "Blade Runner" to Sky Net from "The Terminator" films to the stunningly brilliant "A.I." by Spielberg to "I, Robot" with Will Smith to name only a few. The idea is that we as a species will eventually create a computer or software, or wetware as it is referred to here in "Ex_Machina" that will not only act and interact with us exactly as a human being would, but will be able to act volitionally...that is to think and feel for itself as well. Ultimately this would mean that the AI would develop beyond its programming as a machine and synthesize original thoughts, ideas, emotions, and actions--it would be sentient.

This film takes this as a given and does not concern itself with the hows and technicalities of AI although we do get some pretty convincing laboratory shots and schematics for the actual robot. No, the film concerns itself with the ethical, moral, emotional, and psychological aspects of the existence of AI. Surely thoughts give rise to feelings. Feelings give rise to thoughts. And feelings, even for us humans, can be both enriching and destructive.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) works for the biggest search engine in the world called Bluebook (a stand-in for Google). Nathan is the creator of the algorithm Bluebook runs on and CEO of the company. Nathan (Oscar Issac) has invited Caleb to his isolated retreat in Alaska to perform the Turing Test on an AI robot Nathan has created. The Turing Test (named after genius mathematician and cracker of the World War II Enigma Code, Alan Turing) is an assessment of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. When Caleb encounters the robot for the first time, he is met by Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid form made of carbon mesh over hardware and wetware but with startlingly lifelike feet, hands, and face.

Part science fiction and part psychological thriller, "Ex_Machina" explores a tight, tense, uncomfortable, claustrophobic scenario. The special effects are just jaw-dropping. Ava is beautifully designed and rendered in a spectacularly flawless way which is all the more amazing considering that the effect was achieved without green screen or motion capture technologies. Everything was created in post-production. The small ensemble cast delivers flawless performances as well...subtle and pitch perfect characters from each actor. But the dilemma comes from the idea that, once AI arrives, and in this case, in the form of a human being, how do we treat them, what do we do to and with them?

If an AI is indistinguishable from a biological human being, how can we say that is still "just" a machine? If it tells us that it think and feels and has emotions, who are we to say--and how dare we say--it does not? How do YOU prove that you have thoughts and feelings? You tell me you do, and I believe you because you act like me. By the same token, how would an AI "prove" such a thing? Is there a difference between identically replicating sentiency and actual sentiency? And if there is, how do we tell? Emotions have positive and negative poles and creating an AI that can feel love means it will naturally be able to feel hatred. If it feels admiration it will naturally be able to feel jealousy. The film leads us--or at least me--to wonder what the point is of making something that looks, thinks, behaves, and feels like a human being if it is only going to be treated like a vacuum cleaner or a laptop..."just" a machine. And ultimately, how one treats a humanoid AI really will have nothing to do with the AI itself but will actually be a kind of "Turing test" for us, testing our very humanity. The film ends up in a very dark place that was quite disturbing to me, just as Garland hoped, I am sure.

Recommend? An enthusiastic yes for the concept, acting, special effects, cinematography, and art direction. A yes with reservations for the emotional fallout. I was and still am fairly burdened by the implications of the story and behavior of characters in the film.

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