“It’s legitimate to ask questions that actually not only do you not know the answers to, but there are no answers to,” writer-director Alex Garland said in a recent interview with The Dissolve. “There is value in posing unanswerable questions.”
Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, a contemplative sci-fi thriller playing at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in downtown New Haven, is captivating in both the unanswerable questions it poses as well as in the unequivocal answers it puts forth.
The movie’s first question is familiar but incisive: What happens to the relationship between employer and employee when the former becomes very wealthy, very isolated, and very wrapped up in the mythos of his own genius? Especially in the apparently casual and fun bro culture of today’s tech giants?
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a talented young programmer who unexpectedly wins an office raffle that allows him to spend a week with the company’s reclusive billionaire founder and CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). While Caleb is awkward, modest, and decent, uncertain in his opinions but confident in his abilities, Nathan is an uncompromising egomaniac. He lives in the most remote, idyllic corner of the world, a region of grassy fields and iridescent glaciers that can only be accessed by a lengthy helicopter ride. His home-office-laboratory is as audacious as its resident: a glass bunker, pulsing with invisible fiber optic cables and built into the side of a boulder, surpassing the impossible Zen achieved by Frank Lloyd Wright’s most breathtaking houses.
In this technophilic Eden, Nathan has been busy playing God. He has created a beautiful, powerful, intelligent A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander), whom he wants Caleb to interrogate and assess. Nathan instructs Caleb to conduct a slightly modified version of the Turing test, that foundational exercise of artificial intelligence theory that requires a person to communicate with an unidentified partner and determine whether that partner is a computer or a human being. In this situation, however, Ava is not hidden from Caleb; her mechanical physicality is not in doubt. Rather, Nathan wants to see if Ava can convince Caleb of her humanity beyond mere biology — through a demonstration of intelligence, emotion, and above all, consciousness.
Which gets to the movie’s second question, and by far its biggest: What is the difference between man and machine? Or, slightly adjusted, what exactly does it mean to be human? Consciousness is what lets Ava prove that she is not just a robot, not just a biological entity, but someone thoughtful and unique and full of personality.
In an effort to avoid spoilers, I won’t go too far into how Caleb’s Turing test goes. But I will say that Ava casts a spell over her interrogator with her acute self-awareness, curiosity, and desire. Ex Machina candidly examines sexuality as a potential indicator of humanity, upholding it as a means to reproduce, a source of pleasure, a tool of manipulation, and a driving force behind art and violence and everything in between.
Which is not to say that Ex Machina merely titillates. Instead, it is a tale of innocence corrupted, a parable of loneliness and liberation, all the while hinting at that particularly complicated and opaque relationship between today’s tech industry elite and the minority of young, ambitious, intelligent women it attracts and exploits.
Much like Spike Jonze’s Her or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go — for which Garland wrote the 2010 screen adaptation — Ex Machina finds a curious overlap between sexual desire, power dynamics, artificial intelligence, and questions of humanity. Is there something dangerous about a world tilted unequivocally toward an omnipotent, rarefied elite? You’ll leave the theater pretty confident in what the movie has to say about this issue. Is there a clear definition of what constitutes consciousness? Or sexuality as we know it? And how those two ideas define, or are defined by, what it means to be human? Maybe those questions approach the unanswerable. But Ex Machina certainly knows how to pose a question, and then run with it to its thrilling, inspiring, and terrifying consequences.