Saturday, May 2, 2015

Turing Test

Film: Ex Machina
Format: Kerasotes 16 Theater.

My life rarely allows me to go to the theater. Yesterday I suddenly had a spare couple of hours and while a part of me really wanted to go see the new Avengers movie, that one will be playing for weeks. Ex Machina is likely coming to the end of its run, and it’s one I’ve wanted to see for the last couple of weeks. So that’s what I went to see. One of the great things about going to the non-tentpole movie on that movie’s opening weekend is that you get the theater pretty much to yourself. There were fewer than 10 of us, which meant I got the best seat in the house.

Ex Machina is the first directorial effort from Alex Garland, who also wrote the screenplay. Garland is no newbie to the movies, though; he wrote 28 Days Later among other screenplays. This is a film that manages to include a lot of his A-level ideas (Garland also wrote the 2/3 brilliant, 1/3 crap Sunshine), and he shows definite comfort behind the camera. It also offers a few solid thrills while touching on some high level philosophical material. In other words, it’s what we expect from the best of science fiction.

Ex Machina is another take on a story we’ve seen before. There are elements of Blade Runner, A.I., and Her in this film, but Ex Machina takes this on a much darker and twistier path. Essentially, the film is a long Turing test—are we seeing an artificial intelligence that has truly developed consciousness. In this case, the Turing test is considerably different than the one we might expect.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder working for Bluebook, the film’s equivalent of Google. He wins a competition run by the company’s CEO and owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to spend a week at Nathan’s extremely isolated compound. As it turns out, the compound is less hi-tech futuristic house and more research and construction facility. Nathan, a programming prodigy, has been working on creating a self-aware AI that he has named Ava (Alicia Vikander) using several leaps in technology and routing the billions of hits obtained by his search engine to develop the way she thinks. Essentially, Caleb’s week is to be spent talking with Ava. Nathan’s version of the Turing test is, in this respect, different from the classic version; Caleb knows that Ava is a machine.

Much of the film is dedicated to the motivations of these three characters. Caleb immediately becomes attached to Ava. Nathan appears interested but is also emotionally detached. As for Ava, Caleb is the first non-Nathan person she has met, and she quickly becomes dependent on his visits to speak with her. There is a fourth person in the mix as well: Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), Nathan’s non-English speaking servant and evidently his sexual plaything as well, and her motivations are unknown until near the end of the film. Things start to get interesting when, during power outages in the house/compound/research facility Ava confides to Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted.

There’s a lot going on in Ex Machina, and the film works on a lot of levels at all times. The real question that is being asked here, though, is that same old question that is frequently asked in the best of science fiction: What does it mean to be human? While the Turing test is designed to ask what it means to be fully sentient, the film itself seems to be asking the much deeper question.

More importantly, Ex Machina does a lot of things right. It never underestimates its audience for a start. This is a film that assumes that the audience can understand deep concepts at a high level, explaining only enough to keep everyone up to speed and assuming that the audience will keep up.

The other thing it does well is that it doesn’t go for the obvious. There were multiple times during the film that I made some guesses as to what would happen next and where the film would go. Not only did the film not fall into the places I thought it would go, it addressed all of the possibilities I thought of specifically. That’s exceptionally good filmmaking.

I’m not convinced that Ex Machina needs to be seen on a big screen. For all of the technology and use of CGI and special effects, it’s actually a pretty intimate film. Most of the truly important scenes, at least up until the last few minutes, come in one-on-one dialogue scenes.

If I have an issue here, it’s that there are moments when the CGI simply fails. Ava looks seamless for much of the film, but there are times when Alicia Vikander’s head seems to be floating above something that is obviously not really there. It’s a small complaint, though, and the sort of thing that may have only been noticeable on a giant projection screen.

Ex Machina is worth seeing. With the tentpole movies coming out for the next few months, you can safely wait until it hits video, but it’s a film that shouldn’t be missed.

Why to watch Ex Machina: Smart sci-fi is the best sci-fi.
Why not to watch: We’ve still got work to do when it comes to CGI.


  1. Replies
    1. Oh, I'm sure I'll give them lots of money, too.

  2. I just saw this film last week. I thought it was pretty great. Glad you liked it as well.

    1. I think it's unlikely to make a future 1001 Movies list, but it's a smart piece of science fiction, and that always makes me happy.

  3. Just to clarify- I meant support smaller movies as well as bigger ones. Not necessarily instead of.