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Ex Machina

“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.”   –Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), “Rounders”

Domnhall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young and optimistic computer programmer who wins a trip to visit his hero, the founder of the company he works for and the most powerful software company in the world, on his private and very exclusive estate.  When he arrives, the CEO – Nathan (Oscar Isaac) asks him to perform a Turing Test on a robot he’s created, Ava (Alicia Vikander,) and decide if she is actually conscious or just simulating consciousness.

Except… not everything is as it seems.  To begin with, that’s not an actual Turing test. In a real Turing test, the tester communicates with two subjects, one human and one a machine, and must determine which is which.  No machine has ever passed.  Ava wouldn’t pass either; she says things no human this side of Sheldon Cooper would say, things like “If we formed a list of books and films we both know, it would create the ideal basis of a discussion.”   (Come to think of it, Sheldon Cooper wouldn’t pass a Turing test, either.  Maybe that says something significant about the test.) What Caleb is really being asked to do is determine if Ava has a soul, and that’s a religious question, not a scientific one.  Nathan might as well put him in a room with a Golden Retriever and ask him to determine if the dog has emotions or just simulates them (do dogs have souls?)

Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander both deliver interesting, nuanced, at times unpredictable performances in “Ex Machina.”  Vikander finds a balance between human and machine that reminded me of Sean Young’s unforgettable performance in “Blade Runner” – a robot who doesn’t know she’s a robot.  Isaac creates an eccentric character who isn’t very likable, but by the end, you wonder how much of that was a performance for Caleb’s sake, as well.  Domnhall Gleeson’s the only dud, and he’s at the center – that may be intentional on the part of the director, as basically everything that happens in this movie is happening to him, and he needs to be kind of a blank slate, audience stand-in.

Underneath its fairly obvious plot mechanics, I don’t think “Ex Machina” is really about Artificial Intelligence, or at least not about it in the way most movies are.  I think the filmmakers are more interested in the ways we, as consumers in an electronic society, invest our smart gadgets with personality and intent even when we know, rationally, that they are only machines.  It’s not a new thing – my 1978 Subaru wagon, had a name and a personality – but as the line between simulated consciousness (e.g., Siri and Alexa) and actual consciousness gets blurrier, we seem more prone to confusion, and potentially tragic action. Scientists say that A.I. is, at this point, an inevitability, but scientists say a lot of things.  “Ex Machina” made me wonder if, assuming a conscious machine is ever actually built, the result would ultimately be anti-climactic. We’ve imagined A.I. and imbued our objects with personality for so long and in so many different ways, the real thing can’t help but be a disappointment.

 

 

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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