Alex Garland is a British writer with a keen interest in SF which he has turned into interesting scripts for a number of films. Now he has become a writer-director and we can consider whether the earlier films owe more to directors like Danny Boyle (e.g. in 28 Days Later) or the original story (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro) rather than Garland’s own contributions. My initial thought about Ex Machina is that the direction fits the script but that the most immediately impressive features are the performances, the location, set design and cinematography and the sound design and music score (all of which are, of course, part of the collective work which the director co-ordinates). On reflection, however, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way in which Garland creates a discourse about Artificial Intelligence, partly through dialogue and the interaction of characters and partly through narrative development. In doing so he draws on the whole history of SF in literature and film. I think there is relatively little ‘new’ in the presentation of AI here, apart from the idea that the ‘scientist as God’ character, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has drawn on his experience as the creator of an internet search engine as the means of acquiring the data which has informed his programming of androids. But genre films don’t have to be original to work well and in several ways this is an exemplar SF narrative. I can see, however, that it might be seen as more like a filmic version of a classic SF short story or an episode of The Outer Limits. It is relatively modest in its reach, partly perhaps because with only $13 million and a need for extensive effects there are serious restraints on production. Still, better a modest success than a $100 million Hollywood mess.
The narrative set-up is straightforward. Caleb, a young coder working for the ‘Blue Book’ (?) internet search company, is flown to the remote house/research laboratory owned by Nathan, the firm’s founder. Here he learns that he has seven days to apply the Turing Test to the product of Nathan’s research, an android robot named Ava. This is the first conundrum which seems to have tripped up some reviewers. In the original test the idea was that the tester would not be able to see the computer but would be able to discern from its behaviour in answering questions (or playing chess) that it was human or a machine. The AI would ‘pass’ the test if it was impossible to tell the difference. But Nathan presents Caleb with the android itself. His task is to engage with the android and try to devise his own test to see if he recognises human rather than ‘artificial’ behaviour. This in itself raises an interesting set of philosophical questions – the test becomes about Caleb’s behaviour as much as it is about Ava’s.
Ava is clearly ‘artificial’ – we can see the elements of the machine. The next question is whether ‘she’ is ‘female’, or perhaps, is it possible for Caleb to conduct the test when the android has a woman’s shape and a face as beautiful as that of Alicia Vikander? In the blog by MaryAnn Johanson there is a sustained critique of the film, accusing it of being a male director’s version of a feminist film when in reality it is the opposite. There are many comments on Johanson’s blog in both support and opposition and it is an interesting debate. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll not discuss all the points but certainly we can imagine that the test Caleb devises is partly, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by Ava’s seductive charm. On the other hand, it is quite a leap to suggest that Ava is, or that she represents, a ‘woman’. The android has no sex even if ‘her’ actions are ‘gendered’ in social terms by Caleb and Nathan – as well as by us the audience. I think several viewings are going to be needed before I would be confident about embarking on a debate about the film’s representations of gender. Ava is an interesting name for the android. In one sense Ava ‘sounds like’ ‘Eva’, the first woman. It’s also the first name of the film star who in her time was argued to be the most beautiful, Ava Gardner and it is close to ‘Ada’ which might be a reference to Ada Lovelace, daughter of Byron and claimed by some as the first computer programmer.
A few days ago I was complaining about the script for Albatross and focusing on poor script development as a weakness in British cinema. I don’t think you could accuse Garland of producing a sloppy script. I read somewhere that he was attempting to achieve something like the closed drama of Sleuth, the 1970 play by Anthony Shaffer, first adapted as a film in 1972 with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It’s possible to see elements of a theatre text in the lines of dialogue between Caleb and Nathan, enhanced by the tension between the two as Nathan sets out to ‘play’ the younger man like a fish lured to the fly. My only problem with this is that I’m not yet convinced by Nathan’s character – or rather his behaviour. I don’t think that this is the fault of Oscar Isaac as Nathan, but Nathan seems rather boorish and careless for a man who has designed an android and who lives in such a stylish house.
I think I’m convincing myself that this would be a good study text for students and I’m looking forward to mapping the references and influences. It seems fairly clear that the gender issues are central in some way and also all those Phil K. Dick obsessions with the interface between human and artificial intelligence. Ex Machina could be a Dickian short story. But the Hollywood Reporter gets it wrong in its review. At the beginning of Blade Runner, the ‘replicants’ (the film’s term for androids) are not being given a Turing Test – the society already knows that replicants can pass for human. Instead they are being given an ’empathy test’ as the only way to identify them. Dick referred to androids and to simulacra. Ava is presented as an android but the technology used could create ‘sims’, indistinguishable visually from humans. I’m not going to spoil the narrative but the Dick story that came to mind when I watched Ex Machina was ‘Second Variety’ (1953) – well worth reading and thinking about in relation to Garland’s story. The other major work that occurred to me was Tarkovsky’s Solaris but I’m not sure what triggered this memory (possibly it was the memory of Natalya Bondarchuk as the woman on the space station).
Ex Machina is an interesting and engaging SF film and following Under the Skin, presents a strong case for the health of British SF cinema. (IMDB bafflingly calls this an American film but as far as I can see it is entirely British – unless Universal invested in the film. Certainly it was shot in UK studios (and on location in Norway).
This is quite a good trailer (and doesn’t give away too much):