Ex Machina

Sunday, March 06, 2016

It seems like every major film in the last year or two stars either Oscar Isaac or Domhnall Gleeson. So of course, it was inevitable that they would eventually be cast in a film together. (And then, later in the year, they both starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as well, thus furthering their quest for world domination.)

Both are good actors, but I have to question Domhnall Gleeson’s casting in this. Why do big budget films continually keep casting either British or Irish actors in American roles? If you want an American, hire a fucking American. There are plenty of them around. I can see very few instances where you’d be better off hiring a British or Irish actor in an American role. Maybe you’re making a film about a famous figure and an Irish guy bears an uncanny resemblance to the person in question. Okay, go and hire them. Or maybe a British actor is such a huge mega star that it just doesn’t fucking matter that he’s not an American. But for god’s sake, this is Domhnall Gleeson we’re talking about.

And if you really want to hire Domhnall Gleeson in your film, wouldn’t it just make more sense to make the character Irish? Eventually I forgot about the accent, but it distracted me for the first ten minutes or so; the American accent makes him seem more bland that he really is.

Miscasting aside, Ex Machina is a massively successful directorial debut from Alex Garland (writer of The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine). It’s talky and almost devoid of action, but it’s all the better for it.

In a weird way, Ex Machina is almost like an old-fashioned film noir. Film noir often involves some schmucky guy getting hired by a mysterious man who isn’t all that he seems before being manipulated and misled by some femme fatale.

Ex Machina definitely follows this path. Our hero, Caleb (Gleeson), ‘wins’ a competition to spend a week with billionaire software genius Nathan (Isaac). Nathan then reveals that he has a humanoid robot that he wants Caleb to perform a Turing Test on. He wants Caleb to test whether the robot exhibits artificial intelligence that is indistinguishable from our own.

Before you know it, Caleb is hearing sweet nothings from the robot and is ready to drop everything for her (including his pants...probably). She seems sweet and innocent, so he’s horrified to hear that Nathan is mistreating her. Caleb’s conversations are observed by Nathan, but the robot, named Ava, can trigger temporary power cuts so the two can talk privately.

The strength of the film is that, much like Caleb, you feel sorry for Ava. She seems like such a sweet, harmless little thing that you too want to break her out of her ‘cell’. Her body looks half finished so she covers herself in wigs and clothes to appear more human. It’s a little sad and pathetic and certainly earns your sympathy.

But like a true femme fatale, she’s playing everyone. She tells Caleb that she wants to be with him, but once she’s free, she forgets all about him. She kills Nathan and then, without a master key for this high tech palace, Caleb is trapped in a room. Caleb bangs on the window and Ava can easily free him, but she’s totally oblivious to his plight. She doesn’t seem to be acting in a vindictive way. Instead she acts like a child. She’s completely narcissistic and self-absorbed. She’s so drunk with her newfound freedom that she leaves poor Caleb standing there, screaming like a lunatic. With Nathan dead and with no key, he gets to look forward to eating his own fist to survive.

But again, what a schmuck Caleb is. He think he’s going to ride into the sun with this robot and live happily ever after? Yeah, right.

I also feel that the film borrows subtly from Blade Runner (which, funnily enough, also borrows heavily from film noir). In Blade Runner, Dr Tyrell creates Replicants with AI. Much like an iPhone, they have a built- in obsolescence. After a few years, they die. They become furious with their creator and kill him. They want 'more life'. In Ex Machina, a similar fate awaits Nathan. His creation, tired of being imprisoned, wants to experience life and turns against him, stabbing him in the chest.

It’s actually kind of weird the way that Nathan is killed. He’s stabbed in the chest, but he’s stabbed in such a slow, clean way that it makes it seem like he’s made of butter. It’s a little bit odd.

But also in a nod to Blade Runner, Nathan has other ‘toys’. In Blade Runner, genetic designer J. F. Sebastian has a bunch of humanoid toys that keep him company in his apartment. Nathan meanwhile has a personal assistant who doesn’t speak a word of English. She’s very attractive and Nathan is fucking her. It’s then later revealed that she too is a robot. Which kind of figures for someone like Nathan who has a massive god complex. Why get sexually involved with a human being with real feelings and real emotions and who has real imperfections? You can just create a perfect copy who doesn’t speak a lick of your language and who picks up after you and you can then fuck them whenever you feel the need.

Of course, seeing as Nathan is a computer nerd, it goes without saying that the fuck-bot is Asian.

But the ending of the movie is fantastic because it’s truly chilling. This isn’t a robot that’s running around, killing people with laser eyes. She’s just like a child that has absolutely no moral compass. She might speak like a human and act like one, but it’s all an impersonation. She doesn’t feel bad for people. She can’t empathize. In one scene, she cannibalises Isaac’s other creations for parts. There’s no malice there but there’s also no feeling. It’s cold and logical. Which is why she leaves Caleb alone in that room to die. She can’t put someone else’s needs or feelings before her own. The only thing that matters is her. Over time we’ve evolved so that we care about other people. This helps us to thrive as a species. Anyone who acts selfishly is threatening the group. But a robot hasn’t had that. Which is why it would be so dangerous to do something like this. Intelligence without compassion and morality is a terrifying thing.

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