Friday, May 1, 2015

Ex Machina

She's My Little Deus Coupe
"Pardon Me, Ma'am, But You Have Too Much RAM
For a Real Live Girl..."

"Deus Ex Machina" is from the Greek for "God From the Machine" and is a literary term for that point when a dramatist has boxed himself into an unsolvable issue and solves it by a sudden and inexplicable occurrence. Something, or God, intervenes to distract or unite to come to terms. Ever read "The Stand" by Stephen King? There, God literally does intervene in the polarized battle between the good and the evil among the survivors of a world plague. The black monolith of 2001 is a literal "deus ex machina" and could be said to be the movie's protagonist. Even a western like Red River has a "deus ex machina" when Tess Millay, the woman common to both Tom Dunson and Matt Garth, suddenly shoots at them to stop their inevitable father-son death-struggle over dominance.

In Ex Machina, the new movie written and directed by Alex Garland (he wrote, The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine for Danny Boyle, as well as the adapted screenplays for Never Let Me Go and Dredd), there is no "Deus" as such. Just the pretend-kind, usually associated with those grabbing for power—the "little tin" kind. Appropriate.

It's a lucky day for Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson). A programming functionary at the BlueBook Corporation, which is the leading search engine on the Internet, he has won first prize in the BlueBook staff lottery; the prize is a week-long stay with the company's founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his retreat who-knows-where. He is air-lifted there (he asks the chopper pilot when they're going to get to Bateman's property and gets the reply that they've been flying over it for the past two hours), and is instructed to follow the river to a relatively small structure that creates a card-key for him and lets him in. Now, this is a "smart" house.
But, looks are deceiving. The vast majority of Bateman's house is underground, with scattered areas of natural growth to maintain an edge of Nature. Caleb eventually finds "Nathan" working out after a bender decompressing from a long session of brain-storming, and it's here that Nathan tells Caleb why he's visiting (after making him sign "the mother of all NDA's"): to conduct a "Turing test" on his latest innovation, a functioning artificial intelligence. It's Caleb's "job" during the week to see just how non-machine-like Nathan's machine is, interviewing it in private (but closely monitored) sessions to see just how "human" this artificial intelligence is.
When he finally "meets" the A.I., named Ava (Alicia Vikander), it is a bit of a shock. Ava is a robot, walking around, speaking, fully functioning. Tough enough that this robot looks human (which would surely prejudice any objective conclusion to the ultimate question), but she is also wholly sympathetic. She/it is trapped in a glass enclosure, asking as many questions as she answers. Before Caleb, the only interaction it had was with Nathan, it's creator/programmer, and frankly, Nathan can be a bit tiring, after awhile, being completely narcissistic, and borderline self-destructive. But "tiring" is not really something concerning a machine. It never tires. It is always "on."  nd, given, it's 24/7 existence, it has a lot of time to think...and calculate.
A couple of things weigh on Caleb. There is his oddly inappropriate sympathy for Ava—she's (it's) trapped in her glass work-space (but what should that matter to a machine, especially a machine with no context of place other than it's station. The other thing, probably related, is that Ava is "female," at least in appearance. Why? Is that part of the test, to see how that affects Caleb's examination (in which case, who is being tested—Ava or Caleb?). Then, there's Ava's need to dress up in a wig and "girl-clothes" to appear human. She aspires. Should a machine aspire to anything? Or is she merely Pinocchio in drag, wanting to be real. But to what end? The back-and-forth between Caleb and Ava becomes personal and invasive. Then, things get very creepy.
During the Caleb/Ava interviews, there is an inevitable power-failure, the main generators of Nathan's house—actually "research facility"—shut down, the back-up batteries kick in and emergency lighting bathes the whole place in a creepy red glow. With the generators shut off, Nathan can no longer monitor the sessions and Ava throws a spanner into Caleb's works; she warns Caleb not to trust Nathan, that he's deceitful, planting a seed of conspiracy in Caleb, and setting the programmer on a quest to find out exactly what Nathan might be doing—and what his plans are for the A.I. program, and Ava in particular. One worrying aspect in this (among many) is that it is Ava who can kill the generators, something Nathan doesn't suspect and explains away by blaming the place's contractors. "I'm workin' on it," he deflects.
Nathan is focused on the project, but he's also a bit of a binger—getting drunk and being a prick to Caleb, questioning his competency and intentions. Caleb wants to know what will happen to Ava if she doesn't pass the test. The answer is simple: she'll be replaced, updated, re-programmed to fix the problems, her memory wiped and a new program, a better program installed. The answer is simple, but troubling; yes, you'd do that with any sub-standard operating system, but (as another movie put it) nobody's sure of what Ava might think about it. 
Ex Machina is very, very simple, but brilliant. It toys with the quest for intelligence—not memory, or mere problem-solving, but in wholly creative and imaginative reasoning...and what the responsibility is to that (for want of a better term) sentience. It calls upon references from The Bible, Greek myth, and, because of that, the "Frankenstein" story in its perambulations on the subject of intelligence and responsibility for it. We're pretty lousy on the record of human rights...are we going to be any better with thinking machines? What will be their function—slaves? Will we have to pay them $15 an hour, or merely the promise of a virus-free environment (does insurance cover that?). Do we tell them about Re-PC? 
The point may be moot—or may not compute. The machines may have the ultimate answer (and where are Asimov's laws of robotics when we need them?). In the meantime, even in Ex Machina's time, the humans aren't faring too well. Caleb gets so bent out of shape by the mind/mainframe games that he even begins to doubt himself, wondering if he might be a robot (good thing Ridley Scott didn't direct this) and injected into the scenario to see if maybe he's the one being tested, a case of the worm Turing. What is Nathan's motivation? For all that, what is Ava's? Can she/it even have motivations?
Ex Machina poses a lot of questions, doesn't provide easy answers and is an exquisite little cautionary tale about man, machine, and perception. How much do we want machines to be "like" us...and to what end? If anything, the idea is to evolve—do we want machines based on our thought processes, patterns and conclusion-jumping when we're doing enough damage ourselves, or do we want to improve on our failings and make something better? In the reverse, why would a machine aspire to be human (it can observe, right?) At one point, Nathan says "Someday the A.I.'s are going to look at us like would looking at fossils in the desert." Quite likely.

But it's doubtful they could make a movie as good as this one is.

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