Amorem Ex Machina

by Matthew Cabe


(Photo courtesy of A24)

The dominating trend in cinema today is realism. Last year’s Godzilla reboot worked because the monsters were filmed primarily from a distance, at eye level. This effectively forced audiences into the role of first-hand witness.

But while Godzilla is not realistic in premise, it is realistic in style, tone, and depiction. So, if a giant lizard did happen to rise out of the ocean to wreak havoc on downtown San Francisco, Godzilla isn’t what it might look like, it’s what it would look like.

Our current realism kick is a byproduct of 9/11. Previous to that fateful day, that planes would explode into the World Trade Center was as far fetched an idea as monsters slugging it out in the heart of a panicked metropolis.

When the planes dropped from the sky, however, and the ensuing horror of the Twin Towers collapsing was caught on cameras near ground zero, all bets were off because nothing created in the history of film compared to the real thing. 9/11 was traumatizing and tragic. But it was also cinematic.

We’re now in a necessitated moment demanding of realism from every genre. This allows science fiction to enter new, albeit oddly familiar territory. Gone are the days of distant, dangerous futures. The best of today’s sci-fi plays out in the known universe of personal space.

It also acknowledges our proximity to perpetual technological advancement by favoring stories of what’s possible just around the corner as opposed to eons from now. It’s the one genre in which realism is in fact about premise as much as it’s about everything else.

Spike Jonze’s Her, for example, exists in the here and now of obsessive attachment to technology. It’s not that we could fall in love with our operating systems; it’s that loving seems downright inevitable.

The reason sci-fi has become more personal is a result not only of the rapid pace at which technology evolves, but also of how rapidly we adapt to those evolutions. We now have a spaceship primed for a flyby of Pluto before it continues on into our outer solar system. A rover on Mars is taking selfies. Robots are vacuuming our living rooms and giving us directions. Yet the magnitude of all this barely registers.

The rapidity of advancement is another 9/11 byproduct. Present consensus isn’t that technology is dangerous but, rather, that it will save us. The NSA clearly believes this, and our collective apathy toward that agency’s actions means we believe it, too. What was once cautioned against now stands as humanity’s primary hope for survival.

Enter Ex Machina, the latest in an increasing line of coming-very-soon-to-a-reality-near-you sci-fi films. Writer/director Alex Garland has crafted a contained, yet meticulously wondrous world that he believes exists “ten minutes from now”, at a time in which artificial intelligence lives and dies with the same desire as humans: to be free.

Arguably the most implausible element in Ex Machina is the inference that Google has been supplanted by a company called Bluebook. Bluebook’s bearded CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), designed and lives in a remote compound where he conducts research on his most innovative creation, a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

To test the believability of Ava’s A.I., Nathan holds a coding contest at Bluebook’s headquarters. The winner is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a gifted programmer whose prize is a boozy meet-and-greet with Nathan, who’s foul-mouthed and seemingly wants nothing more than to shoot the shit.

His act soon fades. Nathan all but demands Caleb perform a weeklong Turing test on Ava. The young programmer already knows Ava is a robot, so, in theory, her chances of convincing him are all the slimmer. But Caleb is mesmerized from the start. After their first session, “She’s fucking awesome!” is all he can muster.

He’s not wrong. Ava is marvelous to behold. She has a beauty only the desperate desire of the male gaze could dream up. She’s also empathetic and curious, and contains an intelligence far beyond that of both men, though neither initially acknowledge this.

As the sessions continue, Caleb inevitably falls for Ava. And why not? She’s a sexual being and, lest we forget, anatomically correct. Everything about her seems human. The cadence of her voice and the movement of her body are affected in such slight ways—a testament to Vikander’s talent—that even we forget she’s a robot.

It’s Caleb’s naiveté, however, that leaves him vulnerable. He decides to help Ava escape the compound after she reveals that Nathan’s plans aren’t in her best interests. This isn’t exactly news. We doubt Nathan’s motives from the start. Revelations involving his delusional attempts at perfection work only to make us all the more circumspect.

But what’s most convincing is how Ex Machina allows the love between Caleb and Ava to build without discretion. As in most cases of intense affection, Caleb becomes incapable of rational thought.

In Her, by contrast, the characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams kept their love mostly to themselves. They were at least cognizant of how it might be perceived as strange (if not dangerous). That Ava is tangible eliminates the strangeness. Not once does Caleb believe his love to be anything but natural. Even more absurd is his belief in Ava’s ability to naturally reciprocate.   

In that sense, Ex Machina depicts a world that mirrors our own. It’s an earnest examination of how easily we interact with A.I., which is so user-friendly, so lifelike that the novelty of its very existence has worn off. That we adapt to each next big thing without challenge tricks us into believing a need for control is unnecessary. In other words, our defenses aren’t just down, they’ve practically gone extinct by way of robotic acceptance.