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by David J. Skal

SEX MACHINA


NINETEENTH-century literature, dance, and opera would not, at first glance, seem to have much bearing on modern meditations about artificial intelligence—except, of course, when they do. And percolating beneath the austere, Kubrickean surface of the engrossing and ambitious new film Ex Machina are a wealth of wayback allusions to the perennial problems work-obsessed man-boys always manage to stir up when they start creating artificial women.

E.T.A. Hoffmann's eerie 1816 story "The Sandman" had legs in its time. It inspired the 1851 ballet Coppélia as well as the 1881 opera Tales of Hoffmann, the plots all turning on a young man's delusion that a mechanical dancing doll is a real woman capable of loving him. Lifelike automata were something of a cultural obsession during the Enlightenment and the ensuing Romantic revolt, and provided a handy backdrop for philosophical and scientific arguments about the physical basis of cognition and consciousness. Hoffmann gave his hapless male ingénue a special pair of glasses that turned a wind-up wooden figure into a real live girl, or at least a convincing one.

Today, many people still enjoy wearing Dr. Coppelius's magic spectacles, or at least their functional equivalent via the mindset (an irritating mindset, to this observer) of singularity theory. According to this latest historical chapter in extraordinary popular delusions, it's only a matter of time until computer simulations of the human mind become so realistic that minds and machines will become interchangeable. If not dependent on magic glasses, the belief does require a good deal of magical thinking. Such as ignoring fairly obvious distinctions between metaphors and reality, or accepting without any evidence that mechanical complexity alone can somehow generate consciousness and volition. Since the basic physics of human consciousness (that ever-pesky "hard problem" of materialist science) still remain elusive, arguing about it tends to yield neither shadow nor substance. Thankfully for science fiction, the conundrum readily generates entertaining mind-puzzles and interesting stories.

In Ex Machina, the directorial debut of novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland, perhaps best known for scripting 28 Days Later, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an exceptionally talented coder at a Google-like tech juggernaut called Bluebook. The biggest search engine in the world, Bluebook is the brainchild of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), his success ensconcing him as a reclusive dot-com billionaire living in a fortified underground research compound—the ultimate man-cave—in the spectacular Alaskan wilderness. Caleb is the winner of Bluebook's in-house lottery, the jackpot being a coveted week's retreat basking in Nathan's godlike presence. The trip, however, is much more than a lottery-style windfall. Caleb is expected to work. Nathan has been conducting advanced experiments in artificial intelligence, and wants his brainy-but-clueless employee to participate in a Turing Test with his latest creation, a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine whether her intellect is a truly convincing simulacrum of a human mind, or needs additional tinkering. Alan Turing, of course, never claimed that his subjective test, successfully passed, indicated anything more than a flying-colors deception. But, in Ex Machina, as in much popular culture, we are encouraged and expected to accept the winning imitation as the real thing: a fully conscious, calculating entity.

One need not be reminded of Coppélia to think of ballet the moment Ava makes her first entrance. Trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, Vikander moves with precise dancer's steps—or, perhaps, as the story unfolds, as a shrewdly deployed chess piece. The robot design, based on concept sketches by the British comic book artist Jock and brought to fruition by visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and an army of digital animators large enough to guard the borders of a small European principality, is a visual marvel. Whitehurst says he told his creative crew to "think about anything but robots" in developing Ava's look, and they met the challenge in a way that should be deservedly acknowledged in the next film awards cycle. Unlike the classic, skin-tight armor Brigitte Helm endured for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Ava has no exoskeleton; her inner workings are largely visible through a curvaceous mesh skin and a see-through midsection evoking the original iMac casing. Her interior electrical systems flicker like fireflies. Her disembodied face floats in front of an exposed brain fashioned from an innovative and slightly luminescent digital gel. Neither a sharp-angled dominatrix or pneumatic Stepford animatron, Ava instead resembles one of those 1950s screen waifs essayed by Audrey Hepburn. It's an inspired, disarming creative choice, and especially effective as Ava's character darkens. You will hardly be surprised that Caleb is being tested as well, both by Nathan and Ava. Or that Ava's looks and demeanor have been fabricated according to Caleb's online pornography profile. And it is no spoiler to reveal that Nathan's silent Japanese servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is one of Ava's prototypes, a geisha-like sexbot—the point is telegraphed as soon as she appears.

The casting and performances are terrifically well suited for the ensemble chamber piece that Ex Machina is. If you saw Oscar Isaac as the beleaguered, bumbling folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis, you will barely recognize him in Ex Machina. A beefed-up, bearded, often bare-chested control freak, he casts a sustained, if subdued, erotic tension over his dealings with Caleb—the two men are the only warm bodies in a high-security lock up, and you wouldn't be surprised if the submissive, eager-to-please younger of the pair didn't suddenly take the role of Nathan's literal prison bitch. Irish actor Gleeson achieves a pitch-perfect American tech-industry accent, and his acting credits include an interesting roster of technology-driven identity conundrums. He appeared in "Be Right Back," a 2013 episode of the must-see British television series Black Mirror, playing a young man killed in a car accident as well as the synthetic-flesh replacement purchased by his grieving partner, then programmed with his social media data. Gleeson's first association with Alex Garland was playing a sacrificial, spare-part clone in the Garland-scripted Never Let Me Go (2010), based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

On a superficial level, it's easy to complain that Ex Machina is recycling tired old material, and some women—especially women in the tech industry who have experienced first-hand the oppressive testosterone career ceiling—may at first cringe at a plot built around self-absorbed men wondering whether simulated women—and, by extension, real women—can actually think. At no point is any good reason—or even a bad reason—put forth to explain the deficiencies of real women or any other problem or cultural need that might be solved or served by replacing them. From the outset, it's just accepted that this is what men need to do, and are going to do.

Garland, however, is quietly repurposing sexist tropes for understated satire, while almost subliminally evoking a wealth of resonant antecedents in literature and film. Science fiction on screen has always had the tendency to careen into horror territory, and the brightly lit modernist surface of Ex Machina belies some essentially Gothic underpinnings. Caleb's trip to Nathan's wilderness lair echoes Jonathan Harker's visit to Castle Dracula, where he also met attractive women of ambiguous vitality. Dracula's warnings about rooms in his domicile that should not be entered are echoed by Nathan's ground rules for the arriving Caleb, and the whole forbidden room motif finds its most primal expression in the fairy tale of Bluebeard. The story is also prefigured in H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, especially via its 1932 Hollywood incarnation as The Island of Lost Souls, wherein Dr. M. leads the stranded, strapping male lead into the claws of his own species of lab-created woman. More borrowing from classic fright films about mad geniuses can be discerned in the choice of Nathan's last name, Bateman, which also happened to be the name of the Boris Karloff character in The Raven (1935), who awakens from plastic surgery in an operating room with a convex wall of mirrors. Similar mirrored cabinets line Nathan's bedroom, and when they open to reveal the upright forms of additional, deactivated lovers, the Raven reference is compounded with another Karloffian déjà vu: the dead women in vertical display cases from The Black Cat (1934), another story of male monomania set in an isolated fortress. Robot stories almost always dip into uncanny anxieties about effigies, dolls, and doubles. On this level, Ava is an uncanny valley girl par excellence.

Ex Machina also prompts the audience to conduct its own spontaneous variations on the Turing Test throughout the film. In a CGI-saturated Hollywood, who's to say what's real and what's not? The see-through portions of Ava's anatomy are seamlessly composited over Vikander's live performance, and I don't think I've experienced a similar level of disbelief suspension in any other film. In one of the rare, non-claustrophobic scenes shot outdoors, I honestly couldn't decide whether a spectacular, glacier-fed mountain waterfall was an actual location (the film was largely shot in Norway) or something digital—or some cyborgian fusion of both.

To its detriment, the film ends on an unresolved note many viewers will find problematic. As in all Frankenstein films, the creation must break out of the laboratory—it's all part of the expected ritual—and Garland dutifully observes the tradition…only to leave things inexplicably hanging there, and also raising a number of distracting plot questions. Unless Garland (or Universal) is just cynically holding open the possibility of a sequel, it might have been better to end the film on the dramatic, door-slamming moment I actually thought was the end, until it wasn't. Perhaps it is a miscalculated attempt to involve the audience directly in the story's resolution. Throughout the film, you've been projecting all kinds of things onto Ava, and now it's time to own your projections, or discard them. If so, Garland's gambit is a clever one, but that doesn't make it dramatically sound. In an online interview, actors Isaac and Vikander described an alternate, abandoned ending to the film that would have made it crystal-clear to audiences what Ava's "consciousness" was truly like and whether it qualified as human. I won't go into them here…but a quick search on Bluebook will likely reveal all.

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