Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sci-Fi Watch: Ex Machina (2015)

So, I think Randy has asked me no less than 3200 times if I'd seen Ex Machina (2015) yet.  Really I have no idea why this movie made him think of me in particular.  And I say that without the usual first paragraph snark.  I guess because I like robots.  He'll have to show up in the comments and explain his reasoning.

I finally decided to check out the movie, mostly to see Oscar Isaac in something where he wasn't Llewyn Davis or a space fighter pilot, and, yes, he's every bit as good here as you may have heard, and we're nowhere close to seeing everything he can do.  I'm really hoping the scripts come his way that can make the most of him and not let him turn into some weird Al Pacino-like parody of a self of him we've not yet seen ossified.

If I hadn't rushed out to see the movie, it was one of those times I looked at a trailer, identified a few plot points and filled in the rest, and was okay with whether or not I'd ever see the film. "Female Automoton Is Objectified, Gets Angry, is Metaphor?" was what I pulled out of the ads I'd seen.  And, truthfully, the movie itself was, more or less exactly what I expected it to be, plot-wise and narratively, but - and I want to be very clear on this - because I think my meaning was misconstrued with the Revenant write-up - if you were going to make that movie, this was as good as that particular movie was going to get.  That's not a knock, that's a "this is where I am as a movie-goer who has absorbed a lot of stories in 40 years on this spinning rock."

A young programmer (Caleb) wins a contest at work, one which will take him to the remote compound home of the tech-billionaire boy genius who built his company of employ.  The boss (Nathan) is a combination of Steve Wozniak's genius (and/ or, maybe Linus Torvalds) or Elon Musk with Steve Jobs-like vision and brusqueness.  Our fresh-eyes/ POV character is a bit of a sad-sack, but a hugely talented programmer.

For a fictional comparison, you could point to - as is not-so-subtly suggested - Victor Frankenstein of the novel or Henry Frankenstein of the movie, working in seclusion on projects that create life, away from the judging eyes of the public who would not understand.  The compound is in a wilderness, far from humanity, tucked between mountains (it's never clear if its in the North America, Europe or somewhere else.  It could be the wild mountains of Frankenstein's Switzerland.  I don't actually know what those look like.).  

After some chatter and a quick NDA, Nathan takes Caleb to see why he's there.  Nathan has developed a synthetic person, Ava, in the silhouette of a young woman, wearing only the face of a young woman, but otherwise artificial in appearance, her bones showing beneath transparent flesh, her skull encasing a gum-drop brain .   Nathan is interested in using Caleb as a sort of observer/ participant in a week-long Turing Test to determine how buyable and well-developed Ava's AI and personality operate.

The conversations go well, Caleb is fascinated first as a technical questions, and then as a young man speaking to a young woman.

Spoilers, I guess

I know I've previously mentioned watching Nova ScienceNow years ago, where I was introduced to Neil deGrasse Tyson as a personality, when they showcased the work of Dr. Cynthia Breazeal of the MIT Personal Robotics Lab and founder of Jibo.  It was both amazing and heartbreaking to see the roboticists developing robots to understand positive and negative consequences - in short, teaching a machine to feel happiness and sorrow or pleasure and pain as they related to humans as learning tools.  It's stuck with me.  It is a fundamental part of how we're wired as biological beings, and it seems logical to implement the same ideas as teaching mechanisms for robots.  And yet, creating something from nothing and then making it unhappy always struck me as a bit... well, you can't ever not think of it as a machine, unless you're some sort of sadist, I guess.

As in many films where technology runs amok eventually (thank you, Michael Chrichton) for the first half of the film, the wonder of the development and order is established, as well as some cracks in the facade, which all seemed extraneous at the time.

It's kind of hard to ignore the fact that Caleb is separated from Ava for most of the movie by a wall of 3/4" reinforced glass with a crack in it.  In fact, once you stop to think about the omnipresent glass for a few seconds and that this is a fictional story which will probably have a point, once you've seen that crack in the glass and a seemingly thinking robot with boobs, the back half of the story where something has to happen becomes kind of... obvious.

If it's just me who can portend the future by gazing upon robot boobs, let me know.

The other huge giveaway is, of course, the moment the silent, pliant Kyoko appears - she's pretty clearly a robot.  Which, in turn, answers the question of "is Ava the only one, and, yes, Nathan has made Femme Bots".

There's probably nothing that clever about pondering what would happen if an AI were bolted onto the back-end of Google, and I do wonder if that's just something folks working in IT think about, but I don't think so.  Computers with access to unlimited information have been threatening mankind since the pulps.  The specifics regarding building algorithms around search histories is a logical extension, if novel to film in application.

The film, in fact, feels a bit like a throwback to the pulps or at least a decent Bradbury or Asimov story, and certainly to a 1960's cautionary tale of sorts, with a 2015 aesthetic and sensibility, even with a gothic, Poe-esque approach to the story.  It's wearing a lot of influences, I guess.  Including current and 909's-era futurism, and acknowledging the iffy hero worship we've got for folks like Steve Jobs.

The question of whether Nathan and/ or Ava are being truthful is where the drama and story work best.  Caleb is a research subject as much or more than Ava.  Seeing how he responds to the robot who is responding to him.  The movie does a good job of staying well away from magical thinking when it comes to the artificial intelligence, even if the specifics of a bipedal robot and the technology that got us to this point are ignored.  And that's okay.

Where the movie started feeling terribly obvious to me was in the sexualization of the robot, and it's so key to the story - yet passed over as a discussion point (for running time?  Because no one cares?) that it reduces the question to the standard noir-esque "making dicey decisions for the chance to nail that dame", but does wrap the question as one of free will for Ava in the most oblique of terms.  Whatever has gone on with Nathan and the prior versions of Ava is creepy, I guess.

Like I said, if you're going to do the obvious thing - turning an AI into a Real Doll - at least they're actually exploring the space and doing it well.

So it's a little odd that the ending feels so ham-handed with the pre-destined defeat of the jailer and the indie-film damnation of Caleb for what I'm sure would be written about as "the male gaze" in lots of undergrad film school papers.  So, in a way, the movie feels a bit like the origin story of a sociopathic killing machine who's life expectancy is however long it takes for her batteries to run down.  It works in the moment as a "she's free!" conclusion to the action, but... yeah.

I'm just not sure that, for all the indie movie cred of the ending, through a certain lens, it doesn't risk being read as a story of the duplicity of women and sexuality.  Please do not throw rocks.

I really try to avoid the "what I would have done" responses to movies, because that's not particularly useful.  Maybe "what would have worked better" or "what I found most interesting isn't where they went" is maybe an okay way to cheat on that rule I try to maintain of not saying "what I would have done".

But I just felt like I'd seen this movie before.  Maybe not as well thought out, but it had echoes of something as hokey as The Bride, and certainly what Elsa Lanchester was able to convey in 5 minutes of life on the screen in The Bride of Frankenstein, hissing and screeching and clearly not playing ball with anyone's wishes.

We're like to see real AI in our lifetimes, and there's no doubt in my mind one of the first applications of this sort of thing, when applied to bi-pedal robots will, in fact, be for reasons we're not to talk about in mixed company.  So it's kind of at the crossroads of "what would that, in fact, look like" and "yeah, AI is facinating" that I can say, "I'm actually more curious about these other two avenues than the one we followed".  BUT, I actually thought "if you're going to do this, yeah, this is really good".

So, you know.

And, yes, hats off to the FX folks.  Absolutely seamless stuff.


RHPT said...

It was a well-made sci-fi movie so I wanted to know your opinion. (Your review was about what I expected). One day, I'll recommend a film that you'll enjoy and I won't feel so silly for enjoying so much cough John Wick cough

The League said...

I stated no less than twice that I enjoyed this movie! Not so much John Wick, but this one I found interesting enough to consider it from a few angles.

Marshal said...

I'm pretty sure I also told you to watch this. I enjoyed it immensely. But then, I've seen this plot many fewer times than you.

Paul Toohey said...

Looking for more Oscar? This one was a pretty good role for him, I don't know that I partifularly liked the movie overall though:

Matt A. said...

I personally thought that the Nathan character was very interesting. I was trying to picture what his character went through during the development of these robots. The story setup tells us that he had to destroy each brain in order to build the next one. As the robots became more and more human-like, I imagine that it would become more of a toll on his view of humanity in general.

Zabe the Writer said...

I dug the movie. I agree with you that there was a lot of pulp influence. My one big complaint when I saw it was that it should have ended five minutes earlier. The movie was written as Caleb's story, though the ending was written as Ava's.

The League said...

@Matt - agreed. Because we only see him in this version (what was it? 4.6?) of Ava, we only get the one version. I mean, yes, it's possible it took a toll. It's also possible he really is looking at these things as Femme Bots and it's no big deal when he disassembles them. He doesn't think of Caleb in any particular way when he meets him, so the question is: was he more empathetic before? Or can we read something into how far he retreated from people to begin with?

The League said...

@zabe- that's where I felt like you could feel the indie-movie-cred machine at work. The viewpoint switches pretty abruptly, and it somewhat absolves Ava of murder of both the guilty and however you choose to read Caleb as innocent, confused or guilty by association. Her freedom becomes paramount, and you get that "she has the whole world ahead of her! Freedom!" moment. But it also keeps the movie from being entirely about two dudes talking about a woman, and you know a producer somewhere couldn't let it go that we don't see what happens when Ava walks out the door. That would be too 1970's if the last shot was a hopeless Caleb.