Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Artifical Intelligence Thriller "Ex Machina" Examines Systemic Sexism

Alicia Vikander commands the screen as Ava.
Oscar Isaac and Dohmnall Gleeson play big roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the latest foray into a galaxy far, far away was only the second best 2015 science fiction the two made together. First prize goes to Ex Machina, a thought-provoking and engrossing sci-fi thriller that marks the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later…, Never Let Me Go).

Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer for a Google-type software company who wins the opportunity to spend a week at the secluded estate of the company’s founder Nathan (Isaac, continuing to prove he's one of our best working actors). The only other person in the sleekly-designed compound is Kyoko (Sonya Mizuno), the house maid Nathan speaks down to and lashes out at when he’s not using her as a sex partner. And then there’s Ava (2015 breakout Alicia Vikander, totally killing it), a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence that Nathan has created.

During his stay, Caleb is tasked with being the human component of a Turing test, which gauges AI’s consciousness. During a series of sessions, Ava and Caleb seem to develop feelings for one another, and during sporadic power outages that interrupt Nathan’s camera feed, Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is a bad man who cannot be trusted. However, things are not as they seem, an atmosphere of unease persists and everyone’s motivations aren’t made clear until the finale.

That’s all I’ll say on the plot specifics of the film, which plays on the surface like a cautionary technology tale or a Frankenstein fable about the foibles of playing God. However, like last year’s Under the Skin or the Netflix show Jessica Jones, this is a pointed commentary on gender privilege and entitlement disguised in a genre traditionally targeted at the male demographic.

Nathan is the more-readily definable, self-absorbed, abusive bro, but Caleb, who for all intents and purposes is the good guy protagonist, also trades in stealth misogyny. In some ways we all do, men and women both, which is probably unsurprising seeing how we’ve been programmed in a world of systemic sexism, one where the main narrative of entertainment (books, movies, video games, whatever) features knights in shining armor winning the hearts (and bodies) of damsels in distress. Look no further than the gag that punctuates Kingsman: The Secret Service for proof. The ending of Ex Machina is a direct comment on this programming in the way it engenders an almost unconscious response in the viewer, one akin to the famous example of someone watching Do the Right Thing and coming away angry that Mookie tossed a trash can through Sal’s window.

It would be hard for me to recommend something more than I recommend Ex Machina. It’s a film with everything going for it – it’s thematically rich, all the tech aspects are top notch and the acting is sublime. I’d say it’s my favorite film of 2015, and besides maybe Creed, nothing else so far even comes close. A