Fictional artificial intelligence begins with fire, which Prometheus stole from Mount Olympus to share with mankind. This was Greek mythology, not science fiction, but the same symbolism applies: for his crime, Prometheus was condemned to eternal punishment, and fire was left to exist on Earth where it would bring benefit and destruction in equal measure. Thousands of years later, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (subtitled: The Modern Prometheus), in which its titular doctor similarly steals power from the Gods. As with his Greek ancestor, Victor Frankenstein’s theft consisted of creation underscored by the possibility of danger; he births man through science, and spends the remainder of his short life in turmoil while his monster – a benefactor and a murderer – continues to roam the world. Artificial intelligence was born.
The notion of ‘playing God’ is tossed around in relation to Frankenstein and, by extension, many other fictional representations of AI. But this term is also associated with the hydrogen bomb, which is telling because there is an inherent link between the two phenomena, as each compliments a better understanding of the other; either can only be advantageous for those in control, and disaster would strike should that control be lost. Sentience in AI is feared to initiate this latter point, from 2001: A Space Odyssey through Demon Seed and to this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron; this makes sense considering that if mankind – the most destructive species on Earth – should create something in its own image, it would inevitably lead to chaos. Occasionally, in films such as AI: Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man and Her, AI is programmed to (ideally) bring good to the world, but there are nevertheless certain examples such as the Terminator and Alien movies, Under the Skin and Ex Machina, that more directly explore external impacts as opposed to succumbing to mere Luddite scaremongering.
With its titular allusions to the Greek calque (meaning: “god from the machine”), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is especially pertinent in the link between AI, nuclear weaponry and the overarching story of Prometheus, as scientist Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and coding expert Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) enter into a battle of ideologies – a cold war, if you will – over the essential control of Ava (impressive up-and-comer Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent robot who may just be outsmarting them both. As with Big Hero 6, Ava is considered in different ways by the movie’s two human characters, and her role in the world resides upon whomever ‘wins’ her ownership; the loser, in one way or another, will be suffer the rest of his life in torment. As I’m on the cusp of revealing too much about its impressive story, think back to Frankenstein and combine that with the uneasy sexuality of Her, the impromptu dance sequences of Bicentennial Man, the blurred lines of Blade Runner and the uncertain robot alliances of Terminator 2 and Aliens and you’ve got the basic idea.
Where AI is generally established before the beginning of movies such as this, Ex Machina opens on the precipice of discovery, which adds weight and wonder to Ava as a scientific phenomenon; but besides that (though it is of undeniable importance and levity nonetheless), much of what it details about AI and its relation to mankind has been more eloquently investigated in some recent films, especially in Under the Skin and Her. Garland’s movie waxes philosophical about the way such a being would come to fruition (as well as discussing various sociological issues), but rather than trusting the viewer to piece together the theories it presents, it vocalises them in the interplay between its characters, thus blunting its edge and neutering its main subtext. Far from completely wrecking its appeal, however, all that does is restrict it from achieving real greatness; Ex Machina remains undeniably interesting in aspects that can’t really be discussed for fear of offending the spoiler averse, but it’s mainly down to the presention of loads of ideas that inspire loads more ideas in the process.
On a cinematic level, Garland appears to have learned from his experiences with Danny Boyle (for whom he scripted 28 Days Later and Sunshine), what with the careful plotting and stunning imagery he brings to Ex Machina. The majority of the story is set in Nathan’s home/research facility, which looks exactly how you’d imagine a rich megalomaniac’s home/research facility to look, only it’s surrounded by brilliant wilderness (a location shoot in the mountains of Norway). This blending of the organic and the mechanical is not only an inspired piece of symbolism but is also, quite frankly, stunning on a plane that more low-budget pictures should reach for. Indeed, these aspects – along with Isaac’s cool-as-fuck bravado, livening up an atmosphere that could have easily been sterile – are what turn Ex Machina from mere pontification into great entertainment. It could have been better had it not literalised its themes to the degree it does, but the film remains a strong start for Garland the director, having trained in film as Garland the screenwriter, following his foundations as Garland the novelist (he wrote The Beach, which Boyle also adapted).
But the crux of Ex Machina is Ava; doe-eyed and menacing (alternately or simultaneously), she is the scientific majesty and doomsday device that artificial intelligence can be; fire, the bomb and Frankenstein’s monster; user-friendly until convinced otherwise; gripping, beautiful, sublime and horrifying.