If Bluebeard had the Internet (and a God Complex)
Written on 05/15/2015, film first viewed by author on 05/08/2015
Many cultures believe, or at the very least hope, that divine intervention actually occurs. In other words, people pray that their god produces a miracle in a dire situation, like a supreme, U.N. coalition force of the Universe rolling down from the sky to solve a problem that is most likely not going to turn out well. The two main opposing arguments to this theory is produced by agnostic and atheist thinkers. An agnostic might say that there is some kind of supreme being that got things moving, but has no need or way to stick his thumb in the pie of Earthly matters because, well, that's what the laws of physics and good moral judgement are there for. Of course, an atheist will go further and say that there is no giant thumb to begin with to do any sticking into pies. Both arguments, if completely true, conclude that fortunate events, including the formation of our planet, are simply that: fortunate events, episodes of pure coincidence. It boils down to the majority of humans needing the comfort that they were intentionally created for a purpose, and that the creator actually cares enough to help them out if they really need it. Thus, religion.
The playwrights of Ancient Greece gave so much respect and placed so much trust in their multitude of gods that they even gave them very important, dramatic roles from time to time. However, one just doesn't make an actor playing Zeus simply walk on stage. If one is to portray a god, they must enter like a god. From this, one of the earliest and most elaborate practical effects for the purpose of entertainment was born: a god machine. Yes, an actual contraption, much like the modern crane or riser, that brought the gods down upon or up onto the stage. This brought about the phrase: "deus ex machina", the literal translation being "god from the machine". So, why did these playwrights need divine intervention in some of their works? The honest answer is that they simply ran out of creative steam, or got lazy. They would write themselves into such a deep plot-hole that they relied on the knowledge of the gods to either add a miraculous twist, make a tragedy into an instant happy ending, or provide comic relief.
Now, let us look at all of this from the perspective of a toaster, or a cellphone, or a computer. If they had a conscience equivalent to that of a human being, might not we look like gods to them? After all, our kind did create their kind, and there is no real debate to this fact. Just as a human can make a machine, it can work with it as is, make it better, or destroy it. Sounds pretty godly. Going a step further, one can take this example from the idea of a toaster to something a lot smarter and more complex, artificial intelligence. If a god really made humans in his or her image, could not humans make their machines in theirs? Once the machines become smart enough, will they need their version of divine intervention: human intervention? By that point, can a human even be considered divine when compared to their creations?
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These are some great questions that seem to permeate the sleek walls of glass and metal in Alex Garland's triumphant directorial debut, Ex_Machina. In this British science-fiction thriller, low-level programmer Caleb Smith (Domhall Gleeson), wins a one week trip to visit his mysterious boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac), a reclusive multi-millionaire and search engine mogul that lives in a secluded paradise. What starts as a somewhat odd getaway for Caleb soon becomes an ambitious project. Nathan wants Caleb to perform the Turing Test on his latest creation, an android with female characteristics named Ava (Alicia Vikander). (A Turing Test is a series of questions and interactions that is conducted to prove whether or not an A.I. can pass as human, much like tests seen in Blade Runner and briefly mentioned in The Imitation Game). Wanting to make history, Caleb jumps at the opportunity. His conversations with Ava and interactions with the eccentric Nathan start off innocently enough, but as the week goes on, Caleb begins to realize peculiarities. Caleb knows Nathan watches his every move with a camera network, except when strange electrical blackouts roll through. All the while, Caleb is tempted by the sexualities of Ava and the house servant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), and philosophically dogged by a periodically intoxicated Nathan. What becomes increasingly apparent is Ava's lack of freedom, and how Nathan prefers to lord over her rather than see her as an equal. After all, she is a mere rung on the evolutionary ladder that Nathan built, and therefore may have to be "killed" and replaced. This raises the question of where her failed sisters may have gone. Haunted by the fact that Caleb may lose Ava, whom he has grown attached to, he begins to contemplate her rescue.
Ex_Machina is... just... a really good movie. To a cinephile, its like a long-lost-friend. There is something so familiar about it, with the basis of its plot coming from something like a gothic-Victorian manor drama, but brings some fresh surprises in the form of a "Me Generation" mentality. Its also smart, sexy, and funny, so our long-lost-friend of a film just turned into that nerd in high school that blossomed into the best date you could hope for. There's so much literature going on in the background of this film while a viewer is serenaded by brain teasing, eye-catching production design, and random dancing. Yep, randoming dancing. Stemming from Dracula, or Rebecca, or Clue, a protagonist is lured into a situation that seems too good to be true, and uncovers some kind of madness under the surface. Actually, the whole setup felt more like a morbid Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Caleb getting his "golden ticket" and being lured to the home of an unbalanced inventor who acts as though he may or may not kill people for fun. Frankenstein will also no doubt pop into a viewer's head, the egomaniacal Nathan irresponsible in his role as father-figure as Ava grows to despise him for creating her. Another tale also popped into this author's head, La Barbe Bleue, a French folktale better known as Bluebeard. Just as the unexpecting new bride of Bluebeard begins to literally find skeletons in his closet, Caleb discovers the leftovers of the "inhumane" experiments that led to Ava's creation. Of course, none of the film's literal themes could exist without the ideas of the grandfather of robotics, Isaac Asimov. His debates on how A.I.s are to coexist with their flesh-and-bone counterparts are ever-omnipresent throughout Ex_Machina. Director Garland also admits seizing inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Altered States. The man has good tastes.
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Though Gleeson performed reasonably well, and Vikander was utterly captivating, the performance that stands above the rest is undoubtedly Isaac's Nathan. Perhaps just shy of an acting job that could snag him an Academy Award, Isaac brings both the tension and humor to a film that would otherwise fall just short in dynamics. Not only is Nathan a plot-instigator, he is also a commentary on how ridiculously powerful the top one percent of the one percent have become in the Western World. He is a Steve Jobs gone horribly wrong, and one of those vengeful Internet trolls that actually did something about it. He loves to be in control, and manufacturing something humanoid is the closest thing he can be to a god. To answer critics who slam Ex_Machina for being sexist, the character of Nathan is what fuels most of this. To be fair, the film does exhibit a lot of female nudity and dialogue that objectifies womanhood, so the sexism argument is valid. However, Caleb is the typical nice guy, often trying to contradict Nathan's perversions. That's a major factor that makes Caleb more of a hero and Nathan more of a villain. Nathan is sexist, Ex_Machina not.
Ex_Machina may become more talked about as the major awards season approaches. Garland has made a successful transition from novelist to filmmaker, and Gleeson and Vikander should have their doors being knocked down. Isaac has already been making a grand name for himself, and has perhaps catapulted his career to another level with this one. Incorporating his own deus ex machina into his screenplay, Garland has his human-as-god Caleb ascend from a helicopter to help the robot-as-mortal Ava take one step closer to a possible escape from her prison of corporate progress and sexual objectification.