ReThink Review: Ex Machina -- Our Androids, Ourselves

04/10/2015 06:30 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

There is little doubt that humanity is hurtling ever closer to true artificial intelligence, with millions of us already using approximations of AI on our smartphones through digital assistants like Apple's Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft's Cortana. The arrival of AI appears so imminent that tech and science luminaries like Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and even Apple co-founder Steve Wosniak have made dire public statements warning that true, conscious, self-programming AI could endanger humanity -- a concept made familiar through works of science fiction like the Terminator, the Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to name just a few. But before we reach such possible dystopias, there are so many questions we don't seem to be asking right now about the arrival of these potentially intelligent machines. And that is the genius of Alex Garland's film Ex Machina, a must-see that is one of the best, smartest, and most elegant films about artificial intelligence ever made.

Watch the trailer for Ex Machina below.

Set in what is essentially present day, Ex Machina stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a talented young programmer working for a company called Bluebook, which resembles a hybrid of Google and Facebook. Caleb wins a company-wide contest to spend a week with Bluebook's mysterious creator, Nathan (an excellent Oscar Isaac), who lives in seclusion on an enormous forested property.

But unbeknownst to Caleb, the contest wasn't just for a chance to rub elbows with the boss. Nathan's modernist multi-level home is actually a research facility where Nathan is working on a revolutionary creation -- an extraordinarily advanced walking, talking, expressive AI android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is there to perform the Turing Test on Ava, engaging in conversations with her to see if her words, thoughts, and intelligence are convincingly human. But troubling behavior from Nathan, his odd relationship with his silent female servant (Sonoya Mizuno), and a warning from Ava not to trust Nathan convinces Caleb that something more ominous may be going on.

Writer/director Alex Garland has more than proven his writing chops during his relatively brief career, writing the novel of The Beach as well as the screenplay for zombie neo-classic 28 Days Later. But with Ex Machina, his directing debut, Garland has stripped down and streamlined the film to a single location and only three speaking parts, allowing you to focus on the intimacy and subtleties of the characters' interactions, the mystery and paranoia surrounding Nathan's project and Caleb's role in it, and the power and intelligence of the ideas being explored.

Instead of worrying about a possible future where robots have waged war against humanity, Ex Machina asks the questions we (or, more accurately, AI engineers) should be asking right now. How will we know when true artificial intelligence has been achieved? What information will these intelligent robots be programmed with, and who will do the programming?

And if true AI and consciousness are achieved, how will we treat these living computers? Will we maintain that they are still only machines and switch off, reformat, or destroy them as we would any other piece of electronics? Or will we treat them as the thinking, sentient beings we claim to have made in our own image, treating them as equals and respecting their right to live? Even knowing that they're machines, will we be able to develop genuine feelings for them, and they with us? What exactly will these AIs think of us, with our flaws, our delicate bodies, our finite lifespans, and our limited brains? And will taking on the role of gods to create a new race of conscious beings, ones arguably superior to ourselves, be the ultimate act of hubris?

Ex Machina asks all these questions and more in a slick, beautiful psychological thriller that will not only have you wondering what will happen next, but who you should be rooting for in a film where all three main characters are intelligent, sympathetic, and driven in their own ways towards their own ends. I've already seen Ex Machina twice, and I want to keep on watching it for its smarts, beauty, performances, technical proficiency, the way it gets your mind buzzing, and because, as a film, it's damn near flawless. Seriously, don't miss this one. The future may depend on it.

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