Ex Machina

At some point in the not too distant future -- at least according to this movie -- the mighty Google will be replaced by the mightier BlueBook, the search engine to end all search engines. It's named after the Blue Book by Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the great 20th century philosophers, though it's a slightly odd sort of book. It was really a collection of his notes and letters, made while he was studying at Cambridge, or rather half of a collection, the other half having been published as the Brown Book, named for nothing more exciting than the colors of the covers.

A guy named Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Drive) wrote the initial code for BlueBook when he was thirteen, so he is now a full-fledged crazy reclusive billionaire who drinks too much, living in a "house" that's perched over a river and looks like it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That means it looks like it's ready to fall into the river and is full of terrible drafts and leaky floor to ceiling windows, because Frank had no idea of how to make a building that wouldn't collapse at the slightest excuse. What can I say, I'm the daughter of a civil engineer.

Meanwhile, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson of the Harry Potter franchise) works at BlueBook as a programmer, and is also the lucky winner of a company lottery to see who gets to spend a week at Nathan's compound. Compound is a better word than house, really -- security is crazy tight and most of the place is actually underground so at least they don't have to deal with the leaky floor to ceiling windows. Also, all the hallways look alike and absolutely nothing is labelled so I don't know why the characters weren't perpetually lost.

And then there's Ava (Alicia Vikander), the title character, "ex machina" being Latin for "in the machine". Ava is an A.I., the latest in Nathan's quest to create a true artificial intelligence before anyone else can beat him to it. All these movies keep claiming that a "true A.I." will be here before we know it, but it seems to be taking an awfully long time. Anyway, Ava is the real reason that Caleb is there -- Nathan wants his guest to be the human side of a Turing test, to determine just how successful Ava's programming is.

But Turing tests can be complicated, and this one even more so than usual. How do you define humanity, or even intelligence? Is it possible to tell the difference between a computer that can think for itself and a computer that's been carefully programmed to seem like it's thinking for itself? Can self-awareness be faked? That's without even touching things like emotions, motivations, and the eternal problem of how much we can ever really know about another human being, never mind about another species, even if it is a species we've created.

In case you're thinking this is a dull philosophical sort of movie, though, don't worry -- it's more a creepy psychological thriller where you don't know who to trust. Nathan does his best to seem like everyone's buddy, a regular guy, but there's always this impression that he's actually a spoiled brat who's just waiting for Caleb to give him a reason to beat the crap out of him or maybe destroy his credit rating and turn him into an unperson. I shudder to think how Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan's live-in "servant" gets treated.

But by the end, you won't know who to trust or even who to like, and that's why this movie gets four and a half out of five. The acting is great (despite Nathan, Caleb, and Ava being from Guatemala, Ireland, and Sweden, respectively, they all do a good job of sounding American, too), and though it's a very thoughtful movie you never feel like you're drowning in vague, complicated philosophical ideas. Just don't be surprised if it makes your own definition of humanity change a little bit.

Image: 
Ava's brain. Not the Arkenstone, but I'm sure a lot of people want it.

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