Last night found me watching the 2015 film Ex Machina. It was the choice of a mate who’s as much a sci-fi fan as me; but his interests extend less far from the mainstream than mine. Aside from the robot hottie in the promotional pictures, the movie’s main attraction for him was The Force Awakens actors Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac’s presence. Part of its appeal for me – added to the acclaim it has received – was that it is the directorial debut of Alex Garland (writer of Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd).
Let me summarise Ex Machina in a spoiler-free way. A young genius (Gleeson) is invited by an older one (Isaac) to a retreat in a scenic valley, where he is asked to test whether an android secretly created by the older scientist possesses true artificial intelligence. Besides shots of said scenic valley, and interviews with the robot, the film consists of the two men’s discussions on what constitutes artificial intelligence and what the implications of its creation would be. A romantic sub-plot, some (not-unforeseeable) twists, and Isaac’s character’s increasingly sinister quality result in a little action towards the end of the movie. Given his tastes, it was perhaps predictable that my friend would doze off before this finale on discovering that the film consists mainly of philosophical debate. But while it wasn’t this which put me off, personally, I nonetheless soon felt just as disappointed as he.
At first the concept’s an attractive one; there’s always been a lot of thematic potential in artificial intelligence. But that’s the problem in a sense; for as it proves Ex Machina does little that hasn’t been done before, and been done with considerably less pomposity. Check: Ghost in the Shell style development of the what-is-AI debate into a what-is-consciousness-itself debate. Check: Blade Runner-esque depiction of AI’s creators as godlike (including the creation’s anger towards its maker). It became too much for me as the android’s inventor declared: ‘It’s Promethean, man.’ With this the movie pauses condescendingly, so that we can absorb the sentiment, and perhaps the word’s size, with awe. Trouble is that likening the creation of humanoids to the legendary Prometheus’s creation of humanity has been around since the ‘first sci-fi novel’ Frankenstein, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, was published by Mary Shelley. Of course it’s Promethean; that’s what Promethean means, actually. It continues: discussion of the danger that AI if uncontrolled could pose (hello Asimov, and The Matrix too, and a hundred dystopian movies). And continues: damaged android faces, providing that thought-provoking juxtaposition of human features with the workings inside (except it’s a lot less thought-provoking for the fact that it stopped being new somewhere around Terminator‘s time).
This said, derivative films can be a decent watch all the same. And Ex Machina is often beautiful visually (if a little ostentatiously so). It’s also acted superbly – its strongest point, I’d say. It’s main fault isn’t that it’s not all that intelligent, or that it’s not the slightest bit innovative. It’s that it thinks it is. Its pretentiousness, for me, offsets its virtues. I can’t share its conviction of its cleverness. In short, it takes more than an impressive vocabulary for an impressive movie.