Monday, April 13, 2015

Sci-Fi - Emphasis on the 'Fi' - Ex-Machina

"Darling, you remain as aesthetically pleasing as the first day we met. I believe I am the most fortunate sentient in this sector of the galaxy. " - Commander Data, Star Trek: TNG

N.B. SPOILER ALERT! While I have no intention of making this into a movie review blog, indie or otherwise, occasionally the stars align and something we discuss here happens in the movies, as with Birdman recently, and now Ex Machina. I find even experienced reviewers sometimes will ruin a movie for me, so, even though I'm going to try here to get my point across without completely blowing the story, I make no promises. If you intend to see this movie, I highly recommend you bookmark this and come back and read it later. There. My guilt is assuaged.

It seems like just a week ago I was writing about a low budget indie film I line produced that had science fiction elements that were too complex. Oh, right, it was.

This past Friday, I wanted to see a movie, and, as often happens, I settled on one that I knew nothing about until I saw that it was playing across the street from the coffee house in NYC where I often pass my time. There's something great about seeing a movie that you know nothing about and letting it surprise you.

The movie was Ex Machina. Caleb works at Blue Book, the world's largest internet search engine (gee, I wonder what company - or companies -  they are referencing), and the film opens with him winning a lottery at that company to spend a week with it's creator, Nathan. It seems Blue Book is not all he has created, and the real reason he brought Caleb out here was to run a Turing test on his latest invention, an "AI" (Artificial Intelligent Being) named Ava. 

A Turing Test is where someone has to determine from a series of answers whether the entity being tested is a human or a machine, whether it can convince a human that it is human, or, more broadly, whether that entity is experiencing emotions or simulating them. If you didn't know that before you saw The Imitation Game, that's just fine. 

Ava is wonderfully cast with Alicia Vikander, who not only has a soft, subtle, simple beauty but also a background as a ballerina that make her movements anything but the wooden walk we would have expected from some a bundle of parts. She also passes another test for roles like this, which is that she was not widely known at the time of this movie, so she doesn't have an immediate image in audiences' minds that a star might.

For a film with AI at the center, the science of the film is surprisingly simple. Ava has gotten most of  her information on how humans think by just reversing the data out there on his search engine, which informs not only her consciousness (if she has one) but everything down to her facial expressions. While this might have been a shocking and sinister revelation to readers of George Orwell's 1984, it's pretty ho-hum stuff for movie goers who see ads for the exact product they just Googled appear on their Facebook page.

The body parts seem like your regular sci-fi mechanics, with the possible exception of Nathan having given Ava working sexual organs that will, he assures Caleb, deliver her pleasure if used. As for her brain, he has used organic material rather than circuits - no big revelation or shock there. Access to the various parts of the house is controlled by a keycard that is programmed by scanning a person's eyes; again, no new technology there.

Whether intentional or not, writer/director Alex Garland has kept the technology relatively simple, which leaves us free to explore what science fiction explores as its best, the big moral dilemmas Man has faced from the time he realized he had sentience. In this way, Ex Machina is pretty old-school Sci-Fi.

Does Man have the right to play God? Mary Shelley was dealing with that one as far back as Frankenstein. If machines/computers were given all of our knowledge, could they have human emotions? Star Trek: The Next Generation spent an inordinate amount of time on that one with android Data. If we give machines enough knowledge, will they turn on us? I'm sorry, Dave, but HAL can't let you do that.

Over the course of the film, Caleb wonders about how we need to treat AIs, and the story actually explores another famous experiment, that Millgram Experiment, named for the Yale researcher Stanley Millgram. In 1961, under the guise of doing memory experiments, Millgram, as experimenter, would have volunteers, called 'teachers,' read a string of words to a partner, or 'learner,' on the other side of a partition. These everyday people were then instructed to give electric shocks to the learner when they made mistakes, right up until seemingly painful and possibly lethal levels. It was not until later that the volunteers learned that there was no person being shocked on the other end, and up to 65 percent of the people agreed to do so.

Millgram's Experiment was meant to see how people react to authority, aimed to prove that most people are capable of quite a lot when instructed by an authority figure. During the course of Ex Machina, you wonder just how far young programmer Caleb will go to make a scientific breakthrough for Nathan.

"Are you a good person?" Ava asks Caleb at one point. It's certainly a question Nathan has considered in choosing Caleb. It's a question that can be asked of all three major parties in Ex Machina - Nathan, Caleb and Ava. There is a good deal of manipulation going on, but, like in a good spy novel, the question is who is manipulating whom.

Before you think I've breached some protocol here, the synopsis on the film's own website concludes that Ava's "emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated - and more deceptive - than the two men could have imagined." 

Of course, there is one more element of this test, and that involves Ava's use of sexuality to appeal to Caleb for help. Here, we're in the territory not of science-fiction, but of noir, and the femme fatale, using her charms to save herself from some evil man - or is she the evil one?

My point? Ex Machina had quite enough going on to engage the viewer without having to test his or her aptitude in math or science. While I'm certain some of my sci-fi fans, and even creators who follow this column, might disagree with me, I ultimately believe it's more important that science fiction be good fiction than good science, though I will admit the two need not be mutually-exclusive. 

Which brings us back to The Girl in the Holograph - Part 3 - The Girl Can't Help It -  coming later this week. 

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