Hollywood has spawned a rash of movies about artificial intelligence lately. That in itself is nothing new–movies dealing with that subject have been made as far back as Metropolis. Writers, filmmakers, and audiences have remained fascinated by the idea of AI and the repercussions that such a creation would incur. While I personally don’t believe an artificial being will ever adapt a consciousness, the idea is tantalizingly ripe for and endless amount of interpretations, some of which I’ve applied in my own writing.
I’m comparing two releases I recently was fortunate enough to watch within a couple of weeks of each other. Both feature synthetic beings that just so happen to look like beautiful women. Both films tackle the subject of the being’s artificial intelligence, but in vastly different ways. Strangely enough, the end of both films turn out to be startlingly similar.
What I enjoyed most about Ex Machina was the isolation. Instead of having a robot run amok among humanity, the film deals with the impact of AI on just two people, Nathan and Caleb. Caleb is a programmer who won a chance to meet the reclusive and enigmatic genius CEO Nathan. Nathan has created a humanoid that may be the world’s first AI, and he wants Caleb to interact with ‘Ava’ to see if she passes the Turing test that will prove she has a consciousness.
What follows is a strange cat-and-mouse game involving the trio. Each person is present for different reasons and with different objectives. Caleb is both fascinated and eventually attracted to Ava despite her obvious artificiality. Ava seeks a release from the isolation of her tiny world. And Nathan pulls the strings that everyone dances to, quite literally in one oddball scene in the film.
There is plenty to like about this film. The actors are top notch and bring textured, subtle performances without grandstanding. It would be easy to point to Alicia Vikander’s performance as Ava, which was an outstanding job, but really all three actors do tremendous work bringing their characters to life. The plot is not complicated at all, but it tackles the subject of AI in a completely different way than most films. It takes a more insular, intimate approach to the subject. What starts off as a test of human consciousness quickly becomes a mirrored study of what makes us tick.
Ultimately the film is about manipulation, a trait exclusive to human beings. I can’t say too much without revealing spoilers, so I’ll just praise the film for its vision, acting, and cinematography. The alternating scenes between the stifling habitat and the awesome nature that surrounds it create a sense of both majesty and claustrophobia. The characters are well developed and the story keeps you guessing to its ultimate outcome with a surprisingly clever twist that in retrospect was inevitable. The writers of the film create some great dialogue and characters that kept me locked in throughout the entire film. It’s nice to get a film about AI that doesn’t go all apocalyptic on us. No guns, no explosions, no doomsday. Just a reflective film about consciousness, sexuality, manipulation, and intelligence.
Overall, a highly recommended film.
With the Machine, we return to the familiar dystopia of a war-torn future where nations race to develop the ultimate killing machine. Apparently developing a machine indistinguishable from humans would give the owner the advantage of infiltration and assassination, although it seems to me that a simple X-ray machine or metal detector would pretty much prevent that event from happening. But what do I know?
But don’t get me wrong, this is still a good film. It is cemented by the acting, particularly Caity Lotz. Her performance isn’t as subtle as Alicia Vikander’s in Ex Machina, but it works just as well. She plays two characters. One is named Ava. Sound familiar? Ironically, Ava is the human character that supplies a brain scan that grants the Machine intelligent consciousness. Caity plays both characters so differently that you almost don’t believe they are the same actress.
The film’s setting is a stark contrast to the haunting isolation of Ex Machina. Everything in The Machine is dark and cold, reeking of military occupation and all the sinister baggage that entails. Several scenes appear to be nods to Blade Runner, but they are subtle enough to not be distracting.
The major difference is that the Machine is created to be a killer soldier unit. The artificial intelligence is a byproduct of the engineer’s experiment to save his ailing young daughter from a critical disease. What results is a predictable tug of war between the engineer and his military employers who want obedience, not intelligence. The end is inevitable, but at least there is a surprise or two along the way.
Really, what makes the film worthwhile is the care taken by the filmmakers. They create characters driven by different passions and agendas and take the time to fully flesh them. Caity Lotz’s performance is marvelously captivating, and holds the film together across its weaker points. I enjoyed the movie and would definitely recommend it.
In a comparison, Ex Machina is the the clear winner of the two. But The Machine was still surprisingly well done as well. I think the low budget filmmaking paid off in both films. Special effects in both were great, but they take a back seat to the story and characters. Hollywood needs more of these type of movies. And while neither film broke new ground on the subject of AI, both handled it in much more riveting and interesting ways than say, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When Bard Constantine isn’t consumed by pop culture, he writes gritty futures and far-flung fantasy. See more at bardwritesbooks.com