Christof Koch in Nature:
By and large, we watch movies to be entertained, not to be provoked into deep thought. Occasionally, a film does both. This year’s Ex Machina is one such gem. It prompted me to reflect upon the evolution of the idea of machine sentience over the past three decades of science fiction on film. I am a long-time student of the mind-body problem — how consciousness arises from the brain. There is a conundrum at the heart of this ancient dilemma, challenging both brain science and AI; and it is well captured by Ex Machina and two other SF movies. In essence, it lies in how we can ever be certain that a machine feels anything, is conscious.
…Enter Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland. This intelligent and thoughtful mix of psycho-drama and SF thriller centers on a strange ménage à trois. Ava is a beauty with a difference (a phenomenal performance by Alicia Vikander); Caleb is a nerdy young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson); Nathan is a beastly, brilliant inventor and immensely rich tech-entrepreneur (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is selected by Nathan, a recluse, to spend a week at his live-in Arctic laboratory. He introduces Caleb to Ava, an advanced cyborg whose semi-transparent skull and body reveal inner workings, including a brain that is quasi-organic in some unspecified way. It’s a twist on Blade Runner: if Caleb interacts with Ava as he would with an alluring woman – while seeing clearly that she is not flesh and blood – that would testify to Ava’s ability to convince him she has real feelings. Ava and Caleb hit it off at first sight. Unlike Her, Ex Machina soon becomes a game of smoke and mirrors. Ava hints to Caleb that she doubts Nathan’s purely scientific motives; there are bizarre scenes such as Nathan doing a synchronized dance routine with a mute servant. Nathan’s lab becomes Bluebeard’s Castle, complete with locked rooms and heavy psychosexual undertones. Ex Machina’s ending, invoking the trope of the femme fatale, is logical, surprising and darker than Blade Runner’s. All three films showcase how the psychology of desire can be exploited to forge a powerful empathic response in their protagonists, sweeping away doubts about the object of their longing having sentience. It’s a Turing test based on lust, each movie an excursion into human social psychology and the attendant gender power politics.