Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex 3/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…
And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Genesis 11:4a & 6
What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
What a different approach director/screenwriter Alex Garland takes to the Frankenstein/hubris theme in his film. He is no stranger to the science fiction genre, having written the scripts for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and Sunshine. Like the Avengers film, this one deals with AI, but in a much more creepy way, with its inventor more like Steve Jobs than Tony Stark—although fortunately the real Jobs met a different fate than does the genius in what turns out to be a bloody take on the Frankenstein theme.
The film begins with computer whiz Caleb (Donhnall Gleeson) winning a work competition to spend a week at the mountain retreat of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an internet search engine billionaire. Because the CEO’s modernistic home/laboratory is located at the center of his Alaskan estate (the size of a small European country), Caleb has to be flown in by helicopter. He is dumped a couple of miles from the structure because of the obsessive owner’s no fly zone policy. Fortunately our hero has arrived with just a carry-on suitcase, so all he has to do is “follow the river” to find the place. Reaching and gaining entry by a computer controlled system, he finds his employer engaged in hitting a punching bag.
After being issued an electronic key that will admit him to some rooms but not others, Caleb learns that he has not “won” a vacation, but has been selected (and not by a random process) to test Nathan’s current project he has named Ava—It/she is an A.I. housed in a meshed, see-into body That displays her metal innards. However, she has a beautiful face (that of Alicia Vikander’s) and a winning personality that takes Caleb’s mind off the fact that she is a machine. Nathan tells Caleb that she has the equipment for mutual sexual gratification, During the week Caleb is to give her “The Turing Test,” created back in the Forties by computer scientist Alan Turing. (For more on the tragic life of this genius see the film The Imitation Game.) This is a test by which a human can tell whether or not an A.I. computer is human or a machine.
At first Calab is overawed by his boss, referring to him enthusiastically as a “god,” which, as the story progress, we see Nathan changing the little “g” to a big one. However, as the days go by and the naïve Caleb interacts with Nathan and Ava, the story becomes a bit creepy. Nathan is frequently off-setting because of his acerbic words and over indulgence in alcohol during the nights. Although dwelling alone, he has created another android named Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), who is mute and designed to serve him in every way—and I mean every way, including sexually, as well as submitting to his physical abuse. Caleb can often see this because every room in the house is equipped with multiple cameras—which means too that Caleb and Ava are under constant surveillance. A bit of humor is injected when, failing to talk Caleb into dancing with his sex slave, Nathan moves around the room with “her” in a goofy dance.
Soon Ava, growing in awareness, becomes the tester and Caleb the testee. During one of the frequent power outages when the cameras can not transmit her voice to Nathan she warns Caleb, “You shouldn’t trust anything he says.” That she is causing the outages proves to Caleb that she does have autonomy. Also her asking what will happen when Nathan is finished with “her” and moves on to new models of AI—the answer being that she will be terminated. She also seems aware of Nathan’s misogyny when she says, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” Thus her enlisting Caleb to help her escape raises the issue of freedom from patriarchy.
What follows moves the film into the horror genre, to which, of course, the Frankenstein story that it immulates belongs. We are left to reflect upon Nathan’s earlier claim, “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Whether as a warning or a prediction, these words might lead us to those of the Psalmist, who, after observing the beauty and majesty of the world God has made, asks his Creator, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” In the new Avengers film the members urge Tony Stark to go slow on his plan to develop AI and encase it in one of his armors. Alex Garland might be following the same path in this film. Is AI a good or a potentially devastating thing in the course of human development?
You can read about the Turing Test at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May 2015 issue of Visual Parables.