Sci-Fi/Thriller, 108 Minutes, 2015
While technology remains incapable of creating anything resembling true artificial intelligence, the topic has been popular amongst philosophers and futurists for well over a century. One of the most debated questions is deceptively simple: how can we tell if something is really intelligent and not just faking it? This is the question of the film.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson [IMDB], who played an A.I. himself in “Be Right Back”, an episode of the acclaimed U.K. series, “Black Mirror” [IMDB]) is a programmer at Blue Book, the world’s largest, most successful internet search company. He’s invited to spend a week at the isolated estate of the eccentric owner of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac [IMDB]). Upon his arrival, Nathan reveals that he’s actually looking for somebody to test his latest project: a fully autonomous A.I.
The A.I., Ava (Alicia Vikander [IMDB]), is embodied in a beautifully delicate, innocently sensuous, robot form. The cast is completed by the only other resident of the fully automated estate: Nathan’s mute assistant/companion, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno [IMDB]). Despite the lush surroundings, the isolation and Nathan’s mercurial, egotistical nature shadow the proceedings with a wonderfully vague sense of dread.
Caleb’s task is to interview Ava and report his impressions to Nathan. This is a modification of the well-known Turing Test, in which the intelligence of a machine is judged by it’s ability to converse freely and naturally with a human. Caleb, of course, knows that Ava is an A.I., but does that matter if she can converse naturally? If he can make an emotional connection with her and, more importantly, she with him?
This is the core question of the film and, despite what would be reasonable complaints from computer science researchers, it’s a compelling one. The conversations between Caleb and Ava are highlights of the film and spawned lengthy discussions amongst those I watched with.
Accepting Ava is a significant ask for the audience. She does, after all, represent not just miraculous advances in artificial intelligence, but also in material design, robotics, synthetics, animatronics, power management, battery design, processing and dozens of other fields. All made, in secret, by one man (albeit one with massive resources at his disposal), in the woods.
Vikander’s performance is stunning and insightful. Her movements have an endearing, tentative quality that convey both her otherworldly nature and her vulnerability. Her facial expressions are wonderfully layered; they transition from questing curiosity to understanding to impish glee in moments, all while masking tremendous depth. Accepting Ava is difficult, but necessary, and largely possible due to Vikander’s effort.
The environments are sumptuously appointed yet, for all their elegance, oddly foreboding. The few outdoor scenes, filmed in Norway, are majestic in their natural scope and contrast meaningfully with the sterility of the house. The effects used to bring Ava to life are a subtle, but excellently realized, mixture of practical and digital. This is all the more impressive considering the reported budget of $15 million.
My only real complaint, if I must have one, is that the techno, synth-heavy soundtrack often becomes overbearing. Never illogically so, but there are several points where it distracted me from the proceedings. The ending was also predictable, at least in the broad strokes, yet I find it difficult to consider this a negative. The story, like Ava, evolved as you might expect it to.
Those that complain about the slow pace or lack of action are watching the wrong movie. Just as those that would nitpick the testing procedure or the technology are. This is a difficult movie, but a worthwhile one. Should it be a surprise that a movie about thinking would require it of you?