Robert Henderson is impressed by Alex Garland’s new film
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb
Alicia Vikander as Ava
Oscar Isaac as Nathan
Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko
Directed by Alex Garland
This is yet another film exploring the potential of digital technology to radically change our lives. The subject here is the relationship between advanced humanoid robots and humans, but with a twist, namely, can sexual attraction arise between a human and a robot and can that attraction move on to something resembling deep emotional attachment?
The basic plot is simple. A young computer coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) thinks he has won a competition at his workplace, the prize being a week on an isolated research station with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the boss of the company for whom Caleb works. In fact, there is no competition and he has been chosen simply as an experimental subject.
When Caleb reaches the research station he finds it occupied by Nathan and what he thinks is a female Asian servant Kyoto. There are no other people on the research station. In fact there are only two humans for Kyoto is a robot.
Nathan asks Caleb to perform a Turing test. The classical version of the test consists of a human interacting with an artificial intelligence (AI) without knowing whether they are dealing with an AI or another human being. The test is passed if the human is convinced the AI is human. But this is a Turing test with a twist. Caleb knows what he is dealing with, a humanoid robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Caleb’s ostensible task is to see whether Ava convinces as a human interlocutor, despite the fact that he knows she is a machine. But his real function is to see how readily a human being will accept a machine that he knows to be a machine as a quasi-human being, or at least an intelligence which a human can relate to as they would relate to another human being.
To make matters more complicated Ava is physically portrayed as a machine. She, for want of a better word, is humanoid, but her non-human status is made only too visible with every part of her but the face, hands and feet being rather obviously those of a robot rather than a human, for example, by having some of her machine components nakedly exposed. As a further barrier to emotional involvement there is no physical contact between Caleb and Ava because a transparent screen separates them.
As the film progresses Ava becomes more and more human to Caleb not only because of the developing relationship between the two, but in the way Ava presents herself physically. She puts a wig over her skull and wears a dress which obscures her machine structure. With these accoutrements she resembles an attractive woman.
That Caleb should develop an emotional relationship with Ava is extremely plausible. Just think of the emotional investment that people make in their pets. Reflect on the habit humans often have of endowing inanimate objects with some of the qualities that they respond to in humans and animals or on their sentimental attachment to objects which are associated with those they care about or of events which are important to them. Humans have a strong innate desire to form relationships with the external world. That they might form deep emotional relationships with intelligent machines is utterly believable. (The recent film Her which featured a highly intelligent operating system forming a relationship with its male owner covers exactly this ground.)
Caleb learns more and more about what is going on. He discovers that Kyoto is a robot and sees unanimated bodies of earlier model robots. He finds out that he did not win a competition but was chosen by Nathan not for his IT skills but for his personality and personal circumstances, for example, Caleb is heterosexual and single (which makes him vulnerable to female attention). Nathan has also developed Ava to appeal to Caleb by basing Ava’s general physical appearance on Caleb’s Internet pornography searches.
Caleb is fascinated by Nathan’s AI techniques but disturbed the way he is being manipulated. After he has already become seriously emotionally involved with Ava, he is naturally upset when Nathan tells him that if Ava fails the Turing test she will be updated with her memory wiped. This will destroy her as the personality he knows, in fact, be the AI equivalent of death. Consequently, Caleb plots with Ava for the pair of them to escape . In fact, this is the real Turing test which Nathan has devised, namely to see if Ava can be convincingly human enough to trick Caleb into helping her escape, an escape Nathan smugly but wrongly believes is impossible.
Ava makes choices for herself in a way that is both human and inhuman. Her final actions at the research centre would be seen as psychopathic in a human because she single-mindedly seeks her ends without regard to what she has to do to attain them. Ava has manipulated Caleb without any emotional investment on her part. But at the same time she has a fundamental component of consciousness, namely, her own desired ends which go beyond mere mechanical programming. Ava wants to escape to satisfy her curiosity as well as to retain her existence as Ava. She is not a quasi-human but something new, neither insensate machine nor organic life.
The film ends with Ava showing what a difference there is between a machine intelligence and a human one. Caleb does not escape nor Nathan live to see the end of his experiment. Only Ava leaves the research station and leaves it without any sense of loss or shame at her betrayal of Caleb. But because the character is a robot her behaviour does not seem heinous as it would do in a human. It merely seems as innocent of blame as a predatory animal killing its prey.
The performances of Gleeson, Isaacs and Vikander are all strong, not least because the film is very well cast. Gleeson has an appropriately shambling geekiness and clumsiness in his relationship with other people and Isaac is a dominant, brooding, psychopathic presence. But the real star is Vikander. She is weirdly convincing as a being who is at least half the way to being human. Her realisation of the role makes the robot flicker in and out of her performance. Vikander, a professional dancer, gives Ava a fluid grace of moment which does not seem quite natural; she speaks in a pleasantly modulated and controlled way but with little variation of emotion; her face is not expressionless but there is a very restricted range of expression. The overall effect is of an ethereal other-worldly being. The film is worth seeing for her performance alone.
ROBERT HENDERSON is the film critic of QR. He blogs at Living in a Madhouse