Artificial intelligence at the movies – to be or to pretend to be?

From the man who brought us the story of 28 Days Later comes a new sci-fi spectacular, Ex Machina. Alex Garland’s directorial debut tells the story of Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), who after winning a staff competition gets the chance to spend a week with the genius CEO of his company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is working on a new top secret project – building an actual female AI. Ava (Alicia Vikander), as Nathan has named her, resembles a human being through her face, limbs and speech and apparent thought capacities and yet is, in fact, a robot with no actual beating heart. Thus begins the Turing test initiated by Nathan and involving Caleb, in order to assess if Ava the A.I really does manifest artificial intelligence.

The topic of artificial intelligence has been swarming around the world for the last few years, and yet it is in 2014 that it started to be treated in a somewhat noticeably different way in cinema. Think about it – Her, Under the Skin and today’s hot pick off the press, Ex Machina. What do they all have in common? Got it yet? That’s right, all the robots are female. Why? Could it be anything to do with the recent uproar of feminism? Maybe, but let’s not diverge too much from the current affair. What I do know is that although these films focus on the same topic essentially, each one declines the subject of artificial intelligence rather differently.

The Academy Award-winning Her tells the unconventional heartwarming love story of a man and his computer. In the near future, when traditional romance seems to have run its course, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) develops a relationship with intelligent and seductive operating system, Samantha. What’s so refreshing about this film is that it seems that this new form of love affair is barely considered out of the ordinary.

The A.I, Samantha, is humanized – for the most part thanks to Scarlett Johansson’s extremely suave contribution – and it is not her existence or human nature that being questioned but merely her perhaps slight physical disadvantage. Although in modern day Bristol forming a relationship with Siri would seem quite worrying, you can’t help but be touched by Theodore and Samantha’s undeniable bond in Her. It goes to show that acting can be rewarding through more than inquisitive facial expressions.

No rest for the wicked, Johansson returns in the astounding sci-fi thriller Under the Skin. As opposed to our other lab rats, Under the Skin does not openly discuss artificial intelligence. The film depicts the journey of an unnamed woman through the Scottish roads, picking up men and peeling off her own skin, quite literally. The script does not explain who or what she is clearly, yet through the many absorbing and haunting scenes one can conclude that she is indeed another form of existence, perhaps of artificial intelligence.

As opposed to Her, in which artificial intelligence was the centre of attention, celebrated but also pointed at with insistence, here we have a case in which the A.I fools the human race by borrowing one of their carcasses and draws the mere mortals (all male, let’s point out) into her own world. Clearly distancing herself not only by her gender but also by her biological and even metaphysical nature, the woman is not necessarily seeking human recognition or acceptance, and yet is by no means going through the motions quietly in the slightest. The result is a fascinating film on the nature of existence, focusing on the odyssey of mysterious black haired red-lipped Johansson.

Ex Machina paints a slightly different picture for A.I. Seemingly the most straightforward of our three films, it focuses on the study of A.I in the form of the literal containment and experimentation on the subject, thus attempting to draw conclusions from said observations. However, through the relationships developed between the main characters, humans and robots, it is the film that asks the most questions about artificial intelligence.

How do you define humanity? Can one pretend to how to think? How to feel? All these are questions that arise at the end of the screening, as through a brilliant script and outstanding performances from the main trio, there are many more nuances to the actual artificial aspect of A.I than had been previously demonstrated in cinema. Ex Machina doesn’t question the possibility of artificial intelligence but it explores the lengths to which it can be developed, thus actually denouncing human nature’s flaws.

Focusing on these three films effectively provides an interesting outlook on the cinematic approach to A.I as each plot portrays the new form of intelligence very differently: In Her it is welcomed into society with open arms and provides an optimistic outlook on the future. Under the Skin doesn’t even believe it exists; and A.I is depicted as a horror film kind of “alien”. Ex Machina asks all the in-between questions about this new life form, but also investigates what consciousness and intelligence really mean for humanity as well.

Originally published on Epigram

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