EX MACHINA: The Perils of A.I. Delivered in Chilly Style

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Ex Machina, from screenwriter-director Alex Garland, is the latest take on the perils of AI. And in the view of Bennett Stein aka The GOOD4NOTHING CONNOISSEUR, it is one of the best depictions of it so far, that left him in a “suspended state of “Zen Cocaine.”

The film — now screening at the Landmark in West LA — is also stunningly stylish, set almost entirely in the Juvet Landscape Hotel in the wilds of West Norway, that was built five years ago as part of a government initiative to develop 18 National Tourist Routes highlighting the country’s modern architecture and its dramatic landscapes.

Image courtesy of Juvet Landscape Hotel (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Designed by Norwegian architects  and opened five years ago, the hotel is a gem of minimal Modern rusticity — seven cabins made of Norwegian larch, buffed concrete, steel and misted glass nestled in forested hills — that translates very well into a techie’s Cabinet of Horrors.

  But it also functions as a seductive advertisement for the hotel, whose rooms will doubtless be hard to book in the coming months as architecture buffs beat a path to West Norway.

  Meanwhile, read Bennett Stein’s review below, and check out the movie.

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The GOOD4NOTHING CONNOISSEUR viewed “Ex Machina” at KCRW’s First Take and will not be recovering any time soon. Please think of this film review as the contemporary permutation of a primal scream. For the movie is one pulse-pumping, cerebral roller coaster ride. No exaggeration.

“Ex Machina” is shot in Norway, standing in for the Alaska of the story, where the Juvet Landscape Hotel stands in for the research facility that is the home of a pet project by Blue Book’s (a stand-in for a Google) hermitic arch-master-overlord, who is so smart and so rich that the only way to not succumb to predictable humans and boredom is to make an advanced race of femme-bots to surround himself with.

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Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (Oscar Issac) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This guy, named Nathan, is camped out thousands of miles from the nearest human settlement, at the foot of mountains containing the last runny-nosed glaciers of Earth.

Oscar Isaac, unleashing terrific character work as Nathan, is the ruthless Cali-style (no one rolls an eyeball or says dude like this cat), studly genius behind this new line of perfect lady.

He has ostensibly selected his best computer programmer, Caleb, to come stay for a week at his Eden to determine if one cute femme-bot, Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a sincere and sweet but super-intelligent manner of flirting, can pass the Turing Test, which is a test designed by Alan Turing.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson)

Alan Turing’s little test, that he called the GOD TEST, was designed to determine a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

As it turns out – SPOILER ALERT – Ava proves herself more than a match for her human creators.

She embodies the perils inherent in A.I. as well as a reasonably fresh spin; namely, that the Turing Test should be up or downgraded to the CUPID TEST, to determine whether an A.I. machine is capable of the intricacies and vanities and greed of a hungry, human heart, or um, er–the sassy, hot-smoking’ style of an ultimate love machine.

The film opens with the mild-mannered computer programmer Caleb “winning” a trip to Blue Book founder’s lair and being helicoptered to a remote mountain setting where he is dropped and left to find his way to a woodland-surrounded compound. He is let in by remote voice-identifying intercom and finds the company owner hitting a kickboxing bag on a wooden deck. Then he is shown to his windowless, subterranean cell, all lacquered concrete, mood lighting, and mini-fridge stocked with bottled water. He is then ushered to a crypt-like space that could be a sauna designed by Peter Zumthor.

caleb and nathan on bed

And that’s where Nathan initiates good-hearted Caleb’s relationship with Ava, a curiously alluring – yet naggingly repulsive — creation made of exposed skeletal system, LED lighting, bio-rebar and yet beautiful face and hands, and a very warm, inquisitive voice. You ride this troubling duality through most of the film.

As Ava starts to engage with our young “contest winner,” it’s as if they are on a controlled experimental series of dates, dates that transpire between thick, bulletproof glass walls. The proceedings, one feels, are closely monitored, if not controlled, by the demonic, omnipresent Nathan.

It’s as if the robot sweetheart, Ava, is on display in a high tech zoo. Caleb sits on wooden benches while Ava, paces and comes and goes like some teenage niece of the owner of the house. She sometimes kneels right up to the edge of the glass. You feel a simultaneous tugging at your heart, and a trickle of bile rising in your throat.

ex-machina Eva lying down

Alex Garland does an exquisite job of riding you on that edge, holding you in a state of suspended discomfort, or upset. You feel creeped out while simultaneously in a state of being centered.

I would title the buzz I contracted while watching “Ex Machina” something like being in a suspended state of “Zen Cocaine:” a duel sense of having taken pharmaceutical speed while feeling that warm sensation you get after reading just two pages of Hermann Hesse’s mystical novel about the Buddha, “Siddhartha.”

This delicate emotional ballet of being split and thus aloft in two quite opposing emotional states was effected in part by the uncannily designed space, the retreat where you are not sure if you’re in some mogul’s groovy modernist crib, or in the advanced cancer research/experimental bio clinic of some diabolical Dr. Frankenstein, or the luxury wing of some convicted felonious billionaires’ country club prison.

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For this space acts as a supporting character, an artificial paradise, designed to trick you into a state of openness so that you can then accept the next disturbing, morally challenging component of the ride. And thus, you are off on your merry way, vigorously rooting for the love affair.

Boy meets girl, girl turns out to be a droid with a sexy cute way about her, boy commits to girl, i.e., dreams of marrying her, and off we go down the bunny hole of terror because, yes, we have taken the bait.

Then, the rest of the intimate, narrative ride, you are also concerned with escape plans, but of course, you want to escape with some sort of moral prize, like, shall we say, pulling off a rescue of this girl thing. Sometimes a good ride, or a good movie, is just surrendering to the state of being a sucker. What’s essential to know is that this little moving picture will reduce you to a rat in the maze of your secret self.

It is Dystopia as Paradise, or vice versa. But don’t worry, the Vodka served is strictly thrice-brewed, single-batch artisanal/chilled to an optimal 42 degrees, and the sushi, yes, is totally wild caught and sliced to perfection by a beautiful Japanese femme-bot in a sheer ivory dress, who speaks no English. Be forewarned, you will contract hypothermia but your fever will pull you through.

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All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of A24.