Like Sesame Street, today’s letter will be “D” for disturbing.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young computer programmer coding away to his hearts content for the world’s largest fictitious Internet Search company, “Bluenote”. As the film commences, he soundlessly wins a prize to visit the eccentric but brilliant owner of the company, “Nathan” (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded mountain retreat.
One helicopter ride and lonely walk by the stream later, Caleb arrives at the retreat, all minimalist cubes suspended over a stunning alpine landscape.
His initial welcome is as sparse and barren as the landscape but no matter, he is soon put to work once an all encompassing NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) has been reluctantly signed.
Caleb is there to carry out a “Turing test” on Nathan’s latest creation, a humanoid robot and the AI built into her design. This represents a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Simple enough you would think but in “real” life, incredibly hard to achieve.
Caleb meets “Ava” and it’s immediately obvious this is something completely different. A robot that essentially looks, talks and acts like a human but with a lot of inner workings on display.
Initially dispassionate, Caleb is drawn to this new creature, clearly noticing by her beautiful face and shapely physique more than the wires and flashing diodes.
Where the story goes from here would be spoiling the plot but safe to say, it is unlikely a tick box is completed and Caleb leaves by helicopter following a hearty breakfast the next day.
The story is played like a stage play, with very few characters. The set is a mixture of location and studio work, all minimalist bunker style rooms with glowing red/blue lights to indicate whether access to areas is provided or not.
The creation of “Ava” is beautifully handled by the effects team, helped greatly by a superb, quiet measured and intelligent performance by the very attractive Alicia Vikander. Isaac who looks very different from previous roles with a full beard and curiously looking very like Zach Galifianakis, plays a difficult part well. All sharp edges and acting just a bit “off” from normal.
Gleeson, who seems to be everywhere these days, puts in another good turn, all wide eyed yet very bright innocent, until his character is drawn further into the oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere, along with the audience.
Arguably a sci-fi thriller, the story really centres on what it is to be human, what makes us “us”. If we can make something in our own image and with the ability to think, does that make that creation human, subject to our good and bad behavioural traits?
Deep stuff and despite the “13 rating (NZ)” this is a tense and at times, quite disturbing watch.
Director and writer Alex Garland has continued his love for edgy films, he certainly does not take the path well trodden here.
An intelligent and troubling look over the edge of the AI void, a precipice we appear to be heading towards all too rapidly, whether as a race we are ready or not.
If this film is anything to go by, next time you ask “Siri” for directions, remember to be nice.