Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Artificial Intelligence in Two Films

I saw two films where artificial intelligence played a major role in the plot.

Ex Machina starring Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson & Alicia Vikander; directed by Alex Garland; (2015) - Official Website
Avengers:  Age of Ultron starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Rufalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner & James Spader; directed by Joss Whedon; (2015) - Official Website

I saw Ex Machina at the Vogue and Avengers at the Balboa.

The title of Ex Machina refers to the Latin phrase deus ex machina.  The literal translation means "gods from the machine" but it has come to refer to a plot device whereby a seemingly intractable problem is resolved by the introduction of a heretofore unmentioned character or unbelievable event which seems contrived.  An example would be one of the Superman films with Christopher Reeve.  I can't remember which one but Lois Lane is killed and Superman flies around the world in the opposite direction of the Earth's rotation.  He flies near the speed of light so that he can go back in time to the point when Lois is alive and thereby giving Superman time to save Lois.

That reference is a little strained with respect to the film but the film is open to quite a few interpretations.  Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a programmer at a Google like company that has over 90% of the internet search engine market.  He wins a lottery at work to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Issac), the reclusive CEO of Caleb's company.  When he arrives at the remote but high-tech estate, Caleb observes strange behavior from Nathan but ultimately his curiosity is too much.  After signing some unusually restrictive non-disclosure agreements, Caleb is informed that Nathan is working on an artificial intelligence (AI) project and that Caleb will administer the Turing Test.  The Turing Test is a test to see if a machine can exhibit sufficient evidence of intelligence to fool the tester into thinking it is human or more precisely, to cause the tester to be unable to distinguish between machine and human.

Caleb is well qualified for this because he studied AI in school.  He is surprised however when he administers the test.  He is allowed to see the AI entity which is housed in an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Ava has a human face but the rest of her is obviously robotic.  Caleb questions the validity of the test if he knows Ava is a robot but Nathan assures him that Ava can pass the standard Turing Test and that the more challenging test will be if Caleb thinks of Ava as human even if he can see that she is not.

The film progresses in a series of vignettes:  Caleb administering the test, followed by a debriefing with Nathan who is exhibiting signs of mental instability.  Periodically, a silent Japanese woman named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) appears as a house servant and possibly Nathan's lover.  Her silence is explained by Nathan as being a byproduct of her inability to speak English.  That makes it easier for her to abide by the NDA terms.

Not only does Caleb begin to think of Ava as human but he falls in love with her.  She convinces him that Nathan is insane and dangerous.  Their interviews are recorded but Ava is able to reverse the flow of power into the compound which trips off the generator that supplies power.  During these outages, when the recording devices are inoperative, Ava confides her fears and concerns to Caleb who in turn withholds Ava's comments from Nathan.

The film has a claustrophobic feel because Nathan's compound is completely underground or at least has no windows.  Ava is kept a prisoner.  There is always a shatterproof piece of glass between Caleb and Ava.  She is also restricted to an area that Caleb cannot access.  Combined with a ominous soundtrack and Nathan's bizarre behavior, Caleb has reason to be concerned.  When Ava tells him not trust Nathan during one of the power outages, Caleb quickly complies.

Ex Machina raises many questions but for me the primary one is that if humans are unethical and imperfect, why would the AI systems we create not be unethical and imperfect.  You can talk about Asimov's Laws of Robotics but as they say, laws are made to be broken.  The film really hits its stride as the audience (at least me) starts to empathize with Ava...just like Caleb.  Of course, I know that I'm watching a film with an actress named Alicia Vikander playing the role of Ava but this was a film that was easy to suspend disbelief.  I quickly found myself identifying with Caleb's character and even wondering what I would do in his situation.

I won't give away the ending of the film but will say that I was surprised as I watched it but thinking about it afterwards, it was easily predicted.  I think I wanted to believe something was going to happen and when it didn't, it surprised me.  Ex Machina is one of my favorite films of the year.  Oscar Issac is developing quite a career since Inside Llewyn Davis which is about as far from the role Nathan as one can get.


I wasn't very interested in seeing Avengers:  Age of Ultron but I was in the neighborhood of the Balboa & had some time.  As I wrote in 2012 about The Avengers, "My favorite parts of the film occurred when the superheroes bicker with each other which is another way of saying Robert Downey Jr's snarky Tony Stark is the best thing about the film."  I could say the same thing about Age of Ultron.

Actually, I think I liked Ultron more than the original film.  The Avengers still bicker but now they are a team.  The highlight of the film was a party where they drunkenly take turns trying to lift Thor's war hammer while playfully teasing each other.  The actors seem to have settled into their roles which isn't surprising since this is the 11th MCU film.  The screenwriters have added some touches to give the characters a little more depth.  Black Widow has a thing for Dr. Bruce Banner (aka Hulk).  We also learn that she is sterile because her original spymasters wanted to make sure she never had children which could test her loyalties. Hawkeye has a wife & kids that no one except the Black Widow knew about.  Thor & Captain America have a serious bromance going on.  They even fight their battles as if they were long-time basketball teammates running a fast break.

All this adds some texture to the film but at 141 minutes, Ultron (like its predecessor) can be quite a slog.  The final battle has Ultron lifting a chunk of a fictitious Eastern European city into the air with the end goal of dropping the asteroid size piece from such a height as to cause a cataclysmic, species ending event (like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs).  This scene took forever and I was antsy to leave the theater before it was finished.  Also, as the franchise continues it becomes clear that a passing knowledge of Marvel Comics is necessary to fully appreciate the films.  At the end of the film, they introduced some "new Avengers" who, it appeared were well-established in the MCU.  The first film I saw in the series was Iron Man in 2008.  My enjoyment diminishes with every subsequent film I see in the series.  What the hell are Infinity Stones which I have heard described as the MCU McGuffin?

I should mention the AI angle in Ultron.  Stark & Banner create an AI entity which is really a trap laid out for the Avengers.  That AI entity is Ultron (nicely voiced by James Spader) who first seeks physical form as an Iron Man like machine and later forces a Korean doctor into giving it human form.  The Avengers capture the biological entity before it is fully developed and implant Stark's program (JARVIS) into it.  Thus the Vision (a new hybrid entity) is created.  By the way, the Vision can lift Thor's hammer with ease.  Actually, Captain America budged the hammer which I suppose has some significance.  I guess I should also note that the Vision is further enhanced because he has one of the Infinity Stones implanted in his forehead.  It's the one from Loki's scepter as if I can appreciate the difference between the stones.  This is all very tedious to keep track of and even more tedious to write.

Robert Downey Jr. still has the best part as Tony Stark.  I sense that Chris Hemsworth is also injecting some humor into Thor and he assumes this great, authoritative speech pattern with Thor's dialogue which can be played straight or for laughs.  Mark Rufalo attempts to give Bruce Banner some poignancy which although effective seems out of place in a film like Avengers.

With that, I will say that if I had it over to do again, I would have skipped Avengers:  Age of Ultron and gone home to get an early night's sleep.

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