This was clearly the best of the three science fiction films I’m reviewing tonight and the one which most deserves to be called science fiction instead of sci-fi. It’s sad to see a frequent description of the film as ‘smart science fiction’ as that infers that the genre nowadays fails to be smart by definition instead of by frequency.
It’s a neat intellectual puzzle, written by Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, who also debuted as a director here. It revolves around the Turing test, which can be considered passed only if an artificial intelligence can convince an observer through conversation that it’s human.
The setup is that a billionaire CEO runs a competition within his company, apparently for an employee to spend a week with him on his massive estate. The company is Blue Book, which has multiple meanings but to most people will translate to something similar to and as successful as Google and Facebook put together. The CEO is Nathan Bateman, who exudes the confidence of a young genius who’s already conquered the world. The winner is Caleb Smith, a talented young computer programmer, who promptly has to sign a non-disclosure agreement because there’s something else going on here.
Once done, Bateman tells Smith that he’s here to be the human component in a Turing test, tasked with judging whether Ava, an AI he’s created, could pass that test. A number of flags immediately arise, the most obvious of which is raised by Caleb himself, namely that Ava is obviously a humanoid robot, given that her arms, legs and torso are transparent and show her inner cabling. If he knows that she’s artificial, how can he conduct a fair Turing test?
So, of course, we start asking questions in our heads. The obvious setup is that Ava isn’t the real focus of the test, which is surely Kyoko, the Japanese housemaid who speaks no English. However, that’s a little too obvious and she doesn’t actually speak at all, so we dig deeper and become rather engaged in this intellectual puzzle. Given that Caleb isn’t stupid, he realises this too, especially given that this wonder of a research facility is apparently subject to convenient power cuts. So Caleb asks these questions as we ask these questions. My better half and I came up with a few theories, which to my mind hold water. The good news is that the one that Garland pursues wasn’t any of them but it still makes complete sense. To my mind, that’s the best sort of puzzle, one whose solution isn’t obvious but is clear and concise once revealed.
Garland is clearly the star of the show, having both written the script and directed the film. There’s a lot of clever detail here, so read the Wikipedia page and the IMDb trivia. I caught a few of these little details, like the riffing on the alien tones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a number of references to the man becomes god motif highlighted by Robert Oppenheimer when he built the atomic bomb. However, I missed other references and was blind to quite a lot of it, making this a learning experience as well as an enjoyable viewing.
However, Garland isn’t the only star of the show. The technical aspects are consistently strong, though I didn’t feel like I was watching a Stanley Kubrick film as I get the impression I was occasionally supposed to. More obviously, there are four actors with prominent parts who all prove very capable indeed.
Domhnall Gleeson from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gets a lot more opportunity here as a bright and awestruck young programmer than he did as General Hux, the commander of Starkiller Base, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though I’m sure he made a lot more money from the latter. He had a wonderful 2015, also starring in Brooklyn and co-starring in The Revenant, meaning that he made four pictures with multiple Oscar nominations. He’s a precocious young man here, uncomfortable for much of his time in a rich man’s house but willing to continue with the experiment he’s tasked to perform. The way he moves in and out of control is fascinating.
Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davies is arguably even better here. He was also in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, playing ace pilot Poe Dameron, but I didn’t even recognise him here. He’s very believable as a child prodigy and a rich man, mildly eccentric and socially awkward but very direct. He’s often a little the worse for drink and often inappropriate but he’s always in charge. He has the beard and glasses of a nerd but the muscles of a jock and he capably walks the line between the two, making him at once predator and prey.
Alicia Vikander from The Man from UNCLE plays the robotic young lady at the heart of their interaction. She’s calm and composed, but obviously thoughtful and with a clear agenda of her own. She’s also both prey and predator, stuck behind glass in an experiment she doesn’t like but notably able to turn Caleb’s questions around on him.
Backing them up in a much smaller role is Sonoya Mizuno, a ballerina and model who debuted on film as Kyoko. She does a good job too; she merely had much less to do.
The heart of the film revolves around artificial intelligence and the Turing test. The questions asked are good ones, examining what consciousness means in a very different way to Chappie. This is old school science fiction, often reminiscent of Frankenstein, but with some modern twists to keep things up to date for the 21st century, such as how things go when an AI turns the Turing test round on a human being. There are also side issues raised that are well worth debate, like the idea of using search data from a large enough search engine as a map of how people think or whether there can be consciousness without a sexual component. I’m sure both of those ideas will be used more and more over the next few decades.
I definitely plan to revisit this movie in a year or so to see how it stands up now that I know what happens. I’m acutely aware that there’s a meta level here with Alex Garland using me as the human component in an imaginative Turing test by tasking me with figuring out which and how many of his four characters are really human and which are artificial. If I’m rating this film highly today on the basis that he successfully manipulated me, then I’m likely to lower that rating on a second viewing. If I’m rating it highly because I appreciate how he played with these ideas, then I’m likely to keep it high, unless flaws become obvious with a second look. I’m eager to see which it’ll be. ~~ Hal C F Astell