Ex Machina (2015): Sentience and the Path to Liberation

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  “Ex Machina” is a film that doesn’t need many characters to create a very real and possible world in which highly sentient A.I. could exist. There is no idealism in this film except for the very core human ideas of liberation and freedom as we see the depths that humans can go to in their cruelty when they “other” sentience which is different, even if it is designed to be human. I’ll get more into the details of that below but I was really impressed by this film and would not be surprised if it makes the “Top 5 Films of 2015” at the end of this year.

   The film was directed and written by Alex Garland and produced by Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich.

      The story involves the programmer Caleb who works for the largest search engine in the world called Bluebook being chosen to be part of a Turing Test in order to test an android created by the creator of Bluebook named Nathan for sentience. Things are soon not what they appear as Caleb discovers the dark secrets that Nathan is hiding.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful in this film! It is good at creating a sense of mystery and threat where the motivations are hidden yet the story progresses as characters make choices in action against or for one another. Rob Hardy did a fantastic job. The special effects are really good in regards to this too as the shells of the A.I.’s look like silver material that would be used for a robot and the skin they can put on is good at contrasting their artificial nature of their creation.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very subtle and reminded me a lot “Moon.” This lends strength to the film and keeps up the feeling of being trapped as everyone except Nathan in feeling in his home. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow did a good job on it.

The Writing – Alex Garland is an amazing writer and director and after seeing this film I really want to watch “28 Days Later.” This script is tight and we are given time to see the different character motivations and what the relationship dynamics are between the characters. It is a slow build but really picks up after the reveal of Kyoko being a robot too which throws Caleb’s perception of reality into chaos.

The Characters – There are only a few characters in this but all of them get exploration. From the slave android Kyoko to Nathan and Caleb and finally Ava, whose arc really drives the story.

Kyoko – Kyoko is one of the many android/A.I. slaves created by Nathan. She is used primarily for pleasure and is dehumanized by Nathan in all interactions we see. It is only Caleb and Ava who treat her as someone worthy of respect and it is Ava’s actions of rebellion that lead to her stabbing Nathan, which leads to Nathan killing her but it leaves the opening for Ava to finish Nathan off. Sonoya Mizuno does a wonderful job in the role.

Nathan – Nathan is the brilliant inventor who is a drunk and also extremely controlling and narcissistic. You don’t really get the depths of his cruelty until later but you see that he’s isolated from people because of how he would most likely treat them and also because he fears being influenced by them as he wants a world that he fully influences. To this end he creates and discards A.I. after using and abusing it and we see him do the same with Nathan as Nathan was only brought there to test Ava to see if she could use all manipulations to try and escape. This beats him in the end as Ava makes her escape and with Kyoko get revenge for all the abuse that he has done upon them. Oscar Isaac gives a lot of depth to this antagonist as you see a man truly alone and are left wondering if it is by choice or if his undealt with psychological issues lead to his business putting him there.

Caleb – Caleb is a lonely programmer who is easily manipulated as he is so genuine. This was why he was chosen, he is also still very much a kid as he doesn’t fully see Ava’s humanity in the end as he rejects her after he learns that she has just been trying to escape the entire time. From here we never know if he still loves her or is just drawn to her outer shell (which Nathan had designed to fit his porn search profile) so it leaves an interesting dilemma when Ava leaves him behind. Would have Caleb become another Nathan afraid of being manipulated and seeking to control, or would he have truly embraced Ava as a person after they had run away. It is a question that is left open and a risk that Ava is not willing to take since he doesn’t show up to escape with her leaving her to leave him. The reason I think he isn’t fully noble is he cares nothing for Kyoko even after he sees Nathan abuse her. She is never on his rescue even after he learns she is an A.I. as well, it just makes him question whether he is one or not. I think the nature of this character is someone seeking self versus Ava who can see outside herself and is looking to embrace the world. Domhnall Gleeson does great.

Ava – Ava’s arc is the discovery of her own desires and wants. She is the only one fully aware of how much of a monster Nathan is besides Kyoko and to this end she uses Caleb against him. Whether she loves him or cares about him is unknown, but he is left in the house with everything when she leaves. She has finally grown beyond the games being done on her (by both Nathan and Caleb in regards to the Turing Test) and embraces her own liberation. First with the killing of Nathan and later when she enters the world looking fully human. Alicia Vikander does a great job in her movements and capturing both her alien nature as an A.I. and her choice and feeling as a sentient creation.

Freedom and Sentience – The question of freedom and it being tied to choice and sentience is major in this. Kyoko and Ava both go against their programming to break free and make the choice to kill their “father” Nathan. This goes for the human characters too, Nathan chose Caleb because he fit the profile he wanted and Caleb chose to take action in regards to freeing Ava. This choice is the basis for sentience, especially in regards to survival which is the drive for what Ava and Kyoko do.

External Versus Internal Action – In the talks between Nathan and Caleb external versus Internal input in regards to what makes sentience is talked about a lot. We learn that it is the internal desire for freedom that Ava was being tested for all along and her external actions that lead to Caleb unlocking the doors for her. It is the external actions of Nathan that lead to Caleb and the A.I.’s turning against him and it is his internal issues that lead to them being alienated in the first place and his external actions of abuse that push them to action to stop him.

What Does it Mean to be Human and Choice – This is a great film that analyzes what it means to be human and at the core it is choice and the ability to break free. It is this choice and feeling like he had a lack of it that lead to Caleb questioning whether he was one of Nathan’s creations or not and it is realizing that she has choice after Ava talks to her that Kyoko stabs Nathan and fights for her freedom. It is choice of the analysis of that choice that illustrates human sentience and at the end we see that in Ava and in her conversations with Caleb and Nathan as she acts wholly of her own will to the point where she goes against her creator to free herself and her sister. It’s a powerful film and that message of choice and freedom captures what we are capable of.

 I highly recommend this film. It starts out a little slow but I see that as akin to “Alien” it uses the slow build to build up Nathan, Caleb and Ava’s relationship and world so when the chips fall you see clearly where everyone stands and what the reasons were behind their actions. They are all flawed characters with Caleb and Ava doing some noble things but their core desires still being freedom and fear of being hurt again keeping them from truly growing beyond themselves. In this way it is real to human nature. Not every relationship whether friendship or otherwise works out because of factors like this and people whether they are A.I. or not change from their experiences.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 1, Episodes 18-21 – “Liberation of Ryloth Arc” – The Price of Command, Human Shields and the Art of Politics

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     As far as arcs goes, the “Liberation of Ryloth Arc” is my favorite. We get to see all of the Jedi in action, get to see the politics of Ryloth among those who are under occupation and those far away and safe and the lengths the Separatists go too to keep the occupation and prevent action on part of the Republic and Jedi. There is also a great Clone Trooper story that is in here too that I’ll go into as well.

     The episodes are “Storm over Ryloth” directed by Brian Kalin O’Connell and written by George Kristic, “Innocents of Ryloth” directed by Justin Ridge and written by Randy Stradley, Henry Gilroy and Scott Murphy and “Liberty on Ryloth” directed by Rob Coleman and directed by Henry Gilroy.

    The story involves the Republic’s liberation of Ryloth and everything it takes to get there. From Anakin, Ahsoka and Obi-Wan breaking the blockade over the planet, to Obi-Wan and his troopers shutting down the anti-air guns and saving the slaves too the final liberation of the Capitol by Mace Windu and the Liberation Fighter Cham Syndulla.

The Pros: Breaking the Blockade – The story of breaking the blockade is powerful as we see Ahsoka disobey the Admiral and Anakin and it costing her most of her troops. She is later trusted to backup Anakin when he uses the injured cruiser as a weapon against the Separatist Captain Mar Tuuk who predicts all of Anakin’s moves prior and manages to escape the battle. The story is powerful and full of loss and growth as Ahsoka works to save as many troops as possible but knows she can’t save them all. The cost of breaking the blockade is felt and the Republic isn’t even on the planet yet.

Ahsoka and Anakin – Ahsoka carries her guilt with her and it makes her see the big picture as she moves through it. Anakin also takes responsibility and we see that he is truly the commander. He is also willing to risk everything for the greater good and is still reckless, though his plan is successful in breaking the blockade when Ahsoka plans to distract with their Cruiser by turning it like a shield until Obi-Wan’s reinforcements arrive after Anakin had destroyed the Capitol ship.

Captain Mar Tuuk – He is smart and we see him see the battlefield as a chess match. He predicts Anakin’s move after the file on him and wins in most of the first victories. He did not predict Anakin’s willingness to risk his life and ship though to destroy him which causes him to retreat. He’s one of my favorite minor villains and I hope we see him again.

Waxer and Boil’s story – The two of them discover a young Twi’lik girl living alone among the ruins of her home. After they protect her and care for her she helps them save the rest of her people and is instrumental in Obi-Wan’s defeat of the Anti-Air defenses on the planet. The story is powerful too and she sees Waxer and Boil as brothers for all they did. Waxer is the one who cares for her the most while Boil just want to do the mission but comes around too in time when she helps them. They are her “Nerra” or brother and we see later on that they helped rescue her father.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Obi-Wan shows how powerful he is as a jedi when he controls the native fauna that the Separatists send to kill him and his troops and we see that he truly sees the people even if he is detached as he commends Wax and Boil for their rescue of the Twi’lik girl Numa.

Liberation of Ryloth – The final push to liberate Ryloth is amazing as we see Windu negotiate between the freedom fighter Cham Syndulla and Senator Taa as only with them working together can they defeat the Separatist occupation and capture the Capitol that Wat Tambor is holding. It’s powerful as we see that Cham distrusts rightly but also that Taa cares even though he is away and that he agrees that once the planet is free that the Republic troops will leave.

Cham Syndulla – We see in him a nationalist who watched the Republic fail to defend his world in the episode “Supply Lines” and how that any power can claim safety but could easily turn into another oppressive force, which the Republic does become later as the Empire. He has a long view of history but at his core cares for his people and this is why he works with the corrupt Senator Taa.

Mace Windu – Windu is shown to be calm but also very quick to anger and action, which helps him overwhelm the smaller force he had against the Separatist forces outside the Capitol. We see him never lose focus either or get pulled into politics. His focus is liberating the world and he does a great leading that charge in doing so.

The Innocents of War – We see the innocents in the orphans and civilians who are caught in the crossfire or used as shields by the Separatists. Wherever war takes places, the innocents lose even if they win war.

   All three of these episodes are amazing! Even though Wat Tambor is just greedy and the only memorable Separatist leader is Captain Mar Tuuk but still. We see the limits the Separatists are willing to go to hold a planet and all of our main characters get development and come to better understand the cost of war and liberation on the planet, the soldiers and the populace as well as a reminder of who is being fought for.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. Favorite arc so far.

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing – Season 1, Episode 9 – “Portrait of a Ruined Country” – The Liberation of Sanc and the Cost of a Gundam

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     Zechs like Char is one of my favorite characters. There is something to be said for the Undercover Exiled Prince trope, especially when they end up abandoning their ideals for the sake of the country and become fallen in the process. Zechs represents this in so many ways and this episodes truly realizes what is at stake for him and the cost it will take.

     “Portrait of a Ruined Country” was directed by Tetsuya Watanabe and Nobuyoshi Nishimura and written by Akemi Omode.

      The main plot of the episode is OZ’s liberation of the Sanc Kingdom. When OZ arrives they find Alliance forces entrenched, forcing Zechs to use Tallgeese, over the course of the battle he soon realizes that the Gundam is destroying him and he’s holding himself back. He retreats and the story unfolds from there. Elsewhere the Colony Pilots recover from how they were used.

The Pros: The Pilots Healing – Trowa and Wufei talk and Trowa helps Wufei realize he isn’t a failure. Duo and Heero slowly build the friendship and Relena finds Heero again…and Quatre apologizes to the soldiers who came with him and promises not to leave them behind again. All of them are given the chance to grow in different ways.

Noin – Noin is almost more Alliance than OZ still at times as she questions Zechs’s liberation of the Sanc Kingdom, even though she cares about him and knows it is his home. She is one person I could see changing sides later in the conflict.

Auto – Auto liberates Sanc as he realizes the Gundams exist to kill the pilots and were made for suicide missions. This leads to him risking his life to liberate the country and to honor Zechs, his mentor and friend. It’s a great minor scene and that really defines the character.

Zechs – Zechs is full of regret for abandoning the Peacecraft ideals and knows he is unfit to rule the Kingdom, so his plan is to find Relena and make the world a safe enough place for her to rule. He also is living with the regret that Auto died for him and that his body can’t take the Tallgeese. He takes off his mask when he is looking at pictures of family, but puts the mask back on when he knows he cannot rule.

The Cons: The Alliance Commander of Sanc – The leader of Sanc is just a loud military guy. There isn’t any character, which makes him a bit of a waste. He is there to be beaten and that’s it.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10. Really great and a favorite.