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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The 10th Doctor – Series 2, Episode 2 – “New Earth” – The Value of Life and Personhood

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   “New Earth” is an episode with a lot of good ideas and character moments, but can’t seem to know what tone it wants to take, which brings it down. It is still a good episode and one I would definitely recommend. You get to know Tennant’s 10th Doctor more and see how Rose and 10’s relationship is becoming more romantic than friendship. It also has a great appearance by Cassandra and a cameo by The Face of Boe and tries to deal with the issues of personhood and life.

    The episode was directed by James Hawes and written by Russell T. Davies.

   The story involves the Doctor taking Rose to New Earth but things are not as they appear as they find a darker underbelly to Paradise and an old enemy Cassandra returns to get revenge on Rose and the Doctor for past wrongs against her.

The Pros: The Comedy – The comedy in this episode is really good, especially the back and forths between the Doctor and Cassandra and Rose and Cassandra and when Cassandra is in their bodies…her sexualization of Tennant and deciding she likes it is hilarious as well as her finding the good in being in a “commoner” body when she inhabits Rose.

Chip – Chip is Cassandra’s Igor, a slave that is completely devoted to her well being. Sean Gallagher does a wonderful job in this role as a character who is vulnerable, devoted and also deadly when he needs to be. His death means something too as he is able to give Cassandra her one happy memory. I wish his character had been given the chance to create an identity beyond her though.

Cassandra – Cassandra (the “Last Human” living in stretched out Skin from last season) has an arc in this, the arc is learning to see outside herself and it takes her a long time to get there…from letting out the plague Clones that are used to create the cures by the Sisterhood and jumping between Rose, the Doctor and a plague victim’s body she eventually comes to see just how alone she is which finally forces her into Chip and her last act of giving herself her happiest memory and dying with peace in the arms of the woman she used to be before she lost her body.

Rose – Rose doesn’t do much this episode but what she does is better than her in Series 1. She is no longer the victim and is fighting to save both the plague victims, herself and the Doctor even as Cassandra takes control of her at multiple points. This episode really shows how she has come into her own as a companion after her time with the Doctor’s 9th Incarnation. “The Christmas Invasion” she didn’t do much…it was all the Doctor saving the day. Billie Piper also does a fantastic job playing Cassandra and Rose. She really does have a lot of range when given the chance.

The Doctor – The Doctor is all about the value of life in this and everything he does is to protect it. From the plague victims, to the people being treated in the other wards and even the Sisterhood all he does is to protect everyone. We also see his drive for justice as he offers to get a Cassandra a body but she must stand trial for her crimes. This doesn’t stop him from being compassionate though as he gives Cassandra a final moment with her past self. It is a moment of forgiveness that you don’t really see all that much from this Doctor who is still reeling from the Time War. The Doctor also has a vain moment where he checks his after Cassandra possessing Rose makes out with him, it’s pretty brilliant and shows how the Doctor can be pretty vain. David Tennant of course is always brilliant as the Doctor.

Sentience and the Value of Life – The plague victims were clones created by the Sisterhood in order to cure the humans who arrived on their world. They saw it as the most efficient way to do so as they saw creations as things that were not sentient. The Doctor and Rose are the answer to this and advocate and heal the victims of their wrongs leading to the Sisterhood being imprisoned. A dilemma is presented on the value of life but not really explored fully, though what the victims are going through and how they are raised shows that even if there is nothing in the mind but survival every blank slate can feel and grow since no person is fully a blank slate. As long as thought and feeling are there and it is alive, it is valuable life.

Okay: The Doctor Saves – The Doctor saves everyone using all the cures made from the victims. It is the Doctor Triumphant but clashes with the tone of death surrounding the episode. For this reason it was hard to fully enjoy as it felt a bit too happy, contrived and forced…which will bring me to the Sisters of Plentitude late.

The Face of Boe – Makes an appearance but doesn’t really do anything. He was pretty much just there to come again later and to be reminded of the value of life by the Doctor and to remind us the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords. The last of (enter species here) is a theme of the episode as we see Cassandra as the last of the people from her era pass, the Face of Boe leave and of course the fact that we are traveling with the Doctor.

The Cons: Tone – The tone is all over the place, we get some great humorous moments when Cassandra is possessing bodies but we also have human experimentation in the humans created to be lab rats and slavery via Chip…these ideas are brushed over for humor and we never get to see the issues explored.

Sisters of Plenitude – Contrived, forced and don’t feel fully fleshed out. Theses aliens feel like Russell T. Davies had an idea of cats, nuns and aliens and decided to combine them all together with no idea of how their civilization, culture or history actually works. They enemies just because they don’t understand humans? Was he thinking that cats are sociopaths so make a species like that? I have no idea where Davies was going with this enemy but they are weak, which is a problem for most of his original aliens.

The Russell T. Davies Alien Problem – The Judoons, Slitheen and countless others feel like ideas and not species. We don’t really get their motivation as they are one dimensional archtypes and the Sisters of Plenitude are no different. This is a major problem Russell T. Davies has and I’m going to make this a post in my reviews whenever it comes up. The Sisters are thrown together as a jab at anti-authority for the sake of anti-authority and present a false dilemma meant to show that they are just cruel sociopaths obsessed with order and keeping the status quo. Was not impressed at all.

   This was a fun adventure and I liked a lot of the ideas it presented even though the Sisters of Plenitude are a terrible antagonist…at least Cassandra got fleshed out more and got an arc before she went away (which is more than can be said in regards to some enemies during the Matt Smith Era). It is better than “The Christmas Invasion” for sure and I appreciate how Rose and the Doctor’s relationship develops this episode, even though it does have some story problems that keep it from being great.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 5, Episodes 10-13 – “The D Squad Arc” – Exploring Droid Sentience Could Have Been Better

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    This was an arc that tried to be both comedic and dramatic. It mostly failed on the comedic and had a few moments of awesome for the dramatic and profound…shortly after to waste them on comedy. It was still an enjoyable adventure to say the least, but you really don’t need to watch this arc.

    “Secret Weapons” was directed by Danny Keller and written by Brent Friedman who wrote the rest of the arc. “A Sunny Day in the Void” was directed by Kyle Dunlevy, “Missing in Action” was directed by Steward Lee and “Point of No Return” was directed by Bosco Ng.

    The story is that of D Squad who serve under General Gascon. Their mission is to retreive Separatist plans for a surprise attack on the Republic. After recovering the plans they must escape the Void and finally stop the ship that plans to destroy an important conference taking place in the Republic.

The Pros: R2 – R2 is the droid with the most personality and the most memorable of the lot. He is the true leader of the group and helps them fulfill their mission on multiple occasions.

“Secret Weapons” – The infiltration of the Separatist Cruiser is pretty cool. We get to see each of the droid use their upgrade in a way that gets them closer to the data chip with R2 using his boosters to grab it. It was a lot of fun even though Gascon and WAC can get really annoying.

8 / 10

“Missing in Action” – This story is that of Gregor, a clone who lost his memory but recovers it when Gascon and the droids remind him of who he is. He is amazing and we see him defend them and get his freedom from the man exploiting his amnesia. I wish we’d had more time with this character, he has a moment of awesome though and takes on a whole squad of Droids.

9.5 / 10

Gregor – Gregor has a great arc and his discovery that he is a warrior and standing up for who he wants to be is fantastic! His Clone Commando gear is also really cool when he finally gets it back.

Abafar – This desolate planet is great in how it taps into our characters and we see how they clash and come together and also how wide the Separatist net stretches as they are mining resources from this world for their trap and turning a Republic Cruiser into a bomb.

Exploration of Sentience – WAC and Gascon discuss nature versus nurture in regards to genetics and nature versus programming and we see how similar they are. We never get Droid sentience officially recognized though it is a good start.

The Cons: Gascon – This guy was really annoying and definitely had Little Man Syndrome going on. He was arrogant and disregarded everyone until he needed them. We see him go insane on Abafar but that is about as interesting as he gets with his only good moment being how he helps Gregor find himself.

WAC – WAC is annoying, he is a Jar Jar like character who was made to be a comedic character and also was supposed to be profound. He failed on both counts and was a lot like Gascon. Really arrogant and stubborn and not much else.

Disposable Droids – From the Droid General to the rest of the astromechs, they are pointless and serve no purpose beyond plot convenience

Dr. Gubacher –  This guy had a small part but it was annoying as the Mad Scientist trope is over exaggerated. I didn’t believe that the Republic would use him or Gascon as assets.

  This was a fun arc but had a lot going against it, even though 2 of the episodes were at least solid, the rest was pretty forgettable and could be pretty boring. There were a lot of good ideas here but the Droids could not carry the episode and R2 is good but C-3PO and their dynamic is part of what makes him so much fun.

Final Score: 6 / 10