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‘Ex Machina’ probes creative responsibility

“Ex Machina” (2015). Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno. Director: Alex Garland. Screenplay: Alex Garland. Web site. Trailer.

Nothing in life comes without responsibility – or consequences. This can be especially crucial to bear in mind when manifesting the previously untried. Without adequate forethought, the results can carry far-reaching ramifications, some of which may be highly beneficial and others of which could be devastatingly difficult. That’s one of the significant lessons to emerge out of the new sci-fi thriller, “Ex Machina.”

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is thrilled when he receives some good news at work. As the winner of an internal company competition, the young computer coding whizz for an Internet search firm is the recipient of a much-coveted prize – spending a week with the brilliant, elusive, enigmatic founder of his organization, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). But that elation soon turns to trepidation when he embarks on his journey to Nathan’s secluded mountain retreat and personal research facility. The well-intentioned, idealistic young programmer quickly discovers he may be in way over his head.

Upon arrival at the remote sanctuary, Caleb learns that he’s basically alone with his boss, the only other person on the premises being Nathan’s non-English-speaking personal assistant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). He also finds that his boss is not what he expected. The wunderkind-turned-billionaire proves to be an arrogant, smarmy, often-inscrutable wise-ass who routinely spouts cryptic, disjointed statements and asks leading questions when he’s not being a hard-drinking party animal. In short, Caleb doesn’t quite know what to make of him.

That concern becomes compounded when Caleb learns the reason why Nathan has brought him to his retreat. As it turns out, Nathan has secretly developed a state-of-the-art robotic being named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and Caleb must figure out whether “she” has truly developed her own sentience. To make that determination, Caleb is charged with putting Ava through a Turing test, a line of inquiry proposed by pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing (the subject of the recently released biopic, “The Imitation Game”) for assessing whether a machine can think for itself. Caleb thus has one week to determine whether Ava is a bona fide form of artificial intelligence.

At the outset of the test, Caleb is impressed with Ava’s capabilities and Nathan’s accomplishment. But, as his daily sessions with Ava and his debriefings with Nathan unfold, Caleb becomes anxious about what he’s gotten himself into. Caleb’s interactions with inventor and invention grow progressively strange, and, just when he thinks he’s figured things out, a new misdirection comes along to throw him off the path. These exasperating conditions are further complicated by surprise developments, such as a series of disturbing discoveries and a string of unforeseen power outages that result in a complete lockdown of Nathan’s facility. And, as the week wears on, Caleb is torn between wanting to see how things turn out and looking to make a hasty escape. Like the audience, however, he’ll have to be patient and let matters play themselves out, which may end up being even more unpredictable than expected.

When we engage in the practice of conscious creation, the means by which we manifest our respective realities through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, one of the most important considerations we must bear in mind is the notion of responsibility. When we bring something into being, it’s ours, for better or worse, because its very existence originates with us.

Accepting responsibility for a creation is relatively easy when it turns out well and when we and others are generally pleased with the results. But, when the outcome turns out differently than hoped for – particularly if it’s imbued with qualities we find disappointing, seemingly unintended or even undesirable – being accountable for it can be far more problematic. We may want to disavow our involvement in the wayward manifestation and seek to place blame for it elsewhere. However, no matter how much we might try to distance ourselves, the responsibility still rests with us.

The disappointment that comes from a materialization that doesn’t end up as hoped for can be debilitating. That being the case, the most effective solution to this dilemma would be to avoid creating it in the first place. But how?

As conscious creation practitioners well know, the process begins with our thoughts, beliefs and intents, so, if they’re “faulty” from the outset, what they yield will manifest in kind. For example, if we claim that we’re seeking to create something noble in nature but the beliefs we employ in doing so are tinged with less than honorable elements, should it come as any surprise if the results turn out to be different from what’s supposedly intended? It shouldn’t. In fact, the outcome will be an accurate reflection of the specific beliefs used in the manifestation process, warts and all.

This becomes all too apparent in the film. Nathan, for example, likes to think he’s creating something inventive and groundbreaking that will take mankind into a brave new era. However, in doing so, it’s also painfully obvious that he’s allowed his manifesting beliefs to become “compromised” by aspects of a personal agenda, elements reflective of his own selfish interests. Consequently, if he expects the outcome of his efforts to faithfully reflect the supposedly unblemished attributes he thinks he’s creating, he’s in for a rude awakening.

Likewise, as a trusting, honorable soul, Caleb would like to believe that others (like Nathan) operate from the same principled sensibility that he does. He’s willing to overlook the existence of unsavory aspects involved in the process, even when he senses their presence, because they don’t jibe with the approach he would use. Turning a blind eye, however, doesn’t erase his beliefs associated with his awareness of the objectionable elements, and these qualities work their way into the outcome, no matter how much he’d rather not see them materialize. The result, again, is disappointment, even if it dependably (and predictably) mirrors the intents that brought it into being.

The bottom line in this is that we must be careful what we create, and the effort starts with us and the beliefs we hold. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, one would hope we spot the pitfalls before they take shape. Eliminating them up front avoids unpleasant issues later on, an effort that should spare us considerable grief.

Should we choose to ignore this consideration, however, we run the risk of suffering the perils of un-conscious creation. When we create with no regard for the consequences, we must be prepared for what comes with that, the essence of practicing un-conscious creation. This can be especially true with the development of new technologies, where we may be so focused on the outcome that we lose sight of everything that potentially accompanies it. This can be particularly problematic for things like artificial intelligence, where we may purposely intend to abrogate our responsibility for its proper operation after its creation. In that regard, unless we employ “foolproof” beliefs from the outset (which may not be nearly as easy as imagined), we shouldn’t be surprised if circumstances don’t work out as hoped for. Once again, care and caution are the watchwords here, for, no matter what results, the responsibility for its creation rests squarely on our shoulders.

“Ex Machina” is a generally suspenseful thriller about the beauties and dangers of artificial intelligence, with a strong cautionary tale for all of us. Despite some occasional pacing issues, the film is well-written, with distinctive production values, beautiful cinematography and an engaging soundtrack. But what stands out most here are the picture’s excellent performances, with Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander all turning in some of the best work they’ve ever done on screen. Director Alex Garland has distinguished himself in his directorial debut, serving up one of this year’s best releases thus far and one of the finest, most credible science fiction offerings to come along in some time.

We’re all well aware of the notion of being careful what we wish for. In an age where rapidly changing technological advances make the seemingly once impossible wholly plausible with relative ease and speed, it’s particularly incumbent upon us that we bear the foregoing in mind. Should we do anything less, we may well pay a heavy price. Embracing our creative responsibility is thus essential to avoid unpleasant surprises to wind up with the results we seek.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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