The genre of science fiction doesn’t always leave room for feelings. Brainy, cerebral techno-dramas and other similarly barren emotional landscapes have long been the stage for stories that consider the bigger “what-ifs?” about our solar system and what lies beyond. What are trifles like friendship and romance when you’re fighting for survival?
Two recent films, however, are investigating how human emotions intersect with technological advancements and standard sci-fi conceits. In A24 and DirecTV’s Equals and Ex Machina, our most primal feelings are evaluated through the lens of artificial intelligence, data science, and automation, revealing the shape of things yet to come. What can we learn from these films, and what lessons do they teach?
They BOTH ask the tough questions.
Equals is set in a world without emotions. Love, anger, hatred, and joy are things of the past, and humans wander through life without them by taking a chemical that suppresses all these feelings. In this world, people are “switched off” before they’re even born, forced to live a life free of sentiment or human contact. This hermetically sealed existence is broached when two people begin to feel again.
Ex Machina, on the other hand, delves into the limitations of artificial intelligence, namely, does a man-made machine have the capacity to feel? When a young programmer is invited to the home of a tech-industry genius, he is given the opportunity to investigate this question, with potentially deadly consequences.
Lesson Learned: Feel everything, but don’t leave your brain behind.
THEY BOTH HAVE Complicated characters.
Equals stars Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult as a couple who fall in love in a world without feeling. Hoult plays Silas, an artist who contracts Switched-On Syndrome. His long dormant emotions begin to bubble to the surface, and he begins to see Nia, a co-worker played by Stewart, in a whole new light.
Ex Machina follows Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) after he’s given the chance to spend time with his idol Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the founder of a software company. At Nathan’s secluded mansion, Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot who may have the capacity to experience human emotions.
Lesson Learned: It’s weird to be normal and normal to be weird.
THEY BOTH HAVE Mind-bending sci-fi messages.
Real science fiction demands more than futuristic sets and a few shallow conversations about artificial intelligence, cosmology, or cyber warfare. The best science fiction films marry aesthetic with a deeper understanding of themes and characters. Ex Machina is an excellent example, as it uses themes of artificial intelligence to delve deep into what it means to be a human. It asks thorny, unanswerable questions, and it confronts its audience with an ending that offers no easy resolutions. It examines the location of consciousness and the gender divide, and cuts through the concept of male ego with almost clinical precision.
Equals doesn’t ask as many thought-provoking questions as Ex Machina, but it is nonetheless a thematically rich sci-fi film. It questions what it feels like to experience emotion for the first time as an adult. There is an underlying innocence to the film belied by its shiny, futuristic sets and stylish art direction. It takes the emotional journey of childhood and grafts it onto adults, and there’s a winning naivety to Silas and Nia’s romantic awakening.
Lesson Learned: A futuristic aesthetic is only as cool as the androids who inhabit it.
THEY BOTH EXHIBIT Technical finesse.
The cinematography of Ex Machina strands its central characters in an icy mansion that seemingly has no exit. The robot, Ava, is a source of constant visual fascination for both the male characters and the audience. The precise, cold compositions heighten the sense of suspense, leading to a surprising but ultimately satisfying climax. The screenplay, by writer and director Alex Garland, impresses with its ability to navigate between difficult concepts and emotionally resonant character beats.
Equals looks beautiful. Every frame is shot with an exacting minimalism that suits a world without emotions. The story is largely told in close-ups, with the couple’s emotional awakenings being told through minute facial expressions and small gestures. The script is sparse, as the characters are often at a loss for the words to describe their new feelings.
Lesson Learned: I hope climate change won’t wreck my moonboots.
Ex Machina and Equals both explore the vagaries of emotions in a science fiction universe. Although the question of emotions comes into play in both films, the difference is between human emotion and robot feelings. What is it like when humans no longer feel anything? What happens when machine starts thinking for itself? Both films are incisive investigations of what we feel, how we feel, and whether what we feel really means anything.
Article by contributor Beth Candice.