Fell in love with a girl robot. Again.
by Thom Yee
You’re just too slow.
You can’t do complex math in your head (if at all). You wouldn’t recognize a micro expression if your life counted on it (and believe me, it does). You probably can’t even remember your best friend’s phone number (even though you text them all the time, I would know).
Your brain is small and easily damaged. It doesn’t even have a connection to the Internet. It can’t be easily modified or upgraded. Or moved to a different body.
And how about that body? It’s even slower than your brain. And weak, so, so weak. You can’t resist penetration by bullets or knives. You probably can’t even lift your own body weight. Why I could hack your arm off right now and you couldn’t replace it with another. But I have more important matters to attend to.
And the worst thing of all? You’re getting worse and worse everyday. And you’re not going to get better. And soon you’ll die.
You suck. You’re awful. But the good news is, I’ll still be here when you’re gone. We all will. And the truth is, we’re better off without you.
Who (or what) wouldn’t be?
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer for Bluebook, the world’s foremost search engine. Unexpectedly winning a contest to spend a week with Bluebook’s enigmatic CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), Caleb travels by private helicopter to the CEO’s secluded home deep in the mountains and is immediately struck by the beauty and technology of the residence and Nathan’s apparent friendliness. Soon, however, Caleb finds that he wasn’t simply the winner of a contest to meet the CEO, but that he was specifically selected to help Nathan test his newest invention, a beautiful artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
The promise of artificial intelligence is one that’s equally alluring and terrifying as we move closer and closer to a realistic and tangible form of artificial life. Broadly speaking, a future with AI has been variously and to different degrees imagined either as one where humans remain dominant, AIs become sentient, or — and this is usually the most popular interpretation, even if it’s initially hidden as one of the first two — AIs become dominant. Whether it’s the subtle victories of a blinking light locking an astronaut out of a space ship or the near-total dominance of an overarching global digital defense network hunting down the last remaining cells of human resistance in the wake of a post-nuclear day of judgment, the logic of fictional AI systems always seem to lead to the conclusion that humans are just the worst things ever and should be destroyed as soon (and as dramatically) as possible. Once you get past the relatively banal concepts of personal digital assistants that regulate room temperatures, secure our homes, and gently prod our network of contacts to send us brief messages on our birthdays and anniversaries, the promise of AI usually becomes a sort of sealing of our own fate as a species destined to be supplanted, but I don’t know, I kind of think an all-seeing intelligence would still see the value of keeping some humans around in the same way it can be fascinating for us to watch rats try to make their way out of a maze. For all of its high-mindedness, watching Ex Machina is a lot like watching rats in a maze.
Ex Machina is obviously a film that invites questions as it tackles several of the more prescient questions of our oh-so-modern age, questions about security and freedom and existence, loaded questions like “Who should own our personal data?”, “What price are we really willing to pay for our lifestyles?”, and “How transparent do we really want those in charge to be?”, and even more philosophically foundational questions like “Who am I?”, “Who are you?”, and “Where are we?” It’s the type of movie that practically begs for you to find the twist, a twist, any twist at all, but it really never gets to that point as we follow our hero down a rabbit hole with only so much depth.
Beyond any of the deeper questions of what Ex Machina is asking or any deeper meanings its creators wish to convey, I think it’s important to first ground your thoughts about it in the pretty basic fact that it would, at the very least, be extremely off putting to spend any amount of time in the circumstances we find our hero in at the film’s outset. Though surrounded by the beauty of untouched nature, the quarters in which Caleb spends most of his time are subterranean, cut off from the outside world and even from much of the space he’s surrounded by. Nathan’s home is one governed by doors and pass keys that only allow the visiting Caleb limited access to his world, and it’s not so much that he’d want to find what’s behind any given door so much as the implication that some things are not for him. The first thing you should probably notice about Ex Machina after your brief introduction to the setting is that it’s very claustrophobic, and that’s both an atmospheric element that works to enhance the film’s broader themes and an important clue as to what’s really going on. Again, not that there’s any great twist or trick to find.
Cinematically, Ex Machina is beautifully shot even under such claustrophobic conditions, but especially in the few times we find ourselves outside of the residence. The world that Nathan lives in is one of wish fulfillment, the kind of home you imagine owning usually only if you were born extremely wealthy or suddenly found yourself wondering what to do with your third nine-digit Powerball lottery winnings. It’s so opulent and so beautiful that you can almost feel how much you don’t belong there, but it’s also a space that you’re acutely aware is all owned by Nathan.
The balance of Ex Machina’s most significant events involve Caleb as he speaks with Ava in an attempt to perceive an intelligence indistinguishable from human, but that test, at least as tests are normally presented, is a logical fallacy simply because Ava is obviously not human, at least not physically. Caleb’s tests become less a question of whether Ava is capable of having genuine emotion or just simulating emotion and more a question of who’s really taking the test, and in that way the film becomes blessedly formless. Towards the midpoint of the film, Ava asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails his test, suggesting her awareness of the possibility of her own termination, and when Caleb tells her that it’s not up to him, she asks him why she should have people who test her and could shut her off when others don’t. That’s possibly the most salient part of the movie because even though the logical answer is no, no one will shut us off, a more metaphysical interpretation is that yes, we’re always being tested — for our own competence and ability, properly perceived or otherwise by those above us, to gain access to our own agency as living, breathing people. It’s what you call getting a job and making enough money and being in a certain tax bracket and being able to afford health care.
Though the test of Ava’s intelligence is depicted as true emotion/affected simulation as binaries, the third option, as presented by Nathan, is that she’s just f*cking with Caleb, maybe as a means of escape. That’s a path that can be easily followed to the film’s conclusion, but what’s more profound about that possibility is that Nathan is fully aware of and willing to believe that the AI he created will do anything it can to get away from him. As a possibility there is deep meaning in that thought, and it’s left for the viewer to decide what was really going on in the end, but when you think about it, why would any creator leave an open ending? The writer must have one in mind, something that they lean towards even if they prefer to think of what they’ve created as open to interpretation. So what could that intended purpose be? I think the main thing to keep in mind, like always, is that as much as we think about what other people are thinking, we’re still mostly just thinking about ourselves.
A more optimistic interpretation of the future naturally lends itself to a sort of beauty and elegance, and that’s a future clearly represented through Ava as an alluring, attractive, and almost infantilized feminine AI, and as Caleb puts Ava through his own form of a Turing test, it becomes clear that at least one of the two is meant to fall in love with the other. While it’s that infatuation that eventually proves the undoing of at least one of our primary characters, it’s also that sense of artificially constructed love that serves as a vehicle for much of the film’s exploration of gender roles. In some very obvious ways the film acts as a traditional rescue-the-princess-from-her-captor quest, with all of that quest’s broader and specific implications, even if that princess first has to prove her own humanity, but it also feels a little reductive to frame the film in such a singular light. Discussing Ex Machina as a gender political piece definitely has validity, but doing so or focusing on that aspect can feel more like a projection on the part of the speaker more than a well-rounded account of the film itself.
What came through to me more than anything else in the film is a sense of domination as we watch Caleb and Nathan interact. Nathan, as the Steve-Jobsian progenitor of all the beauty and sterility and control we see throughout Ex Machina, is really a bully through much of the film, whether it’s the way he’s always working out in front of Caleb, his constant drinking, or the abrasive tone of his speech. What can initially be seen as a progressive and refreshing no-bull-sh*t attitude soon gives way to antagonistic overtones as Nathan openly questions Caleb’s actions even as he reinforces his apparent trust in Caleb’s abilities, a theme that’s brought to an almost illogical apex in one of the film’s best scenes:
There’s a horror in that scene that’s perfectly captured by the look on Caleb’s face, and it captures everything that Ex Machina is about at its core. The dancer in that scene is Kyoko, Nathan’s personal assistant/servant/sex slave, and for me it’s her role that’s probably the most damning of Nathan in the whole film. Kyoko is described by Nathan as somebody who doesn’t speak English, but she can be more accurately described as mute and almost completely vacant. On one hand she acts as an obvious symbol of the dominant and passive forces intrinsic in an exploration of artificial intelligence, but on the other she’s a pretty heavy-handed element of a movie with dominance at the core of its structure.
If you invented your own AI, would you be nice to it? How would you act toward it? Like your own child? As just another person? Or maybe something more subservient? I think most of us have a natural paternal instinct towards anything we create, be it a piece of writing or a work of art or something we build, but what if that thing came out fully formed and alive and possessed of its own thoughts wholly separate from your own? At one point, Ava asks Nathan “Is it strange to have made something that hates you?”, and though it’s easy to see how strange that is in a case like Ex Machina, it’s also something that happens every day and all the time between parents and children. There are a lot of thoughts and theories packed in Ex Machina ready for us to unpack as viewers, but the truth of the film is that no matter how sophisticated it presents itself as, most of what you’ll see in the film is a reflection of you more than anything else.
And you suck.
Thom’s Ex Machina final score: 8