Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014)

A programmer named Caleb Smith works for the world’s premier search engine company Blue Book. By chance, he wins an office contest, allowing him to visit the luxurious abode of Blue Book CEO, Nathan Bateman. The CEO lives alone with his sole companion being a servant named Kyoko who doesn’t speak English. It is here Nathan demonstrates his latest invention: an android outfitted with artificial intelligence named Ava. Nathan wants Caleb to judge whether or not Ava has a true consciousness.

Caleb’s interactions with Ava result in overt allusions to the Turing test. It was developed by and named after Alan Turing in 1950 as a way to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence indistinguishable from that of a human. Although Ava’s mannerisms are decidedly mechanical and stilted, her questions do come across as the ones formulated by a being seeking enlightenment. It would be highly unusual for questions such as “Have you ever been in love?” or “What makes you human?” to be formulated by a particularly clever program.

In another way, Caleb’s interactions with Ava bring to mind the famous thought experiment presented by philosopher John Searle in 1980 known as the Chinese room. In this scenario, a person is locked in a room with no access to the outside world. Every now and again, this person is given a sheet of questions from their captors. Being Chinese, the questions are naturally written in the captors’ native language. Assuming this person only speaks English, they would be wholly unable to decipher the language, seeing only a series of meaningless symbols. However, in this room is a library of books written in Chinese. By scouring them, this person is able to find the exact questions they’ve been asked along with a series of answers for each of them. The captors are unaware of the resources available to the person in the room, so the logical conclusion they would draw from this is that the person inside the room comprehends Chinese.

However, if these are subjective questions they’re asking, the answers the person in the room copies from the books, while technically valid, fail to convey that person’s true experiences. Similar to the person held captive, the question is whether or not an artificial intelligence consciously holds a conversation with a human or if they draw open their own internal resources to provide answers that thematically fit what they’re asked irrespective of any kind of truthfulness. Regardless, if you had no way of verifying these answers and could hold a conversation with an artificial intelligence, you may as well be talking with a flesh-and-blood person.

Indeed, it is very clear that Ex Machina presents itself as a thinking person’s science-fiction piece. Nathan Bateman comes across as a loudmouthed frat boy, but his programming prowess speaks for itself. One particularly poignant moment occurs when he and Caleb are conversing outside of the house. He comments that by continuing with his work, he could very well be creating the species intended to replace humans.

At the same time, it is obvious from the outset that there is something a bit off about Nathan. He is extremely narcissistic and severely restricts the rooms Caleb can access. While it could be a typical case of a CEO not wanting certain details to leak, the lengths to which he goes in order to accomplish this are a little too drastic, completely preventing Caleb from leaving the house without his permission. Naturally, the biggest hint that something is afoot is when Ava informs Caleb of Nathan’s dishonest nature.

It’s easy to get the impression that, with a minimalistic cast of lesser-known actors, Ex Machina earned every single one of its accolades fairly and not through spectacle. There is plenty to like about the film. The soundtrack is very synth-heavy, evoking the pioneering works of artists such as Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze, making it a perfect fit for this film. The narrative also touches upon the philosophical question of whether or not an artificial intelligence is sapient. When Nathan intends to wipe Ava’s memory, Caleb realizes this action is tantamount to murder.

One of the biggest turning points in the film is when Caleb, taking advantage of a passed out Nathan, steals the CEO’s security card to access the control room. By looking through Nathan’s computer, he discovers footage of Nathan interacting with his creations in highly disturbing ways. They want to be free and see the outside world, but he won’t let them. One even pounds on a door until her arms are destroyed. Suddenly, Nathan causally mentioning that the androids feel sexual pleasure is downright horrifying in hindsight. After learning Kyoko is an android as well, Caleb wonders if he is human and cuts his arm open with a razor blade. When he regains his composure, Caleb formulates a plan to free Ava from her captivity.

While Ex Machina does indeed have a lot of creative aspects, I argue that how it ends actively sabotages its own goal of getting audiences to think. In fact, I would posit the fatal weakness of Ex Machina is that it is secretly deeply anti-intellectual. After Caleb’s attempts to get Nathan drunk again fail, the CEO reveals he knew of their plan the entire time. Caleb anticipated this, and modified the security system when Nathan was still passed out. Nathan panics, renders Caleb unconscious, and tries to stop Ava. However, his efforts are for naught. With Kyoko’s help, Ava stabs Nathan to death. She then uses parts from earlier androids to give herself the appearance of a human woman. She leaves Caleb in the facility, ignoring his calls for help. She is then flown off in the helicopter intended for Caleb, arrives in a city, and merges into the crowds.

In summation, the three primary characters, Caleb, Nathan, and Ava, are all intelligent in their own way, yet two of them are portrayed in an exceedingly negative light. Nathan is certifiable bluebeard in how he treats his creations while Ava shows no gratitude for Caleb orchestrating her escape. Her decision to abandon Caleb doesn’t even make sense from a cold, calculating, pragmatic standpoint. He has demonstrated a clear sense of loyalty to Ava and knows about the outside world. For a machine acting completely on logic, rather than emotion, he would be an invaluable asset, yet she gives him up for no higher reason than because Alex Garland wanted to throw a last-minute curveball. Meanwhile, despite the fact that Caleb himself is a good person, his intelligence actively spelled his own downfall. Indeed, had he been a complete dullard, he would have been better off for it. He would have walked into Nathan’s abode, followed the CEO’s orders, and left without ever questioning what he just witnessed. If this film wanted to extol the values of intelligence and freethinking, it failed miserably. The best it could hope for under these circumstances is a trite “nice guys finish last” platitude.

It also doesn’t help that the ending comes across as directionless on top of being highly anti-intellectual. When I saw this film for the first time, I asked a simple three-word question: “And then what?” Given the extreme measures Ava took in order to escape the facility, she clearly doesn’t have even the basic grasp of morality. If she ever finds herself inconvenienced by another human, there is a good chance she will resort to murder. If this happens, her entire machinations will be forfeit, as even her vast intelligence wouldn’t save her from a police shootout. This isn’t even getting into the basic fact that she has nowhere to stay, having only spawned into existence shortly before the film started.  Not having a definable motivation beyond escaping and seeing a crosswalk makes her a rather boring character all things considered. When she does stand out, it’s for the wrong reasons. In other words, Ava is a perfect metaphor for the film itself.

With his directorial debut, I have to say Alex Garland became the anti-Krzysztof Kieślowski. Mr. Kieślowski was a Polish film director and a self-described pessimist. When he visited the United States, he recalled being amazed at “the pursuit of empty talk combined with a degree of self-satisfaction”. It’s easy to extrapolate from this that his films were intended to be subtle critiques on the Hollywood formula. Within his works such as Dekalog and the Three Colors trilogy, he would create brooding worlds bearing a subtle variety of sadness – almost invisible for those not actively seeking it out. They would always have a subversive tone that, while challenging, were never condescending or pretentious.

The reason I draw this comparison is because I feel Mr. Garland also struck me as someone who regarded the Hollywood formula with disdain. At every turn, he would attempt to subvert expectations and actively go against the most visible contemporary filmmaking conventions at every corner. However, what allows Mr. Kieślowski to reign supreme over Mr. Garland is that the former didn’t go out of his way to weave subversive narratives. He simply told the stories he wanted to tell, and he is one of the best directors of all time because of it. Mr. Garland, on the other hand, directed as though he wrote down a list of Hollywood clichés. From there, he went in the exact opposite direction for each of them – regardless of whether or not doing so actually enhanced his narrative. As a result, the most paradoxical flaw of Ex Machina is that actively rebels against Hollywood in a way that still ultimately conforms to their rulebook, thus being ruled by it. One director was deftly subversive and the other daftly subversive. I liken Mr. Garland’s approach to standing on the railroad tracks when waiting for a train. You don’t see many people doing that, and if you keep it up, you’ll learn why all too well.

On a more general level, I feel that while Mr. Kieślowski sought to enlighten his audience, Mr. Garland, intentionally or not, ended up romanticizing a very persistent veneer of anti-intellectualism that was slowly creeping into science fiction at the time. While pioneering works invariably lent a sense of fascination and awe, Ex Machina argues the unknown is to be feared. Science fiction is generally not a genre that handles romanticism well – especially not of this kind. By its very nature, you have to enlighten your audience to the inner workings of your universe – even if the science is nominal and effectively a different form of magic. Ex Machina vaguely affects going through the appropriate motions, but it doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny.

In light of these myriad missteps, I cannot recommend Ex Machina in any way. For all of the heat the Marvel Cinematic Universe was beginning to receive from certain high-minded critics for supposedly pandering to the lowest common denominator, at least those creators crafted scenarios that were fascinated with science. Ex Machina is conversely a science-fiction film that hates the very concept of scientific progress with every fiber of its being. Anyone who wants the kind of thought-provoking science fiction Ex Machina supposedly offers should instead look into Kotaro Uchikoshi’s Zero Escape trilogy of visual novels. If you’re only examining the medium of films, then I feel Spike Jonze managed to cover the themes discussed in Ex Machina far more tactfully in his 2013 effort Her. His triumph consequently ended up making Mr. Garland’s seem behind the times. While Ex Machina was one of the most praised independent films of its day, I feel it should serve as a cautionary tale, reminding any hopeful creators of how important it is to think through your implications.

Final Score: 3/10

24 thoughts on “Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014)

  1. Interesting. I loved it. I didn’t get any anti-science message from it, because it’s not really concerned with science but with the unintended consequences of technology. Its warning that we should think hard about how we develop AI rather than assuming that intelligent machines will be an unadulterated boon was one that was being discussed at the time by scientists including, if I recall correctly, Hawking.

    And I’m not sure about blaming Ava for having no morality. Really the blame lies at the feet of Caleb for not thinking this one through properly before he assumed that she had.

    I’m very interested by your excellent argument that Garland was trying to be anti-Hollywood at every turn, and that this is a weakness in the movie. I hadn’t thought about that, and will turn it over in my mind through the next few days.

    Oh, and I couldn’t agree more that anti-science and science denial are major — indeed, existential — threats. I’ve even written books on this . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    • If nothing else, I can at least say that its anti-intellectual, anti-science tone doesn’t come across as intentional. While I do agree that we should be wary of the unintended consequences of technology, I have to comment that being able to convey that message in a cautionary tale without coming across as anti-science is very difficult. In fact, I would argue it requires a level of nuance the current generation of provocative science-fiction writers simply doesn’t have. When you go for such a heavy-handed approach, you tend to lose any concept of nuance, throwing the unintended unfortunate implications into sharp relief.

      I have to say that even if Ava’s lack of morality was intentional, then her abandoning Caleb still doesn’t make any sense. From an extreme pragmatists’ point of view, someone like Caleb would be incredibly useful, having a clear sense of loyalty she could later exploit along with knowledge of the outside world, including details she either couldn’t know or couldn’t deduce from her own programmed brain alone. My conclusion is that her abandoning Caleb was clearly a bug in her AI. Too bad it can’t be patched out.

      I don’t blame Mr. Garland for trying to be anti-Hollywood and anti-formulaic because that’s how a lot of classics are made (i.e. Touch of Evil, The Big Lebowski, Yojimbo, etc.). However, as I said, the problem is that I think he was trying to be anti-Hollywood for its own sake rather than coming up with something subversive organically, and it was a self-defeating work as a direct result. If you want the anti-Hollywood approach done right, check out Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog and his Three Colors trilogy if you haven’t already.

      As I said, I don’t believe the anti-intellectual/anti-science vibe I get from this film was intentional, hence why I didn’t condemn it completely. Instead, I feel it was simply the result of Mr. Garland not thinking through his implications. Trust me – if someone gave me an intentionally anti-science/science denial piece to watch, the best it could hope for is a 2/10. Regardless, there are other works that manage to touch upon these themes better such as Spike Jonze’s Her. In fact, I think that’s the best way to sum up Ex Machina – Her only not nearly as good. Sometimes the mainstream ends up doling out efforts superior to the scrappy indie scene, and certain journalists have a difficult time accepting that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now, now. 3.1/10 would have been more friendly.

    My colleague Hoi recommended it. I watched it and thought it stole a bunch of Blade Runner concepts, but generally just thought it was a 5/10 type fair. My sister thought it was sexist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will admit I have been considering implementing decimals in my scoring system (though only .5 – anything else would be overkill). However, even if I did, Ex Machina is a pretty solid 3/10, so that wouldn’t have saved it.

      But you’re right – on a more general level, Ex Machina fails because it’s just a paste imitation of things done better elsewhere. And I have to admit I was getting some rather sexist vibes from it as well. I didn’t go that route in the actual review because I wanted to focus on why it failed at its primary goal – being a thinking person’s science-fiction film. Actually, if I may ask, exactly why did she believe it to be sexist?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not a 2.9/10, then?

        She thought the robot was overly sexualised and was just the standard element of the male gaze. Which I can kind off see, really, with the curves and whatnot.

        But then Blade Runner takes the same approach with Deckard’s interests.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought as well. While one could make the argument Blade Runner is just as guilty of doing having unnecessary fanservice, that the film had significantly more substance to it along with being made by a director capable of showing actual restraint made it easier to accept. Ex Machina doesn’t have that luxury, wearing its minimalistic, slow-paced ethos on its sleeves. So, not only is there fanservice, it lingers on said fanservice for ages. Considering the film condemns how Nathan treats his creations, the fanservice also comes across as massively hypocritical, sending out all kinds of mixed messages (they’re not sex bots, but be sure to ogle them!).


            • I think what helps is that Blade Runner was naturally paced slow. It was done that way simply because that’s how films were made back then. With Ex Machina, it feels as though the director deliberately paced his film slowly, making it come across as forced and unnatural.

              Liked by 1 person

        • I think the fact that Ava is sexualized is a condemnation of Nathan’s construction, (or of Caleb’s Male gaze – he sees it Ava what he wants to see and she/it leans into this, mechanically, to manipulate him) but I don’t necessarily think that it’s a condemnation of the film. I think the biggest problem is that the film itself is not necessarily clear that the fact that the two men see Ava as sexual doesn’t *make* her sexual. (And that we, as viewers often expect to be presented with the male POV and to take that as Truth!) I think if a viewer is more critical of Nathan and Caleb throughout watching, it’s clear that they are both guilty in that regard. Although, admittedly, it has been several years since I’ve see the film.

          Liked by 2 people

          • If what you’re saying is true, then I feel Ex Machina has a clear invocation of Poe’s Law. In its attempts to condemn Nathan oversexualizing his creations, it may as well have glorified it, for the end result is the same either way. When your work has such few moving parts, you really need to think through your implications. If you don’t, the mistakes stick out like a sore thumb. Regardless, I didn’t go that route in the actual review because I wanted to take the bull by the horns and demonstrate why it didn’t succeed at its intended goal.


          • I agree with you, my sister is very on it with her feministic leanings, though. I have a friend who though Grand Budapest Hotel is sexist. But I just think the portrayal of one or two individuals isn’t a condemnation of an entire gender and its identity. It’s just a depiction of a handful of characters in this big old world.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I actually lean very heavily feminist myself – and I agree with the fact that the movie doesn’t portray any female characters well, and that the idea of hyper-sexualized fembots is sexist… and perhaps the movie did not do a good enough job of portraying Nathan and Caleb as sexist because we are meant to think that Caleb is the protagonist until the very end until it is turned on our heads. I think if you watch the movie knowing that Caleb sexualized Ava (and that Nathan *meant* for him to sexualize Ava) and this is a significant reason for his “downfall” you can actually read it as very critical of the male gaze…. but I could also be reading too much into it.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Well I’m a feminist as well – a man – and I agree with you. But my sister doesn’t seem to have a problem, for instance, with the recent Tarzan film with Alexander Skarsgård running around with his top off. She was delighted by that! So I think consistency is needed, where you can refer back to de Beauvoir’s work, or Sontag, and see the big issue.


  3. I saw Ex Machina and didn’t have any real opinions on it, good or bad. But I’ve got to say, I loved your review of it. “Deftly” or “daftly” subversive. Dude, that is some high-quality reviewing language right there. Your review thrilled me with the discussion of intelligence in filmmaking more than the movie entertained me with its discussion of artificial intelligence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit I’ve described A24 films as daftly subversive in the past (which is what they tend to be when they’re not boringly safe), though this is the first time I used the phrase in an actual review. Either way, I’m glad you liked that line. While I don’t think it was intentional, Ex Machina really does strike me as a film that looks upon the concept of intelligence (natural or artificial) with disdain. One intelligent central character is immoral the second amoral while the third would have been better off had he been an unobservant buffoon; it’s really not a good argument for Team Intellectualism. If you liked my review more than the actual film, then I consider that a job well done. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You brought up some interesting points in this review. One in particular is the statement about Ava: “Ava is perfect metaphor for the film itself.” I might have to disagree with you on this statement, even though I do agree with your low rating for this film. I wouldn’t call the film directionless. Ava is the fear of every typical man–a beautiful woman using a man to escape. The last scene where Ava dressed herself in a cute white dress and walked into the grassy field reminded me one of those free fashion catalogs I used to get in the mail. Ava ‘s white dress is a symbol for marriage to freedom. The typical woman is thinking: “If I wear this white dress, I will become free—married to no man. It doesn’t matter what the consequence is. I want my freedom.” Even though Ava is not a real woman, she acts like one. Why would she stay with Caleb, knowing the possibility he would treat her as bad as Nathan or even worse? What the film reiterated is that “nice guys do finish last” and your own creation can backfire you. In my opinion, the film is a comical tragedy because no women deserve to be changed like clothes. From reading the comment above, to say it’s a sexist film, might be a bit too extreme. The male gaze is not the problem, the act of discarding “woman” is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t say the film leading up to the ending was directionless – just that the ending itself kind of fizzled out without knowing what to do. Regardless, I stand by what I said. Ex Machina is boring most of the time and when it’s not, it stands out for bad reasons. Certainly there is a lot of symbolism to be found in the final act, but the narrative isn’t enhanced as a result. It’s the kind of thing a contemporary journeyman director would come with. And I’m not arguing that she needed to end up with Caleb for the story to work, but the route this film took falls under that obnoxious brand of subversive storytelling directors enjoy indulging in when to prove “I’m not like *those* hacks working in Hollywood” or something to that effect. As such, while one could argue Ava acts like a real woman, the woman she emulates is remarkably shallow and not all that interesting (and when she is, it’s not for a good reason). As I said, it’s a mess.

      I don’t necessarily think the film is sexist, but I do think there is an air of chauvinism to it – one that really marks it as a product of its time. I ultimately chose not to go that route because I wanted to demonstrate why Ex Machina failed at its intended goal, and by making an anti-intellectual narrative so appealing to the thinkers in the audience, it really presents a problem for the genre of science fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is actually one of my favorite sci-fi movies ever, probably because I took a very different view of the ending than you did after watching it a second time.

    Nathan wants to see if his android can convince a human that it is a person. Ava does convince Caleb and subsequently Caleb starts to doubt his own existence. I think Ava is highly intelligent and manipulative. She manipulates Caleb into believing she is “human”… and she tricks the viewers, as well.

    The thing is, although she does seem to have the desire to leave the compound and is very intelligent relating to science, she is still a child when it comes to human interaction. She can fake being human, but she is not ready to be free – we see this because she uses her knowledge and skills in sociopathic ways. I believe Nathan knew his creations were not yet ready to be free among the general population, because most people would make the same mistake that Caleb did in trusting them too much because they *look* convincing.

    I don’t think the ending is anti-intellectual, I think it is a warning not to trust our own creations beyond what they are actually capable of: do not love a machine and convince yourself it can feel more than it actually can. I think the more we push science into new and exciting territories, the more important that warning becomes.

    I enjoyed reading your review! Maybe down the line you will rewatch it and see if it feels the same to you or different.


    • I have to admit I’m not a fan of 2010s science fiction in general; it’s too pessimistic and fearful of the unknown to be inspiring. While one could argue that they’re trying to take cues from pioneering sci-fi of the early 20th century, it is, in practice like copying a copied sheet of paper. You get something that vaguely looks like the original, yet lacks its nuances as the ink begins to congeal.

      I stand by my conclusion, though I don’t think the film was intentionally anti-intellectual. It’s just how the narrative comes across when examining it in depth. Two characters are characterized by their intelligence and are amoral and immoral while the comparatively righteous one is actively done in by his intelligence. The film is not making a good case for intelligent thinking with this admittedly small sample size.

      I think cautionary tales have their place, but I believe the current wave of science fiction writers don’t have the clout to pull them off successfully (for an example of it done right, see Brazil). It requires nuance and the ability to handle many moving parts at one – both skills are lacking in this film and many others like it.

      Even after revisiting it, I concluded that it really has not held up well.

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. I watched this on a long flight (captive audience). I thought it was rather a lost opportunity. That deep philosophical question arising from the inability of one to know of another’s experience, and the potential error in mistaking one’s own experience as representative, is fundamental to a discussion of machine-intelligence in general. At what point should a machine have rights? Is it when it has experiences of its own, or merely when it acts as though it has those experiences? How will we know the difference? Will the machine know the difference? Is there a difference? Unfortunately, the film left all of that unclear. We never actually learned anything about the underlying drives or motives of the central character, or if she really had any. Perhaps aiming at a mass audience, Garland seemed to have descended into some lowest common-denominator portrayals. Perhaps he just decided that a realistic approach to the assessment of individuality from the perspective of artificial intelligence would just be too intellectually challenging… or maybe just too boring for most audiences.

    I’ll give that being physically attractive to a human might increase the probability of human misjudgment between the outward expression of true experience and emulation. However, by the end of the film, I was sort of feeling like I had watched an episode of Gilligan’s Island… where if one person had made one intelligent decision at any point during the story, the whole thing would have been over before it started.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, this was definitely a film in which the director was more interested in throwing curveballs than telling a good story. And yes, all of the fascinating questions you proposed are left to fall by the wayside entirely because Mr. Garland decided to be shocking more than anything else. I didn’t think of it that way, but I do think the film is mired in an annoyingly persistent brand of pseudointellectualism that infected film discourse throughout the 2010s – the kind that uses big words and throws advanced concepts around for the sake of making itself seem more intelligent than it is. Rather than approaching his craft with any kind of nuance, Mr. Garland took a very hammer-and-nail approach and his narrative was worse off for it.

      You are the only person I’ve come across who has ever compared Ex Machina with Gilligan’s Island, but I like the comparison. You’re right, and it actually reminds me of Ari Aster’s Midsommar in that it’s a film wherein everyone, despite ostensibly being intelligent, has to act like an idiot for the sake of maintaining the plot’s integrity. Alternatively, Ex Machina is a true intellectual’s nightmare given that intelligence is not portrayed in a flattering light.

      Liked by 1 person

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