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