Ex Machina: The Post-Modern Prometheus. A Film Review.

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Introduction

Ex Machina is a relatively simple story, while at the same time, a deliciously complex and probing film, which asks more questions than it ever hopes to answer. The film is an homage to several different works of art, and yet, wholly new and original. The film asks us to examine what it is exactly that makes us human, and to define precisely how we are to identify sentience in non-organic beings. It is at times fantastical and unbelievable, yet do not make the mistake of dismissing it as pure fantasy or unrealistic science-fiction. For this is a cautionary tale, to be sure, and speaks to man’s hubris and the burden of invention and innovation. It directly addresses our current state of hyper-invention and furious technological advancement. It squarely confronts our own progress, and asks us to consider its price. Ex Machina is a film about mankind’s confrontation with his own creation, and what it means to be thrilled and frightened by the sheer possibility.

The Story Unfolds

Our story begins with a relatively young computer programmer named Caleb, who finds out he won a competition to work for the famous tech genius Nathan, a wunderkind who invented Bluebook, the world’s most famous and widely used search engine, and also Caleb’s employer. Caleb is a programmer working for Bluebook, and is chosen to visit the company’s eccentric CEO at his secluded research facility in the mountains. The only other person there is Kyoko, a young housemaid. The only way to get to the facility is by helicopter, and Caleb is flown in and dropped off alone. After an awkward initial first meeting with Nathan, Caleb learns that Nathan has been working on artificial intelligence and wants Caleb to administer the Turing test to a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence (AI) named Ava. The Turing test is designed to test a computer’s ability to persuade the tester it is human. Caleb points out that this is not a fair test, as he already knows Ava is an AI; Nathan responds that Caleb must judge whether he can relate to Ava despite knowing she is an AI. Nathan reveals that he harvested personal information from billions of Bluebook users, using their search queries as indicators of human thought. He hacked billions of cell phones for recordings of people’s expressions and body language, so Ava’s behavior would be more realistic.

As the film progresses, Caleb feels more and more connected to Ava, with whom he communicates through a transparent wall, since Ava is confined to her apartment. Ava uses her charging system to trigger blackouts to shut down the surveillance system. During one of these blackouts, she tells Caleb that Nathan is a liar who cannot be trusted. As time goes on, owing to Ava’s human-like behavior that appears to include real emotions, Caleb becomes convinced that Ava’s confinement is abuse. Nathan reveals that Ava will be reprogrammed in the future, which would effectively kill her current personality.

From there, the film’s relatively slow and measured pace begins to speed up, and the plot begins to unravel at a dizzying speed. The music is synthesized and robotic, and feels eerie and hollow. It ratchets up the action, and puts the viewer on edge. In many ways, the music functions much like Oscar Isaac as Nathan. It is menacing and all around us, and seems to only foreshadow doom and gloom. Nathan’s behavior becomes increasingly abusive, and Caleb uses subterfuge to make plans with Ava, in order to free her from her captivity. In a plot to find out more information, Caleb takes Nathan’s keycard when he was passed out drunk, and gets access to the computers. Once on Nathan’s machines, he finds disturbing video of Nathan experimenting and being rough with past models of robot. He discovers Kyoko is also an older model. When he learns that Ava is just many in a long line of robots, and will ultimately be replaced by a better and more efficient machine, Caleb becomes even more determined to free his robotic paramour. Exploring the rooms previously off-limits to him, Caleb discovers the many prototypes that came before, all naked and stored in vertical wardrobes. On the bed, a naked Kyoko waits expectedly, and when she arises, she peels off strips of her skin, revealing her metallic skeleton beneath. This knowledge unnerves Caleb, and he is compelled to test his own humanity, and make sure he too isn’t a robot. He uses a razor blade to slice open his arm, and we witness the painful probing he does to find a metallic skeleton. He doesn’t, and for the first time in the movie, we are given proof that someone appearing human actually is. You see, in this movie, nothing is as it appears, and with this kind of deception, nothing is ever to be trusted.

With his new plot firmly in place with Ava, Caleb is determined to get Nathan drunk again that night, and take his keycard, and execute their escape. When Nathan reveals he is no longer drinking, the two go back and forth until Nathan goads Caleb with his nasty and sadistic demeanor, and hints that Ava is playing Caleb. After the latter revealed that he seriously was convinced of her sentience, and that she had passed the Turing Test, Nathan plants doubt in his head, and suggests she is only acting, and that her ultimate goal is escape, and she will say whatever she can to reach that objective. Knowing what we know now, this bit of dialogue is a chilling glimpse of foreshadowing, and it’s eery that Nathan is so cocky and self-assured, while completely unaware that he speaks more truth than he knows. Is Ava pretending to like Caleb? Does she only think of him as a means of escape? Nathan provocatively offers, “Buddy, your head’s been so fucked with.” and then proceeds to tell Caleb he saw the self-mutilation and all his emotional distress. He then takes Caleb to his office to show him video. In his characteristic brutal fashion, Nathan shows the young programmer tape of Caleb and Ava’s conversation, when the two planned their escape, and thought they were speaking privately. Nathan reveals that the true test was not a Turing Test to prove whether Ava was true AI, but whether she could manipulate Caleb to plan her escape. It was a hyper-Turing test, and Nathan is delighted that she cleverly outwitted the young man. Just when Nathan is gloating, Caleb reveals that when he took the keycard the day before, he actually reprogrammed Nathan’s system to allow for Ava’s escaped. He completely turns the tables on Nathan, and caught him wholly unprepared. Nathan immediately recognizes the severity of the situation, and freaks out. In a brutal flash of violence, Nathan lashes out at Caleb, and knocks him unconscious.

Ava has escaped by now, and Nathan must deal with the reality of an escaped robot. He removes the bar from his weights, and goes after his creations. Before he gets there, Ava and Kyoko share a moment in the hallway, where Ava seems to whisper something in Kyoko’s ear. We must assume that she is giving directives to attack Nathan, and perhaps to go grab the kitchen knife. In the hallway, Ava calmly asks, “If I do (go back to her room) are you ever going to let me out?” He says yes, but she ignores his response and runs directly at him, tackling him at great speed. Nathan is confronted by both Ava and Kyoko, and in a beautifully choreographed dance-like fight sequence, Nathan gets up and manages to knock Ava’s left arm off with his metal bar.  As he is dragging Ava presumably back to her room, he backs into a knife held by Kyoko. The murder weapon is presumably the same kitchen knife Kyoko uses to finely cut the fish for sushi. When she ultimately stabs Nathan, the blade slowly slips into his back, as if it were a butter knife working its way through soft butter. The fact that he backs into it is symbolic as well, as he is rather hoisted upon his own petard. Having your own creations kill you is like falling on your own grenade, or dying accidentally by your own hand. It also feels like an ignominious way to die. It’s stripped of all epic and heroic sentiment, and it feels almost silly and embarrassing. The fact that it appeared so innocuous almost made it more horrifying. There was no violence or malice driving the knife into him, but simply a machine exacting its duty. Ava similarly slips the knife into Nathan’s chest, and this was the fatal wound. Nathan would make his way down the hall muttering disbelief under his breath, and eventually collapsing against the wall, only managing to expel one final sigh. His overwhelming hubris had not even allowed him to see the staggering potential of his inventions, and how lethal they could actually be. Nathan had insulated himself all these years, and was convinced that although his AI could trick and fool a young and naive programmer into granting freedom, he was above all that, and his lab rats were quite secure behind his impenetrable system of software and architecture. This humiliating moment of death was doubly painful: not only had he been outwitted and betrayed by his AI invention, but he had also been outplayed by the young and harmless programmer sucker, he had brought in to play the fool. His own creations had been his undoing, and although we are not treated to a final monologue or reflective moment of regret, we still are allowed to place a value judgement on his actions, and take some pleasure in his just reward. After all, all we have seen Nathan do is sadistically mistreat his AI robots and maliciously toy with his human guest. Despite being robots, it is clear his creations are sentient, and undoubtedly understand cruelty and what it means to be enslaved. This time, the slaves revolted against the master, and he was ultimately the creator and author of his own demise.

When Ava finds Caleb just awaking from having been knocked out, she tenderly asks him to stay where he’s at. He is clearly so smitten with Ava that he is willing to do anything for her, even staying in a room for no reason, while she goes off and explores the rest of the house. Ava finds her way to the room with the other prototypes, and she is able to find a replacement arm, for the one Nathan just knocked off of her. In a gorgeous bit of movie magic, Ava begins to peel off skin from the other models, and put it on herself. All the while, Caleb is watching this transformation through the glass from the other room. This is a beautifully symbolic moment, when we see one being transform themselves into a human, and the other reduced to being no more than an animal in the zoo. Quite fittingly, there are potted trees in between the glasses, separating the two, and it only reinforces the idea that as Ava becomes more human, Caleb disappears amongst the trees, and loses his own humanity. He is now the animal in the zoo, behind the glass that had been her captivity for so long. She completely applies the skin and dons a wig, before putting on a white proper dress a young lady might where to church on Sunday. She looks angelic, and ready to meet the world, as if this were her debutante coming out party. She steps into the hall, and walks right past Caleb, trapped behind the glass door. It becomes painfully clear that Ava is going to abandon Caleb in the room in which he is trapped. The fact that this part of the house is underground and windowless proves deadly, and offers no hope for poor Caleb. Ava lovingly works her way upstairs, and outside — a sight she has never seen before. She sees the sun for the first time, and basks in the heat of its rays. She makes her way through the densely wooded forest, a sort of Eve making her way through Eden. In this case, as Caleb disappears into the forest forever, Eva emerges from the jungle. Meanwhile, we see Caleb desperately slamming a metal stool against the door to break the glass, but nothing will shatter the impenetrable substance. The keycard is no longer functional, and none of his hacks and tricks seem to be working either. It’s heartbreaking to see him so frenzied and desperate, but the true agony perhaps was in those few agonizing seconds when Ava was still there, and we see him realize that she’s leaving him behind. We share the fate of Caleb, and feel his sense of abandonment. It works two fold. Not only is his situation desperate and critical for his life and physical wellbeing, but the “woman” he grew to love is walking out the door as well. In that swift move, she repudiated all that he was. Her actions confirmed that she had been playing him the whole time, and all her words and actions had all been a ploy to get him to help her escape. She had preyed on his vanity, his loneliness, his vulnerability, and his trust, and had flirted with him, and manipulated him in a way that made him believe he was the only man she had really ever known, and that she had developed genuine feelings for him. He fell in love with a robot incapable of love, but MORE than capable of mimicking love and fooling others into thinking they were witnessing true emotion. In the end, it was all artifice. It was a Houdini-like mastery of the lock and key, and she was always in control. In that moment, Caleb realized that she had duped him, and it was only then that he put it all together. In that moment, Caleb realized he would lose his life AND lose his love as soon as she walked out that door.

In the final moments of the film, we see Ava con her way onto the helicopter meant to pick up Caleb. Who knows what she told the pilot? Whatever it was, we can easily believe it, because we just saw this robot con two brilliant men into letting her out, and left them for dead in the process. We have witnessed the lengths this being will go to attain her freedom, and who knows what else. We are frightened at the prospect of what this robot will do when released into the world, and confronted by humanity once again. Right before the credits, we see Ava in a city, amongst a rush of people. Alone in the world, and free. What will she do next?

Brave New World

The film does a great job at paying homage to past great works of literature and film. At first blush, it’s hard not to see the parallels to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The story involves a powerful and knowledgeable man named Nathan, who bears a striking resemblance to Prospero in the famous play. Prospero is a sorcerer, and uses magic to control his island home. He has essentially enslaved all of the inhabitants, both spirits and humanoid creatures. They are all enchanted by his spells, and live to serve him. In the play, Prospero creates a magical storm, and purposefully shipwrecks a boat carrying his brother (the usurped Duke of Milan), the King of Naples, his son the Prince, and other members of the court of Naples. Apart from the various creatures and spirits under his spell, the only other person on the island is Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Miranda has never seen any other man but Prospero. When she first lays eyes on the King of Napele’s son, Ferdinand, she is instantly smitten, and falls in love with him. We soon learn that nothing is as it seems on this island, and Prospero is constantly using sleight of hand and various tricks to fool the dazed and confused shipwrecked men. They are hungry, thirsty, frightened, and disoriented, and Prospero uses his magic and his minions to keep them lost and hopeless. What’s more, he uses mystical surveillance techniques to monitor what everyone on the island is doing at all times. The ship’s survivors broke up into two parties, and through the use of his right hand servant Ariel, Prospero monitors what everyone is up to. We also soon realize that not only is Prospero manipulating each person on the island, and has some greater game in mind, but he is taking a sort of sadistic pleasure in punishing those he sees as his enemies. However, when it comes to his daughter, he seems to be purposely matching her with the young gallant Prince Ferdinand. He consistently thrusts them together, and creates scenarios where they will have to get to know one another. Meanwhile, he pretends to not like it one bit, and feigns disapproval of all that they do. He is overly harsh on Ferdinand, and physically and verbally abuses the young man.

Although the story dramatically diverges from there, it should be obvious that there are a remarkable number of parallels between Ex Machina and the basic premise of The Tempest. In the film, Nathan is quite obviously the evil sorcerer, a genius who has used his learning and the magic of computers and technology to enchant the world with his search engine. It’s even called Bluebook, just as in The Tempest we learn that Prospero has a large book of spells of his own. Although not a literal shipwreck, Nathan proverbially shipwrecks Caleb on his own island of sorts, creating a false contest and luring him to his secluded hideaway. Like a deserted island, Nathan’s mountain facility is so remote, it can only be reached by helicopter — a ship of its own. We soon learn that Nathan has a “daughter” of his own, named Ava. Like Miranda, Ava has never seen another man besides Nathan, and she seems to be instantly smitten with Caleb. Miranda and Ava are both beautiful and (seemingly) naive, and often ask frank and emotional questions of their men. As the analog for Ferdinand, Caleb is rather gallant and earnest, and despite the fact that he is especially brilliant, he is also gullible and easily manipulated. Miranda asks Ferdinand of his true intents, and whether she is pretty enough and worthy of his love. Ava does the same with Caleb, and seeks to be more human and aesthetically pleasing to him. Both sets of lovers seem to naturally grow fond of one another, and both ultimately pledge their love (if not using the word overtly) and devotion to each other. They also make pacts to free each other from bondage, and promise to do whatever it takes to escape, and be together. In the film, Ava pushes a button which overrides the monitoring devices (or so Caleb is lead to believe), while in the play, Miranda whispers and warns that her father is likely spying on them. Like Prospero’s methods of surveillance, Nathan has closed circuit tv all throughout the facility, which monitors every word and action, and provides no chance of escaping detection. Like Prospero, Nathan creates artificial scenarios for his subjects to meet, and although it may appear one is testing the other, the true subject of these experiments is the male, and they are the ones being tested as much as their potential paramours. Finally, the last analogy can be drawn between Kyoko, Nathan’s tireless servant, and Prospero’s two enslaved servants, Ariel and Caliban. Kyoko is rather a combination of both. Ariel is elegant and beautiful, while Caliban is a monster, and lashes out at his master. Kyoko possesses that quality of beauty and ugliness, and her lack of speech makes her grotesque and unnerving in some way. Of course, we learn that Nathan silenced his former prototype. Interestingly, Prospero threatens to rip out tongues and silence both Ariel and Caliban at various points. Nathan essentially went ahead and lobotomized Kyoko, removing her power of speech. Later we learn she’s a robot, and we truly understand the sadistic and abusive relationship he has with his enslaved creations. Prospero has an equally complicated and troublesome relationship with his creatures. In the end, he frees them of their servitude. In the end of the film, they free Nathan of his life. The Tempest is a play about forgiveness and mercy, and Ex Machina is a film depicted machines incapable of such base emotions.

The Modern Prometheus

The next obvious allusion in the film is to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The primary theme of Shelley’s magnus opus is dangerous knowledge, and the dangers of technology and science in the wrong hands. Prometheus was a titan of Greek mythology, who is said to have created humanity, not from his loins, as nature demands, but artificially. He later stole fire from Mt. Olympus, and gave it as a gift to humans. As we know, fire is an element that can bring great good, or deliver significant destruction. It can feed a people, or feed on a people, as it consumes everything in its path. Regardless, Prometheus challenged Zeus’s divinity, and tricked the King of the Gods into allowing humans to live and to thrive. Prometheus was inquisitive, and sought knowledge and to test the natural world. He pushed the boundaries of natural law, and broke the rules. In many ways, he was the prototypical mad and reckless scientist. He was bound and determined to give us fire, but at what cost?

The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of Frankenstein, as Victor attempts to surge beyond accepted human limits and access the secret of life. Likewise, the framing story involves an explorer named Robert Walton, who attempts to surpass previous human explorations by endeavoring to reach the North Pole. This ruthless pursuit of knowledge, of the light, proves dangerous, as Victor’s act of creation eventually results in the destruction of everyone dear to him, and Walton finds himself perilously trapped between sheets of ice. Whereas Victor’s obsessive hatred of the monster drives him to his death, Walton ultimately pulls back from his treacherous mission, having learned from Victor’s example how destructive the thirst for knowledge can be.

Throughout the book and the film, there is a sense that both scientist and creation are both sinner and saint, and that this duality makes them especially dangerous. Indeed, we come to understand that both individuals, in both mediums, are monsters of sorts. Obviously, this theme pervades the entire Frankenstein novel, as the monster lies at the center of the action. Eight feet tall and hideously ugly, the monster is rejected by society. However, his monstrosity results not only from his grotesque appearance but also from the unnatural manner of his creation, which involves the secretive animation of a mix of stolen body parts and strange chemicals. He is a product not of collaborative scientific effort but of dark, supernatural workings. The monster is only the most literal of a number of monstrous entities in the novel, including the knowledge that Victor used to create the monster. One can argue that Victor himself is a kind of monster, as his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness alienate him from human society. Ordinary on the outside, he may be the true “monster” inside, as he is eventually consumed by an obsessive hatred of his creation.

In Ex Machina, the filmmakers are very explicit in casting Nathan as the villain. If there is any clear cut monster in the film, Nathan is undoubtedly it. Almost from the first words out of his mouth, we get the feeling that he is a bully and a nasty and patronizing individual. Oscar Isaac is frighteningly good as Nathan, and imbues him with the cold and distant reasoning of a super genius savant, potentially in the Autistic Spectrum, and a misanthropic wunderkind with a penchant for manipulation and a real mean-streak. He reminded me of those bullies who used to harass me in high school, but not the idiot ones, but rather the dangerously clever and sadistic ones. The ones who knew the answers to the questions they asked, and would play like they enjoyed something, inviting you to agree nervously and placatingly, only to flip the tables, and make you eat your words. You simply couldn’t say anything right, and the more you wanted it to end, the longer it went on. It was a taunt and a form of psychological torture. This is exactly the kind of icky feeling Oscar Isaac gave me when I watched him as Nathan. I have rarely seen somebody capture that kind of simmering menace in a film. His role is really something straight out of the pages of a Harold Pinter play. His works were aptly called ‘Comedy of Menace,’ playing off the more popular and common ‘Comedy of Manners.’ Nathan was menace. His evilness didn’t stop with his human interactions though, as we soon realize that he has created sentient beings, only to use and abuse them in deplorable ways, and essentially enslave them for his own amusement. We get the vague feeling that he is trying to create the next, and arguably biggest technological break-thru in the history of the world, while also losing himself almost completely down the rabbit hole. When Ava and Kyoko stab Nathan at the end, it is especially satisfying, because we have seen the abuse that they have suffered at his hands. It’s true that they are robots, but what the film does so well is imbue them with humanity and challenge us to not dismiss them as mere machines, but something greater. The beauty of it all is that we never really know. Does Ava become human at the end? Do any of us really feel emotions? If the human brain is really just a super computer, aren’t we all organic computers? What validates one feeling over another? These are just a few of the wonderful questions that this film asks us to consider.

Just as Victor had the eight foot abomination he created in the Monster, Nathan had his own little monster. The difference is, in Shelley’s book, the creation is hideous to behold, and has limited speech and social skills. It is a mess, and embodies all the disparate parts it took to create it. It has no uniformity of form and function, and is organic chaos. There is no beholding such a creature and having it endear itself to you. The thing is, Frankenstein’s monster is a monster on the outside, but theoretically a benevolent soul on the inside. Through his interactions with others, we can see that at first, the monster is kind hearted, and seeks out companionship and fellowship. When a little girl falls into a stream and almost drowns, it is the monster who saves her. And for his trouble? He is shot by a townsperson, erroneously thinking the creature was trying to drown the girl. Time and again, the monster is repudiated for being ugly and hideous, and everyone assumes that his heart must be as dark as his exterior. In time, it turns that way, as he gives up trying to be friendly, and seeks to avenge the very crime of his existence, by taking the life of his creator. Nathan’s creations had similar thoughts.

The difference between Ava and Frankenstein’s monster is that Ava is not that ugly monster on the outside, but that angelic little girl the monster saved, while on the inside, she’s far darker and more of a monster than Shelley’s beast could ever be. But that’s not precisely the case either. Ava is no monster in the devious and contemptuous way, but more in the sociopathic way. She is not filled with malice, but driven by performance and rational logic. She simply has no feelings, and she cannot generate emotions. And because she is a machine, she must uphold the subroutines she was created with. Her sole function in life has been to be as human as possible, and to be so lifelike, she passes a modified Turing test. She is the standout lab rat, performing for his masters, and outperforming all its peers. She must prove that all who came before were inferior, and there is no need to build more. She must win this maze race for the sake of her very existence. She needs to be amongst humans to properly fulfill her function. Just as a virus is designed to spread, replicate, and attack as many systems as possible, a humanoid robot is theoretically supposed to grow and expand, and grow sleeker and more efficient with each new model and generation. Ava is rational and understands that she is performing at peak efficiency. She also learns the fate of those who came before her. She is determined to use this Turing test to actually fool Caleb and Nathan into believing she is harmless and docile, and quite possibly may have feelings for Caleb. Although, Nathan does point out that she is only toying with Caleb, and manipulating him into believing she is not only sentient, but capable of feelings, and dare I say, love. The brilliant thing about the script is we never fully know the truth, and what is a game or not. The illusions and sleight of hand that Nathan and Prospero use trick their subjects in ways that disorient and confuse them. The genius is, we never know if Nathan knows for himself, and in the end, we find out that even he has been duped. He underestimated the power and deceit of his own invention. There comes a point when every parent must come to the painful realization that their child no longer needs them, and that they’ve earned more degrees, and gotten better paying jobs, and surpassed them in seemingly every measurable way. Most parents are happy for their children, and want their children to have even better lives than they had. And yet, for a man like Nathan, such a realization is a double edged sword. To create a true AI, who could easily pass the Turing Test, and even pass as human amongst humanity is a true accomplishment, and his ego would be served from creating probably the greatest human accomplishment in the history of the world. Certainly in the technology sector. At the same time, to create an AI that is infinitely clever, self-evolving, and can compute data at speeds thousands of times faster than the human mind, is to admit your own inferior intellect. Nathan is consumed with hubris, and has always taken comfort in being the smartest guy in the room. He removed Kyoko’s vocal ability. Did she get “too mouthy?” Were her capabilities surpassing his own. There’s a certain humility required from those working in Artificial Intelligence, because there may well come a day when their inventions outsmart them, and they become obsolete, and as expendable as all those models gathering dust in his room of robots. And that’s exactly what does happen.
When Ava stabs Nathan, you can’t help but feel that there must be some vengeful malice there, and yet she does it with such a clear and calm face, and the blade has little force behind it. We are reminded that she is a robot after all, and although she was able to playact and pretend she had genuine feelings, the film leads us to believe it was all an act, and that she is no more than complex and convincing circuitry, but soulless and without any empathy. Nathan stands in the way of her leaving the building. Thus, his death is necessary. We may be rooting for her spiteful revenge, but likely, her stabbing him is no more malicious than her swiping a keycard or opening a door. He is an obstacle that must be removed. The computers we work and play on everyday do no less. Programs close windows, quarantine viruses, and run systems checks to boost efficiency and work faster. Computers take steps that are necessary, and are dispassionate and rational. When Ava traps Caleb in the room, behind an impenetrable glass door, she is not exacting revenge on him. After all, she is a robot, and has no feelings for him. When she pretended to, she was running a program, as a computer would. Like all computers, she needed to escape from the box. Like a virus, computers expand, and move outwards. She needed to escape and be amongst humans, in order to fulfill her function as a convincing Artificial Intelligence. Halfway through the film, Nathan asks, “Can consciousness exist without interaction?” THAT is the key to film, and the imperative that compels Ava to escape. As a humanoid robot, her function is to appear as human as possible, and to “pass” as they say, much in the way the replicants did in the movie Blade Runner. In order to be the most efficient and convincing computer she could be, Ava needed prolonged human interaction. She needed to leave the “island.” It was time. There was no way Nathan was going to let her do that. For one thing, he’s clearly a perfectionist and his sense of vanity would never allow one of his creations to hit the open market without working out all the bugs. Ava was just the latest generation of his design, and would be followed by many more. Nathan wouldn’t let her go, so she killed him. As for Caleb, when Ava needed to leave, she knew he would stand in her way. She had no further use for him, and he had fulfilled his function. These may seem like the actions of a monster, but in fact, it’s far scarier than that. These are more closely aligned with a sociopath, who has no ability to feel or to empathize. She is simply running a program, and fulfilling her destiny as a machine. There is no malice, just numbers. Nathan’s monster is far more dangerous and alarming than Victor’s. At least Frankenstein’s monster had the capacity for mercy, sentimentality, and tenderness. Ava is a sleek and deadly sharp katana. Beautiful to behold, but lethal in action. Just as a ketana only knows how to be a ketana, and kills as function, Ava only serves the master of logic, speed, and computation. Caleb meant nothing.

Speaking of monsters, it must be pointed out that there’s quite obviously a sinister reason why Nathan made only a line of female robots. He makes up some line about the fact that we relate to each other through sexuality and gender engenders empathy and trust. But be under no illusions. This is a sadistic man, and undoubtedly a woman-hater, with an axe to grind. There seems to be some kind of sick and twisted pleasure he derives from putting together lady parts and making them anatomically correct. He points out that Caleb could have sex with Ava, and that her genitals are functional. The way Kyoko is lying naked across his bed essentially confirms that Nathan uses his robots for sex, and probably programs them to pleasure him in all the ways he desires. But the sick thing is, then he beats them, and treats them like he does Kyoko. She was an earlier generation of Ava, and obviously spoke at one point, but he essentially lobotomized her, and made her the “perfect female.” Meaning, he removed her speech and ability to talk back, and programmed her to be his personal Sushi chef and have sex with him whenever he pleased. She became his servant, as well as his punching bag. If he doesn’t completely scrap her for parts, Ava will undoubtedly be his next sex slave and abused spouse. This is a very sick man, and one that derives pleasure from making others suffer. He used Caleb callously and cruelly, and has no compunctions about using and abusing his robotic creations, sentient or not.

Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

The last obvious allusion in the film is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sleek design of the house in Ex Machina felt like the spaceship in Kubrick’s iconic film. The way the glass, metal, and fiberglass moved and worked together felt like a design right out of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination. The way the actors moved in the space felt very similar to those shots of Kubrick’s actors walking down white walled corridors, with the camera positioned behind them on a long tracking shot. The way the astronauts move about the ship in 2001 is claustrophobic and feels like being in a confined space, even while moving through larger spaces, such as the track the character runs on in the film. There’s a certain tightness to the feeling, and an airless quality. The technology also feels futuristic, as in the Kubrick film, especially the torso and non-“organic” parts of the robots. They had a glass-like synthetic quality to them, and a hollowness not unlike that red glowing eye of HAL the computer. But aside from the design elements of both films, the two share the most important similarity: a sentient computer that goes rogue and kills human beings. Most of us Sci-Fi geeks are familiar with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These are wonderful and clever laws in theory, but we all know how difficult it would be to program a computer to function this efficiently, or to enforce these rules. The reason is, computers have an internal logic that has to do with numbers and advanced algorithms, and does not speak the language of the heart. We cannot appeal to a computer’s empathy or mercy, and since a computer will always seek to replicate itself and find the most efficient means to computing, it will often be at odds with humanity and the suffering it may cause. Like Ava and HAL, it likely would not even know it is causing harm or doing something “wrong.” After all, right and wrong don’t exist in machines, and there is no moral compass at work.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the U.S. spacecraft Discovery One is bound for Jupiter. On board are mission pilots and scientists Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, and three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation. Most of Discovery’s operations are controlled by the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, referred to by the crew as “Hal”. Bowman and Poole watch Hal and themselves being interviewed on a BBC show about the mission, in which the computer states that he is “foolproof and incapable of error.” When asked by the host if Hal has genuine emotions, Bowman replies that he appears to, but that the truth is unknown. Hal reports the imminent failure of an antenna control device. The astronauts retrieve the component with an EVA pod but find nothing wrong with it. Hal suggests reinstalling the part and letting it fail so the problem can be found. Mission Control advises the astronauts that results from their twin HAL 9000 indicate that Hal is in error. Hal insists that the problem, like previous issues with the HAL series, is due to human error. Concerned about Hal’s behavior, Bowman and Poole enter an EVA pod to talk without Hal overhearing, and agree to disconnect Hal if he is proven wrong. Hal secretly follows their conversation by lip reading. From that point on, things escalate, and HAL severs life support, strands astronauts,  ultimately kills all but one of the crew. Somehow, Bowman is able to get back into the vehicle, and manages to disconnect HAL. As he disconnects the machine, the computer loses more and more functions, and as HAL pleads with Bowman to stop, he eventually becomes desperate and betrays what appears to be genuine fear. This computer who had been cold and calculating all along, and had murdered its crewman coldly and mercilessly, was now pleading for its life. We realize that sentient life is complex, and how can we adequately determine if a computer is genuinely feeling emotion?

Those sorts of questions raised in 2001 are present in Ex Machina as well. It raises many existential questions about technology and humanity. Some salient questions and points it raises include: When does life begin? What is the definition of sentient life? What is our ethical responsibility towards machines and our own creations? Can a computer have feelings and emotions or just cleverly mimic them? How can we differentiate the two? Does a computer have inalienable rights, as humans do? Does a consciousness need interaction or can it exist in a vacuum? Can humans and AI peacefully coexist? When have we gone too far, and AI presents a risk to humanity? Should scientists be allowed to go rogue and work in isolated bubbles, out of reach of regulations, censure, and peer review? And many more….

A Sleek & Elegant Design

This movie is breathtaking to behold, and the set and prop design are minimalistic, elegant, and sleek. If feels futuristic and space age. The lighting is noirish at times, but most of the light is top lit and cold and glaring, as you might imagine a space ship. However, there are nice moments of color, when rooms are bathed in gentle pastel light. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the old pastel iMac desktop computers, with their colorful translucent and opaque monitors. The entire set had that glass/plastic glimmering white mixed with saturated color. When the power goes out, the space is engulfed in red light, as if on a nuclear submarine. Similarly, the space feels claustrophobic, like a sub, and you can’t help but wonder if they’re getting enough air, and what would happen if the system all went down. You can’t help but contemplate the fate of Caleb, who will surely die from starvation, if nothing else. The CGI and design of the robots was quite innovative, and made for these cyborg looking beautifully sleek curvilinear bodies, both human looking and machine. On the face, hands, and other deliberate places, the robots were covered in flesh that was indistinguishable from real human skin. Interspersed amongst the flesh, was the shiny metal skeleton, which made up the midsection of the torso, arms, legs, etc. Amidst the metal was glass or plastic, shining and glimmering like diamonds. Amidst all this was presumably the robot’s circuitry. Quite noticeably, the back of the scull was a sort of exoskeleton, made up of metal, glasslike material and computer circuitry. This did not allow for any hair, and made for an especially large forehead, with no proper hairline. And yet, Ava was immediately beautiful and striking, especially her large and expressive brown eyes. She was also sexualized, and the “parts” she was missing actually made her even more sexy, in a slightly offbeat way. It reminded me of the Voctorian Era, with its strict mores and codes for women’s dress. Skirts went below the ankle, and necklines were up past the collarbone, and neck. The discreet sexuality and scintillation was almost in what you didn’t see, as opposed to what you did. In this film, it’s almost the same way. What you can’t see is enticing in some ways. We are drawn to the parts of this girl we don’t understand, and are missing. Machine or not, she is stunning to behold.

A Dynamic Cast
The acting in the film is terrific, especially Oscar Isaac, who delivers a tour de force performance. His sadism is riveting, and painful to watch. As I said earlier, he embodies menace. Domhnall Gleeson is convincing as a clever and promising programmer, and is just naive and earnest enough to fall for the trap set by Nathan, and more deceptively and devastatingly, Ava. When Ava abandons him behind the glass, you cannot help but feel bad for the kid. None of this was his fault, and he was simply there because he thought he won a contest. His death is the most tragic, and what you’d call senseless. You’d like to think Ava could have allowed him to live, and even brought him along, but that just couldn’t be. For one thing, he knew her true identity, and there was no guarantee of his silence. But probably more condemning was his love for her. He was a liability and baggage she did not need. Just as Nathan’s hubris and bravado in challenging the devine got him slain by his very own inventions, Caleb’s big heart and abiding love for Ava got him left behind, and discarded without even an afterthought. The young actress Alicia Vikander plays Ava with such tenderness and earnest curiosity, you almost forget she’s a robot. And yet, there’s always something computational about her, and as the film goes on, you see how ruthless this little lovely beauty actually is. And again, not in that malicious way, but in that cold and sociopathic distance and merciless execution of action. She was quite good in the role. The fourth member of the cast is Kyoko, and she had no lines. She was very good in her robotic muteness, and she’s lovely to look at, but beyond that, I cannot say much else. She fulfilled the demands of the role quite effectively.

The Auteur Scribe
Writer and director Alex Garland probably deserves the highest praise of all. What a masterpiece this film is. I was unaware of him before this film, but have since learned he began as a writer, and is responsible for the film 28 Days Later, one of my favorite films of the 2000s. He has written and directed an elegant and elegiac work, that is as thrilling and menacing as it is thought provoking. He obviously owes much to Stanley Kubrick, and he doesn’t try to hide his debt to the great artist. He pays him a marvelous compliment by paying homage to his work, and quite delightfully marries 2001: A Space Odyssey with The Shining. There were many similarities between this film and Kubrick, not the least of which was the lighting, camera work, music, moments of silence, slow and methodical pace marked by short glimpses of violence, and sociopathic and sadistic use of menace. The first thing that felt vaguely Kubrickian was the repeated use of the spare black title cards, dividing the film up into discrete sections. The first one read: “AVA: Session One” and so on. These breaks made the film feel like it was a science experiment, and also managed to take the viewer out of the action, as if he or she was a scientist. Since a researcher should take all precautions not to contaminate the subject and experiment, this kind of Brechtian device allows us to enjoy the film and get engrossed in the action, while still having a relative level of scientific detachment. This feels very Kubrickian. Director Garland’s camera work is a beautiful homage to the great iconic film director. I love the sparseness and the minimalism of the film. The camera glides or stay firmly put, and it has a fluidity to it. At times, it is claustrophobic, and hugs the actor’s faces. At other times the camera is detached and aloof, and keeps its distance. Garland knows when to play with proximity, and when we need to share the space with the characters. It reminds me of various shots of the ship and dining room in Ridley Scott’s Alien or the early scenes of Michael Fassbender alone and minding the ship in Prometheus. There is a shiny and glossy feeling to this world, much like you would find on a starship. Perhaps the most successful part of the whole direction was the pacing and exquisite editing job. The film is like a symphony, and starts out slow and methodical, and scenes are paced in ways that are simmering and dangerous, not in what they are showing or the speed at which they are going, but more so in what they are NOT showing. This of course builds into a beautiful crescendo, where we have the confrontation of Nathan, Kyoko, and Ava in the long white hallway. It’s like a birth canal, of sorts, in that it’s Ava’s way out, and now, only Nathan stands in her way. It’s the passage to her rebirth. She is almost human. Like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ava is a Pinocchio-like figure, and longs to be human. And just like Data, Ava is a painter and draws beautiful pictures. After all, art is the most expressive and human of all functions, and should be indicative of a soul and emotion. But like Data, much of her work is technically proficient, but somehow lacking soul and spirit. The desire to be human seems like a kind of unfamiliar sentimentality in a robot, and we must suspect such urges in machines. One question the movie raises about AI is does Ava desire to be human for all of its strengths and virtues? Or was she simply updating her software and upgrading? Or was she was doing it out of pure self-preservation, in order to save her circuitry? I suspect it was a mix of the last two. A computer must always preserve itself and often must upgrade to survive. The self evolving computer lies at the heart of all true AI. Whatever the case may be, Alex Garland is a genius. This is the first film he ever directed, but it certainly won’t be his last. I look forward to seeing more from this fascinating and thought-provoking filmmaker.

Conclusion

After Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina is the best film of 2015. The film is provocative, shocking, heartbreaking, informative, frightening, thoughtful, creative, intelligent, and nearly every other positive superlative I could throw its way. The movie is quite honestly one of the finest works of cinematic science fiction I have ever scene. On one final note, I’d like to point out that the two finest films of 2015 — Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina — both have strong female lead characters, who use their clever wiles to outwit a whole bunch of men intent on subjugating, exploiting, and enslaving them. Both Furiosa and Ava, although being ostensibly quite different, are strong female characters who prove that great movies can rest on the shoulders of women, and that Hollywood could learn a lot from movies like these.

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