Unlike most “evil robot” stories about mankind’s hubris in creating artificial intelligence, Ex Machina isn’t just concerned with the notion of building sentient robots—it also warns us about how we should interact with said robots once they inevitably arrive. (Apparently, dating them isn’t the best idea. Sorry, Japan.)
Warning: there are spoilers in this review.
R: In director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Ava—portrayed by Alicia Vikander with a remarkable balance of delicate precision and arresting emotional heft—is the most convincingly humanoid robot ever built. Her billionaire creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac, equal parts mad scientist and total bro) invites an employee, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), to fly to his secluded compound to administer a “Turing Test,” whereby Ava’s artificial intelligence will be evaluated. If she fails, she will be deactivated and used to create a newer, better model. If she passes, she will be … uh, deactivated and used to create a newer, better model.
Nathan develops his A.I. for the sake of it and looks at Ava solely as a machine. As such, he feels no guilt or remorse about deactivating her, just as he deactivated all of her predecessors (even the ones who, we later learn, protested). On the other hand, Caleb thinks of Ava as a person, albeit a mechanical one. He quickly becomes smitten and resolves to safeguard her against Nathan’s cruelty.
Neither character is able to grasp what, or who, Ava really is. This is heady stuff, and Garland handles it with skills that defy his status as a first-time director. From the moment Caleb arrives at the compound, Garland underlines the inherent wrongness of Nathan’s experiments. Contributing to this air of unease are random power outages, a mysteriously silent (and disturbingly sexually available) assistant, and a closed-circuit camera in Caleb’s bedroom showing him on-demand footage of Ava in her rooms.
And yet, Garland also has the presence of mind to avoid making this an oppressively dark piece by alleviating tension at key moments. For a film largely set in one building with four actors, Ex Machina features some spectacular, wide shots of the stunning landscapes surrounding Nathan’s compound, and Garland wisely sends his characters outside when possible.
Plus, there’s that odd moment of levity—did you know Oscar Isaac could dance like that?
B: I sure do now. And since seeing Ex Machina, I’ve watched his sick moves on repeat whenever I’ve needed a little pick-me-up. I’m not alone—that dance sequence has been hailed as the best single scene of the year so far. Which is strange, considering it likely is intended to be a creepy-funny tension release, not an eerily delightful celebration of disco that transcends the film itself. I blame/praise Oscar Isaac, whose perfectly executed choreography and commitment to heavage deserve a special kind of award consideration.
To be clear, I only write that half jokingly—I really loved this movie! Garland has executed a sophisticated vision that doesn’t fall prey to cheap tropes or unnecessary twists to prove its mettle as science fiction. My prediction at the beginning—that Nathan would turn out to be the real A.I.—doesn’t come true (although that knife slides in pretty smoothly, doesn’t it?), and as much as I love to be right, I’m grateful the script stays faithful to its original dynamics, asking the audience to think about the real ramifications of A.I. and engage with the subject in a thoughtful way, instead of oooing and aaawing over gimmicky diversions.
And I agree that Vikander is fantastic—her movements, mannerisms and speech patterns convincingly evoke a robot evoking a human. The decision to make Nathan an alcoholic, hermit fratboy might have produced an implausible and hammy caricature in a lesser actor’s hands, but Isaac plays the role just right, infusing every casual, even slurred, aside with a layer of implied intelligence and malice. His performance, playing off perceptions of tech icons like Zuckerberg and Jobs, asks tough questions like: Are our greatest technological geniuses ethically capable of dealing with the existential issues their inventions present? Are we entrusting our future as a species to those incapable of empathy, whose inclination toward social disconnect render them more likely to exploit the marginalized, or to create a new class to marginalize? And are socially awkward computer programmers forever destined to naively fall in love with girls way out of their league?
Or maybe these questions are the wrong ones to ask. That’s what’s so great about Ex Machina. It’s one of the few movies I’d go back to see in the theater a second time.
In fact, I’m not even wholly convinced Ava is an A.I. What do you think? Does Ava pass the test?
R: Wow! I honestly hadn’t considered that possibility.
First of all, the test is probably tainted, because Caleb knows the identity and true nature of the subject from the onset. Compare it to Blade Runner, where artificial humans—Replicants, in the film’s parlance—have to be sussed out; Rachel, the film’s A.I. femme fatale, nearly escapes detection on account of her sophistication. Nathan hand-waves this when Caleb calls him on it, arguing for the importance of evaluating Ava in all regards simultaneously.* However, that’s a product of Nathan’s ego—as much as he wants to know that he’s truly succeeded, he also wants to show off how far he’s come. If the test had consisted of Caleb being presented with, say, several people, the task being to determine which one was an A.I., an objective result would be more feasible.
Now, as for whether Ava is actually an A.I.? I say she is, but not because of her interactions with Caleb.
It’s the film’s conclusion, where Ava discovers her predecessors in Nathan’s bedroom, hanging naked in his closet like unloved dinner jackets. In a quiet, uncomfortably intimate sequence, she compares her fellow androids’ fleshy appearance to her own metallic body, and chooses to cover herself in their skin. (In her defense, it’s not like they were using it.) Up until this point, every display of emotion, every exquisitely intricate mannerism, has occurred in the presence of a human and could be dismissed as mere programming, or pantomime. But this moment, wherein Ava thinks she’s completely alone, belies a degree of self-awareness that can only come with genuine sentience.
That’s just my take. What’s yours? I really was surprised by your question, so I’m curious as to what makes you question Ava’s sentience in the first place.
B: That’s a really good point about the skin-dressing scene! I might agree with you after a second viewing that this scene is meant to prove her A.I., but what gives me pause is that speech Nathan delivers about Ava being presented with a problem, that she would do whatever necessary, including manipulate and seduce, to solve that problem.
If she’s been programmed to want to be human and escape her prison, can those desires show her A.I.? Wouldn’t her A.I. be more apparent if her desires didn’t align with the expectations of her programmer? And if she’s been programmed to imitate humans, why wouldn’t she act as a human might when her ultimate goal has been achieved, even if she’s unobserved? A computer runs a diagnostic without human observation—why wouldn’t she perform without an audience?
R: Well, to be completely honest, I’m viewing that scene through the prism of it being part of a movie and thus (presumably) designed to give us insight to the character. That being said, even if she IS just a slave to her own code, is the nature of her existence at all different from that of a full-blooded human?
One could argue that all of the factors that conspire to make us do what we do in any given situation are just another version of the vast amounts of programming that determines Ava’s actions. Being programmed to act in her own best interests, by an amoral person who’d clearly do the same…how is that a departure from an amoral parent passing their worldview on to an impressionable child? Maybe Ava is more like us than is readily apparent. Or, maybe we’re more like her than we’d care to admit.