The opening scenes of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina bear an unmistakable similarity to the set-up for Jurassic Park: A young man at an office receives a mysterious invitation to a remote land far removed from civilization. His coworkers seem jealous, as the invitation appears to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After all, it been sent by the CEO of the company, a mysterious and enigmatic genius with vast sums of money and, evidently, free time. “How long until we get to the estate?” The young man asks the helicopter pilot as they traverse the mountainside by air. “We’ve been flying over his estate the past two hours,” replies the pilot.
When the helicopter lands, the young man, Caleb (Domhnall Green), must walk through the forest to get to the estate of the surreptitious CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Although Caleb is not a paleontologist (he’s actually a programmer) and Nathan is anything but kindly old Richard Attenborough, it is soon revealed that like Jurassic Park the purpose of Caleb’s visit is to be the first witness to a milestone step in human evolution: The creation of artificial intelligence. A being that can not only comprehend and use language, but have emotion, intellect, and even a sense of humor. And instead of this artificial intelligence lodged in the form of an impersonal computer shell, the robot has designed in the shape of a beautiful human female (Alicia Vikander). Nathan informs Caleb that her name is Ava. But before Ava can be mass produced, she must first pass the “Turing Test” – whether her robotic qualities can go undetected by average citizens like Caleb.
Ex Machina begins with a familiar premise deeply entrenched within the most standard of science fiction tropes: The mad scientist who encounters a breakthrough which simultaneously signals the advancement of human engineering as well as the imminent threat of major danger and catastrophe on a global scale. Fortunately, however, Ex Machina differentiates itself in a number of crucial ways – ways which make the film anything but routine.
One of these differences is the characters. The film only contains four roles – Caleb, Nathan, Ava, and Kyoko, Nathan’s Japanese maid who does not speak any English (“So that I can talk business out loud without worrying,” Nathan informs Caleb). Thus, the bulk of the action takes place in one of two settings: Either during conversations between Nathan and Caleb, or during Caleb’s face-to-face sessions with Ava. A programmer by trade, Caleb is intrigued by the way in which Ava has been engineered to understand the nuances of human language and communication. His first questions are understandably laden with technical details which, perhaps surprisingly, seem to offend Nathan initially. “No, no, no – I want to know what you think of her,” he tells Caleb. Not whether her motor skills are effectively comparable to human vocal patterns but, you know, whether he likes her personality or not.
Caleb gradually realizes that Nathan hardly fits the bill for a standard mad scientist. He spends most of the time drinking alcohol or lifting weights to get rid of nasty hangovers. He doesn’t use scientific jargon and comes off as friendly, affable, and even goofy (one potentially tense moment between the two is eased when Nathan breaks into a sudden dance with Kyoko). Caleb relishes at the opportunity to work as Nathan’s beta tester, although he marvels at his god complex and remains suspicious about the surroundings – especially since so many locations in the house are kept off limits while sudden mysterious power outages occur sporadically.
And as for Ava the robot – well she’s everything you could ever imagine in advanced artificial intelligence. She has perfect command of language, is able to articulate her thoughts and feelings, and even draws pictures. She puts on human clothes and even seems to be capable of understanding abstract human concepts like flirtation, embarrassment, and intimacy. Caleb’s interactions with Ava are limited to once a day with a glass barricade separating them and Nathan viewing the interaction through surveillance video. What’s interesting about these the way these sequences are filmed by Garland is that it’s never really clear whether Ava’s the one being interrogated, or whether it’s Caleb. Visually, Caleb is the one sitting in the more enclosed, tighter space making him almost appear like a prison inmate, while Ava is able to move about with greater freedom. But physical interaction such as touching remains strictly off-limits. It feels a little like Clarice Sterling and Hannibal Lector.
There’s more. Much, much more. I dare not spoil some of the surprises this story has to offer, except to say that because the story is so narrowly focused on four people – only two of which can claim to be both human and able to understand English – Ex Machina is less concerned with the events that transpire and more interested in personalities of its characters. It would not be inaccurate to consider the film more of a nuanced character study than a true science fiction film. Caleb functions not only as a skeptic and foil to Nathan’s pseudo-philosophical diatribes on robotic evolution (“Soon humans will be looked at the same way we look at relics of skeletons excavated in the plains of Africa,” he poetically waxes at one point), but is gradually shown to carry some degree of care and even sympathy for Ava. What gives Nathan the right to sentence his creation to a life of imprisonment fortified within the lifeless walls of his laboratory? If Ava can think and communicate like a human, does that not also make her capable of having feelings of loneliness, isolation, and curiosity about the world around her? The same world she has been systematically suppressed from?
The question at the heart of Ex Machina is not only whether robots can process and replicate human communication, but whether – if the technology became possible – robots should be equipped with those uniquely human faculties. In the world of Ex Machina, the engineering of artificial intelligence become so advanced that robots even adopt some of the worst deficiencies of human intellect and character; the capacity to be deceptive, for example, as well as the capacities to manipulate and carry long-standing resentment against others. Caleb feels bad for Ava like we might feel bad for a dog locked up in a cage at the animal shelter. Where Garland’s screenplay is exceptional, however, is its ability to as the question of whether the imprisonment of nonhuman life forms could ever be considered ethical and even beneficial to the rest of human society. Thankfully for audiences desiring narrative complexity in a sci-fi film, Ava’s harm to humanity does not come in the form of machine guns or explosive devices, but in her excelled learning capacities and her callous indifference toward human emotions.
Simply put, this is a brilliant film. At a time when overreliance on computers threatens to destabilize virtually every part of the human experience – from basic interaction to romance to education to vocational skills – Ex Machina is a reminder that humanity and its attributes still remain the most fundamental components to a successful and engaging story. Because after seeing this film and reflecting deeply on it, what is Ex Machina really trying to say? I think what Alex Garland is saying, among other things, is that human-ness is defined by flaws and blemishes, whereas the only real flaw of artificial intelligence is that it is engineered by humans – the very same humans who consistently put to test its capacity to have complex thoughts, emotions, and orchestrations. This skepticism proves very costly by the end, and it’s not unfair to characterize the movie as basically one extended operatic poker game between Caleb, Nathan, and Ava, with each one wondering who is playing the bluff.
Ex Machina is the kind of film you probably need to see twice; not because the story is overly labyrinthine or contrived, but because what you see in front of you does not truly reflect everything that is actually occurring before your eyes. This is the kind of film you ponder long thoughts into the night about – about what Nathan’s true motivations and preparations are, about whether Caleb is truly as naïve as he comes off, and whether Ava is capable of human feeling after all. It’s what all great science fiction strives to do – engage the intellectual as well as emotional senses – and for the love of god, it doesn’t include loveable robots with machine guns jumping off buildings. It serves as a reminder that every once in a while, a movie can better articulate our collective excitement, fears and trepidations about the future than most of us can ourselves.
Rating: 4 stars