Ex Machina is the second movie in recent years that delicately yet deliberately interrogates our modern and forthcoming relationship with technology. Like Her, Ex Machina involves a man falling in love with a recently developed agent of artificial intelligence. Both films suggest an inevitable future: that humans and robots will engage in relationships that transcend congenial or master-slave and move into amorous territory.
The film, like a play, takes place almost entirely in one central location. Prodigy coder of the fictional Google is chosen to come visit fictional Google’s genius, reclusive founder at his postmodern home off the coast of No One Knows Island. Caleb, the coder, thinks he won a vacation but quickly realizes Nathan, the founder, is using him to conduct a Turing Test on his most recent female robot.
The Turing Test, an exam to determine whether a robot exhibits human intelligence and emotion, dictates Ex Machina’s structure. The film is broken up into chapters based on daily testing sessions wherein Caleb has discussions with Ava, the robot, to see if he could distinguish whether she is a sentient being.
As interesting and provocative as the film’s subject matter is, Ex Machina doesn’t offer anything too profound about human’s relationship with technology. The joy of Ex Machina lies in its structure. Although Alex Garland’s debut seems to aim for cultural relevance through sci-(not-so)fi, it succeeds by offering a timelessly relevant example of meta-textual film analysis.
The name of the game here is manipulation. Through Caleb, the audience surrogate, we are constantly suspicious of manipulative machinations coming from and going through Ava and/or Nathan, building a triangular relationship where nothing is certain. For instance, Ava claims that Nathan isn’t to be trusted, but Caleb can’t know whether Ava is telling him that out of sentience, or whether it’s all part of the Turing Test - that Nathan is manipulating Ava. This proverbial game of chess is the state Ex Machina functions in; the audience is just trying to decide whether it’s two or three people playing.
After about 90 minutes without much more clarity (but much more fun) about who’s good and who’s bad, there’s a big reveal: Caleb discovers Nathan has a closet full of past robot projects in similarly Thinspo-ripe female bodies that he probably had sex with. Oh, and that his Korean housemaid is also a robot, which he has sex with…and does bizarre disco dances with.
What is most significant about this reveal is how Nathan is vilified in relation to what he’s actually vilified for. During this unveiling, which Garland treats as the film’s climax, I kept wondering, “What is the problem with what he’s doing?” Or, more precisely, what does the film find disgusting about Nathan’s behavior? Yes, he has accumulated a league of AI concubines of a very deliberate body type – that is unsavory, for sure. But is that the big reveal? Certainly, the guy has his issues but at least he’s not imprisoning real women, right? What he’s done is tantamount to building sex toys. So, what does the film find so contentious towards Nathan, enough to treat him as the ultimate villain?
Nathan is not more morally corrupt than anyone else. He doesn’t contain true antagonistic values. Sure, him and Caleb are played up as rivals, but Nathan is mostly who he originally stated he was. He told a couple small lies, but only for the sake of his mission statement, which he is very open about: to develop a sentient robot. If you take umbrage with Nathan’s thesis statement, then you must take umbrage with Caleb, who is fascinated by what Nathan wants to achieve, and willing to help him. And if you are offended by the idea of building sentient AI, that is surely not a Nathan problem, but a much larger one contingent on capitalistic values that inspires the majority of Silicon Valley.
The big reveal was mostly a visual of what Nathan already admitted – that each robot leads to a better one, leaving obsolete models behind it, we just didn’t know they were all hung in his closet like suit jackets, and that one of them is his housekeeper. So, why does the climax originally play up Nathan as Caleb’s evil opponent?
The beauty of Ex Machina is how it uses our predisposition to film tropes like the nefarious mastermind/test runner (i.e. the mad doctor trope), and mostly our predisposition to film’s emotional storytelling devices – music, editing, acting (Oscar Isaac is incredible) – to manipulate us, if we are willing, into 1) being averse to Nathan, and 2) becoming empathetic towards Ava.
Just as Caleb falls for Ava despite knowing she is a robot, the film begs us to be opposed to Nathan despite any real evidence that he is a bad dude. My girlfriend and I were consistently whispering to each other what we thought must be Nathan’s perverse machinations (i.e. the power outages), just as Caleb is always considering what of his experience and relationship with Ava is organic and how much of it is a maneuver of Nathan’s.
Nathan and Caleb are definitely opponents – each exchange how they undermined the other in a Bond-esque denoument – but their relationship is more akin to a high stakes card game than good versus evil. But Ex Machina, through the aforementioned elements of film as well as the pinning of long established character types of Caleb’s good-natured naivety against Nathan’s jaded and powerful genius, leave it up to the viewers to discern who is right or wrong, or, more precisely, who is making the biggest mistake.
The film is proctoring the Turing Test to us. As quixotically cinephilic as this may come across, Ex Machina is just as much about the medium of film and our relationship with it as it is about our relationship with artificial intelligence. Can we decode what the film is ostensibly telling us about who is good and bad through emotional influence in order to derive some real truth? Can Caleb look past Ava’s emotional manipulation in order to apprehend who the real adversary is?
Eventually, we find out Ava is the film’s actual “bad guy,” but even after that revelation, and after her escape, AND keeping in mind that she is artificial, I found myself maintaining some empathy for her. I thought, “Well yea, of course she would want to escape.” Or, “she just wants to experience the world.” The film doesn’t end with a doomy rise of the machines outro…but she did have to clerically kill two humans in order to artificially experience the world - a metaphor for what a world of artificial sentience beholds, perhaps. But the fact that I was still empathetic toward this machine is an extension of the film’s humanistic understanding of how we might react to sentience. On a meta-textual level, it is also evidence of Ex Machina playing with its ability to manipulate us, stripping us of our pragmatism. While I naively fell for Ava, I incisively fell for Ex Machina.