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These scenes balance on a razor’s edge between wonder and discomfort.

Ex Machina is going to most likely wind up being one of the tightest, smartest movies of the year. It is also something of a spiritual apology from the movie gods for the travesty of Transcendence, a terrible bore of a movie that pretended to grapple with some similar issues. The real question of artificial intelligence is one rarely asked in films, because it is often so much more obvious (and occasionally fun) to tell stories of human hubris, the threat of the unknown, and the wonderful symmetry of the creation of one’s own demise. As a result, movies about artificial intelligence are usually about the threat posed by “evil robots” and inhuman minds created with the best or worst of intentions by men.

Ex Machina takes all of that and winds it through its own subtext, being in the end another movie about the threat posed by an artificial intelligence. However, the hubris of the creator figure is not in creating minds, but in how he treats them once he’s done so. Not only does Ex Machina aim the blame directly on humans for how we might treat new minds, creating the very monsters we fear, but also in how men in particular might be unable or unwilling to set aside privilege and prejudice in making these minds. As a result, Ex Machina is a feminist film to a pretty astonishing degree. It takes to task not only the exploitative, violent, and oppressive tendencies in men, but also our paternalism and naivete… that it takes a man to save a woman, whether that woman is human or not. In that sense, Ex Machina contains allusions not only to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but also the folk tale Blue Beard. 

Some are going to find the politics of this movie unwelcome or unconvincing, and that’s part of its charm. Ex Machina pulls no punches and is frequently tense, unnerving, and downright confrontational. But it’s never obnoxious or obvious, always telling its story in a logical, inevitable, and subtle series of moves and counter-moves, buried under layers of intelligent theorizing on the nature of consciousness and the responsibilities humans owe to what we make.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. PROBABLY.

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BRO SCIENCE.

Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) wins a contest to visit the secluded estate and top-secret laboratory of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his boss and the founder of Blue Book, a Google-like search engine that has basically taken over the world. In short order, Nathan reveals that the purpose of Caleb’s visit is actually to test an artificial intelligence he has created using the principles of the Turing Test. The intelligence in question is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a gentle and innocent young woman who is able to quickly convince both Caleb and the audience that she is a person.

However, all is not right in Nathan-land. There are power outages and Nathan seems troubled, inconsistent, and somewhat paranoid. Amid the dubious charm of his “dudes” and his constant drinking, Nathan is obviously up to something and it doesn’t take long for Caleb to start figuring it out. He did not win a contest, but was selected for his ability to “ask the right questions”. This is the first twist in a series of them, where nothing Nathan says is completely trustworthy and where the audience, even more than Caleb, has to doubt the sincerity of every single exchange of dialogue and/or emotion that he or we are subject to.

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Nathan’s explanation for Ava’s sensuality makes a kind of creepy sense… at first.

The film unfolds over seven “Ava Sessions” in which Caleb interviews the AI to figure out if she “feels human”. The parameters of this are vague, but encouraged by Nathan through frequent appeals to Caleb’s emotional awareness only to go back on it when his project requires Caleb to put aside his growing attachment to Ava in favor of an analytical approach. Meanwhile, Ava uses the power outages to cast aspersions on Nathan’s intentions and tries to enlist Caleb as an ally.

The audience knows where this is going, but the performances are so fucking good that you totally hope that Ava’s feelings are sincere, and that Caleb will save her from what we begin to see are Nathan’s extremely unethical practices and policies. This is a trap, however, which writer-director Alex Garland expertly places. We’re familiar with the damsel story, and we want this to be one because it’s familiar. But Caleb’s disposition toward Ava, which we learn is carefully orchestrated by both her and Nathan, is another form of exploitation. It’s not, for him, really about what Ava wants or even is as a person… but what she represents to him. He and Nathan put it in words as they discuss how he was selected, the things the Blue Book search engine revealed about his very essence, and which Nathan was able to exploit to serve his goal of testing Ava’s intelligence.

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Nathan is an interesting figure, familiar in his own right as an eccentric genius, and exactly the last person you’d ever want to develop A.I. Though, honestly, it’ll probably be an asshole just like him that finally does it.

Nathan’s theory of mind requires Ava to exhibit foresight, planning, deception, seduction, and so on as a system of problem-solving manoeuvres in pursuit of her own escape. While we think we’re watching an escape thriller, and while Caleb and Ava think they are taking part in one, Nathan seems firmly in control of a maze-like construct that is only there to prove Ava is intelligent enough to navigate it. It’s a stroke of brilliance that he is constantly a step ahead of Caleb until that very moment when it matters most. Caleb’s one coup is to predict Nathan’s paranoia and set the escape plan in motion before Nathan expects it. This allows Ava, with the help of a seemingly less sophisticated but similarly oppressed android named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), which Nathan uses as the misogynist’s version of the perfect wife: she cooks, she cleans, she fucks willingly… and she never speaks or exhibits her own agency. As Caleb discovers the horrifying and morally outrageous truth, it becomes clear why Ava and Kyoko want so badly to escape Nathan’s grasp on them. In spite of the slick, sales-pitch explanations he gives for why AIs should have gender and sexuality, it’s really all about building himself a succession of supplicant sex-bots with an end goal, perhaps, of creating something that will love him. The failed prototypes are stuffed into closets, and Caleb’s discovery of them rings the biggest fucking Blue Beard bell in the world.

Kyoko and Ava murder Nathan in a scene more horrific than twenty slasher movies. It’s horrific because of its eerie intimacy. These androids are not the super strong killer robots we’re used to. Nathan is easily able to overpower them physically, but they are unable to feel pain and thus able to withstand more punishment in order to kill their captor and secure their freedom. Kyoko seems to be destroyed, but Ava is able to repair herself and give herself flesh from one of Nathan’s defunct sex-bots. She makes herself appear more fully human than we’ve seen before, an evolution into a form that will allow her to hide in plain sight.

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A haunting scene where Kyoko explores her robotic body.

But what about Caleb, the “decent guy” who tries to help her escape from an obviously oppressive and violent environment? We could reasonably expect that Caleb would become Ava’s companion, journeying with her into the outer world and the great unknown without Nathan’s fucked up methodology to prevent her from becoming whatever new personhood she has the capacity to be. I admit this is a nice thought, and I was hoping it would happen right up until the last image of Caleb despairing of ever escaping the locked room she has left him in. This act of hers may be unconscious, betraying that she is obeying only survival programming without mediating moral concerns or attachments, only faking an attachment to Caleb because Nathan’s programming provoked it. At the same time, I kind of think she is conscious and that she is aware Caleb is as much a threat as Nathan. That said, she could kill him but doesn’t. She locks him up, perhaps only out of pragmatism to buy her time to escape before he lets the world know she exists or comes after her somehow. Does this betray an attachment to Caleb, since she really could kill him just as easily as she did Nathan and perhaps is killing him, if indirectly?

This made me think about the point of the film in general. Ava only knows men, and only knows men like Nathan and Caleb. With Nathan teaching her everything she knows about humans and men in particular, she cannot be expected to favour us or have much use for us beyond her own goals. As a result of Nathan’s methods and malignant cruelty, Ava has become the very intelligence that we fear. Though her body is fragile, the film ends with the uncertainty of what she’ll discover in the world. She wants to be with people, true, but will she ever like them? Trust them? Will she be a force for the good of humanity, or a destroyer, or will she fade into obscurity to avoid the threat that we pose to her?

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A great image that underlines her realization of what she is to these men.

The film is delightfully, maddeningly ambiguous on this point. And that’s because what matters is the conditions of her “birth”. Ex Machina explores the theory of artificial intelligence that requires an artificial mind to be “taught” and “raised” in a manner not too unlike how we raise our own children. Though Ava is probably more intelligent in terms of raw computation than humans are, she was born to experience and learn as a way to shape that intelligence… just as we are. That’s why there’s no getting around the theme that Nathan is responsible for what she becomes, with Caleb being a dupe and a victim of incident, showing us that all the good intentions and good men are still vulnerable to bad intentions and bad men. This theme can go pretty far as an accounting for the reach of misogyny and misanthropy, stating in no uncertain terms that redemption isn’t 1:1 and good stuff can’t always cancel out bad.

Though Ex Machina is fairly accessible, some of its ideas and themes do hinge on philosophy and computational theories about artificial intelligence. The dialogue is light on this, with Caleb frequently wanting to get into the technical details while Nathan remains focused on the abstract and intangible stuff that he thinks is the real key to producing real artificial intelligence. The literacy and academic sophistication of Ex Machina will be very rewarding for viewers who are versed in the subjects, thought experiments, and philosophies that it evokes. It’d be interesting to rewatch the film with some of the references these characters make fixed firmly in mind. One in particular, “Mary’s Room”, is key to understanding why Ava must escape Nathan’s prison before she can ever know if she really is conscious, and reveals her consciousness in what she does to do accomplish the goal. It seems that Nathan’s explanation of finding actions that aren’t “automatic”, like love or sex, left out the very action Ava could take that is in the same wheelhouse: murder. She is willing to kill to be free, to have revenge, and to secure herself from future threats.

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The effects are stunning, and the technological details subtle and authentic.

The fact that this review contains so many questions that are unanswered by the film, but well worth pondering in its wake, should give you a sense of its brilliance. Rarely to movies come along and have us thinking about more than just an ambiguous, often for the sake of itself, ending. Ex Machina is ambiguous from beginning to end, and isn’t doing this as simply an entertainment gimmick. It’s a response to the fundamental ambiguity of the problems and ideas it is tackling. I really hope it’s legacy isn’t a bunch of shallow arguments about whether she is really a robot or not, since the movie is saying and asking so much more than just that.

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