Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

(Beware of Spoilers! Proceed with caution)

Ex Machina (2015) is Alex Garland’s modern day-Frankenstein or “bad father” tale, and a science fiction story told with remarkable restraint and simplicity to boot.

In fact, the film’s glacial pace, economical use of location, and precise camera-work lend the enterprise a commendable 1970s vibe. The film plays a lot like something that might have been imagined in 1971, and (preferably) directed by Robert Wise.

In a way, then, Ex Machina, feels like the legitimate child of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Demon Seed (1977), only with the visual fireworks set to “low.” Both of those aforementioned films, as you will recall, concern computers that act independently of their programming.  And in breaking loose of their designated roles, HAL and Proteus, in those films, exhibit the signs of genuine intelligence, even if we judge it sinister intelligence.

Now, don’t get me wrong about Ex Machina’s slow-cook, patient approach to storytelling and narrative. It isn’t so much that the film and its characters aren’t emotion-provoking. It is merely that they are observed dispassionately -- without schmaltz or sentiment -- and so the audience’s feelings about them are allowed to simmer, and in the end, boil over. 

The approach is intellectual and one that demands engagement and thought. Although the film’s special effects are often remarkable (and creepy), this isn’t a blockbuster-type story told in formulaic, conventional fashion. Ex Machina doesn’t push or preach, and is notably low-key about drawing moral conclusions for viewers. 

Instead, audiences are asked to consider, finally, what it means to be conscious, and what responsibilities come along with that descriptor. The film’s approach is carefully, relentlessly cerebral, and yet, by shunning emotionalism (and, to a large degree, sensationalism), the last act delivers a devastating emotional impact.

Indeed, Ex Machina might be described as a Turing Test for modern movie audiences.  If you leave this sci-fi film unmoved by what you’ve seen, you may not be fully conscious or human, yourself. 

“It’s not the history of man. It’s the history of Gods.”

A twenty-six year old programmer named Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) working at the tech company, Blue Book wins a company-wide contest. He is to be flown to the mountains, to the remote estate of company founder, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to spend a week with him there.

When Caleb arrives at the isolated facility, however, Nathan reveals the truth.  Caleb has been brought there to administer the Turing Test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligence developed by the innovative genius. 

Caleb must determine, in seven days, if Ava is sentient, or merely a machine mimicking the human qualities associated with consciousness.  Nathan can’t do it, because he is too close to the project. He says he considers himself Ava’s “Dad.”

Caleb meets with Ava across seven interview “sessions,” and finds out that she appears to be a curious and lively individual, created in the form of a lovely woman. 

During a power outage, however – when the surveillance cameras are off -- Ava reveals to Caleb that Nathan is a liar, and that he cannot be trusted.

Later, Caleb learns that Nathan plans to overwrite Ava’s memory once the Turing Test is done, an act which will, for all intents and purposes, kill her.

Growing ever closer to him, Ava asks for Caleb’s help to escape from the hermetically-sealed facility. She explains that she wants to go on a “date” with him, but also assure her own survival.
But Caleb begins to feel as though he is being manipulated, and questions even his own humanity.

The question for him, finally is: who is doing the manipulating: Nathan or Eva?

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

In 1950 at the University of Manchester, Alan Turing devised his famous test (in the paper “Computing Memory and Intelligence”), laying out a path-way to determine whether a machine exhibits intelligent behavior, equivalent or indistinguishable from a human being.  

The point of the test is to determine if a machine can “think,” but because “thinking” is not easy to define, an aspect of the Turing Test involves imitation, or simulation. Does the machine in question understand itself and the world around it? Or is it merely going through the motions, successfully simulating thought to outside eyes?

The Turing Test is perhaps the key concept in Ex Machina. At Nathan’s bidding, Caleb tests Ava but comes away more convinced of her sentience, even, than of his own humanity. One highly disturbing scene late in the film finds Caleb returning to his quarters (which are more like a prison cell) and attempting to prove, with a razor blade, that he, in fact, is human, and not one of Nathan’s creations.

In other words, Caleb starts to wonder if he has been brought to the facility not to test Ava’s “humanity,” but rather his own. He ponders the idea that he is actually the subject of the Turing Test.  

Was he built by Nathan too?

Caleb is, arguably, Ex Machina’s central character. He is certainly its most haunting. We don’t know it going in, but his family background as an orphaned, only child -- and as a terribly lonely person -- is a key aspect of the tale, and important in the audience’s understanding of Ava’s “intelligence.” 

Caleb grows attracted to her, and determines that there are two possibilities regarding her behavior.  Either Ava genuinely cares for him, and is thus sentient, or she has been programmed to be alluring (and solicitous) by Nathan, so as to assure that she distracts Caleb…and thus passes the Turing Test.

The film’s haunting third act reveals a third option, and one that Caleb comprehends only far too late.

And without giving that plot twist away, that third option goes right back to the Frankenstein Paradigm as imagined by Mary Shelley.  Specifically: that bad fathers create, for lack of a better word, bad children. 

Actually, that may be too harsh or broad a description.

What Ex Machina proves is that children learn how to behave from watching their parents, and so Ava learns how to behave (and survive) from her father figure, Nathan.  She is his child in every meaningful way save for biology.

And how does Nathan behave?

He is a swaggering egotist, accountable to no one, and a man who takes no responsibility for his actions, global or personal. Nathan acts because he can, not because he should. For example, he sees the creation of A.I., the creation of Ava, not as a personal “decision,” but as natural “evolution.” 

Notice how that description takes all responsibility for Ava away from Nathan.  Instead, responsibility lands it on a process of growth, not on a choice made by a single person, or a group of people. 

Drilling down, it’s clear that Nathan is both narcissist and a hedonist. He drinks to excess, fucks to excess, and is a genius who “creates” life not for the purpose of bettering mankind, but for becoming, in his own words (misquoted from Caleb), “a God.” 

One scene in the film -- a bizarre disco dance involving Nathan and a sex-bot -- is a perfect visual representation of his narcissism. The disco age is associated with the selfishness of the Me-Generation in the late 1970s, but the dance itself is a symbol that signifies something important about Nathan. He expects others to dance according to his tune; in lock-step, with no deviation.

If he wants you to dance, you will dance.

And Nathan’s philosophy, one can see, applies to Caleb, as the film’s last act reveals.

There are other female robots featured in the film, including the lovely Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s dance partner. Nathan demonstrates no regard for her as an individual or separate organism. She is there to serve him at the kitchen table and in the bedroom. Nathan uses her without thought or compassion, and from this behavior, Ava comes to understand from her father a way that she can act to further her own ends.

The character who suffers the most, obviously, is the one who is not pretending, who is truly in love; who has not played out all the angles. That’s Caleb. He is so desperate for a connection -- he is unmarried and his parents died in a car crash when he was fifteen -- that he cannot see the truth about Ava’s brand of intelligence. 

That it is as cold and manipulative as her father’s brand of intelligence. Mean parents raise mean kids, I guess you could intuit.

Actually, I suppose there’s a debate to be had about Ava’s actions in the film’s denouement. My wife argues that she learned her lessons in cruelty from Nathan very well, and has no feeling about what she does, or whom her actions ultimately hurt. 

I argue a slightly different point.  At least Ava acts out of a desperate need: self-preservation.  I don’t deny that she is manipulative, or that she commits some awful acts.  Rather, Ava’s anti-social choices are predicated on a very human instinct: the desire to survive. Nathan, by contrast, is evil and capricious for no real reason.  He’s just a jerk. 

So while Ava may have learned bad things from her father, she is also acting in a very human way -- and as any of us might -- to ensure her continued survival.

By exploring the intimate triangle of Ava-Nathan-Caleb, what Ex Machina truly concerns, perhaps, is the different nature of people. Some folks are hedgehogs and some are foxes. Caleb is a hedgehog. Ava and Nathan are foxes.

Caleb, by nature of his loneliness and tragic back story, is not able to fully detect how he is being used by those around him. Ava and Nathan, by contrast, aggressively pursue their agenda and manipulate each other to achieve specific ends, whether a technological innovation, or personal freedom.

In the end, guess which nice guy finishes last?

Ex Machina is emotionally haunting because one character ends up hurt, and perhaps even doomed, trapped in a hermetically-sealed facility without the possibility of a quick rescue. He is collateral damage in a father-daughter fight for dominance, a 21st century re-assertion of the old Frankenstein Paradigm.  This character does nothing to deserve his fate, and is guilty, simply, of being a nice guy, of wanting to connect meaningfully with someone.

That relative innocence is, finally, what makes the film’s denouement so emotional.

Consciousness makes us intelligent, sentient, perhaps.

But yearning for love, for connection, is the thing that proves we have a soul.

By my reckoning, only one character in Ex Machina passes that test, and he pays for it with his life.



  1. Great insights, John, as always.
    Upon seeing Ex Machina, I immediately wanted to see it again, in order to process more clearly the data being presented (so to speak). Also, the dancing scene is worth the cost of admission.
    The second viewing was on a Friday night, with a group of friends, some of whom were also seeing it again. The theatre was packed, and we had to sit near the back. This is where your Turing Test metaphor seems apt.
    The commercials sold the film as an action/suspense thriller, in the vein of "I, Robot," relying heavily on physical beats - particularly of Ava running towards Nathan, Caleb punching a mirror, and so on. That's not the kind of film Ex Machina is. It asks a lot of its audience. I got the feeling from that night's crowd that there were not many people who were prepared to use their wetware, to use Nathan's parlance.
    While the advertising didn't do the content of the film any favors, it certainly put butts in seats, and I hope some of the participants were moved by what they saw. Afterwards, our group had a very lively discussion that lasted well into the night.
    You are also spot-on in your comment that this film feels very much 70's science fiction in nature. Between this and Under The Skin, I am hopeful for more films that engage audiences as these recent examples have done.
    At least we have more Oscar Isaac to look forward to in December's release of Star Wars: Episode VII.

  2. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Mr. Muir,
    Excellent review of "ExMachina", probably the best of all the reviews I have read.
    And you are exactly right, while Ava easily passes the Turing Test, neither she nor Nathan passes the human test.

  3. It is a gorgeous, thought-provoking story and a triumph in every way for Garland, who casts three rising stars to make a small film full of big ideas.

  4. Loved the story, but the casting of Nathan Bateman seemed totally off key. The absolute level of genius and seriousness it would take to create Ava....by himslef? He exuded NOTHING in that. Nothing...when would he ever stay sober enough to create anything like that?
    This miscasting was serious enough to throw my suspension of disbleief all out of whack because I aimply could not get over how badly miscast Oscar Isaac was in this film.