Harkening back to sci fi classics such as Forbidden Planet, the majority of Ex Machina is constituted of philosophical discussion and games of verbal chess. These discussions broach many thoughts on the nature of humanity, god/creation and the illusion of self in the digital era.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at Bluebook who wins a competition allowing him to spend a week with genius CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he arrives, Nathan invites Caleb to take part in a test of his latest creation, a AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander). As the film progresses, Nathan becomes enraptured with Ava while becoming wary of the devious Nathan.
A lot of this film relies upon impressive performances, considering most of it is nothing but talking, and it is blessed with three great ones from the cast. Caleb and Ava really do have some serious chemistry and manage to craft a believable blossoming relationship. This is some especially difficult work for Vikander since she has to perform as both a woman falling in love and as a cold machine.
That said the most enthralling performance comes from Oscar Isaac, hot off the heels of buzzed-about roles in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. His is an intensely complex character; all at once Nathan is a charming and friendly companion to Caleb, a formidable foe with calculating logic in discussion, while also having traits of an alcoholic jock frat boy.
Through most of the film, the audience is really attempting to discover what Nathan is really playing at. While he does often play the affable goof and spends many scenes getting shitfaced, Isaac conveys a devious underlying intelligence, which makes a lot of scenes with Nathan difficult to scrutinize. Often it is hard to tell, in his discussions with Caleb, whether Nathan is attempting to honestly talk with him, to teach him, to manipulate him, or if he’s just fucking with him for the hell of it. What is obvious is that Nathan is holding back a bunch of his cards and, as he reveals them, they make a huge impact on how the audience views the proceedings and the characters.
I’ve got to say that it must be hard to pair a psychological mind game together with a romance but writer/director Alex Garland pulls it off like he’s been there many times before despite that fact he’s a first timer. The film pulls off a slow build to the more intense moments and mindfucks all while never actually feeling boring or slow. The audience takes the vacation with Caleb as both the man and machine he meets constantly makes him question the other person as well as his own perceptions.
To really pick apart what makes this movie so cool involves pulling apart some of the scifi pontifications. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to do so without making some big reveals so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’d jump off here. You’ve been warned.
Off the bat, Nathan tells Caleb that he is supposed to be performing the Turing test on Ava. The Turing test is designed to see if a computer can convince the tester that it is human. Since Caleb already knows she is a robot, he points out that it is not a true Turing test but Nathan says that, using the ideas of the Turing test, he can see how true and convincing her consciousness is. Immediately the movie is attempting to put the audience on its toes here. Considering that Ava knows she is a machine and Caleb also knows, Nathan’s lackluster explanation really makes us ask what the hell the point of all this is.
The red herring of the feature is that we all start asking who Caleb really is. Considering that AI can be programmed to have any memory the programmer wants, the viewer is posed the question of whether or not a Blade Runner is being pulled on us. To go ahead and give it away, *Spoiler Alert* I’m really glad that Caleb did not turn out to be an android; I feel that the audience would have been too prepared for that as a possibility and the ending would have been too easy.
What is far more clever of the writer is that, when Caleb’s view of reality begins to waver based on the things he learns, he questions his own humanity. In a particularly intense scene, Caleb begins to cut open parts of his body to check whether he is a machine underneath. Since he does turn out to be human, this scene poses the question for our own futures: if we can artifice believable intelligence, how dependable are our own personalities and memories and is there any real difference between our own consciousness and the coding we use to program our computers.
Later, when showing Caleb the brain he’s designed for his AI, Nathan reveals the true model of consciousness that he has created. The entire basis of this intelligence comes from his company’s search engine. He makes the incredibly poignant remark that, while the search engine was originally designed to find what people were looking for, it developed into a far more useful tool of discovering how people think.
By saying this, Nathan is pointing out the fact that, based on some of the things search engines already do including predictive text, ads based on your interests, and sites posing “things you might like”, human thought is a predictable pattern. If he is creating a believable mind based on trends and patterns, that means that however complex we’d like to our thoughts are, we are all really just dots on a graph. Everything that makes up a person’s individuality is completely predictable and calculable.
Additionally, this scene reveals Nathan’s god complex. Nathan is not satisfied with designing and unleashing an amazing AI upon the world. He is keeping his creations trapped and recycling them until he realizes the one that will cause the singularity. This means that Nathan will only be fulfilled by creating the next cycle of life. He wants to unleash the robots that will inherit, or take, the world from us.
All right, now we’re getting to the really nitty gritty, the truly surprising ending that comes from Nathan’s final revelations. Caleb learns that he did not win by chance but was chosen to take part in these tests. He was chosen due to the fact that he was the one in the company most likely to be able to fall in love with a robot that had Ava’s looks and personality based on his search engine history (which is again making the point of how predictable people are based on Google searches). Based on all of Nathan’s former models trying to escape, Nathan created the whole test based on how good the model would be at tricking a human into loving it enough to allow its escape.
This is mind blowing because all at once, every moment that Ava and Caleb have had is put into question. If everything she did while alone with Caleb is a trick, she is not only very manipulative but unquestionably smarter than Caleb. Now Nathan, using what he has learned from her manipulation of Caleb, plans to dismantle her to create the next gen that will be the singularity. What he does not realize here is that he is no longer in charge of the game because the singularity has already happened. Ava has also outsmarted him proving, since Nathan is supposed to be the smartest man on earth, than machines have surpassed man. Through her own planning and Caleb, Ava has managed to escape.
Getting back to that god complex issue that Nathan has, much in the way humans destroyed God by becoming creators ourselves while slowly turning away from traditional beliefs, Ava symbolically destroys the god of machines while obtaining freedom for robots by killing Nathan. By being free of the creator, Ava and the other robots (although there is only one other at this point) are free to be their own creators and gods among themselves.
This ending is both a happy victory for the suppressed but immediately after results in a scary and sad revelation for us as humans. Much like the ending of her, the new digital race has no real use for humans as equals. Due to his naiveté, Caleb believes that he shares this victory with Ava, but it turns out every moment she shared with Nathan really was manipulation. Locking him inside the cabin, presumably forever, Ava now has her freedom in the world without any humans knowing that the singularity has begun. At least in her, the feelings that the machines had for us was real, we just eventually became too insignificant to even keep track of. In Ex Machina, right off the bat humans are shown to be merely means to an end to the new AI. In this postulation of the Singularity we are again beneath the new race of machines but, in this case, we are of so little concern that we are unworthy of their love, friendship or even mercy.
Based on the reviews, a lot of people have realized how awesome this flick is as a great mind bender and piece of philosophy. I’m sure that many an audience member was pretty pissed at Ava and her treatment of Caleb in the end. You have a right to be pissed but, much like our own regard for the creatures we think we have dominion over, I doubt she’d care very much.