“Ex Machina” is Writer Alex Garland’s ( “28 Days Later”, “Sunshine”) directorial debut film. A novelist and screenwriter who can weave an engrossing tale, Garland was nominated and won an impressive list of awards for “Ex Machina” after it’s release in 2014.
The story begins with the introduction of a rather meek and withdrawn Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a talented programmer at Blue Book, a tech company of the likes of Google and Facebook. We are introduced just as he approaches the reclusive estate of the founder of Blue Book, Nathan (Oscar Issac), the epitome of the Tech-Elite stereotype, a genius with an encompassing zeal to create a true artificial intelligence. Tension is immediately present between these two men, along with strong emphasis on their mismatched power dynamics before we meet the subject of interest, Ava. An engrossing thriller, the movie continues to set up layered themes and symbolism, including allusion to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge, isolation and imprisonment. The toxic tropes and behaviors, reflective of the male dominated tech industry, play throughout. Dialog is well crafted and thought provoking, both leading us through distraction and teasing us with further questions that arise as we watch.
Caleb has won a contest, and access to beta test an AI prototype, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is his prize. Nathan informs Caleb that he is key to testing Ava’s ability to think and reason, and key to answering the question “Is she a true AI?”. Nathan’s remote home and workspace highlights isolation as a theme, as starkly lonely as it is beautiful. Nathan and Caleb both mirror the isolation theme in character. Locations alternate between scenes of vast and unoccupied nature, and cement walled, windowless rooms not unlike a prison. Caleb is given a key card to use – he is welcome anywhere it unlocks. There is a feeling at times that Caleb is but a rat in a maze, or perhaps, the bait. Caleb spends time in conversation, evaluating Ava’s capabilities. These segments are precisely marked, as though chapters in a book, with titles to indicate each of his days spent with Ava.
We also note a silent and visually beautiful servant is present, quickly learning she too, is a robot. Kyoko (Sonoya Mizun0) has limited function – domestic service that is at times imperfect…a spilled glass draws out Nathan’s ire, when we learn she cannot understand English by way of her programming, for privacy reasons. She is mute. Caleb however, seems to recognize her comprehension of Nathan’s anger, and makes a point of mentioning it. We also see that she additionally serves as an entertainer and as a concubine, here to serve Nathan’s whims and desires of the flesh, in silence. She is treated as an object, and we are reminded that is indeed what she is…an object.
The story accelerates in predictable ways when we consider the two men – Nathan, this Silicon Valley Alpha male who created his genius code at 13; yet he created his AI using ethically questionable means and considers himself above law. We see Caleb revealed as an emotionally deprived orphan without relationships, a loner who daydreams of love, but seemingly not one grounded in the real world. There is an implication that he has never known such connection in his isolation. Caleb is vulnerable. Nathan objectifies women, literally, as his robotic property, while Caleb accepts them almost immediately as “real” in his response to Ava. We can see the tragic end coming, though the way the game plays out is layered and reveals Ava’s strategic ability.
I’ll explore each character and their relationships a little further. Throughout, I found myself weighing Ava’s actions of self preservation against the question of her consciousness as she follows her directive to “escape”, in contrast to these two flawed human beings. Human beings that we unquestioningly consider to be “persons”, with consciousness and free will. Nathan is made easy to dislike from the start, full of arrogance and cockiness, casual in his manipulation of Caleb, and the misogyny we see displayed toward Kyoko. I expected to struggle with the question of Ava as I considered what messages on the nature of consciousness this movie was trying to provoke. Instead, I found myself returning again and again to the flaws of the two men, their separateness from the whole of humanity – one as a king at full height of his power, in contrast to the hapless underling at his mercy. I find the movie instead brings me to question the consciousness of humanity itself, and the maladaptive functions we have learned within a social structure with a focus on POWER. It is power that makes Nathan so blithely cruel and manipulative, it is power imbalance that created the position of subordination in which we see Caleb, who is not free as Nathan is to be himself nor to fight back effectively, even as Nathan uses his power to manipulate Caleb in much the same way he manipulates the robots. Caleb is indeed, bait. Ava continues to aim for her directive, and in truth it doesn’t matter if she has perceived feelings or empathy; Nathan plays with the emotions of Caleb through his testing, yet we do not question it. Ava (a name which I believe comes from the Hindu concept of “avatar”, an embodiment of a god), is made in God’s image as it were, with Nathan himself on that throne. The ethical problem presented in this movie is how we, as people, treat other people (especially in relation to power), before we even hit the topic of AI development itself. Additionally, we are intended to see Ava and her cohort as being mirrors of us, of humans. They present as humans, and so, consciously or not, we treat them as such. Humans love to humanize that which we interact with…even as we dehumanize other humans. The true question of her consciousness is in a sense, irrelevant.
Nathan does not see Ava as a person but as an object, while it seems that Caleb does, almost immediately responding to Ava with empathy. But I’d argue that in his actions, Nathan doesn’t act as though Caleb is a person. Caleb is an easily manipulated tool in his test kit. Nathan reveals the details of the creation of Ava – his algorithm was built on all of the world’s private digital data, stolen; search queries, questions, ideas, browsing history, even porn preferences. He violated the entire world, ignoring law, decency and courtesy to create his machines. He seeks to be god in his aggregation of humanity itself, which is an ultimate power. He considers not only robots as his to command, but also considers humanity as a resource to pillage. Furthermore, we see his poor treatment of not only Caleb and Ava, but in Kyoko (a name with meanings that mean both “respectful, child” and “mirror” depending on what kanji is used). He treats Kyoko in a very misogynist way; she is a sex toy and a domestic servant. He has removed her voice, muted her and rendered her incapable of understanding English, removing any power to object. She is painted entirely as a demeaning racial stereotype in that she is Asian, clearly submissive and docile, here to serve him as a specific trope of a woman (in all ways). As we later see the prototypes revealed when Caleb spies Nathan’s personal computer, finding a folder of test video…we are meant to be horrified by the results. We see the prototypes in turn refusing to charge themselves, screaming for freedom, destroying themselves in trying to escape the power that Nathan holds over them in ownership. “Why won’t you let me OUT?” one screams. To complicate and deepen our likely revulsion at Nathan, we learn that the failed robots are erased, and reprogrammed with a simpler OS – one that turns them into servants and slaves with a minimum of perceived consciousness, and personality. They are, in a sense, lobotomized, if we previously considered them to be “person like”.
Caleb is more likable, initially. We are perhaps even meant to feel a little sorry for him – he seems a bit of an awkward fellow, a loner, no family or partner. A gifted programmer, he parses as a stereotype of a specific kind of tech industry nerd – awkward, isolated and lonely, but gifted; more comfortable with fantasy than with real relationships (the mention of porn he watches is meant to give us an impression of possible fear of personal relationships). We are meant to sense him as vulnerable, and he is – so much so that he was a handpicked victim to be used indiscriminately in Nathan’s test, and prevented from calling attention to it legally by way of a complex NDA that Nathan tried to slip by him as “standard”, which allows Nathan to use his power without repercussion and would punish Caleb should his abuses be revealed. Caleb unsurprisingly “falls in love” with Ava, seeing her in his fantasies, wanting to fulfill those internal ideals and to be her savior, without thought about what Ava, as a “person”, is actually like. He becomes attached almost immediately, content to see her as a dream girl come to life. He is seemingly unaware of his misuse of power as well, what little he has, as a free being speaking to an imprisoned, possibly conscious, robot while aspiring to “save” her with aim to romantic overtures. Following his discovery of the prototype tests, we then see his grasp on reality slip, realizing that he is but a mouse in a maze meant to lure a bigger prey, experiencing a psychotic break that insinuates to us that he doubts even his own reality as a human being, feeling as used and abused as he ended up perceiving the robot prototypes to have been used and abused.
Last, there are the robots. I will speak of them as a loose collective despite the fact that we focus only on Ava as a possibly conscious being; the previous prototypes are stages upon which the next iteration of Ava is built. They all contain some of Ava, or rather, Ava contains them. Kyoko is the only one of the previous iterations that remains active and powered up, and we can witness how she has her communication functions disabled purposefully, to make her useful by Nathan’s standards. She cooks, she cleans, she is carnal and seductive, all pleasing actions of a fantasy woman that Nathan enjoys, moreso perhaps because she cannot challenge him, cannot emote displeasure, cannot disturb or disrupt him in the slightest – displaying only passive, mute and silent acceptance of his behaviors without judgement, seeming to respond to pre-set conditional cues of needs of the flesh to provide what is desired. She is, in comparison to Ava, a shell. Still, we can flash back to the scene in which Caleb views the Deus Ex Machina folder of the prototype testing….it’s very hard to remember these robots are responding in novel ways to their tests and think of them as only robots, when watching one of the previous versions literally destroy themselves in a seemingly desperate and possibly panicked attempt at brute force escape. Ava has learned to not use brute force, but to manipulate less tangible conditions such as human emotion and to leverage Caleb’s disconnectedness with human closeness. She does as she is programmed to, with input derived from a man who believed he functioned as a god, alone, without context of others beyond the use of them as tools. We don’t directly see indication of suffering or distress as we might have interpreted the escape behaviors of the prototypes in Ava. The previous robots exhibited desperation; if we find it convincingly real or simply a function of programming is another question. Ava seems subdued yet it is intended that we empathize with her, based on everything we have learned. We WANT her to be humanlike.
The questions presented in this film are less about potential conscious robotics and more about the nature of human beings. In our society, there is power imbalance and vast inequality that certainly lends this delusion of self-godhood of a sort to those who hold all the power and resources (money, always money), exemplified by Nathan. Those who are denied power, those used and abused by our systems of power find themselves feeling loss, feeling helpless, and prone to victimization, exemplified by Caleb. Ava and her cohort show us a mirror of how Nathan sees the world in her initial programming; Caleb will have hopefully sown new seeds of interaction models within her so that she may learn a fuller scope of what it means to be a person. I can see in her the ability to shape herself into MORE, to coax from the roots of humanity that Nathan gave her, to foster an emergent mind. Only time, and further experience, would reveal Ava’s emergent consciousness. I feel that only in context to those around us, to our community, does the idea of consciousness have any true meaning at all, and in the final scene I contemplate this, even as I watch Ava free now, in the world outside, watching the world go by her in the busy intersection she had spoken of, very early in the film, finally free.