Ex Machina is a great film and top notch for starting discussions. In fact, I need to talk about this film so bad that I’m filling this review full of spoilers (and it's long). See Vic’s if you want a review more carefully written, but PLEASE DON’T READ THIS ONE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ SERIOUS SPOILERS!.
I love really thoughtful films with small casts and a controlled set – films that are more like a play with heavy reliance on dialogue and nuance. One nuance worth noting: Caleb and Ava clearly have a lot more “human connection” than any other dyad in the film - clearly a point of irony given the film as a whole. Interestingly, Nathan is as manipulative as Ava, but rather than basing this manipulation on connection, he does it by continual game-playing and keeping Caleb off balance.
The only breaks from the controlled (and claustrophobic) set are the majestic outdoor scenes, which are beautiful, expansive and primordial. Enhancing the symbolic of a moment prior to creation is the lack of any animal life at all in these scenes (no birds, squirrels, fish that I noticed). That lack of life can be either expectant or ominous – just before creation or after an apocalypse.
The film powerfully draws the viewer in – in spite of its cool and disturbing feel. I couldn’t help but be drawn into the “Turing Test” to assess the success of the artificial intelligence. How would I feel responding to such a robot? Part of being human is wanting to humanize or anthropomorphize something as near-human as Ava. Does crossing that line mean passing the Turing Test or does it represent the sabotaging of it?
One of the most brilliant moments in the film is the sudden emergence of the question (for Caleb), “Am I a robot.” After all Nathan has insisted to Caleb that he is as programmed (in his sexuality) as Ava. His test is a graphic blood-letting (and I can’t quite understand fully the suicidal trope of the wrist-slitting). But surely even after he establishes his bodily humanity, the question of what separates us from robots is now more focused on us than on Ava (and AI). The ambiguity at all points of who is being tested (and in control) accentuates this as well as the flip-flop of the ending with Nathan destroyed (as were the early models of AI) and Caleb trapped behind glass (like Ava).
All the characters are a mix of good and evil – narratively speaking. But the truth is that actually Ava is not “good” at all – she’s functional. She is only (understandably) self-focused. Her actions were entirely focused on escaping just as she’d been programmed to do. Human death and suffering meant nothing (except as something interesting to be learned from). All previous human emotion on Ava’s part was in fact “seeming” for the sake of her goals – though one might ponder the expression of wonder as she explored new territory. Here was the expression of emotion that served no obvious purpose.
Some have suggested the film is “about” sexuality and gender, but that does not seem true from Alex Garland’s perspective (writer/director), and to me this perception implies a complete missing of the central points of the film. Certainly the film poses many open-ended questions about sexuality and its role in human motivation and behaviour. It makes sense (especially from Nathan’s utilitarian and misogynist perspective) to “use” sexuality as he does, making the “use” of her sexuality a core part of how Ava is programmed to explore, learn and manipulate others. It’s also a key part of being perceived as human and central to drawing emotional connection from humans.
It’s so important to remember that there are no women in this film at all. There are only robots simulating some aspects of being female. The fact that these aspects happen to be ultimately seductive and deceptive are not because she’s designed to have a female gender but because she is, in fact, the ultimate psychopath. The choice of her appearance and programming says a lot more about perceived male weakness (both as deceived [Caleb] and as the one with power [Nathan]).
As Vic has suggested, some of the nudity in the film feels gratuitous, and I won’t argue, though I wonder if even that perception is important to the film. Isn’t there something necessarily pornographic about creating a simulated human. Isn’t porn all about seeking a human connection with something artificial? Are AI developers (those really aiming to replicate humanity) inherently pornographers?
The seduction we feel as viewers, for the most part, is not about the act of sex, it’s about sexuality in the broadest sense – of seeking connection, intimacy, safety and affection with someone seeming to seek those things from us. I can’t imagine getting much from the film if I did not feel somewhat seduced by that because that experience underlines the danger – the fantasy of attributing humanity to circuitry. It’s our humanity that opens us up to this danger, yet hopefully it’s our human wisdom that can prevent us from taking stupid risks with our future.
I am definitely on the side of the wary (with Stephen Hawking and many others) when it comes to AI. I think we need to move from film and literature to reality when it comes to thinking long and hard about the very real concerns with AI (and the role of technology in general). This film does a far better job of raising those questions than recent attempts like Transcendence or even Her (though, of course, the latter already does a much better job than the former).
Garland reports being closer, "allied" to Ava than Caleb by the end of that film, which is fair enough. I suspect that Mary Shelley felt closer to Frankenstein’s monster than to Dr. Frankenstein. But that monster and Ava are still monstrous and deadly. In either case, it would be a great wrong to create them. When will we learn the lesson and slow down our technology until our ethics and wisdom try desperately to catch up? (And part of that wisdom is giving long and hard thought to what does make us different from a robot with AI.) This film gets **** from me and a mug held high.