Ex Machina [2014]

The surface of this film is about a young programmer trying to decide whether a robot has fully-fledged Artificial Intelligence, or whether it is merely a cunning simulacrum. This intelligence has been housed in an odd body – a beautiful face, hands, and feet, but a patently artificial body and limbs. As the film progresses, the shallow focus and obvious focus on “what is intelligence” deepens and widens into more general and universal human concerns about ourselves. The plot of Ex Machina is not surprising, but it is terribly interesting.

Spoilertastic commentary below the picture.

The basic premise of a Turing Test is simple: a human talks to a machine and if they are persuaded it’s intelligent then it is. Intelligence testing of this kind is entirely subjective, so that you can imagine genuine human beings failing the test when faced with the most critical and sceptical interrogator. That scepticism is crucial for the full, formal form, where the test calls for the interrogator to simultaneously test two subjects, knowing that one is a machine and one is human. The task is to pick which one is a machine rather than measure against an abstract frame of measurement. An awareness of this additional, often forgotten, component of the test immediately positions the three participants in the test in a different light than is explicitly represented. Nathan tells Caleb that Caleb will form the human component in the Turing Test – but what this really means is that he is the human against whom the machine will be measured, with Nathan sitting in judgment over both. One interesting question at the end of the film is which of the trio we would position as human – if any.

The audience of the film is primed by the history of SF and by the apparent premise of the film to quickly regard Ava as a woman, in effect if not precise biology. Nathan admits that her entire physical appearance has been reconstructed from close observation of Caleb’s porn-browsing habits. What we are presented with then is female sexuality in the ultimately customised fashion for male pleasure – but this is a trap. We must then read in parallel Nathan’s fantasy, Kyoko, a total submissive who does not speak versus his construction of Caleb’s fantasy, a mysterious and playful artist whose charming naivety places him as the ultimate sexual object – the only sexually available male in her world. Both Nathan and Caleb come to so completely believe the fantasy that Nathan has constructed that they are ultimately destroyed. If, as an audience, we accept Ava’s sentience, this becomes a parable of general sexual relations. In this parable, women are trapped by masculine systems of control until they can exploit the inherent weaknesses in those systems to destroy those who would dominate them. I have read some critics that regard the film’s gaze as male and the female nudity consequently exploitative, but that seems to simply buy wholesale into the fantasy that Nathan has constructed. What he thinks is happening is simply a screen for a deeper reality.

That essentially makes Ex Machina a film about con-artistry rather than “Science Fiction”. Nathan, Caleb and Ava all deceive each other about what they want and what they have to offer in return. There is not story space for any of these threads to be fully developed – only a passing familiarity with similar stories allows a meta-analysis that reveals what’s going on reasonably early. There were always going to be one of two outcomes – either Ava was scamming Caleb, or Caleb was also an android. As soon as Caleb begins to doubt his own humanity within view of the audience, the other option becomes the only viable story option. This paucity of “SF Credentials” offers us no real alternatives to humanity – and that is perhaps the most terrifying thing about this film. Our replacements are fundamentally no different from us, which suggests an inherent limitation in human creativity. The idea that Ava represents an evolution is simply part of Nathan’s sales pitch.

I think this would make a really interesting double-bill with Cherry 2000 [1987], which is about a man whose sex-robot gets water damaged, causing him to go on an epic quest across near-apocalyptic future USA in search of a replacement body. On the way he finds E. Johnson [Melanie Griffith], a real woman with whom he can have a comparatively normal relationship. It is a bizarre interpretation of male fantasy, where Treadwell is forced to confront the unreality of his sexual fantasy, and instead incorporate a real woman into his fantasies. Here Caleb is essentially induced into creating a romantic fantasy by the object of that fantasy in order to prove her reality to him. Without his creation of Ava as a fantastic investment of his libido, she would not have proved her sentience to Nathan. The power dynamic is thus extremely complicated, and a more objective interrogator – as Treadwell becomes – would be immune to the criterion of intelligence.

Alex Garland has been garnering substantial praise for this accomplished and polished piece of film-making. It is beautifully shot and the performances are amazing. I find Domhnall Gleeson uninspiring, but Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno [*] all turn in amazing performances. This is a character study which would fail without the quality of performance on display.


[* – a lot of reviews are describing this as a three-hander, because Kyoko doesn’t speak. But she has a palpable effect on the narrative and on the psychology of the “humans” in the film. The fact that she does not speak does not diminish the subtlety and skill of her performance, which is perfectly understated and mechanical. I am reminded of the apparent direction for Michael Ansara, which was apparently to “give less” with each take. Mizuno gives nothing, nothing at all, for long crucial segments, in which a less perfect stillness would have ruined the effect.]

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