Alex Garland is a director who knows sci-fi, opting to portray it in a very grounded and realistic manner, rather than the typical Hollywood sci-fi worlds of interplanetary space travel that we’re decades (perhaps centuries) away from achieving.
Instead, Garland’s films present worlds that seems right around the corner, directly commenting on the foreseeable future, examining man’s impact on the environment, decaying ethical boundaries in our society (big tech companies and governments being a recurring target in his movies), and the imminent dangers of advanced technology — the last being the main focus of his 2014 directorial debut, Ex Machina.
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a lowly computer programmer and office drone employed at a massive tech company (think Google meets Apple). Winning an office contest to spend an entire week with the company’s founder, the mysterious and reclusive Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), Caleb is brought to Nathan’s state-of-the-art mansion, deep in the woods, and away from any semblance of civilization.
Upon his arrival, Nathan spends time getting to know his employee, soon revealing that he’s spent the past few years secretly developing a complex artificial intelligence, a humanoid robot he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Asking for Caleb’s assistance on the project, Caleb agrees to administer a series of Turing tests to Ava — a specialized test to determine whether a robot’s intelligence is equal to, or indistinguishable from, a normal human being’s (essentially a series of questions to see if a machine can hold a conversation as well as a human could).
As Caleb spends more time with Ava, he forms an increasingly closer relationship with the android, beginning to wonder whether she possesses her own individual thoughts and emotions. His stay at Nathan’s mansion drawing on, he also begins to wonder about Nathan’s own motivations and morals, butting heads with his boss over Nathan’s narcissism, drinking, and the potentially sinister ethics he’s been employing in his construction of Ava and her previous android models.
Ex Machina is a film that grows and changes before your eyes. It starts off as a very standard science fiction movie, operating on a familiar premise we’ve seen a number of times previously — the idea of a programmer being invited to a remote setting belonging to a rich shut away who wants to show off a new, exciting project immediately invites comparisons to a film like Jurassic Park, for example.
However, over time, the film takes on a more disturbing, claustrophobic atmosphere, gradually metamorphosing into a Hitchcockian thriller that verges on psychological horror. It’s a movie that stimulates viewers on two levels: keeping your interest piqued through its main narrative while also asking you to consider the deeper implications of advancements in artificial intelligence, presenting some weighty existential themes underneath the film’s action.
On the surface, Ex Machina presents an engaging storyline full of plot twists and superb character development, a movie where you’re constantly wondering about the nature of certain characters, our opinion of them changing as we see them transform.
Caleb begins the movie as a content everyman — someone who is a decent programmer, but has little to any aspirations of pursuing his own career interests or who wants “more” out of life (except, perhaps, to meet his significant other). He’s sentimental, in touch with his emotions, and knows the difference between right and wrong — standing in stark contrast to Nathan, who is motivated almost entirely by his quest for knowledge and his desire to create (although his prolonged isolation from others and singular, Ahab-like focus on AI research and development leaves him with a lingering god complex).
Unlike Caleb — who is unquestionably smart, but certainly not a genius like Nathan — Nathan’s intellect and research comes at a price. Caleb knows when to stop probing into a subject, seeing the ethical boundaries, and stopping there. Nathan doesn’t. He forages ahead, committing himself fully to his research, distancing himself just enough from his creations that he’s prevented from seeing them as actual beings. He’s like a scientist who’s gone through so many lab mice in his experiments, he ceases to see them as living creatures. Whereas you or I might become attached to these mice over time, bonding with them and forming an emotional attachment to them (as Caleb does with Ava), Nathan would never do that. The mice are simply a means to an end for him, similar to how he sees and abuses his android creations, all in the name of “perfecting” them and making them indistinguishable from human beings — something he knows is dangerous, but that he commits to any way out of his vain attempts to prove himself a “genius” capable of creating life (again, there’s that god complex coming out).
[Editor’s Note: the following contains spoilers for Ex Machina]
And yet, for all his brutality and egotism and for how much we hate Nathan as a person, he is the only one who truly knows his machines and what they are capable of. He knows that, no matter how realistic and human-like Ava might be, she is still a machine, and he correctly realizes (as we see in the movie’s ending) just how dangerous the prospect of an intelligent, unfeeling machine can be. Like Caleb, we judge him based only on the limitations of what we know about him from his appearance and unlikable personality alone, our personal bias against him ending up backfiring when we realize how right he was.
The irony throughout the first act of Ex Machina — or really, up until the end — is that Ava is seemingly more humane than her human counterparts. Held in a single room for observation and study by Nathan — who subjects her to frequently degrading and humiliating treatment — she reminds us of a bird locked in a cage, longing to break free, but unable to do so as long as Nathan is there to stop her.
But, for as much of an attachment Caleb and we, the audience, form to Ava, the movie reminds us in the end that Ava is indeed still a machine — for all her intelligence and complexity, seeing her locked in a room should be no different than seeing an iPhone alone on a nightstand. Yet the ending makes us wonder whether that’s the case.
As we see her leave Caleb behind in the locked surveillance room, modifying herself so that she physically resembles a human and escapes into the real world, the question of whether Ava is a machine or something more human is left unanswered. It’s revealed that Nathan was indeed correct in believing that Ava was feigning her feelings for Caleb, emotionally manipulating him and getting him to betray Nathan, putting her one step closer to freedom. Is that the sign of an emotionless machine, or is her manipulation of Caleb to fulfill her own goals something a human would do?
The answer, paradoxically, is both — the entire point of the film. It doesn’t matter if Ava is still an AI by the end of the film — her actions and betrayal of Caleb are indistinguishable from those of a human being. The whole movie is one big Turing test in a sort of meta-aware way. And just as Ava disappears into a group of human commuters in the final few frames of the film, Ava’s ability to resemble a human not only in appearance, but in personality, makes her indistinguishable from the crowd of humans around her.
It’s a complex film that manages to balance Garland’s ideas and his thoughts on AI very well, blending the taut atmosphere of a psychological thriller with the themes underlying its narrative. Garland does an amazing job building up the uneasy atmosphere of the movie, making you question the characters’ motivations, who you could trust, and who’s manipulating who, as well as the entire reason behind Caleb’s visit to the mansion in the first place. (Was his winning the office lottery truly accidental? How is his own mental and emotional personality affecting his interactions with Ava, thereby skewing the results of the Turing test? Is Caleb even human, or just another complex android in the same manner as Ava — and if so, who’s administering the Turing test to him?)
Those descriptions might sound confusing or muddled to read, but Garland manages to ground the narrative and present it in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way that doesn’t leave you alienated or confused at all. (It’s one of the few movies I know of where, if you want to take the movie at face value and enjoy it for its thriller components, you can, but if you want to look deeper, launch into your own personal reading of the film, you can definitely do that as well.)
Gleeson is great in the starring role as Caleb, presenting him with a degree of naivety when it comes to wanting him to help Nathan in his research (it’d be a lot like if Elon Musk asked you specifically to help him on a personal project of his), but who gradually grows more skeptical as his time at the mansion goes on, growing more and more paranoid until he begins questioning his own sanity.
Oscar Isaac, as per usual, is amazing in his role as Nathan, reportedly using famously aloof, reclusive geniuses like Stanley Kubrick and chess champion Bobby Fischer as the primary inspiration for his performance. It never ceases to amaze how Isaac can go from playing plucky, charming protagonists like Poe Dameron to someone as unlikable and unsympathetic as Nathan within one or two movies.
Interestingly, though, for as smug and condescending as Nathan is and for as much as we hate him, Nathan is presented like any other self-righteous evil geniuses — he’s the only one in the whole movie who knows what he’s talking about, and who knows full well the dangerous implications of an AI you’re unable to tell from a person (although, granted, the only other human character in the movie is Caleb). It takes true talent to play a character so repugnant in personality but still correct and rational when it comes to their arguments and views, and of course, but if there’s one thing we know about Isaac, it’s that he is talented — immensely so, in fact.
Arguably the real scene-stealer in the film, though, is Vikander. From an actors’ standpoint, I can’t even begin to imagine the challenge that comes with playing an android — and here, we’re not talking about an obvious robot in terms of their movements or personalities like C-3PO or the Terminator. Unlike those other fictional robots, Ava’s status as a machine is ambiguous — she’s more of a human than other androids, but just noticeably enough a machine that she’s prevented from our fully registering her as totally human.
When she’s introduced, we look for signs of her artificiality — not so much in her appearance (she obviously looks like a machine, having only a handful of human physical features such as a face, hands, and feet), but more in terms of personality and intelligence. Like Caleb, we know that she’s a machine, yet we begin to see her as her own complex being, in possession of individual thoughts, feelings, and emotions like any other human, as the film goes on.
And then, in the end, we see a new Ava emerge, one that we haven’t seen before — startlingly blank, emotionless, and machine-like, so that we slap ourselves upside the head and remind ourselves, “Oh my god, she fooled me — she’s not a person at all, she’s still just a robot,” and Vikander’s performance completely sells that reveal to us, switching from the expressive, human-like android to cold, unfeeling robot without moments. My only complaint about the film is that the Academy Award failed to nominate Vikander for Best Supporting Actress, in addition to her Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Empire Award nominations (a severe oversight on the Academy’s part).
Complimented by the layered performances, tight script, and Garland’s wonderful direction, Ex Machina is a very modern, grounded sci-fi movie that touches upon the realities and implications of AI in an interesting way, asking us to confront our own sensibilities and thoughts when it comes to new emerging technological innovations.
It’s a movie that feels like a feature length episode of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, a Frankenstein for the 21st century that explores what makes a human a human, and, even more poignantly, asks us to wonder, “When does a machine stop being just a machine?”
It’s an uncomfortable question we might not have to answer now or within the next few years, but — in the face of all of the advancements we’ve seen in everything from smartphones and Alexas to self-driving cars and new forms of AI — one we’re going to have answer eventually.
Ex Machina is currently streaming on Showtime and Showtime Anytime, as well as Hulu, Sling TV, Prime Video, The Roku Channel, and fuboTV (premium subscription required for the last five)
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Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).