Ex_Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015)

by Christopher B. Barnett

The question of “artificial intelligence” has been a recurring motif in cinema at least since Stanley Kubrick’s epochal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In that film, five scientists are on board the Discovery One spacecraft, heading for an undisclosed mission on Jupiter. The ship is largely controlled by HAL 9000 — a computer that is said to be “foolproof and incapable of error.” Referred to as “Hal” by the ship’s crew, the computer is an ostensibly benign force, speaking in an unfailingly polite tone and even granting interviews to the BBC. However, when the astronauts confront Hal about a computing error, the machine begins to systematically liquidate the crew, preferring to kill human beings rather than to be deactivated — an almost silent rampage, which is only stopped when, in a chilling scene, the last remaining astronaut disconnects the computer.

Like its forerunner, Alex Garland’s Ex_Machina envisions a situation in which machines, endowed with self-consciousness by human beings, choose to turn against their creators. And yet, in a twist on Kubrick, Garland also suggests that — given the human propensity to seek power over others — it may be that the machines are justified in such a rebellion. Ex_Machina is set on the isolated estate of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac, in an effectively creepy performance), the CEO of a major tech company along the lines of Google. Nathan is all but locked away in his home, alternately working, lifting weights, and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. His guests are few: a Japanese maid named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and, as the movie begins, a young computer programmer named Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson). Nathan has asked Caleb to spend a week with him in order to run a Turing test on his latest creation — a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Lithe, with a flat yet husky voice, Ava is immediately attractive to Caleb. However, as the two begin to connect, their relationship takes an ominous turn: Ava confides to Caleb that Nathan is a liar, and soon she is asking Caleb to help her escape. But this is no easy task, given that Nathan’s home is more like a prison than an abode, full of inaccessible rooms and disquieting security cameras. Hence, in order to liberate Ava, Caleb will have to neutralize Nathan. It sounds like a reasonable plan, until a further possibility arises: what if Ava is the one who cannot be trusted?

Garland relies on suspense, rather than action, to drive the film’s plot. The scenes with Ava are particularly taut, with Caleb’s uncertainty punctuated by the slow thump of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s techno-score. At the same time, however, the plot of Ex_Machina strains credulity more than once, and its basic premise — that Nathan is a manipulative and possibly dangerous mastermind — is plausible just to the extent that one has sympathy for his robotic creation. In an interview, Garland himself has conceded this point, explaining that “there is a message that [one should] be nice to something that is sentient.” But what, exactly, is the nature of Ava’s sentience? And how can we get past the fact that, on the inside, Ava is all metal and wire, rather than flesh and blood. The film refrains from delving deeply into these questions, and it hardly helps that (to me, anyway) Ava never really seems human. She is analytical to the point of exotic aloofness.

On the other hand, Ava’s inscrutability may very well be the rub, since, after all, Ex_Machina tries to work on a metaphorical level too. It is more than a little curious that, in Ava, Nathan has chosen to create a female robot. Moreover, he is clear that she is capable of sexual intercourse. Could he, then, create more such robots — indeed, a kind of harem? Even worse, is he trying to “pimp” Ava out to Caleb? And who is to say that Caleb himself doesn’t have designs on taking advantage of her? Though ostensibly decent, he himself admits that Ava fits his “porn profile.” With this in mind, the film’s denouement might be read not only as opposition to, but also as vengeance against, a misogynistic, patriarchal culture. At the very least, it is a step, however unsure, in that direction.

Still, perhaps even this sort of reading fails to do justice to Garland’s vision. At the beginning of the film, Caleb compares Nathan’s work to that of the “gods.” But what sort of gods? Nathan does not create in and for love — that would hew closely to Christian metaphysics — but to enjoy the power of total self-determination, which bears notable Nietzschean overtones. Nathan, in other words, is not beholden to anything…not to the wilderness that surrounds his haunt, not to Caleb, and certainly not to Ava. Intriguingly, those who enter Nathan’s orbit begin to take on this personality trait, seeking power and dominance rather than love and mercy. Alas, such is the world that comes strictly from human making: it is a web of bio-mechanical impulses devoid of a higher logos. Thus it is telling that, in the end, Ava is far more interested in freeing herself than in helping others. She is not a hapless victim but an exploitative force, and this makes her all too similar to those whom she would otherwise overcome.