Ex Machina (2015; dir. Alex Garland) takes place within the stylish antiseptic confines of a research compound owned by the richest man in the world. He is so rich, we are told, that it takes two hours to fly over the land he owns. The man, Nathan, is an amalgam of Bill Gates and Bill Jobs and Elon Musk—we are supposed to think he is a brilliant visionary renegade who likes to do things on his own terms and who doesn’t like interference.
Presumably Nathan (Oscar Isaac) works with a team of scientists (scientists work in teams, almost never on their own). We never see them, however. Are we to think he works alone? (He does have a personal assistant, a svelte Japanese woman named Kyoko. It is difficult to think how a man in our own world could be as rich and powerful as Nathan is in Ex Machina.
Under the pretense of having won a lottery, the prize being a week with Nathan at his remote hideaway, a young programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is assigned to conduct a Turing test on Nathan’s new invention, a highly intelligent, perhaps self-aware robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). The Turing test will determine whether the robot has achieved self-awareness.
Ex Machina presents a plot and set of situations that have been treated before—in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and the film adaptation Blade Runner), Richard Power’s Galatea 2.2, and so on. The questions center on whether a created being, becoming self-aware, possesses a soul, is human, is entitled to self-determination. The questions have been asked often, but they continue to fascinate, and that fascination is fundamental to the success of this stylish and satisfying film.
The outcome of the test is not inconsequential to Ava. She understands that she may well be disconnected—reprogrammed. She therefore opts out of waiting for her creator to make up his mind—is she self-aware, does she possess agency, is she human?—and reaches her own answer. This is a surprising twist to an old story. But it does come with certain practical problems.
The biological humans in this film have their issues—they are compromised, flawed, manipulative individuals. Nathan is an alcoholic. Just as he programs robots, he programs human situations. His deception of Caleb—pretending to give him a prize in a contest when in fact he has been deliberately chosen—is an example. There is much he does not immediately tell Caleb, and Caleb has to find things out on his own. Ava tells him that Nathan is an untrustworthy liar. Caleb discovers that Kyoko is not human but a robot, and that Nathan apparently uses her for his own sexual satisfaction. Nathan tells Caleb that Ava herself has been designed with sensitive genitals, and that she in fact could have sex and would seem to enjoy it. This fact alone interests Caleb, who is an insecure nerdy sort of guy who has not had great success finding sexual partners. Her attractiveness as a potential sexual partner is a motivating factor behind his growing infatuation with Ava and his plan to help her escape—to run away with her. In a sense, Caleb plans to do with Ava what Nathan has already done with Kyoko. He sees her, in the end, as a thing, an object of desire, not as a human being.
The film ends in a series of scenes that demonstrate Ava’s own capacity for sustained deception. This is perhaps the final demonstration of her capacity for humanness.
The film assumes that we as viewers will not be too knowledgeable about robotics, artificial intelligence, and related issues. There is a lot of interesting and far-reaching intellectual talk in the film—about technology and artificial intelligence—but it is a lot of hoo-hah. This talk sounds convincing, and in a fictional film, a science fiction, I suppose that is all we can ask for.
Ava tells Caleb at some point in the film that her batteries are recharged through magnetic induction coils at night. When she escapes to the city, if we’re thinking logically, we have to assume that her battery supply at some point is going to run out, unless Ava devises some way to replenish her batteries—she is perhaps capable of such thought and planning—but it also seems that the film doesn’t want us to worry too much about this issue.
Ex Machina is an excellent film. Vikander in the role of Ava is entirely convincing. The visual effects used to depict her are astonishingly good.