Ex Machina is a film that I’ve been meaning to watch for a long time and after finally getting round to watching it, it was certainly worth the wait.
To put it simply, it was outstanding.
“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” – Nathan
Every now and again, a film comes along that challenges your perception. When you watch a sci-fi film, there’s always going to be a sense of familiarity. The question is how do you make it uniquely different? How do you stamp your own authority, ensuring the film’s essence is captured?
I’m happy to say that Ex Machina takes a familiar concept but presents it in a deep, complex and imaginative way that not only makes it one of the best films to come out of 2015 but certainly in time will rank as one of the best sci-fi films ever made.
It’s a high praise from me, but Ex Machina certainly deserves that credit. It’s a film that is very reminiscent of Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Under the Skin, executed with a beautiful yet ambient justification that subtly draws you into the moment, leaving you captivated. It’s not a film that goes down the Terminator route by saying all robots are evil and will kill us all like some apocalyptic prophecy. It does the opposite by being sympathetic, trying to understand reason through the muddled blurred lines of judgement.
Ex Machina is an exploration into the human condition, modelling itself on fascination and curiosity by questioning the morality and ethics and the consequences that result in it. In other words, action vs. reaction.
It achieves this by examining the idea of “playing God”. Just like Prometheus, the Titan God who created mankind and gave us fire which he stole from the heavens, the idea of creationism plays a major part. There’s freedom in humanity which allows us to achieve greater things if we put our minds to it. The flip side is the path we choose can ultimately be our undoing. Therefore Ex Machina becomes a poetic revelation with a great sense of foreboding and change – all taking place in a beautifully secluded yet claustrophobic location.
The film starts innocently enough with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer whizz-kid winning a “Willy Wonka” style competition to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a highly intelligent yet reclusive CEO who is on the verge of an AI revolution that could change the world. Nathan needs Caleb’s help in realising that vision by operating tests on a humanoid robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander).
What makes this film special is because it asks a very important question – what makes us human? Is it based on our actions? Is it our ability to sympathise and connect? Or are there deeper, contributing factors? If being human is based purely on emotion, besides the obvious observation of human bone vs robotic parts, there’s a fine line that separate us. When faced with the challenge in determining what’s genuinely real and authentic, how would we know the difference? How far does trust go?
The entire film operates like a test or in this specific case, the Turing test. Developed by WWII code breaker Alan Turing, it’s a method in determining the intelligence of a computer and whether humans could tell the difference. Caleb’s important task is to establish whether Ava can pass that test.
The test itself is unique and unconventional, for one simple reason. As a viewer, you’re not sure who’s actually under interrogation or in control. The conversations are personal and intimate, occurring behind transparent glass walls, as both characters present a version of themselves. It becomes a symbolic notion, implying that there’s nothing to hide. Even though this film is essentially Caleb’s journey into unknown territory in which the audience follows, it’s Alicia Vikander that stands out in a challenging yet nuance performance.
Vikander’s performance is unnerving, aided by the brilliant visual effects. She acts too perfect and the film adopts a Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein approach to justify her nature.
Ava’s decisions are what you would expect from a humanoid robot – curious, smart but most importantly, adaptive, operating outside the logic of Asimov’s three laws of robotics. She learns and it’s how she interacts with both Caleb and Nathan which shows off her true dominance.
Nathan created a machine with advance capabilities in human emotions and facial recognition that she could essentially judge whether someone is lying or not. When she’s interacting with Caleb, she appeals to his curiosity and excitement – both intelligently and physically. She wants to get to know him but ultimately like David from Prometheus or the Replicants in Blade Runner, Ava’s goals are no different. She wants to be free. She wants to live. She wants to survive.
Some may even argue that through their sessions, Caleb paints an ideal fantasy of what life is like beyond her environment. In Caleb she sees a potential way out from her male dominated existence, reacting to Caleb’s sympathy and care. This is in contrast to Nathan who keeps her trapped, like a rat in a futuristic maze.
Nathan may look like a relatable and a down to Earth type of guy but his home is essentially a prison, filled with safeguards and cameras. Even outside phone calls are prohibited. His relationship with Caleb is more artificial than organic. He feeds an illusion to Caleb that they’re friends but doesn’t allow him to fully integrate into his world. Whether it’s showing Caleb moves on the dance floor or how he treats his robots, it all adds to his eccentric personality and distrust.
Nathan is ultimately reacting in fear, otherwise why go to those extreme lengths for his creation and project? It’s the combination of the fear of his creation getting out but also the fear of protecting himself. Nathan is the embodiment of a person who’s in control and Caleb’s presence and his attitude towards him becomes a re-affirmation of his dominance whereas Caleb just wants to prove himself as Nathan’s equal in his discovery.
As Caleb delves deeper into the experiment and his strange surroundings, the more his head is messed with. There’s one brilliant scene where he’s examining himself in the mirror and cuts his arm as if his mind is asking for proof on whether he’s human or not.
Caleb: “It’s just in the Turing test, the machine should be hidden from the examiner.”
Nathan: “No, no. We’re way past that. If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.”
Caleb: “Yeah, I think you’re probably right.”
Another beauty from the film is that there’s no actual villain or main protagonist. Nathan, Caleb and Ava – each character are as culpable as each other. Their personality clashes and their weaknesses leads to manipulation, psycho-analysing each other in order to reach their end game. Their motivations and intentions are so blurred that the morals are scrutinised. Like I said, the entire film is a test, going beyond the common sci-fi ideology of man vs. machine. This film is the clearest example on self-preservation and who comes out on top.
This is Gods and Monsters and if Nathan sees himself as a “God” and God created mankind in his own image, then Ava is a product of our strengths and our weaknesses. It’s a nature vs. nurture argument which she ultimately uses to her advantage and becomes superior to what Nathan and Caleb failed to imagine or comprehend.
The real question which is asked throughout is whether Ava actually cared – a debate that doesn’t have a simple or straightforward answer. But just like Scarlett Johannson’s role in Under the Skin, Vikander’s performance displays a female empowerment that’s willing to look beyond the simple physical and attractive qualities by delving into the psychology of an individual.
It’s the film’s deep, layered and philosophical ideas that makes Ex Machina outstanding. While the concepts are familiar, Alex Garland’s stylish direction paid off and is pleasing on the eye. It’s a film that feels relevant and in the case of Ava, it’s our attitudes towards technology and how we treat it becomes a deciding factor. Whilst from a distance, it’s easy to judge but placed in the exact same scenario, what choices would we succumb to?
Ex Machina represents a journey in self-discovery that results in ripple like repercussions.
With its dark, dystopian ending, where that journey starts is deliberately left open but the debate about technology and its continued advances will always remain a topical debate.
So weird, but somehow, it all worked. Nice review.
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Thanks Dan! It’s a good thought-provoking film.