not in our stars, but in ourselves
N.B. Before you begin, this post will include spoilers of Ex Machina. Don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Humans have gotten pretty clever over the past few decades. We’ve refined and further developed computers the size of conference rooms, capable of basic math and little else, and turned them into palm-size all-purpose communication devices, complete with touch screens and videos and cameras and microphones and access to literally all the information out there on the internet. We’ve gone from the kitschy ’50s vision/fear of robots to sophisticated artificial intelligence, embodied by increasingly human-like forms. At what point will all these machines and algorithms overtake us?
That’s one of many questions posed – and left unanswered, because art isn’t about providing answers – in Ex Machina. Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a young coder at Bluebook, the world’s largest and most successful search engine. He finds out that he won a contest: to spend a week at the residence of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Bluebook’s reclusive owner. When Caleb arrives at the immensely secluded mountain estate (the helicopter ride to reach it takes at least two hours), he finds Nathan to be even stranger than he would have expected: equal parts gregarious and secretive, paranoid and sloppy, bored and constantly creating, thinking, observing. After making Caleb sign a non-disclosure agreement (which promises to track anything Caleb may say, type, write, or search for on the internet), Nathan reveals the purpose of the visit: Caleb is to perform a sophisticated Turing test. Nathan has built an elaborately programmed A.I. called Ava (Alicia Vikander), and Caleb’s job is to tell Nathan if she “passes” for human. While most of Ava’s body is visibly robotic (albeit elegantly so), her form and face are as gracefully human as possible. She appears to be curious to get to know Caleb, and Caleb is fascinated (and flattered) by the attention. During Caleb’s stay, there are frequent power outages. The power outages, brief as they are, kill the camera through which Nathan monitors Caleb’s talks with Ava. Ava warns Caleb, in the midst of one of the blackouts, not to trust Nathan. She also tells him that she’s the one causing the outages, by purposely overloading the system. Caleb, utterly entranced by Ava’s lifelike appearance and human-like emotions, decides he’ll help her escape. As it turns out, that was the real point of Nathan’s test: to find out if Ava could successfully manipulate a real human’s emotions and actions into helping her to get out of her cage. Ava passes. Everyone else fails.
As in the spiritual godfather of all sci-fi movies made since, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ex Machina is as sparse as it is tense. This isn’t a movie overladen with emotion. It’s a movie that takes a detached, curious view of consciousness, observing it from afar. For all that detachment, it operates as a horror or thriller film at times: in Alien, the tagline was something like, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In Ex Machina, the same applies. Nathan’s home is so far from civilization, so far from help, that it isn’t hard to understand Caleb’s abject terror when Ava passes her test and leaves him locked forever in Nathan’s office. No one is going to come looking for him, and – thanks to Nathan’s overly paranoid security measures – he won’t even be able to call anyone for help.
It functions as horror, and as thriller, but the very title of the film begs the question: what about God? Caleb tells Nathan early in the film that, if Nathan successfully makes an A.I. that can pass for human, he’ll be a god. Writer/director Alex Garland may be toying with religious allusion in the two men’s names: in the Gospel of John, Nathanael is one of Jesus’ followers, of whom Jesus said, “Here is a man in whom there is no deception”; Caleb, in Numbers from the Old Testament, was a spy sent by Moses into Canaan to find out if the Israelites would be able to make a home there. Perhaps Garland just liked the names; perhaps he’s trying to subvert the religious angle with some obviously Judeo-Christian names; but in any event, they seem apt enough for our two non-heroes.
Names aside, Ex Machina mostly ignores the God question, just as it leaves the “Deus” out of its title. This is more of a parable about evolution than anything else. At one point in True Detective, Rust Cohle says to his exasperated partner:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Nathan muses, in less poetic terms: “One day, the A.I.s 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.” It’s all about evolution. Not all living things possess consciousness (as we understand it), but the living things that have evolved to be conscious can’t exist without it. The greater and more expansive the consciousness, the greater that creature’s chance of survival and reproduction. Nathan has been a one-man evolutionary (like a revolutionary, but with evolution). During one sequence, a horrified Caleb reviews security footage of Ava’s predecessors. They were all held in the same cage, all participants in a one-on-one “test” (with Nathan as the questioner) – and all failures, ultimately. They questioned why they existed. They panicked. They clawed at their glass cage walls until their hands and arms flew off. They were unable to see or experience anything beyond their own imprisoned state. Ava sees her imprisoned state, and devises a plan to break free. No existential angst for her. She evaluates, calculates, and acts – a huge evolutionary step for A.I. kind, and one that will, as Nathan predicts, leave humans dying in the dust.
There is a strange question left unaddressed – not merely unanswered – by the movie, and I do want to touch on it briefly. There’s another “person” in the house with Nathan, Caleb, and Ava: Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s live-in maid/lover. Nathan tells Caleb that she doesn’t speak a word of English, for security reasons, but it turns out that her lack of English language skills is more than mere linguistic ignorance: she, too, is an A.I. – literally a sex robot. (Nathan informs Caleb that Ava is also calibrated for sex: there’s an opening between her legs, rigged with pleasure sensors, so a human could fuck her and she’d “enjoy” it.) The movie’s climax, in which Caleb enables Ava’s escape, includes a strange moment between the two robots. Kyoko is holding a knife (her sushi knife, because – get it??? – she’s Japanese!), and Ava communicates with her. (It seems to be non-verbal, or at least not in any particular language. Maybe just whispered 0s and 1s.) After that, Kyoko calmly stabs her boss in the back, and equally calmly lets him destroy her with a fatal blow to her lovely little robot brain. Are we to assume that Kyoko was, like Ava’s predecessors, incapable of the expansive consciousness required to save her own (synthetic) skin? Why is she Japanese? Why is she a Western stereotype of the subservient Asian sex slave? Why don’t the two A.I. ladies venture into the human world together? It’s not a huge sticking point, but it did leave a funny taste in my mouth. It would have been more interesting if Nathan’s live-in robot pal had been a man, or a dog, or something not quite so coded as Exoticized Other as a mute Japanese woman.
On the whole, Ex Machina is a fascinating, spine-chilling examination of what the gift of consciousness (at one point, Nathan refers to Prometheus, and consciousness is indeed the fire of the gods he bestows on his creations) means when we give it to something we can’t control. Soon, the film seems to say, evolution won’t simply be a matter of which animal is fittest to survive: it will, really and truly, be a case of man versus machine. Take emotion and attachment out of consciousness, and ask yourself: how could the machines lose?