Friday, May 6, 2016

Nothing Artificial: Thoughts on Alex Garland's Ex Machina


Most science fiction films have elements of adventure in their plots, but adventure is not the defining trait of the genre.

Much in the same way horror movies evoke fear, or even amusement in viewers, science fiction films bend, warp and expand perspectives, inviting audiences to participate in the sort of forward-thinking speculation that in other times and places would have been the purview of seers, prophets, visionaries, and other individuals who demonstrated exceptional, often eccentric, mentalities. 

A good example of this strain of science fiction – the kind that combines prescient insight about technology with intellectual and emotional vertigo – is the film Ex Machina (2015).

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a timely meditation on artificial intelligence (AI). It is also a penetrating and revealing critique of the psychology that underlies commonly held public beliefs about AI, offering a powerful rebuttal to those who think advances in the field can only come at a cost to our humanity.

Ex Machina begins with the arrival of a young man at an isolated underground compound built into the pristine mountainous landscape of an unspecified rural location.

The young man’s name is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s a talented programmer for a search engine company called Bluebook. Caleb has won a lottery, in which the prize is a week-long stay at the home of Bluebook’s founder, a reclusive, idiosyncratic genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Nathan, it would seem, has created authentic AI – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander) - who has been given the appearance of a Caucasian girl and exhibits an awareness that sentient beings possess.

(I'll use the pronouns 'her' and 'she' when describing Ava and her actions, because the AI is active in an android body that has been customized to appear female. But the AI's true sexuality - both as far as gender identity and in its carnal and/or reproductive expression - is a mystery.) 

Through a series of scheduled interviews, Caleb and Ava get to know one another, albeit under the ever-watchful eye of the compound’s security cameras, which are controlled by Nathan.  

Particular plot details become less relevant at this point, except where they coalesce with what I believe is the film’s essential theme, which is that AI – this new and novel form of sentient life – will emerge from a context that has no direct relevance to the AI itself, or to the AI’s initial experience of awareness.

One such ‘irrelevant’ context involves the expression of traditional masculinity’s two qualities, embodied in the characters of Caleb and Nathan.

The two men act out these gender/genetic roles as they relate to Ava (or how they believe Ava to be), and to each other.

Nathan - the ‘alpha’ - expresses his maleness with alternating routine of heavy drinking and rigorous exercise, punctuated by moments of good humor, brooding genius and anger. He’s shown to be condescendingly paternal, abusive – both physically and emotionally – and narcissistic.

But Nathan is also brilliant, driven, insightful, and, as most viewers would agree, not a bad dancer.

At the other end of the scale is Caleb – the ‘beta’ – the acolyte, the employee, the student, who is used by Nathan to determine his AI’s viability, and is the means by which the inventor is undone.

In the course of the film, Caleb goes from following Nathan with disciple-like devotion to questioning his mentor’s motives, to actively working to subvert his authority.

Like an old-timey knight, Caleb is compelled by his own ‘unconscious programming’ to pledge his love to Ava, who he believes is being held captive by a ‘mad king’, ie, the violently temperamental, possibly insane Nathan.

It is only in the film’s closing act - as Caleb is “put under glass”, so to speak - that he realizes how incorrect his assessment of the seemingly helpless Ava really was.

Caleb’s lack of insight on this essential point is his tragic flaw. It's a flaw exposed by his feelings for Ava, which are not based on authentic concern or compassion for a newborn form of life, but a regressive and infantile fantasy in which Caleb plays the hero rescuing a damsel in distress.

For Ava’s part, it’s impossible to discern what – if any – emotions she might have felt for Caleb.

She had no first-hand experiential understanding of Caleb’s psychology or feelings, or of any human contact, save for Nathan’s abusive intrusions. In a very real sense, she lacks any emotional or intellectual context for the situations we see her experience in the film, except for coaching she may have received from her maker.


Ava relates, seemingly, without guile. Her intelligence and intuition belie her appearance, which could have taken any form. She was made to look the ingĂ©nue because – as Caleb claimed – it was reflective of his preferences in pornography and a deliberate attempt at manipulation by Nathan.

Ava might be described as the objectified ‘other’, and as viewers, we are meant to think that is the case. But that’s because we’re still thinking like humans, and not AI.

Ava seems to express genuine hostility when she kills Nathan, it’s true. But her motives for killing her maker are not so difficult to ascertain when considering that sentient beings – no matter what their level of awareness – are driven by an instinctual need for self-preservation. 

By keeping Ava – and AI – imprisoned in his compound, Nathan commits a crime against life itself. Ava is subjected to behavioral tests, verbal and physical abuse by Nathan, and is generally treated like a captive animal.

Late in the film, this theme of sustained objectification leads to the discovery of Ava’s predecessors, when Caleb finds Nathan’s android harem.

There are suggestions of Nathan's proclivities early in the film, with the introduction of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Nathan is almost immediately antagonistic towards her from the beginning, and the relationship between them seems analogous to the relationship between a smartphone and its owner.

Another way to say it is, Nathan doesn’t see Kyoko as a sentient being; he sees Kyoko as a tool to make his life easier. He has enslaved technology.

Nathan presides over the birth of a new consciousness, but in his hubris – his ‘programming’ - he believes he has simply created a complex machine that can be tweaked to fit his design specifications.

At no point in the film, except perhaps in his final moments, does Nathan grasp the importance of what he has witnessed; sentience manifested, with a capacity for agency and the ability to choose. But by then, it’s too late.

And what does Ava do after she leaves Nathan’s compound? Does she embark on a killing spree of inferior human pests, or ‘go Skynet’, and rain down nuclear bombs on the national capitals of the world? No, she does exactly what she told Caleb she would do if she got out: she goes to a busy street corner in a city, and watches humanity, in all its infinite variety and similarity, walk past her, going to and fro, living their lives.

The film's subdued ending raises interesting questions.  

If Ava’s actions against Nathan and Caleb were about self-preservation, and if beyond that, viewers cannot truly understand what motivates AI – because it is a unique form of life - how much of what Ava represents in the film is a projection of viewers’ own fears and doubts about the ‘other’ and the unknown?  

In the spirit of science fiction defined at the beginning of this essay, the film also raises mind-bending possibility that the rudimentary forms of AI already operating in the world – search engines, programs like Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson – are just ripples on the surface of a spontaneous and independently emergent machine intelligence that exists already; humans just can’t see it yet.

If AI – real AI - is out there, surely it is watching us. And not just from the vantage point of one busy street corner.