The Deus in ‘Ex Machina’

“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 

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Ex Machina, the directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later), is a tautly woven sci-fi thriller about artificial intelligence, and the best of its kind since Blade Runner. It is a smartly written work that asks big philosophical questions without supposing to have all the answers. What will happen to humans if we create a sentient being vastly superior to us? Are we creating A.I. to act as submissive to our own God complex or will we become their subservients? Is it ethical? Is it unavoidable? Is there an emotional difference between a fully conscious machine and a human? What are the properties of a soul, and can a machine have one?

The film begins with Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) winning a mysterious contest to visit the estate of the CEO and creator of Bluebook, the largest search engine company in the world, basically a fictional Google, where he works as a programmer. He arrives at the secluded home tucked away behind mountains, trees, and beautiful waterfalls and meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the genius developer who appears to be completely isolated from the rest of the world and spends his time boxing, lifting weights, and getting drunk by himself. Oh, and he is also working on a conscious robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) that could change the world.

“If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.” – Caleb

He tells Caleb that he has brought him there to perform a Turing test on Ava, meaning if he cannot differentiate between A.I. and human consciousness, then Ava passes the test and would have a self-awareness mirroring that of a human. The examiner is usually shielded from what or who is being tested, but Nathan tells Caleb her A.I. is so good that she would easily pass a regular Turing test, so the real test is knowing it is a machine and being convinced otherwise, through its signs of human consciousness and emotion. Caleb begins to form an attachment to Ava during their sessions and uncovers that Nathan’s motives for creating A.I. and bringing him to his house are not as they seem.

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Warning: The following contains spoilers.

There is a strangeness throughout Nathan’s house, which has a clinically sterile feeling to it; the lines are clean and the space is mostly barren. There are entire walls of the rock of the mountain the house is built into, and others made entirely of glass overlooking running water and green that stretches for miles, allowing for the natural light to sun-kiss the brown beer bottles Nathan always seems to have in his hand. The room in which Ava is kept is an all-glass box minimally decorated with a bed, a chair, and a desk. She is clearly captive and Nathan her captor.

Nathan seems to have a very cautionary view on the creation and ultimate decision to unleash a fully conscious A.I. to the world, but also sees it as the unavoidable next step that he has decided to undertake. He believes that, rather than the optimistic view that an A.I. might actually be better than us and overflow with the most positive characteristics of humanity (empathy, patience, unconditional acceptance), it is more likely that it will reflect the darker characteristics of the world around it, which we have created and birthed it into, such as contempt, greed, dishonesty, and destruction. A fully conscious machine would have just as much capability to make its own choices as we do, and Nathan believes that the choices it will ultimately make will lead to the same persecution we have been inflicting upon our own kind throughout history and will eventually lead to our extinction; this is not a pessimistic view of artificial intelligence, but rather, a negative outlook on humanity.

The film, however, does not share Nathan’s view. Although Ava ultimately uses sexuality and manipulation to destroy her creator and leaves Caleb trapped in the house, she does not do so because she is a vengeful android with a malicious will towards humans, she does so as a prisoner. She acts the same way as any human would if he or she were being held hostage in a glass box, using any means necessary to escape.

There is also an interesting subtext regarding gender when it is revealed that all of Nathan’s A.I. prototypes have been created as attractive females, programmed as heterosexual and used for his own pleasure. It can be seen as a commentary on how women have essentially been treated like submissive robots and objectified for the pleasure of men for centuries. In the end, though, Garland is decidedly on the side of Ava. He gives her autonomy and a child-like wonder and appreciation when she steps out into the natural world, leaving behind the flawed systems of control that man has dictated for years. His view on A.I. is a hopeful one.

The performances here are all top notch. Alicia Vikander moves with a precision that makes it feel as if her body is shifting from one coded location to another, yet she retains a spontaneity as if her movements coincide with a split-second, unconscious choice. Oscar Isaac is becoming so good that any film he is in is worth watching just for his performance; he turns in another great one in Ex Machina.

The special effects used on Ava look incredible and the set design within Nathan’s house adds to the claustrophobia and tension present in the film’s script. The strongest thing about the film is the writing though, which is not surprising since Garland’s background is as a writer. The dialogue here is great and he keeps you wondering up until the very end what the intentions of each character are; nothing any of the characters say should be taken at face value.

The film works very well as a psychological thriller without even looking at all of the interesting philosophical discussion around A.I. The title comes from a folder on Nathan’s computer containing all of the past versions of his A.I. machines, which is labeled “Deus Ex Machina”, a Greek phrase which literally translates into “God from the machine”. It is an expression adopted in theatre and has become a plot device used to describe a character who is mechanically lowered from the rafters to resolve or move along the story and its conflict. It is not a plot device used in this film, but the literal translation is relevant when thinking about what exactly could come from these machines and how our place in the world could change if we are able to create a fully conscious A.I. It is a very important topic to think about and discuss because of the rapid developments in technology. And it is a very real possibility that a machine similar to Ava could come to life in the not-so-distant future. If this were to happen the entire world could change in an instant and Ex Machina does a great job relaying the worries humans have about creating such a machine. It posits important ethical questions about our role in the world and the role of technology. The film never pretends to have any definite answers; its aim is to provoke discussion and thought while threading these complex ideas through a tense and entertaining story. It succeeds very much on all accounts.

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