Ex Machina Is Exactly as Good as You Think It Is

Friday, 10 April 2015 - 9:00AM
Ex-Machina
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Friday, 10 April 2015 - 9:00AM
Ex Machina Is Exactly as Good as You Think It Is
Going into Ex Machina, I had a lot of trepidation, if only because the glowing reviews got my hopes way up, and I was preparing to be disappointed. Luckily, for about 90% of the film, Ex Machina lived up to expectations, delivering a tense, intelligent, well-acted thriller with a feminist bent. Unfortunately, the relatively sloppy ending fell victim to typical genre pitfalls, threatening to undermine all of the sensitivity and complexity that came before it.

Ex Machina follows a young, slightly naive programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he's invited to the estate of his intimidating boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of a Google-type monster company. When he arrives, he finds that he's part of a modified Turing Test, in which he evaluates an extremely advanced artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander). 

The first hour of the film is essentially note-perfect. The acting, and particularly Oscar Isaac's performance, was sublime, the script managed to round out the characters while also keeping their motivations appropriately opaque, and it was unexpectedly funny. The humor was the most pleasant surprise of the film, as the audience was laughing out loud more than any of us probably expected to. But that sense of humor never undercut the tension, as it was mostly borne out of an empathy with the protagonist's unease. Between Alicia Vikander's sweetly seductive robot and Oscar Isaac's charismatic and overtly dominant CEO, Ex Machina keeps you guessing and never lets you decide who you can trust. 

Until the last act, the script, from 28 Days Later's Alex Garland, is nuanced and handles its lofty themes with aplomb. Caleb is meant to evaluate whether Ava has a "consciousness," specifically whether she has genuine feelings or whether she's simulating all of the external indicators of feelings without actually experiencing them. But unfortunately, as seen in the film, we aren't even capable of truly knowing that about other human beings. In fact, Ava seems the most human when there's a possibility that she could engage in deception for the sake of self-preservation.

But the most complex exploration of human nature in the film may have come in the form of a Jackson Polluck painting. Nathan explains to Caleb that Polluck is revered in the art world specifically because his strokes don't have a rational, deliberate purpose, but are the product of a messy, distinctly human mind. And herein lies the paradox of our attempts to create an artificial intelligence that's as intelligent as a human. In many ways, when speaking of pure "brainpower," computers are already smarter than us. They have a greater memory capacity, they can beat us at mathematical endeavors like chess, etc. So rather than focusing on making AI more "intelligent" in the strictest sense of the word, we're forced to make them capable of behaving in a manner that's contrary to rationality. When trying to create a "human-like" intelligence, we're trying to create an  irrational, self-serving creatures who are inherently limited by their desire for physical comfort and their all-powerful survival instinct.

The bulk of the film also dealt with gender in a sensitive and socially conscious manner. Oscar Isaac's Nathan is blatantly misogynistic from the start, and his desire to build Ava is a clear reflection of society's worst opinions of women: that they're at their best when they don't talk, they'll have sex with you on command, and you can turn them off when they aren't to your liking. And although Caleb is portrayed as a mostly decent kid, his view of Ava is also problematized. Nathan sees her as a sexual object, but Caleb sees her as a romantic object, which isn't much better. He treats her like a child, like a damsel in distress who will fulfill all of his most atavistic "white knight" fantasies. (A moment near the end, when [slight spoiler!] Caleb finds out that Ava's face was made from his online porn profile, is particularly telling.) And while Alicia Vikander's Ava may be objectified by Nathan and Caleb, the script makes it clear that neither are affording her with the kind of agency that she deserves.

Spoilers ahead!

The Twist

The twist, in which we discover that Nathan has built several other robot models that were all horrifically abused and subsequently switched off, was the high point of the film for me. The fact that his mute sex slave, Kyoko, was a robot was far too obviously telegraphed from the very beginning, but that didn't make Nathan's closets full of "switched-off" women any less disturbing, and the footage that saw one of the models tear her own hands off in a desperate attempt to escape was truly upsetting.

This was the most feminist moment of the film, because it not only took Nathan's casual misogyny to its logical conclusion, but it also implicated the audience to some extent. The film had slightly played Nathan's horrible treatment of Kyoko for laughs up to this point, but no one was laughing during this sequence. This scene, as well as Ava's Tinder profile on SXSW, demonstrated that Nathan is not really an aberration in today's society, but a reflection of some of our darkest impulses. 

The Ending

Then, as often happens in thrillers, Garland struggled with how to end with a satisfying payoff and still maintain the themes of the film. From a genre perspective, it was a satisfying ending, with several twists and turns, some violence, and lots of tension. But the subtlety of the dialogue suffered a bit; the moment at which Caleb announces his deception of Nathan in detail was particularly cheesy.

And even worse, the ending threatened to undermine all of the complex thematic work that came before. The fact that Ava was manipulating Caleb the entire time was fine, that's something that a normal human would do for the sake of his or her own survival. But then, when she callously left him there, even though he had been trying to help her, she was acting like an Amy Dunne-level sociopath, a character that technically could exist in real life, but is two-dimensionally evil and therefore unrelatable.

This was especially problematic from a feminist perspective, not least because Ava is the only female with a speaking role in the film. Where the rest of the film subverted stereotypes about women, the ending served to reinforce them. I understand that she's supposed to represent "human nature," and humans can be manipulative, but a male robot would have simply used deception and smarts, while Ava had to resort to using her sexuality as a "diversion tactic." Like the post-twist Amy Dunne, she was just like every other femme fatale, the female character that supposedly has so much "power" and agency, but in reality is reinforcing the idea that the only power a woman has over a man is her feminine wiles.
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