Somewhere in the wilderness of Alaska there is a house, and inside that house are four people. At least one of these people is not human, but a robot. Over the course of a single week, the occupants must determine if this robot is a living, thinking thing, or just an illusion of consciousness.
This is the barest plot description possible of Alex Garland’s Ex_Machina, a film with an incredibly tight cast including only four actors (only three of whom have speaking roles) who appear in only a single setting throughout the film. The film is not only entertaining, tense, intelligent, and beautifully shot, but it might also just be the best philosophical movie about robots since Blade Runner.
In the not so distant future, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee of Bluebook, the biggest and most powerful internet search engine in the world. When Caleb wins a company prize, he is flown out to the secluded mansion of the company’s founder and CEO to work with him on a mysterious project for one week.
Once he is let into the vast, urban-style house, he meets Nathan (the wonderful Oscar Isaac). Nathan is the genius who created Bluebook when he was a child. He is an eccentric, mysterious, and slightly threatening figure. Other than Nathan and Caleb, the only person in the house is Nathan’s maid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who does not speak.
Between black-out drinking and a confusing sense of humor, Nathan expresses that he needs Caleb’s help to prove that he has created artificial intelligence.
Enter: Ava (Alicia Vikander). Each day, Caleb is to have a conversation with Ava in order to perform a Turing test, the measure of whether a machine exhibits intelligence convincingly, as though it has consciousness of its own.
Ava’s body is made of glass and metal, but her face appears to be flesh, as if it were a completely human face. Even at first glance, Ava’s inhumanity is clear. But this doesn’t discount her status as a living thing. Both wise and naïve, Ava exists as an adult with an adult’s body and understanding, but apparently without experience. She is instantly likable and sweet, but a little unnerving.
Caleb asks her questions, Ava answers. Ava asks her own questions, a surprised Caleb answers. Nathan watches through cameras.
As the movie progresses, the house begins to experience power outages. Through silent tension, the feeling begins to grow that something is not what it seems to be. Ava concurs. When a power outage occurs during one of Caleb and Ava’s sessions, she takes the opportunity to tell Caleb not to trust Nathan. He is not his friend. As Caleb falls in love with Ava, and is disillusioned and unnerved by Nathan, he plans their escape.
I am not going to delve much further into the plot of the movie, because if you haven’t seen it, then you deserve to experience what happens yourself. Instead, we should examine two complex themes explored in this movie.
One issue of the film is female objectification. When you squint, this movie is literally about two male characters objectifying and dehumanizing a female character. Nathan comes from a twisted yet familiar brand of misogyny. To him, Ava is not a person. He acknowledges that she is a thinking, feeling being with wants and needs of her own, while simultaneously refusing to treat her as such. Nathan keeps Ava locked up in the basement of the house, studying her like a rat.
Nathan admittedly has no intention of keeping Ava alive. He tells Caleb that he is going to destroy her and create a newer model, but that he wants to keep the body because it’s a “good body.” Although he is responsible for creating her mind, to Nathan, Ava is only a body. In a disturbing conversation, Nathan tells Caleb that Ava’s body was designed to be sexually capable.
Caleb, on the other hand, displays a type of misogyny that is not often acknowledged. He’s the “nice guy,” as summed up when Ava directly asks him if he is a good person, to which he responds, almost glibly, “Yes.”
Caleb thinks he is there to rescue Ava from her captor so that she can be with him. He is capable of acknowledging that Ava has thoughts and feelings of her own, but he is incapable of thinking of her outside of his own context.
He thinks that Ava exists, but that she exists for him. Caleb is the archetype that appears in so many romantic films. He is a shy, smart, twenty-something pulled out of his context. A pretty girl smiles at him. So what if she is trapped in a box, and he is her only outside contact, and that if he doesn’t think she’s human enough she will die? She smiles, she belongs with him. Caleb is the personification of men who hit on women in the service industry, whose job encourages them to appeal to their customers. He instantly falls in love with Ava. By extension, he automatically thinks she must also be in love with him. He wants to free Ava, but not for herself. He wants to free her for him. In the end, Caleb thinks of Ava as a person no more than Nathan does.
The other great theme of this movie is deification.
“I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” Caleb quotes American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, when he and Nathan discuss why Nathan has decided to create artificial life. When he tells Nathan that making AI makes him like God, Nathan smiles, and thanks Caleb for calling him God.
Nathan wishes to create. He wants to do this just because he can. He uses his search engine company to collect information from the whole world to create the technology inside Ava. But that’s fine. He’s God; he’s above the little people. Caleb is his angel sent from heaven to test the mortals, and Ava is Eve, the woman who decides that existing is simply not enough, and she wants to be free.
Or Ava is God, something beyond humanity, a new creature birthed out of the belief that such a creature might exist.
But then, is Ava alive? Is to be human to be embodied in an organic flesh body, possessing a mythical soul? Or is consciousness solely electrical impulses fired through the brain? With all of these questions and more—including beautiful cinematography, haunting performances that include a disturbing scene of Caleb starting to doubt his own humanity, and a somewhat ambiguous ending that will leave viewers pondering the implications of what this all meant— Ex_Machina is simply put the best science fiction story about robots to come out for a long time.
-Contributed by Ben Ghan