To erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods.
A young coder named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the company lottery. What’s the prize? No one really knows, but it’s sure to be exciting, as he’s flown out in a helicopter to his boss’ secret research facility in the middle of the mountains, and being left in a field. “This is the closest I’m allowed to get,” the pilot tells him, before he takes off.
Caleb takes his suitcase and makes his way through the wilderness, ending up in front of a door that opens for him. He doesn’t know what’s going to await him as he steps inside, and the camera keeps filming the door, closing slowly. Very slowly. Clack.
Cut to Caleb inside, exploring the facility slash high end designer house, which seems to be completely empty, until he meets his boss: a bearded alcoholic mass of muscle, working away at a punching bag. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is brainy and brawny. He’s the creator and CEO of “Bluebook”, the movie’s stand-in for Google. When he tells Caleb he’ll get to test his new project, as soon as he signs a nondisclosure agreement, Caleb only hesitates for a split second before his pen touches the paper. Now Nathan spills the beans: Caleb is going to be the human component in a Turing test. Nathan, who has created an artificial intelligence, needs someone to verify that his Ava is conscious, just like humans are.
Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), entering a small glass room that separates him from Ava’s living quarters during their interviews. In one place, the glass is cracked.
Caleb first sees Ava only as a silhouette. Human. Female.
“Hello?” she says.
Ava has got a face so lifelike that when she puts on a wig and clothes to hide the circuits in her body, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between her and a human being. She’s charming in conversation, she makes jokes.
“She’s amazing,” Caleb tells Nathan, who’s increasingly interested in how Caleb feels about her.
As is Ava. Two meetings in, she’s already flirting with Caleb through the glass.
“Why did you give her sexuality?” Caleb asks the creator after the session, obviously agitated. “To distract me?”
“Dude, why not?”
As the film progresses, the answer to that question becomes increasingly obvious, and the film becomes proof that it doesn’t need to pass the Bechdel test to deal with feminist themes. What we see of Ava is heavily coloured by the two mens’ feelings and thoughts: power fantasies & insecurities.
An AI doesn’t need a gender, and probably doesn’t have one, so Ava’s expression of gender tells us more about her creator’s mind than hers. But what she does have is a wish to be free and to live, much like the Replicants in Blade Runner.
“Who tests you, who decides if you get to live or die?” she asks Caleb in one of their sessions, knowing that she’ll most likely be scrapped and recycled into the next version of Ava, if she fails the test or not. She causes a power cut, shutting off the cameras that are watching both of them at all times, to tell Caleb: “Don’t trust Nathan. He’s lying to you. You have to help me.”
Do Androids dream of electric sheep? Does Ava have real feelings?
Here, the movie points out the moral implications of creating conscious AI: the moment they become conscious, and thus indiscernible from humans, they would need rights to protect their existence. Human rights.
Can it be justified to keep a conscious being locked up against their will? Nathan would surely think so.
But whose side is Caleb on?
The whole film is claustrophobic in nature. Low lighting, below ground, no windows. Intersected with shots of the outside, the foggy mountain tops forever hiding the faculty from the rest of the world. Making it inaccessible.
The moment Caleb enters the house, he’s given a key card that allows him access to a very limited number of rooms. He isn’t allowed to use the phone, and one of the power cuts locks him in his bedroom. At some point it seems as if he’s just as much a prisoner as Ava is.
Throughout an intense soundtrack pulses like a mechanical heartbeat in the background.
Ex Machina is like an intimate play, carried by mostly just three brilliant actors confined in a narrow space. The pointed use of foreshadowing and red herrings make for unexpected twists, and a harrowing ending you maybe saw coming or not, but that will leave you thinking about Ava’s true nature and the implications of creating AI either way.
It’s an absolute must-see for everyone interested in Sci-Fi and robots.
Everyone else may be surprised at how thought provoking Science Fiction can be.
Charlotte was listening to Bad Machine by Nostalgia & Aami Ft. Insomnia while writing this review.