A Review of Ex Machina and Brief Thoughts About AI/Robots in Film


Ex Machina

* * * 1/2

Dir. Alex Garland, 2015

Ex Machina is an exceptionally crafted sci-fi thriller. The trailer gives much of it away, as they tend to do, though if you’re remotely familiar with sci-fi you probably know where things are going. Still the film manages to draw tension, and occasionally shock, despite being mostly 3 characters talking. In the film, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a low-level coder at a Google-like tech company who is “wins” a company lottery to spend a week with the company’s eccentric founder (Oscaar Isaac) in his remote cabin. It turns out Caleb has been called in to do a Turing test on a new AI robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander, who is a perfect combination of creepy, alluring, and innocent). Of course, things aren’t what they seem, and there are many twists and turns throughout the way. The film nearly suffers from twist-itis, Garland’s screenplays have had problems with their 3rd acts before ( Sunshine has one of the worst 3rd acts in film history), but the film has just the right amount of quirk to pull it off. It also feels like the writers are aware enough of the expectations, though at times it feels smart enough to be aware of the fact that it’s not as smart as it thinks it is, of sci-fi tropes.

Gleeson has played a robot that was a form of an AI before in the “Be Right Back” episode of Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror. And Ex Machina feels very much like a Black Mirror episode. Beyond the superficial fact that they are both British and rather technophobic (both Booker and Garland see technology not enhancing humanity so much as magnifying our worst attributes and insecurities) they seem to have similar plot machinations: we don’t know anything about our characters, it takes place in an isolated location somewhere in the near future, it involves surveillance, has a suspicious view of conglomerations, and has a very interesting use of pop music. The ending also feels very Booker-esque (and if you’ve seen any episode of Black Mirror you know that means it’s not going to be feel-good;not quite poetic justice, but ironic in a tragic sort of  way).

The film did make me uncomfortable in a way that I’m not sure was intended or not. The film involves a lot of looking at women’s bodies (sure they’re robots, but the film goes out of its way to say that the robots have sexuality, and, of course, they’re also played by actresses). For example, there is a scene in which Ava examines her new body that somewhat recalls a similar scene in Under the Skin. But in Ex Machina, a man is watching her do it and the scene is focused through his looking. Added to this is some exoticized sexuality on behalf of Nathan’s Japanese maid (though there is a twist that does kind of explain this).

Ex Machina is playing in theaters at the same time as another movie about an AI and that is Avengers: Age of Ultron. Aside from both being sci-fi films these are as different kinds of films as you can get: one is small and thoughtful, the other loud and gigantic. But in both cases, AI takes on a very human form, and has very human psychology. In both cases the AI’s are seen as dangerous. Specifically, in both films the rise of an AI is tied specifically to atomic fears. In Ultron, the fear is that the robot will gain access to nuclear launch codes. In Ex Machina Caleb listens to OMD’s “Enola Gay” and compares Nathan (unfavorably) to J. Robert Oppenheimer. What’s interesting is that this nuclear age anxiety has seeped into the information age thinking about AIs, not just in these films but also in Battlestar Galactica and the Terminator series.

BSG is relevant here because as I mentioned earlier, the AI’s in these works all operate by very Freudian psychology. Nathan recalls the Promethean myth, but he these films also borrow much from Oedipus. The question bordering on frustration I have is why are AI’s always presented this way? In Ultron, Tony Stark comments in passing (and everything feels in passing in that movie since there is so much going on) that it’s interesting that Ultron took on humanoid form because the human body is evolutionarily flawed. Now, part of this has been that we need actors for movies, and it’s hard to get them into other shapes without a lot of money. But CGI seems to have eliminated that problem. Nathan presumes that the human form is important because without a sex drive, a robot wouldn’t have any need for external relationships, which seems like a rather awful view about humanity. Yet, Ava seems to desire to become more human. My question to a movie AI is why would you want to be human? The AI that desires, to a fault, to be like its maker may reflect on our own anxieties about our own creation and purpose, but it’s starting to get tired and boring; especially when it’s explained with bullet points picked up from a  psych 101 lecture. I guess what I’m asking for is fewer C-3Pos and more R2D2s.

There’s a theory that for me makes perfect sense about alien life: that the reason that we don’t see any of it is that it’s so radically different from our concept of life that we can’t comprehend it when/ if we encounter it. AI’s, a form of alien life (a relationship demonstrated by the final scene of Spielberg’s AI) could be similar as they evolve. They may not care to interact with us at all, or decide to mimic insects life instead of human life.

Ex Machina is a thrilling film, an example of what good sci-fi is capable of. At the same time, its familiar elements suggest that sci-fi still follows a rather narrow view of robots and AIs. What’s at stake is that in the past century, sci-fi has inspired our technology:  ipads, cell phones, satellites. Perhaps if we want a better class of AI or robots in the future, one that isn’t trying to kill us because of deep seeded parental issues, we need to have a more diverse set of fictionally, imagined robots to draw from.

In the film, Ava draws a number of fascinating sketches about her world. Who knows, in 20 years we might have a robot cinema. Movies about robots by robots.


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