The best way to describe Ex Machina is that it updates Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein for the 21st century. Internet tycoon Nathan has created a robot with artificial intelligence called Ava. He flies one of his employees, Caleb, to a secret research facility to see if the android will pass a modified version of the Turing Test. This time, Nathan wants to see if Caleb will develop an attachment to Ava, even knowing that she is artificial. However, Ava soon begs Caleb to help her escape from the facility.
Like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park, Ex Machina serves as a warning about the dangers of technological advances without wisdom and humility. Unlike those works, the technology in Ex Machina is rooted in reality. Ava isn’t simply an allegory for technology in general; she could literally represent our future. Over the past decade, we have made huge strides in computational linguistics and machine learning. With the advent of Big Data and social media, we have nearly unlimited information about human behavior. Prominent scientists and businessmen, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, predict that artificial intelligence will pose a threat to mankind in the foreseeable future.
Ex Machina feels like a spiritual successor or companion to Blade Runner. Blade Runner, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?, argues empathy is the key to understanding humanity. A special unit of police, blade runners, detect android replicants by administering a standardized test for empathy. Ironically, the humans of the film display frequently less empathy than the replicants. Blade Runner Rick Deckard guns down replicants without mercy, whereas the replicants display genuine affection for each other.
We see something similar with Nathan in Ex Machina, who knows how to build his creations, but not how to treat them. Nathan has access to unprecedented data on the human mind, but doesn’t seem to really understand how it works. He dominates conversations with Caleb while awkwardly insisting that he wants to be friends. It’s telling that he lives alone in a mountain retreat. He is so comfortable in isolation that he doesn’t even understand the basic human desire for freedom. As in Blade Runner, the A.I. appears more human than the creator.
Ex Machina introduces an intermediary between the creator and creation, Caleb. We see how Nathan acts as a God not only to his creation, but also over other human beings. Nathan places Caleb in a giant experiment without his knowledge or consent. He deliberately provokes Caleb and messes with his mind, to the point where Caleb doubts himself. Some of the more disturbing scenes involve confrontations between the two humans.
Changing the gender of the “monster” adds yet another dimension. It’s no longer simply about scientist versus robot, but also about man versus woman. Where Nathan generally acts as a stereotypical male, Ava acts like a stereotypical female (and the soft-spoken, slender Caleb comes across as an effeminate union of the two). Ava’s sexuality and innocence charm Caleb, but also places her in a position of subservience to Nathan. The film leaves viewers to wonder if Ava’s femininity reflects her personality, or if she simply uses her understanding of male prejudices to achieve her goals.
Ex Machina is a thoughtful film. Yet what really surprised me is how the film manages to be both sophisticated and accessible at the same time. Ex Machina doesn’t dumb down the science or philosophy. It demands that you pay attention to the references and the dialogue. At the same time, it takes the time to explain just enough to allow viewers to follow along. Even if you don’t know anything about stochastic computational linguistics, you can still follow the story as a psychological thriller. I watched the film with several people who were not sci-fi buffs (to say the least), and everybody seemed to get something out of it. It’s rare for a film to work on so many levels. It’s just a shame that it didn’t get the kind of publicity and marketing that Jurassic World did.