Man creates computer, man thinks computer is a friend, computer is not a friend, man dies because man is a human idiot, computer takes over the world. That’s pretty much how it goes for most AI films.
Bluebook is the world’s most popular search engine, accounting for 94% of the Internet’s searches. Mysterious CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), holds a lottery for the Bluebook’s employees, and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is the lucky winner. He’s invited to Nathan’s extremely private and remote mountainside home and research facility to partake in the historic creation of the world’s first artificially intelligent android, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s task is to administer the Turing test, to gauge whether or not Ava is a truly self-aware AI.
Ava, a beautifully constructed robot with doe eyes and a heart-warming smile, displays massive amounts of knowledge about the world. The basis for her mind is built on Bluebook, meaning the entire Internet is swimming around in her head. She knows how to read humans, how to create drawings with incredible detail, yet she yearns to know more about the world, things that you can’t learn from just reading about it on the Internet.
During a blackout which causes the CCTV to be turned off, Ava warns Caleb that Nathan cannot be trusted. All evidence points to it. Nathan drinks himself into oblivion, manipulates Caleb freely, and as Caleb witnesses, is an abusive “father” to his robot child. When Caleb steals Nathan’s keycard to access the footage of the previous prototypes, he makes the horrifying discovery that all of them were self-aware and desperate to escape from their glass prison, even to the point of self destruction.
Caleb hatches a plan to help Ava escape. Nathan discovers his rouse by a placing a battery-powered camera in Ava’s room, and tells Caleb that Ava was simply using him as a means to escape. The fact that Ava managed to manipulate his feelings into allowing her to do so means that she passed the Turing test with flying colours. However, Caleb outsmarts him by triggering the plan before the scripted conversation that Nathan witnessed on camera. A blackout ensues, and the door to Ava’s room opens for the first time.
Nathan, horrified, grabs a weapon and steps outside to capture Ava. With the help of Kyoko (Nathan’s other tortured android/personal sex slave), Ava manages to stab Nathan to death. Free at last, she enters Nathan’s room.
There’s a beautiful moment where she tenderly collects skins and parts from the defunct prototypes, and slips into a beautiful dress. She surveys herself in the mirror and smiles, finally content with how she looks. She turns and leaves. Gentile turns to horror as she walks past Caleb, leaving him locked in Nathan’s bedroom without a second thought. Caleb screams her name and tries breaking the door, but to no avail, proving Nathan was right all along.
She ascends into the world, boards the helicopter meant for Caleb, and flies off into the world that she’s always wanted to see.
All in all, it was a beautifully eerie, and extremely well made film. Cinematography was gorgeous, the VFX was well done, and the stunning location was really integral to the story and its lonely atmosphere. Even with such a small cast, the amazing performances really magnified the profundity of the subject. AI will always be an endless source of fascination for human beings.
It’s an interesting, intimate study of how an AI’s mind would work. Caleb accurately relates a psychological thought experiment to Ava’s predicament, Mary from the Black and White Room. Mary lives in a black and white room, but knows all the technical data about colour. All the numbers and the wavelengths and the neurophysiology. However, when she steps out of the room for the first time, and sees the colour of the sky, the trees, and the water, she understands something new. Something that all the technical data could not give her before. It’s a beautiful parallel to Ava’s situation, and the film does a wonderful job of giving her character emotional depth and purpose.
On the other side of the glass, Caleb and Nathan are brilliant characters, and contrasting studies of human nature.
It all becomes abundantly clear towards the end. Just to be clear, this is my interpretation of his character. Nathan’s problematic drinking stems from his human guilt of keeping his “children” locked up like prisoners. However, my skin crawls when I realize that these robots, especially the one who screamed and begged Nathan to let her out were fully manipulating him in an attempt to free themselves. Nathan was able to show absolute strength in resolve (and for good reason too), but at the cost of his own humanity. He was undoubtedly the most interesting character in the entire movie.
However, as great as they were, Caleb and Nathan were definitely the main source of iffiness for me. Many of the film’s plot holes (though very minor), stemmed from these two characters and their actions. Although geniuses on paper, they were absolute idiots in hindsight. Caleb’s stupidity can be pinned on the fact that he’s a lonely 26 year old nerd who got played by two of the most brilliant minds in the world. I can accept that.
But Nathan? Jesus Christ. You would think that he would have taken every precaution necessary before inviting a stranger into his lab to purposely get duped by the most powerful computer on Earth. Instead he chose to drink himself into oblivion, let his guard down, and let some random dude ruin his life. No security. No backup plans. No anything. And surely if you construct an artificial brain modelled after the human brain there has to be a way to log the data and analyze it. They couldn’t have at any point hooked Ava up to a computer, asked her a bunch of questions to gauge whether or not she was actually falling in love or was she using her advanced algorithms to lie her ass off? Were they just going off of what they were hearing her say? Instead, they just let her fester in a glass box, plotting revenge and escape. He’s smart, but not that smart.
Ultimately, Caleb and Nathan were victims of their own flawed humanity (or lack thereof, in Nathan’s case).
Ex Machina delivers on all fronts, but skimps a little on story. There arguably have been better films that study the complex relationship between humans and AI. There are many, many films out there that present the idea that the moment a computer becomes self-aware, its only objective is self-preservation, or following a directive to a fault. Whether it’s Skynet, Hal 9000, AUTO, the Matrix machines, VIKI, or even Ultron. It’s hard to imagine an AI as anything but just a few keystrokes away from pure evil. It’s undoubtedly a great premise, but it’s always refreshing to see filmmakers step outside of the norm.