Reaction Ex Machina

This is not a standard review. It is, as the title states, a reaction. Ex Machina is one of those thinky science fiction movies. In analogical terms, Ex Machina is to Terminator 2 as Primer is to Back to the Future Part 2. The film follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who wins a contest at work, and get flown out to spend a week partying with the owner of the company in a remote and hyper-modern castle/fort/research facility. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company owner, tasks Caleb with testing an artificial intelligence he’s designed, and housed in a robot body. This AI is called Ava (Alicia Vikander), and beyond here be **spoilers**.

There are some things to know. One is that Nathan is made of hubris in much the same way that Ava is made of metal, plastic, and positronic gel. He goes from smarmy to ass, and all shades in between. Ava, on the other hand, is a digital pixie. She is clearly gendered as female, in both body and behavior. Caleb’s test is referred to as a Turing test. A Turing test is usually defined as a conversation between a human and a machine, and if the machine convinces the human that it is a person as well then it passes, and it is assumed to have self-awareness. As the movie progresses, Ava finds a way to cut through surveillance and let Caleb know that Nathan is terrible and a liar. For his part, Nathan repeatedly gets drunk and treats people and things with so little regard that the question isn’t whether Nathan is a bad person or not, but whether he has his shit together enough to actually pull off evil. If you’re looking for a clue, his high-tech underground fortress, where the film takes place, should be a bit of a hint. Ava expresses affection for Caleb, Caleb expresses discomfort, and eventually is convinced that Ava is both self-aware and in need of rescuing from her cell.

The movie doesn’t keep you guessing, as much as expects you to be thinking hard enough to confuse yourself. Which, personally, I did. I kept trying to figure out whether Caleb was also an AI (eventually he wonders the same thing), or if a mute lady butler was actually the brains behind everything. As the film progresses it is revealed that everyone is worse than you thought. Caleb isn’t as brilliant as he assumes himself to be, and his repeatedly exploited blind spot is his own ego. Nathan, on the other hand, shows more shrewdness than he seemed to at first, but also exhibits a calculated cruelty that seemed beyond his character’s grasp when we first met him. Ava’s turn is that Nathan isn’t using Caleb to play a game of cat and mouse with her, but rather she is using Caleb to play a game of cat and cat with Nathan.

This is where my reaction strongly differed from Allison‘s. Her takeaway was that Ava played two men who were both using her. Nathan saw her as a project, as property, and finally as nothing more than a sex doll. Caleb saw her as a waif in distress whom he could rescue. In the end, both of them underestimate Ava and pay the price with their lives.

I don’t see it this way. I see it as Caleb overestimating Ava’s AI. Nathan, while clearly contemplating the possibilities of a romantic relationship with Ava, isn’t turned to her side when she expresses her interest in him. It seems that this is the point when he is starting to be convinced of her self-awareness, but to what extent he still isn’t’ sure. She makes a circuitous reference to their first conversation, putting him in the role of the interviewed, and he sees this as proof of mind. In fact, he says that she would have to have awareness of her mind, and awareness of his. His change of heart is locked in when she expresses fear over being destroyed or turned off. Caleb agrees to help her escape, and in the end his plan does free her. But during her escape she kills Nathan and leave Caleb locked inside the remote house, presumably to die1. But I don’t think Ava was cruel enough to want to kill Caleb. Nor do I believe that she thought he would have stopped her from escaping, even after the death of Nathan. So why does she leave him behind to die?

Because her artificial intelligence wasn’t as advanced as Caleb presumed. In the development of consciousness there is awareness of one’s own mind before awareness of others’. Babies start off believing that other people all know what they do. If you give a baby a ball, leave a room, and the baby places the ball somewhere, when you re-enter it will assume that you know where that ball is. Early self-aware minds assume that there is one shared pool of knowledge, their own. If they know something, everyone else must know it as well. Awareness of separate minds comes later. I believe that Ava was at some form of this earlier stage, while Caleb presumed that she was at the later.

I realize that she clearly knows that she can keep secrets. She disables Nathan’s security in order to attempt to plan her escape with Caleb. There are hints, though, that she’s not as completely aware of other people’s (or robot’s) self-awareness as she’s assumed to be. She seems curious but unconcerned by Nathan’s dying moments. This could just be from a sense of satisfaction after his treatment of her, but maybe not. She also gives no attention at all to the destruction of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the mute butler I mentioned before. She turns out to be the previous generation of AI that Nathan had built, and subsequently wiped her mind and turned her into a sex doll. Then there’s the scene when Ava finds a set of closets in Nathan’s bedroom, each containing a previous generation of AI that he had finished researching, and had reprogrammed for sex. There’s no recognition of their potential. She doesn’t try to reactivate and free them. Rather, she finds one with a much more finished body than hers, and removes its synthetic skin so she can pass for human after her escape. Once skinned, the older model clearly has a glowing power cell, so it is still functional and simply in sleep mode. Ava closes the door on her, opens the next, and takes that model’s clothing before leaving. Her walking past Caleb as he pounds on the class door mirrors her abandonment of the wiped AI-now-sex dolls. Where Nathan  stowed those dolls out of a disgusting sense of entitlement of his property, no matter their cognitive ability, Ava stows them (and Caleb) once she has utilized them to their fullest. There is a coldness, yes, but it isn’t cruelty. Instead, it’s just a result of her not fully realizing how much of a person she is destroying. She sees Caleb and the older robot models as pieces of something in relations to herself, not entire beings in their own right.

The ending of Ex Machina was hard for me to watch.Yes, it was dark, but it was a layered darkness that made me think and consider the events from everyone’s perspective. What was hard for me was that Nathan and Eva ended up performing nearly the same actions on other people, but for very different reasons. Nathan used and discarded people with full knowledge of their sentience. To Nathan, self-awareness came with no rights to autonomy and self-determination. He viewed his position as so superior that full person-hood did not merit equality. Ava, on the other hand, doesn’t seemed to have reached the point where she can fully perceive of the person-hood of others. She ends up acting in a similar fashion to Nathan, using Caleb until she’s finished with him, then locking him up and leaving. What was so depressing was that seeing Ava succeed in her plan means that the next stage of development, of being able to fully appreciate the other minds in the people around her, may never come. With her vast stores of knowledge, she’s probably never going to hit a point where she will need to learn that step. And while Nathan’s actions are the result of his megalomania, Ava’s are the result of essentially developing up to the point of sociopath, and becoming functional enough to stop there. But there is another possibility. I may have been fooled by Ava as much as she took in Caleb, and I’m underestimating her as well.

Notes   [ + ]

1. There is actually an oversight here that would have allowed him to survive and escape. The house is put into a lock-down mode, but part of the preparation for Ava’s escape is that Caleb set the security to unlock all doors in lock-down mode, not to actually secure the house.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access is wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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