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Promotional image for the movie Ex Machina

Review: Ex Machina

One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.

The future reality of artificial intelligence seemed to edge a little closer this week with the news that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak – along with 1000 researchers – had put their name to an open letter calling for a ban on AI in robotic warfare systems. Meanwhile, in TV and movies we’ve seen an influx of AI-themed stories such as Person of Interest, Her, the upcoming Westworld, and now the science fiction film Ex Machina.

In Ex Machina, we join Caleb, a young coder at a Google-like search engine company (‘Bluebook’) as he finds out that he has won a competition to spend a week with the genius CEO of the company, Nathan (who wrote the company’s search algorithm as a 13-year-old wunderkind). On arriving at the reclusive CEO’s sprawling, wilderness estate, Caleb discovers that he has been recruited to test perhaps the greatest technological development of all time: the creation of an artificial intelligence, embodied in a humanoid robot named Ava.

If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man… that’s the history of Gods.

However, as the week progresses Caleb finds himself to be as much of a test subject as Ava, as he is watched on closed circuit monitors while interacting with this non-human intelligence – and as Nathan’s darker side emerges, Caleb is left wondering how much of what he is experiencing is manipulation, and how much is the truth.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, author of The Beach and the pen behind the movie scripts for the apocalyptic sci-fi movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Ex Machina is a wonderful meditation on one of the great philosophical questions: what is consciousness/self-awareness, and are we even capable of judging it in anyone but ourselves (in Descartes words, ‘I think, therefore I am’, as the limit of our knowledge on consciousness). As such a couple of thought experiments related to consciousness are mentioned during the movie, such as the Turing Test, and the Knowledge Argument, aka ‘Mary in the Black and White Room’ – this latter in particular almost serves as a template for the script itself.

Here’s the trailer:

The very small cast (basically just 4 actors, only 3 of whom have speaking roles – Caleb, Nathan and Ava) and one location may have been partly decided upon for budgeting reasons (though the elegant design and special effects certainly weren’t skimped on), but in truth these elements provide the power of Ex Machina, enhancing the feeling of close personal interaction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ intelligence, and also projecting the feeling of imprisonment upon the viewer themselves.

Because as much as Ex Machina is about what it is to be a conscious being, the storyline goes a level deeper to ask what it is to have ‘free will’, but be subjugated. And whether Garland meant it to or not, the film riffs on overarching themes of male dominance and women as objects: ‘artificial’ beings created by a male ‘god’, kept imprisoned and repressed, and used for sexual gratification (although to be fair, Nathan notes that in adding a vagina to a robot, he also added ‘pleasure circuits’ for the artificial consciousness to experience).

Another key question raised by Ex Machina is one which we may have to answer fairly soon: at what point does an AI transition from being an object – a piece of technology – to being an entity, with associated rights. Nathan is most certainly an asshole, but from one point of view (AI as a technological object) all he is doing is modifying and upgrading machines.

From the other point of view (AI as an autonomous consciousness deserving of its own rights) he is basically exploiting and, to an extent, ‘killing off’ conscious entities. It was quite interesting (and shocking) to me how easily I abandoned any human ‘allegiance’ while watching this film, and sided with the machine intelligence – to the extent that I was happily expecting a crime to be committed against a technology genius, for the ‘crime’ of upgrading his machines.

The movie certainly doesn’t break a lot of new ground, with its roots in the archetypal Frankenstein story. Ava at times seems a century-old echo of Maria from Metropolis, and any fan of Bladerunner will probably also see similarities to both the physicality of ’pleasure-model’ Pris and the elegant intelligence of Rachael throughout Ex Machina. And when Caleb gets so far down the rabbit-hole that he starts wondering if he also is a robot – with implanted memories, fooled into believing he is human – we cannot help but see some of Deckard. (Even Nathan’s use of the massive data behind search engine queries as the basis for creating the machine-intelligence of Ava was foreshadowed by the TV show Person of Interest.)

Ex Machina - Caleb checks to see if he is a robot

Where Ex Machina hits the mark is in the afore-mentioned personal (and at times, claustrophobic) nature of the film, ably assisted by a fantastic ambient soundtrack (co-created by former Portishead member Geoff Barrow ). Garland’s debut in the directing chair is an impressive one, subtly keeping the viewer in close contact with the actors’ thoughts, often through facial expression alone, as well as capable of creating some highly memorable moments (one surreal dance scene could be straight out of a Kubrick movie…see below). Ex Machina is a slow burn, which is perfect for an exploration of what it is to be ‘human’ – but if you like ‘splodey action stuff, this movie may not be for you. If you’re a deep thinker about consciousness and artificial intelligence, you’ll likely love it.

Garland doesn’t dumb things down, showing good taste in the exposition and putting his trust in the intelligence of viewers. For example, at one point where Nathan is lying, in your head you know Ava has analysed his micro gestures and knows he is lying, but a less confident film-maker might have had her explicitly say “Lie” (the way in which she responsed to half-truths earlier in the film when interacting with Caleb). Instead, Garland just has her give a little half-smile, and the viewer knows what this means.

Nathan too, while quite obviously the antagonist of the story, is still fleshed out as a real person rather than a cartoon villain….we’re intrigued by him and what makes him tick beneath that dominating, alpha-male geek persona. His heavy drinking perhaps may be a clue that the things he is doing are having an impact on his soul.

The only part of the film where I noticed overt exposition was when Nathan asked Caleb to tell him what the Turing Test means – but this was probably a key enough point to warrant it, and it was done smoothly (Nathan doesn’t need to be educated; he asks Caleb to be sure Caleb understands).

Ex Machina is superbly cast, with top-shelf performances from the few actors involved: Oscar Isaac embodies the intellectually superior, alpha-male tech-bro Nathan, while Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb portrays the flipside – a compassionate, deep thinker, with an inner strength. Sonoya Mizuno was given a tough job with the line-less Kyoko, but does an excellent job in mixing subservience with her sporadic threatening coldness. And Alicia Vikander is stunning as Ava – the perfect match of a new AI’s fierce intelligence mixed with a newborn innocence, brought to life with nice subtle touches through her movements and speech patterns to only *just* give the slightest hint that the character is something other than human.

There may be some who will argue that certain elements of the plot reinforce negative tropes concerning both women and artificial intelligence. This may be a warranted to an extent – however, to go in the opposite direction at these times may well have stereotyped women and AI even more so. Sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Overall Ex Machina is a beautifully designed, shot and acted film, on a fascinating topic that is certainly in the spotlight at this point in history. Highly recommended.

(Apologies for the vagueness throughout the review – just trying to avoid spoilers. Would very much enjoy a discussion of some of the details of the film in the comments section though)

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  1. Great directing
    I was terribly impressed with the film–the closest I’ve seen to Kubrick’s directorial style since Kubrick himself (with the possible exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”).

  2. Not impressed…
    I wasn’t impressed by Ex Machina either. The story was crude, and overly sexualised, and the plot wasn’t nearly as deep as the director thought it was.

    The thing is, that so-called test of sentience wasn’t a test of sentience, it was a test of Bayesian reasoning. He gave the robot a goal, gave it all of the information it might need to achieve that goal, and then told it how to solve the problems. It may have been somewhat creative in it’s relationships, but it didn’t do anything it wasn’t told to do.

    It just isn’t a very good movie, nor is it truly representative of AI development or the future of AI.

  3. Nathan is a Disco God!
    First off, I have have to say that Nathan is a Disco God! HA!

    That said, you can see that Nathan, in his hubris, set up the conditions for his own destruction. BTW, there were echoes of “Heart of Darkness” as Nathan repeated “Okay”, “Fucking unreal”, “Okay”, as he stumbled off to die.

    Watch the movie multiple times, with the knowledge of how it ends, and notice how your interpretation of events changes each time. And realize that you will be wrong each time you watch the movie, as your preconceived ideas actually blind you to what is on the screen.

    When I first saw the trailer, I was sure that Caleb was a robot that thought it was human. That was the only way to run a true test. Have a robot that thinks it’s human talking to a robot that knows it’s a robot, and have one convince the other. Even Caleb was convinced of that at one point.

    This flip of perspective is similar to the movie “The Signal (2014 film)”, where the people involved are not who they seem to be.

    In my first run through the movie there was a point where I stopped the DVD and ran a conversation between Caleb and Nathan. Caleb had seen Nathan walk into Ava’s room, and tear up a drawing. As Caleb, that would freeze me solid. Which would demand that I(Caleb) confront Nathan.

    You have made some tactical errors that are going to get us killed. Let me tell you what I assumed was going on.

    – We are out in the middle of nowhere so that a Strong AI cannot escape into the world. There is no cell phone access so that the strong AI can’t connect to the world. You also don’t want competitors spying on you using cell phones. We are not on a desert island where a pirate boat can show up any time. We are isolated by a vast area of terrain making it impossible for the robot to walk out before its power supply fails, and making it difficult for assets to find and attack this facility.

    – The chopper pilot has orders to land in an open field. There is probably a transponder on the robot, and if it is anywhere near the landing site there are protocols for sounding an alarm to a Strike Team.

    – You don’t have a destruct charge in the robot, so that if you have to destroy it, you can survive.

    – That all implies the robot has a limited battery supply that needs constant recharge. Just like an iPad is a beautiful tool, but needs to be charged often.

    – You are here alone because you don’t want to risk other lives if a Strong AI tries to escape.

    – The robot is isolated from contact to protect you from attack.

    – That also implies that you have a way to remotely put Ava to sleep so that you can access her physically.

    All those assumptions are violated when I saw you walk into Ava’s room without any protection.

    You are a genius. You wrote Blue Book when you were 13. You had people isolate and respect you because of your brilliance, and your age. This facility reflects your isolation from the world, not the halfway measures to contain a Strong AI that I thought you’d done.

    Up until now, you have operated alone. Now that you have inserted me into the test, you have utterly disrupted any control over Ava that you thought you had.

    We are probably going to be dead before the chopper pilot comes back. And he will find a pretty young girl waiting for a ride back to the world.

    BTW, watch all of the special features. Notice how the questions and comments from others all reflect Nathan’s arrogant attitude that testing a system to destruction is a valid way to develop Strong AI.

    The questions are as tone deaf as Nathan is, despite him being a Disco God. HA!

    I will be watching this movie many times, for years to come. Thanks…

    1. Missed the featurettes
      I saw the movie on a free streaming site. Now I will have to buy it on dvd. Because you had me to want to see the special features as well. I’ve only seen it once but I loved it because it was more lowbudget and without explosions and all that Hollywood-crap. But it also made me even more worried about AI. I feel even more connected to the Musk-Hawking crowd now. The movie adds to the fear of the looming robo-apocalypse.

      1. There is another point to make about the movie.
        There is another point to make about the movie.

        Ava was explicitly using the “poor little girl” tactic to manipulate Caleb. When you watch the special features, notice that the director is explicitly on the side of the robots, not the humans. He is trapped in that “poor little girl” mindset as well.

        If the robots had looked like classic wooden mannequin models used for figure drawing, no one would have fallen into the cognitive trap of “poor little girl”.

        Here are two videos. One showing the classic model and one that is all too similar to Ava. Notice how creepy the second video is in context with the movie Ex Machina.

        How to draw with wooden mannequin models

        SFBT-3 Artist Mannequin Figure review

        Now watch this trailer for the new Man From Uncle movie. Notice the woman is the same actor that played Eva. At no time do you feel “poor little girl” with her. Context is everything. HA!

        The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Official Trailer #1 (2015) – Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer Movie HD

        Each time you watch Ex Machina remember how you are being manipulated at all times. Even when you think you know what is going on, you will be wrong.

  4. Disappointed
    I was totally disappointed in this film, I won’t go into all the details as to why but the biggest reason is Nathan being such an Asshat… and it just didn’t “grip” me… A far better film (IMO) along the same lines is “The Machine” I have both movies and when I want to watch a good “AI” movie I always op for the latter, I have watched “The Machine” several times and each time I like it more and more.

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