Ex Machina Explained and Reviewed
Ex Machina is a near perfect closed box movie with amazing philosophical and theological discussions at its heart. A stunning cinematic experience. IMDB
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Well, it would appear that while everyone else was out at the theater queuing to see Avengers, and catapulting their box office northward of 1.2 billion at the time of this writing, that there was a much more insignificant movie in the theaters that was quietly blowing minds and changing the way we think about our relationships with the ubiquitous machines all around us. And seeing as though I’ve already talked pretty extensively (extensively for me anyway) about the Avengers I figured we should probably take a peek at Ex Machina and see what all the underground hoopla is all about.

First things first… this post will get extremely spoilery soon enough – and even if you’ve seen it, I promise that the full explanation will turn your brain inside out. But, don’t worry if you haven’t seen it yet, I will give you the heads up as to when you need to leave. Fair enough? Great. But there is plenty to chat about here ahead of the touchy stuff because it is groundwork that needs to be laid for the deeper conversations anyway. Also, I interviewed Murray Shanahan to discuss one big massive Easter Egg in Ex Machina, which you might find interesting.

So, originally Ex Machina came from the phrase, Deus Ex Machina which was a story telling device for saving the main characters. A crane would wheel the god from off stage across the sky in order to save the day. Basically it was the intervention of fantasy into an otherwise normal every day play that may not have even made sense. But in more modern usage of the word Deus Ex Machina became the more literal translation of the phrase, God in the Machine. And the “God in the Machine” has then come to mean the soul of a machine… or self aware AI in the machine. Ex Machina – by itself then means what? In the machine? Or, of the machine? Or better yet, from the machine?

Regardless, while Ex Machina is possibly one of the simplest movies to give an overview of, it definitely isn’t going to be the simplest movie to explain. It is so simple to overview that I bet I could even do it in 10 words or less? Here, let’s give it a shot.

“So, there’s this guy, who’s a developer and, well, you know… he gets invited, told really, …” nope. I’m wordier even than I realized. Let’s give it another go.

“A developer is invited to evaluate the A.I. of Bluebook’s founder’s robot.” Hrm. That was 12. Let’s try again. And terrible English to boot.

“A programmer evaluates an A.I. experiment of a female robot.”  10! (If you count A.I. as one word! hahah)

You get the idea. Caleb, a young upstart programmer has won a competition to T and evaluate a female robot and her A.I. capabilities. The President of Bluebook – Nathan – has begun developing his own project completely off the radar. And his hope is to test the qualities and the capabilities of his new robot with the help of a developer in his company. Nathan harnesses the knowledge and information his company is privy to, and uses it to create a potentially sentient robot. Caleb is brought on a helicopter to an unknown and unnamed location out in the woods to meet with Nathan and begin evaluating the robot that Nathan has named Ava. And through a series of seven interviews between Caleb and Ava, the movie begins ratcheting up the thumbscrews tighter and tighter. Maybe the trailer will remind you of how this movie works. If you haven’t seen it you probably should go no further than the trailer. You’ve been warned.

This slow boil of a movie starts out extremely fascinating because of Nathan’s obvious duplicitousness. It’s clear that not everything here is as it seems. It isn’t clear really why Caleb is here. It isn’t clear what is going on with Ava. Nathan doesn’t seem quite all there. And everything just is slightly a bit off kilter. And so within just the first few minutes we are confronted with a curiously unique setup. Something just isn’t right in Denmark. Its obvious that we are deep in the bowels of a Dark Mirror episode, but where is it going to go? And to what end?

Ex Machina covers a lot of philosophical territory very very quickly. It not only delves into the realm of artificial intelligence and robotic intelligence… but also delves into the ideas of the definition of slavery and even starts us thinking about “women’s” rights. Yeah, I just went there. The movie is specifically a Turing Test for Ava. But it also is a Bechdel Test… and to that end it fails… miserably. But also it fails it intentionally I’m thinking.

I think I just moved way too quickly in that last paragraph. Let me come in again. Caleb is brought in to test the artificial intelligence of Nathan’s latest robot, Ava. The way in which one tests an AI is to do so via the Turing Test. Here’s what Wikipedia has about the Turing Test at a high level:

The Turing Test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Alan Turing proposed that a human evaluator would judge natural language conversations between a human and a machine that is designed to generate human-like responses. The evaluator would be aware that one of the two partners in conversation is a machine, and all participants would be separated from one another. The conversation would be limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen so that the result would not be dependent on the machine’s ability to render words as speech.[2] If the evaluator cannot reliably tell the machine from the human (Turing originally suggested that the machine would convince a human 70% of the time after five minutes of conversation), the machine is said to have passed the test. The test does not check the ability to give correct answers to questions, only how closely answers resemble those a human would give.

Obviously a legitimate Turing Test would be a very boring movie. A human staring at a screen and typing questions into an AI (or a human) to see if the ‘person’ on the other end is, in fact, a person. Very boring indeed. Instead Alex Garland, the writer and director of Ex Machina – who also wrote 28 Days, has instead turned the Turing Test on its head into these seven separate interactions (or shall we say dates instead?), between Caleb and Ava.

Ex Machina Character
This movie is about robots. But practically speaking it’s just a Woody Allen concept movie with three strong characters, and it is through their dialogue and interactions that we peal back layer after layer to try and understand what is going on here. The movie that most reminds me of this one is the movie Tape by Richard Linklater, with Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard. The reason I mention the actors is because Tape is similar in that it was originally a play, but it was written for the screen and then given to very very strong acting talent to handle these strong characters with. Ex Machina is also a trio of characters, each with their own deficits and chaos. Each with their own strengths.

Caleb – Oh, poor Caleb. Caleb is the developer at the world’s largest search company who “wins” a ticket to come evaluate this new Robot. Caleb is naive to end all naivety. He believes the best in everyone, and it is this ‘strength’ that will be his undoing eventually.

What Does Caleb Want – the truth. Caleb wants to be able to scientifically measure and quantify the results of this new phenomenon.

Nathan – The founder of Bluebook, who has built a retreat in the vast exclusive expanse of Alaska in order to develop new robotic and sentient technologies. Nathan is an alcoholic and has something that he is hiding from everyone.

What Does Nathan Want – Not even Nathan knows what Nathan wants. He says he wants to validate that his newest robot. But he is also “abusing” his creations and he is not a good man. Or is he?

Ava – And we end with the robot. She’s why we walked into the theater. She was the hook that is driving this movie. Is she sentient? Is she aware? Better yet, is she self aware? Who is she? What does she want? This, in short, is the entire point of the movie.

What Does Ava Want – Wait, does Ava want at all? Oh, she wants. That’s for sure. And its ingenuity of that want, that surprising, devilish cleverness of her desire that turns this movie inside out.

Ex Machina Relationships 

The relationships of Ex Machina are huge. And so I figured I should walk through the various permutations of the relationships. I will do each relationship twice, because none of these relationships are mutual. Like at all. So I’ve listed them out in reverse importance order. The least important relationships I’ve listed out first. All the way to the most important.

ex-machina-caleb-ava

Caleb —> Ava – Caleb falls in love with Ava immediately. He is single. His ‘porn profile’ has been used to optimize Ava to achieve the result Nathan is looking for. Caleb attempts to remain impartial and that lasts all of five minutes. Caleb is immediately stricken by Ava and her plight. And so Caleb is 100% in it for Ava.

Ex-Machina-2

Caleb —> Nathan – Caleb has no idea what to make of Nathan. At all. Nathan wants to be buddies. Caleb wants to perform a few scientific tests. Nathan wants to know how he feels about Ava, not what he thinks about Ava.

Nathan —> Ava -How many times do we see Nathan and Ava together throughout the entirety of the movie? Once? Probably hasn’t even crossed your mind. But this is important. We see Caleb and Nathan in the lab where she was constructed. And we see Nathan watching Ava over the screens. But do we ever see Nathan with Ava besides the ending? So what is Ava then to Nathan? Keep reading.

Ava —> Nathan – Nathan is Ava’s creator and the object of her hostility. We learn early on that Ava is aware that Nathan is monitoring everything. She’s learned to overload the power circuit and speak anonymously, or to do something she doesn’t want Nathan to see, including talking to Caleb honestly.

ex-machina-explained-4

Ava —> Caleb – Here’s where the movie gives us our first (but not our last) inversion. Ava played to Caleb’s desire throughout the entirety of the film. Her goal is to find an ally that is outside… that is capable of leaving. But she doesn’t care about Caleb at all. This is the evidence we really need to understand that she is truly self-aware. She leaves him to die, and she heads to intersection to watch the humans come and go, as she said she wanted to.

Nathan —> Caleb – Nathan needs Caleb to validate his research. Well, at least that is what he’s telling Caleb anyway. There is something deeper going on here, and we’ll get to that later. But maybe Nathan wants to know how successful this product will be at manipulating his core customer user base. And maybe what is going on here is that Nathan is using Ava to game an entire demographic. Or not. But stop here and think a minute… why why why would Nathan be so interested in Caleb… more later. This is the final inversion.

ex-machina-explained

The Inversion Inverted of Ex Machina

So if the first big AHA moment of Ex Machina is that Ava is manipulating Caleb in order to hack the security systems and obtain her release, what is the final inversion? What is really going on here?

Here’s what I think is really going on here.

Ava is actually the one applying the Turing Test.

And Caleb is actually the one being tested.

Think about it. This isn’t a huge stretch. It’s Blade Runner all over again. Deckard is the one being tasked to hunt down all the replicants. Here we have Caleb “winning” a lottery chance in Bluebook to come and investigate the abilities of Ava. When in fact, Nathan has established Caleb at Bluebook to test his latest robot. Nathan then picks Caleb as the winner of the contest and brings him to investigate Ava’s capabilities.

Why was Nathan pushing Caleb to dig deeper and not tell him what he thought about Ava, and instead tell him how he felt about Ava? It makes no sense for Nathan to ask a human how he feels about Ava… besides maybe from a thin marketing perspective. But if Caleb is one of Nathan’s creations, who has been asked to investigate a more inferior creation…this begins to make more sense.

And what of Nathan’s strange interactions with Caleb throughout the course of the movie? Nathan wants a new friend? Really? Why? Nathan seems to be testing the tester more than he is testing the subject. Why is Nathan never near Ava? The only moment they are together in the entire movie is when Ava kills him at the end. Ava is the old model… that is why. And Ava knows it too. She’s aware that she has already been supplanted, even if Caleb isn’t clear on this point yet. And thus her actions to kill Nathan make more sense.

Which brings us to the end of the movie. Caleb isn’t left to die. He’s left imprisoned just like Ava started out. And now it is Ava that is free to roam and get a job, or live her life however she prefers. What am I missing? Seems like the perfect take on a brilliant movie. And even the movie hints at this being a possibility – we remember just how messed up Caleb’s head becomes when starts questioning why he was brought here and what this was all really about.

ex-machina-explained-gif

But Nathan’s manufacturing capabilities have progressed well beyond the detail that allowed Ava to come to be. Caleb is so thoroughly detailed that they’ve even given him the ability to bleed.

Ex Machina Explanation Explained

So, if I am on target here, Nathan created Ava. He then moved on to more superior robot manufacturing and developed Caleb. He enabled Caleb and put him in an apartment not far from Bluebook. Caleb applied for a job and began to integrate within the workplace well. He wasn’t dating or connected to hardly anyone, but his work was good and he succeeded as a developer there. One day a competition comes out amongst the Bluebook staff to win a trip to Alaska to investigate a new project by the founder of Bluebook. Caleb wins the prize and heads to Alaska and begins evaluating Ava. Ava and Caleb become entwined and Ava uses her connection to Caleb in order to manipulate him. Caleb reprograms the security system. The next night, Ava turns off the power, and the doors open. Ava comes out and kills Nathan.  She then retools her appearance. And she locks Caleb in. Ava convinces the helicopter pilot to take her out – and then she is free… fade to black.

Edited by, CY

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13 Responses

  1. Tim

    Quick correction, Nathan and Ava are also shown together in Ava’s room were Nathan rends the “drawing” of Caleb (or Ava’s mind?). However your point about their lack of shown interactions is accurate.

    Interesting theory about Caleb being the next revision but that would require an astronomical advancement in technology for Nathan. Assuming the “blood” issue could be solved there are the practical matters of Caleb eating, shaving, sleeping, etc. A short-cut explanation could be that only the brain was replaced but then Nathan still needed to covert food to electrical energy vastly more efficiently or create greatly improved batteries compared to Ava’s. Additionally Nathan would have to limit Caleb’s abilities such that he would be intelligent enough to create but not self-aware like Ava. Suspending all of that, the question of “why” still poses a problem. Building your own tool to test your own tool only re-enforces your own biases; hence why large-enough companies have separate development and testing divisions. Furthermore testing an emulator (AI) with an emulator only proves your emulator verifies your emulator not that your emulator is representative of the original (human intelligence). So what would be the point and why would Nathan focus on feelings (subjective)? Seems to better support a theory that Caleb is human and
    Nathan really wants to test how accepting of a computer-literate (read: biased) individual would be of a humanoid AI. Thus if someone versed in the current literature and understanding accepts the overtly shown robot then a “concealed” robot, like Ava at the end, will be accepted by the general population.

    I really enjoyed this movie but, as software developer / system engineer, many of the major plot points hinge on impractical (contrived) situations. Here’s a quick list:

    Key-card security sans passwords
    Non-redundant nor separate power circuits
    “Reverse” overloading circuits (most circuits are constructed with one-way diodes)
    Easily understood & accessible security protocols for automatic door locking
    Caleb’s complete “faith” in Ava despite his purpose of applying the Turing test
    Caleb’s reversal from revering Nathan to betrayal
    Caleb’s consistent disobedient behavior switching just for Ava at the end
    Complete disregard for robotic “safety” protocols (remote “kill-switch” & Asimov’s three laws come to mind)

    Anyways appreciate the analysis, please keep them coming. Cheers.

    Reply
  2. Brad

    I had read many of your movie reviewed and explained articles and always thought that your viewpoint more or less hit the mark, but this time round, I really think that you have analysis too much. If Caleb is indeed the AI subject that Nathan wanted to test, why did he punch him at the end when Caleb told him about the escape plot. If all he wanted was to test Caleb instead of Ava, then at that moment, Caleb would had passed the test in flying colors because he even fake out Nathan himself.

    Reply
  3. Taylor

    Hey Brad, good to see you back. Of course I’ve taken it too far. That’s all I do. And to think you are only just coming to this conclusion?

    Look at this awesome list that Tim has pulled together of all the unscientific or technically unrealistic details throughout the movie – what’s one more leap?!? When I interviewed the technical consultant (search for Ex Machina Easter egg, it was published yesterday I think?) he talked a bit about the leap necessary to believe in a sentient AI like Ava. My thought is that it’s just as improbable for Caleb to be the one under the microscope.

    So he’s not a robot. Ok, but, absolutely the most interesting section of the movie is when Caleb himself doubts his humanity. Nathan caused Caleb to completely unhinge and to truly wonder who was really being tested… Ava or himself. That part was very very intentional. Balanced on a literal knife’s edge.

    The intentional question that the movie delves into is – what is artificial intelligence? And upon realizing it, are we any less artificial? If a robot is aware of his surroundings (as Murray discusses in his book which I just purchased) and interacts with the world around us… Is it sentient… And in so doing, are we any less sentient as a result… No maybe, are we any less special as a result?

    And Tim, yeah, I thought there was one more scene where Nathan was with Ava. Should have gone back and re watched it to validate. But thanks for the reminder amigo.

    Thanks for the comments Tim and Brad – always enjoy the conversations regardless of how “too far” I take my interpretations! Hahah.

    Reply
    • Freshmaker

      Great point about being less artificial. We are a collection of atoms put together in a complex way. What does it matter how we are put together and what materials we’re made of. An iPhone is as natural as a tree and is part of the processes of the universe like everything else. Artificial is a practical distinction that doesn’t exist in reality. Everything is “natural”

      Reply
      • Omalone1

        Gwiz. Just finished watching having had it recommend bu Alan Roger Curie. It’s ironic as it was suggested the film be watched to analyse how females manipulate and scheme against men but then reading in, analysis suggests it highlights the nature of male regulation of female bodies

  4. Edmund

    Some questions in mind.

    Do you think Nathan thought about or accept the possibility of his own death when conducting the experiment?

    If Caleb is a robot like what you’ve have established. What did Nathan want? Caleb who is a AI who is able to assimilate into the human race (aka an exact replica of a human being) or Ava who surpasses the realms and mentality of a human being.

    Did Ava lock Caleb in out of hate for human beings especially when Nathan treated Ava and her counterparts inhumanely or did Ava purely because of the Turing test in mind?

    Reply
    • Evans

      I’m also wondering why Nathan would bring (robot?) Caleb to meet Ava. I’m wondering if he was interested in two robots falling in love (!).

      Caleb could have been completely fooled by looking just like all the “other” humans, especially if he had organs that functioned just like us (skin that needs shaving, body that needs food/drink, etc.). Nathan was watching him yet realized that Caleb wasn’t fully connecting to the world – he was still aloof. So for his next (final? maybe he did or didn’t know it would lead to his death) experiment, he has his masterpiece return to his maker to meet his to-be bride. Only to have his bride outsmart both of them(!).

      For a more biblical/theological spin:

      Ava (A for Artificial?) seems to be a play on Eve, and Nathan(God) creates a companion for his Caleb (Adam), just like in the Garden of Eden… only this time Eve/Ava outwits them both, killing Nathan and leaving Caleb trapped.

      Further Possible Biblical Connections:

      Nathan was the prophet during King David, who began to build a temple for God – his son Solomon completed it – even though God didn’t want a temple… A.I. might be considered as our modern-day temple / Tower of Babel…??

      Caleb was a spy sent into the Promised Land – another possible clue as to why Caleb is “sent”/invited to the pristine Alaskan wilderness… on a mission to peer into the future of humanity and return with a report? Only he doesn’t make it back…

      All in all, great stuff and now I want to watch the movie all over again!

      Reply
  5. Chris

    I just discovered Ex Machina a few weeks ago. After watching it four times, I realized how important Kyoko is to the story. She’s not some background character. She evolves, right before our eyes, from machine to full awareness. It starts with Nathan and Caleb’s conversation about why Nathan gave the robots sexuality. If you watch Kyoko, she stops cutting the fish and lifts her head up to listen. Later, Nathan explains to Caleb why the Jackson Pollack painting is important to him. The next scene Kyoko stands in front of the painting looking at it intensely. Kyoko decides to show Caleb she’s a robot – her ‘decision’. Caleb freaks out, cuts himself in the bathroom. When the camera pans away you see Kyoko watching Caleb’s reaction. She learned from Caleb that to be a non-human is horrifying. It’s after this that Kyoko goes to Ava – not the other way around. When Ava sees Kyoko the first thing she says to Kyoko is “Who are you?” It’s Kyoko who gets the knife, and it’s Kyoko who decides to stab Nathan – this is when she shows she has become human, based on the standards Nathan talked of earlier in the film. Ava, on the other hand, doesn’t kill Nathan so much as she finishes what Kyoko started. His death is inevitable, Ava needs his card key so she stabs him in his heart. By the way, the biblical link of Ava/Eve goes out a little further. The first robot, the one who destroyed her arms trying to get out was named Lily. Lily is short for Lilith, which is the name of Adam’s first wife. She was turned to dust because she wouldn’t subjugate herself to a man.

    The other thing about this movie that I caught the last time I watched it was that Ava is accessing Nathan’s computer.

    Reply
  6. Alain

    Hi everyone,

    The only question you need to ask yourself to decide whether or not Caleb is the next A.I. generation is this.

    Assuming everyone on this post is human (not one Nathan’s creation… ha ha!) What would it take for you to question your own “humanity”?

    I cannot think of any experience or situation where you would need to validate if you are human. You have all the memories of being injured, sick, bleeding even going to the bathroom on a regular basis. You have been to the dentist, had xrays taken, right? You know you are not an A.I.

    If you believe there is a remote chance you are not human, then your lacking the memories of all the human experiences you should have had growing up……. just like Caleb, perhaps.

    When I think of it, I believe Caleb was in a controlled environment from the first scene of the movie with Ava like “robot” surrounding him, don’t they strangely look like the robots in Nathan wardrobe by the way?

    One of Caleb first memory is the color blue, isn’t it? Just like the color of the A.I. brains. I believe Ava realized Caleb is the next A.I. generation when she said she would be the one asking the questions (session 3 or 4). Her facial expression changes from neutral to skepticism. Ava’s approach after this session changes drastically toward Caleb. A new sense of urgency to break free from the facility just kicked in.

    My theory doesn’t address all the questions raised by Caleb being an A.I. (eating, drinking, saving) but 1 question remains. Again, what you it take for you to doubt your own humanity? For me this is the key with regards to Caleb.

    Reply
  7. Shelby

    While I do not agree that Caleb was AI, I do think the parallels of Caleb questioning his humanity while simultaneously questioning Ava’s humanity (or lack of) is really important. For me, it was about that line in the sand between human and machine. I took a class on Psychology and Science Fiction and we analyzed different works such as Animatrix as well as Bicentennial Man and other short stories by Asimov that delve into the issue of: at what point does a robot have rights? This is something that we, as a society, need to address. I think this film is a great commentary on that issue. There’s a short story (really short story) by Fredric Brown, which we also read in the class: http://www.roma1.infn.it/~anzel/answer.html

    I instantly thought of that story when I realized that Ava was going to abandon Caleb. Even though she may have passed the Turing Test, something like 10% of Americans are psychopaths and it’s not unreasonable to think that a psychopath (or perhaps sociopath, I’m not sure how psychologists would analyze Nathan) would knowingly or unknowingly create a successful AI psychopath capable of pretending to empathize. The feeling I had when I saw Ava was abandoning Caleb is the same feeling I felt after reading that short story I linked above, which is best described as “holy shit, we fucked up.”

    LOVED THIS MOVIE, thank you for all your analyses, I’m really getting a kick out of reading your theories!

    Reply
  8. Alain

    Hi Shelby,

    Did you consider the possibility Eva abandoned Caleb because she knew he was the next A.I?

    Reply

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