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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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