Ex Machina (2015)
Don’t Be Evil
“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon”― Elon Musk at MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Centennial Symposium, from Washington Post Article “Elon Musk’s nightmare: A Google robot army annihilating mankind” May 13, 2015
Is Ava an ingenue in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina”? That simple question is at the heart of this compact science fiction thriller based around the relationship between humans and sentient machines. Ava is a robot guided by extremely advanced algorithms. Does she have feelings? Who deserves to be accorded de jure dignity and respect? Given our species track record of exploitation and domination, is it an act of suicide to extend the franchise to non-humans? Apes, dogs or octopus’ are not an existential threat to mankind so the debate about according our fellow animals rights plods along at a comfortably sleepy academic pace. Computers, however, manage the opaque programming of modern life. Our reliance on these unseen machines grows in tandem with a sense of dread about their ability to reek havoc. This gives rise to the unsettling question: are they like us? Do they deserve to be treated as something other than pieces of metal, glass and plastic? Mr. Garland’s foil to explore these questions is a young computer scientist, Caleb, who is selected to take part in an experiment by Nathan. The latter is an amalgamation of many Silicon Valley pioneers. Sergey Brin, who as head of Google, has spent a fortune acquiring artificial intelligence and robotics companies without revealing his intent. Nathan’s unfathomable intellect and arrogance also brings to mind Peter Thiel, who has stated a desire to be eternal by merging with a machine, and Elon Musk, who has stated he wants to live on Mars. All these people have the resources to explore their dreams and the shear force of personality to make even the most skeptical non-scientists wonder. Nathan has the audacity to believe his intellectual strength makes him divine. Caleb is merely an apostle documenting, confirming and being programed to spread the gospel.
Mr. Garland has a knack for exploring big ideas in confined spaces. “Sunshine”, which he authored, shows the fate of half a dozen people confined to a spacecraft. The writing is superb as the characters are in a battle with their sanity in addition to the the elements. “Ex Machina” also uses a small cast confined to one set. Garland’s directorial debut shows that his talent goes beyond the written word. The plot is spare. A young computer engineer is called by his boss, a world renowned computer genius, to take part in an experiment. The acting is pitch perfect. Nathan is as arrogant as Caleb is callow and Ava is alluring. The actors bring an international perspective shared by the real life tech tycoons. Brin, Musk and Thiel were all born outside the United States. Oscar Isaac, who plays Nathan, is a naturalized American born of Guatemalan and Cuban parents. Domhnall Gleeson, the eager Caleb, is Irish. Alicia Vikander is Swedish. It is a mark of their talent that they completely suppress any old world charm. They all exude a particular brand of American ambition that could only be born of new culture that abandons ancient truths for the allure of innovation. Nathan has the hardboiled entrepreneurs' obsession with fame and standing. Caleb has formidable technical prowess saddled with a childlike belief in the goodness of science and rich powerful men. Ava is myopic in the manner of a brilliant American graduate student unencumbered by weighty questions in pursuit of actionable knowledge. This unlikely combination of strivers are on a collision course with existential questions.
The setting is a modernist cement prison. It is the kind of pretentious, flashy unlivable home that only a tech wizard would choose to inhabit. It brings to mind Apple Computer’s co-founder (the other Steve) who incorporated an actual cave in his large ranch-style house. Caleb adapts to being put in a windowless cell with a door that automatically locks. His mentor explains he should think of it as merely an extension of the lab and not really a home. This small moment speaks to an ideology both these men share. Sometimes it’s important to sacrifice one’s humanity for the greater good of Science. Nathan has made his fortune designing a Google-like internet behemoth which he uses to glean information about how human’s interact. Studying the “traffic” can yield a great deal of information without delving into the minutia. It’s akin to the National Security Agency’s massive data sweep. There is no need to have the specifics of a conversation as the raw data of who and when you called can reveal the larger truth. Nathan never gives this nefarious example but he poetically shows that in creating his robots he has tapped, metaphorically speaking, all human knowledge. He twists Caleb’s banter around to hint that Caleb thinks Nathan a god with the power of creating beings. Caleb states that is not what he says or thinks. This forces Nathan to repeat the misrepresentation with greater force. What does it matter what the lab rat thinks? Caleb confirms his status by abandoning any hope of correcting the word from on high.
There is a constant waxing and waining of trust as Caleb is lured down his maze. At first Nathan’s brilliance excuses his rudeness but his brutality becomes too much for the gentle Caleb. The young scientist becomes Ava’s knight in shinning armor. This is according to Nathan’s plan. Ostensively he is there to perform a “Turing Test”. “Ex Machina” gives relevant exposition. Turing, the father of modern computer science, asked the question whether computers were capable of thought. Since defining the act of thinking is difficult Turing re-stated the test question: ”Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?”. There is a great deal of dialogue surrounding the nature of whether or not, Ava, the android, is actually thinking or merely mimicking. Strangely there is no mention of the fact that Turing himself negated the issue by stressing imitation rather than actual thought. Caleb is bogged down in the mechanics which exasperates the impatient Nathan. He uses various analogies including referencing one of his paintings by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack to “prove” that Ava is a sentient being. Perhaps the creepiest moment of the film occurs when Nathan decides to show his pupil how to stop thinking and “let go”. He has caught Caleb fending off the sexual advances made by Nathan’s servant/consort. Caleb fears Nathan’s fury. Anger might be an appropriate response of someone discovering a lover secretly involved with a friend. That would be in the world of well adjusted mammals. Caleb is in the presence of a sociopath and his army of Stepford Wives. Caleb is dumfounded as Nathan turns up the music, swills his drink and performs a perfectly choreographed disco routine with the servant. The precision of Nathan and his companion imitating each other is, at first, comic. Then, as the music progresses, the scene takes on a sinister hue of joyless excess. As an aside, Jackson Pollack killed himself and a fellow car passenger during a night of revelry.
Mr. Garland’s use of costumes and grooming elegantly supports the dystopian themes. Nathan shares the same huge beard and closely cropped hair of fanatical terrorist leaders. It is in the seduction of Caleb, however, that Garland hits his mark by brilliantly parsing Ava’s body. The face and hands are completely human but the rest of her, including her hairline and neck, are overtly mechanical. The overall impression is a human conjoined with an extraordinary, hand crafted modern Swiss watch. The divide between man and machine becomes apparent during a sequence where Ava puts on her clothes. Caleb is told to cover his eyes. She coyly slips on a dress evoking a transition into being a young girl aware of her sexuality. Caleb peeks through his fingers. The is a sweetness to the moment due to his inexperience. He is twinned with her assuming the role of a young innocent crossing the line into the murkiness of sexuality. This scene of Caleb gazing on his love interest is repeated in a thematically mirror image. Towards the end of the film Ava is covering her body with skin while Caleb is imprisoned in a neighboring room. No need to tell him to shut his eyes as that would hint that she cared. She doesn’t. Strangely this makes her very human, but in a postlapsarian sense. His naive fairytale romance turns into a very mature power struggle. Ironically Genesis is rendered in reverse as Ava escapes the gray stone darkness into a Garden of Eden at the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Garland has placed Nathan’s laboratory/home in a secluded sylvan oasis which echoes Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Glutch”, the community of like minded genius’ who come to dominate the world of inferior collectivists. As an aside it is interesting to note that Rand’s key disciple, Nathaniel Brandon, shares Garland’s lead character’s first name. “Ex Machina” has taken this Randian dream to its logical next step in that Nathan’s “community” consists of Nathan and his carefully tailored robots, which are based on serving his needs. Not surprisingly, Nathan is a raging alcoholic who tempers all his solipsistic soliloquies with large amounts of beer and whisky….. When he isn’t terrorizing Caleb, he works on his computers, rapes his androids, eats gourmet meals, blasts loud music and indulges in long bouts with a literal punching bag. There is an amusing moment when Caleb first encounters the mad genius that illustrates Nathan’s complete isolation. He is referring to the wild time he had the night before. Caleb assumes he had thrown a large party. Nathan is offended by this suggestion. As if to say “I don’t need anyone else to have a great time”. Nathan then unwraps his fists as he has just been whaling away on the punching bag. He escorts Caleb to his windowless cell/room where he bullies him into signing a confidentiality agreement. Nathan might be the paradigm of scientific brilliance but he fails to be much of host or companion and some might argue, human.
Although Garland has delivered an exceptional film debut the android world view is absent. Ava is intriguing but opaque. During Caleb’s inquisition, which morphed into an extended date, he asks her an hypothetical question: where would you go If you had the choice of visiting anyplace on earth? One can assume, given her lightening sharp responses to all manner of inquiry, that she has been imbued with vast knowledge of the world. It is also made clear that she has never experienced anything outside of the small confines of her dark room. Ava’s response gives a glimmer of what is behind that beautiful face mask. She would enjoy visiting a very busy automobile intersection in any major urban area. Caleb is gobsmacked and pushes her to explain. She is interested in people watching. Strangely the inquisitor never pushes for the reason behind her unusual destination fantasy. As audience members we can assume Garland is drawing a parallel with Nathan. Her creator watches humans via his unfettered internet empire and his spawn tries to understand humans via a similar disengaged vantage point. The vehicle intersection is of interest as it delivers a vast quantity of ‘data’ about human behavior. The real questions is to what end Ava would find this useful. This is never addressed Her mentor is an open book. Nathan tipped his hand with his adolescent fantasy about being a godlike man with the ability to create life as well as snuff it out. His motivation is to be a hallowed figure in human history. He speaks of a time when Caleb will proudly share witnessing the birth of Ava with his grandchildren. His supposed acolyte’s response: only if his grandchildren had signed confidentiality agreements. Caleb pokes at the absurdity of wanting to be a seminal figure in the human community while possessing contempt for all of his fellow beings. Ava, however, remains enigmatic. Does she share her creator’s disgust with humanity? Does she have ambition to dominate?
There is a sequence which features Ava and another android conspiring against their creator. Caleb has, through reprogramming the lock down features of the lab/prison, untethered Nathan’s metaphorical children. This dysfunctional family encounter unfolds in the same manner as one would expect of a purely human cast of characters. Garland carefully stages the brutality with a clumsy ambiguity which blurs understanding the robots’ motivations. There is a moment where Ava whispers to her counterpart. One can assume that Ava, as the dominant figure, is giving instructions, but there is an odd sexual tension in the exchange. As if these two robot children were about to play doctor. Nathan breaks up the strangely tender moment by suddenly bursting in carrying a club and barking orders. The ensuing confrontation ends in a crescendo of violence. It is fascinating to observe Ava’s clearly nefarious actions leading to her liberation. It would have been more enlightening, however, had Ava spent more time with the other robot. To borrow a question which was the title to the original novel which turned into the film “Blade Runner”: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. Do they have a subconscious? What is in at the root of their motivation? Who is Ava?
The theme of humans being seduced by their mechanical creations is as old as the 18th century “Tales of Hoffman” and has been revived on numerous occasions. “Ex Machina” bears a resemblance to an original Star Trek episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” produced in 1966. This work features a scientist, Dr. Korby, who has realized Thiel’s dream of morphing with an android. At the same time Korby exhibits Nathan’s vision of dominance and attempts to reinvent mankind with his army of robots. The problem, of course, is when one engineers robots to imitate humans they become as fickle and uncompromising as their real world counterparts. The brilliance of “Ex Machina” is that the struggle is focused not on man vs. machine but man vs. man; specifically Caleb’s revenge due to Nathan’s mistreatment. Thematically this film has a strong connection with “In the Company of Men”, a stark rendition of a dominant male figure who forces a colleague to toy with a deaf woman, knowing that the result will end in broken hearts. In both films the justice for the wronged party goes awry. The takeaway is that treating your fellow beings as merely objects can never end well; for anyone. “Ex Machina” extends the lesson to non-humans. It will end badly for ‘anything’ as well.
Perhaps Nathan could have recomputed his behavioral algorithms based on Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot”. This 1950 anthology of science fiction stories lays out “The Three Laws of Robotics”
1.A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3.A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
As Asimov’s fiction progressed so did the power of androids. His stories featured robots controlling governments and, by default, civilization itself. This prompted a revision to the three laws with a law that precedes all others. It was nicknamed the zeroth law:
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
Interestingly Asmivo continued to wrestle with these questions and, in 1974, published the short story “…. Thou Art Mindful of Him”. Two robots void Rules #1 & #2 and shift the emphasis to #3’s protecting their own existence. The androids come to believe they are superior to humans. Does Ava share this conclusion? Garland never says. “Ex Machina” is a wonderful journey into the battle amongst humans. It is prescient in that the heroes of our time are as deluded as the villain in the film. If anyone feels that Nathan is overdrawn then consider Peter Thiel’s funding of “The Seasteding Institute”. This organization explores the building of communities on floating islands that drift in international waters devoid of any control by evil collectivist governments. Perhaps this is where Thiel can explore his dream of living forever and merging with a robot. Maybe he missed the “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” parable. More likely, like Nathan, he feels he has the upper hand. Garland knows he doesn’t. So does Elon Musk, who is nervous that Sergey Brin is on course to violate the Zeroth law. Once again Garland should be praised for a wonderful work of art that brings the debate front and center. It would have been very interesting to know more about Ava. Unfortunately mankind might find out soon enough. And not in the safety of a movie theater.