Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ex Machina

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The title of this 2014 sci-fi movie comes from an ancient theater term. “Deus ex machina” referred to an actor playing a god in a box who was lowered from the upper part of the scenery which represented the heavens. The “god” would then resolve conflicts presented in the story. It is now considered to be a crutch, a contrivance, used by a writer to tie things up that should naturally play out from the basic ingredients in the narrative.
In this film, the term takes on added significance, because it deals with a hybrid consisting of organic form and mechanized computing. A new life entity, Artificial Intelligence, is created out of (“ex”) technological machinery, and the “god” who creates, or facilitates its birth, is a human scientist. The person the audience identifies with as he discovers this new invention is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He works, appropriately, for a computer search engine company. The modern connection between people and computers is on display in the opening scene as we see many employees jacked into their electronic equipment. We get a shot from the computer’s point of view, from its camera, not from a human’s but from a machine’s perspective, as it scans Caleb. The implication here is that humans are being reduced to digital images. Caleb wins a lottery to spend time with the genius developer of the company, Blue Book (whose name, we are told later, comes from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book. This work is a collection of lectures).

A helicopter airlifts Caleb to the residence of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The place is so sprawling and remote, that Caleb doesn’t even realize it when they have been flying over the estate for quite a while. The helicopter is prohibited from landing in sight of Nathan’s building. Nathan attributes this isolation to the need for security. But, it also indicates how psychologically removed he is from the human race. It is ironic that the man who runs the largest search engine on earth, processing 94% of all the requests from the world’s population, must remove himself to a region where there is no internet service. Talk about being the ultimate unsocial network networker. Caleb’s first contact at the “house’ is in the form of a verbal interface with a computer, not with a person. Again, the reduction to a digital form is echoed in the issuance of a photo passkey that determines the extent of Caleb’s freedom within the building. When the two men meet, Nathan tells Caleb that he has a severe hangover, and Caleb assumes he had a party. But, Nathan doesn’t have parties with other people. He drinks alone in the anti-social place he says is not his home (a place where humans reside) but which he labels a research facility, a laboratory where he conducts his experiments. He actually seems to have imported Caleb to play the role of a guy pal, someone he can share a drink and conversation with. A pal Nathan coldly requires to sign a detailed non disclosure agreement and who dictates where Caleb can go and what will constitute their interactions. When Caleb first sees Nathan, he is working out, and we later see him lifting weights and working a punching bag. This activity shows Nathan to be someone who enjoys power, muscling others, and, very really, bullying them. Indeed, when Nathan shows Caleb to his room, the host admits that it is claustrophobic, with no outside windows. It is like a cell, or a cage, where one could say that Caleb is imprisoned. Inside the building there are numerous rooms with glass walls, but Caleb sees a crack in one of the surfaces. It is an indication that this controlled retreat built by Nathan has flaws.

Nathan tells Caleb he didn’t want him there to have an employer-employee bonding session. He wants Caleb to be part of a “Turing test” to see if an AI, which he has already created, can pass for human. When Caleb finds out about this invention he says, in response to Nathan saying that he is part of the greatest scientific event in man’s history, “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.” Later, Nathan takes this statement to validate his inflated ego, and says that Caleb called him a god. He then shows Caleb his AI creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Although parts of her body and her face look like a person, the rest of her construction shows her to be a machine. Caleb questions how can the Turing test be passed if he knows her to be a computing system. Nathan pushes the limits of the test because if Caleb accepts Ava as a successful AI despite knowing she is a mechanism, that would make for an even greater accomplishment.

Thanks to to IMDb for pointing out that Caleb, Nathan, and Ava refer to biblical names. Caleb was appointed by Moses to report on the Promised Land, as this Caleb has been assigned to provide input on the future of androids. Nathan was the name of a prophet in King David’s realm, and here he predicts the future of AI, even though his actions in the present are faulty. Ava sounds like Eve, who was the first female, as Ava is the first AI.
Caleb does question why Nathan made his AI gender specific. He wonders if she was programmed to flirt with Caleb, which would skew the test results. Nathan says in order to have a successful AI, there must be interaction. And, if the AI is to pass for human, people interact sexually. Of course, we later see that all of his AI prototypes are made to resemble women, and his approach to them is one of sexist domination. Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is one of them. Caleb does not initially know she is an AI because she does not appear to be a machine. Nathan says she is a non-English speaking servant, who Nathan berates for spilling wine. Nathan’s anger here shows his intolerance for not having his environment totally under his control, even though he admits that mistakes seem to be unavoidable. This statement is a foreshadowing, like the crack in the wall, of what is to come. There are others, too. Reference is made to one of the developers of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who quoted from Hindu writings the phrase, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was a scientist who expressed his guilt for his creation. Nathan says that his actions are “Promethian.” In mythology, Prometheus stole fire (inspiration? imagination? invention?) from the gods and gave it to man, and was punished for his infraction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus has become a cautionary tale that warns against the overreaching pride of scientific meddling with the powers of nature. Nathan’s feeble defense of his actions is that what he has created was an inevitability. He does have a prophetic vision about the future evolution of humankind and AI’s. He tells Caleb, “One day the AI’s 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.”

Even though Nathan says he is testing AI and human interaction, he wants to control that connection by separating Caleb and Ava by glass walls. He tells Caleb that it is only natural that Ava would have a “crush” on Caleb since Nathan has built her with genital sensors and that Caleb is the first male she has seen other than Nathan, who is more of a father figure. Nathan’s visual monitoring of the two is voyeuristic, as if he he is vicariously enjoying the male - “female” experience in the only way that suits him, by manipulating the real and artificial intelligences.
Caleb finds Ava totally convincing in her dialogue with him. She learns about him. He lost his parents in a car accident at a young age, and he was hospitalized with injuries from that event. To compensate for that time in convalescence, he studied computers, as, he points out, did Nathan. So, he identifies with Nathan’s solitary life. Caleb, has no wife or girlfriend. In a sense, he, too, is married to his work with computers. Nathan shows Caleb his creation of a kind of fluid synthesized neurological system that departs from typical circuitry. That is the AI’s hardware. It turns out that her software comes from Nathan hacking the overwhelming amount of Blue Book searching information to program Ava based on, not “what” people think, but “how” they think. He gets away with this god-like Big Brother action because the computer manufacturers gather their information the same way.
There are numerous power failures occurring, which trigger auxiliary energy sources and lockdowns until restoration. At these times, the doors of the rooms and hallways are locked, except for those accessed by Nathan. Nathan appears vexed at the occurrences of these outages. During one of them, Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is not his friend, and that he lies about everything, and should not be trusted. He has seen on the closed circuit TV that Nathan took a drawing that Ava made of Caleb and ripped it up. Caleb is suspecting Nathan of abuse. Ava says that she is the reason for the outages, as she reverses her battery charging process and overloads the system’s power grid. She has shown what appears to be a romantic interest in Caleb, having said she wanted to go on a date with him. She puts on clothes and a wig so that she appears to be a real woman. She gains his sympathy because she has never been out of her room, and would like to go with Caleb to observe the world and its people. He does not reveal what she said to him to Nathan. So, Caleb now trusts a mechanism over a person.
During one of Nathan’s drunken binges, Caleb obtains Nathan’s keycard. He watches recordings of his manhandling prior android versions, including sexually using Kyoko. She once even started to undress for Caleb, as if programmed to do so. He finds Kyoko laying naked in Nathan’s room, and finds deactivated versions of other female AI’s in mirrored closets. (There are a lot of mirrors in the film. Caleb talks about how what they are doing is like “going through the looking glass,” referencing Alice in Wonderland. At one point he questions his own humanity, looking in a bathroom mirror, cutting his arm to see if he bleeds. Are the reflections, the mirror images of us, representative of the AI’s, the new, real thing?) Thank you to IMDb for pointing out that the bodies in Nathan’s room resemble those in the story of Bluebeard, which again shows Nathan’s misogyny.

During a blackout, Ava tells Caleb she wants to leave with him. He first tells her it is not up to him to grant her freedom. Ava astutely asks, “Why is it up to anyone?” Once sentient beings are created with free will (like humans), why should anyone have the right to interfere with that freedom? Caleb tells her to cause a power failure that evening. He will get Nathan drunk and reverse the security settings to free them. Caleb’s attempts to intoxicate Nathan fail. Nathan placed battery powered cameras so he observed Caleb plotting with Ava. Caleb now realizes that he did not win a lottery to to be with Nathan. And, despite his host’s earlier deception that Caleb was chosen for his talent, he now understands the truth. Nathan chose him because of his loner status, and his good moral compass, which would cause him to want to help Ava. His background made him prone to Ava’s manipulation to gain freedom. Caleb even sees that using Blue Book, Nathan made Ava fit Caleb’s porn searches so that she would appear more alluring to Caleb. Nathan contributed to the scenario by making Caleb feel sympathy toward Ava by tearing up her art, and saying he would erase her memories if she failed the Turing test. Nathan’s real test was to see if Ava would use the characteristics of self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, and empathy to get what she wanted, which was to escape. So, she passed the test, becoming all too human.

However, Nathan underestimated Caleb, who assumed that Nathan observed the meetings between Ava and Caleb during the outages. So, Caleb already reprogrammed the security sessions during Nathan’s previous night of binge drinking. When Ava causes the power blackout, Ava’s, and Kyoko’s, doors open. We see Ava and Kyoko talking to each other. There is a violent confrontation between Ava and Nathan, who rips off one of Ava’s arms. Kyoko comes up from behind and stabs Nathan. He breaks off Kyoko’s face, but is again stabbed by Ava, and he dies. She takes Nathan’s keycard. She uses the parts she needs from the prior prototypes so she can appear truly like a person. She locks the doors behind her, reversing the incarceration process, making the human Caleb a prisoner. Since it was to be Caleb’s last day, she escapes in the helicopter after it lands.

We next see Ava fulfilling her dream. She is at a busy city intersection, observing people. The humans’ shadows are seen cast on an underpass ceiling, as if to imply they are now diminished copies of the ideal creation (think Plato). Perhaps Nathan’s prediction of human extinction and replacement has begun.

The next film is Contact.


  1. Very good article. I am dealing with some of these issues as well..

  2. I appreciate, cause I discovered exactly what I was having a look for.
    You have ended my four day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a
    nice day. Bye


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