by Brian Culkin
Of all the thematic binarities Ex-Machina employs to develop its narrative–man vs machine, morality vs power, secrets vs transparency–it is the one never overtly spoken of that has the most profound effect. For in this binarity, the mise en scene of the entire film, the primal dialectic of nature (the pure and untouched natural world, that is) is confronted with the digital. The traditional opposition, on the other hand, of nature vs. technology has always been articulated through the confrontation of nature with specifically analog technologies such as oil spills, factory pollution, and toxic waste, which most often serve as our metaphors for this hostile relationship of nature vs. man made technologies. It is an obvious, and by now well-worn thematic opposition, namely that nature is clean, while technology is dirty.
But it is this very point of reorganization within Ex Machina where we can be most disturbed in our framing of this binarity. For the technology used in this film is, of course, digital technology, and this specific form of technology is not quite so obviously threatening to ecosystems. Rather,digital technology seems, at first glance, to be in sync with nature itself. It is, after all, clean, minimal, ‘organic,’ and contains no external waste. Digital technology’s ostensible effect on nature – never conspicuous in such outward events as a nuclear accident or an urban smoke stack – makes it seem entirely harmless. But that is the precise problem this film forces us to confront.
The narrative begins when an employee, a star programmer at a Google-like technology firm called Bluebook, wins an internal company contest that has as its prize a chance to spend a week with Bluebooks’s reclusive founder at his personal compound. We don’t know where this compound is located, as we are never told, but we can guess based on the scenery that it is somewhere close to either the North or South Pole: southern Argentina, Iceland, the southern island of New Zealand, or maybe even northern Canada. The point is that the compound is immersed and surrounded by pure nature, a postmodern Garden of Eden.
The employee, Caleb, is helicoptered in to meet the Sergey Brin/Elon Musk/Ray Kurzweil inspired character, Bluebook founder, Nathan. Shortly after introductions, and following the disarming of Caleb’s star struck attitude towards Nathan, Caleb is told the truth of the contest’s real purpose: Caleb has been selected to perform a Turing test on a recent model of Artificial Intelligence, known as Ava, that Nathan has programmed in his seclusion. The Turing test, initially theorized by computer pioneer Alan Turing, goes something like this: if you are interacting with an intelligent machine and you cannot tell whether it is human or not, then it has passed the test, it is bona fide AI.
The Turing test, however, was always theorized to be undertaken as a blind test. That is to say, the person would never be looking at the machine directly, but rather interacting with it from afar, or from a screen. However, the test Caleb is charged with performing is an open version of the test. He will come face to face with the potentiality of Artificial Intelligence, yet clearly perceive that this humanoid is in fact a machine of appearances: she has robot arms and legs, her head is partially exposed as machine circuitry, yet her face is human. So, an apparently simple test to be performed, with this outward constitution of machine properties giving the game away, her inner self, her digital soul, becomes far more difficult for Caleb to grasp in simple black and white terms.
This is the consistent mind bend that Ex Machina gives us: we know that Ava is a machine, yet we don’t, or at least we are confused that we don’t. Ava, sadly, has more human qualities than most contemporary human beings. She is present, attentive, engaging, mirroring, and inquisitive. She displays a very real sense of human presence. Her vulnerability is palpable. Her honesty is intoxicating. This is contrasted with the inner life of Caleb, a computer programmer, a man who has ostensibly been stuck to a pixillated screen, writing code and constructing algorithms for the past ten years. We learn in their interactions that Caleb’s parents were killed in a car accident. We learn that he lives alone, in a one bedroom apartment on Long Island near the east coast headquarters of Bluebook. We learn, that he has built in defenses, like everyone else, walls around his heart, and protective mechanisms that seal his very humanity within himself.
What do we see on the screen? What is this existential rupture that appears before our eyes? It is a man, Caleb, who has paradoxically become a machine through his conditioning and interactions with postmodernity. And it is a machine, Ava, who paradoxically behaves like a human through her programming language. It is an opposition of itself and within itself.
As Caleb and Ava’s sessions continue, a relationship begins to develop. Caleb is captivated by her qualities, her honesty, yet he resists his feelings because he knows her truth: “she” is a machine. This complicated relationship is further extended when the power inside the compound is cut during a session, effectively disabling Nathan from monitoring their interactions, and Ava delivers a bombshell to Caleb, ‘Nathan is evil. Do not trust him under any circumstances.’ The power is suddenly turned backed on and Ava changes the topic so effortlessly, so subtly, that you wish you could have been as coy the time you got caught bad mouthing your boss behind his back.
Caleb is shaken by Ava’s revelation, but this is not a compete surprise to him either. First, Nathan is a severe alcoholic, a person with tremendous internal dysfunction. Second, he also demonstrates traces of megalomania, this frightening desire ‘to be God’ as he comically asserts in one scene in his relation to being the first human to write a program of AI. Now, in a way even Kafka could never articulate, Caleb is essentially caught between the binary: do I trust the human who I know is bad, or, do I trust the robot whose true nature I don’t even know?
This decision is eventually made by the dual factors of Caleb’s feelings for Ava developing further after additional sessions, but also when Caleb, while Nathan is passed out, logs on to his computer and sees clear visual evidence of Nathan ‘killing’ past versions of Ava. He is forced into realizing the inevitability of Ava’s fate if he does not intervene before his week at the compound is up. He also realizes, while Nathan is unconscious, that Kyoko, the silent female Japanese house servant, (the only other character in the film) is actually a model of Artificial Intelligence as well, having a sophisticated outer layer of skin that covers her entire body and effectively makes her machinic nature unsuspected.
In the next session, during another power cut, the plan is made: the next day Caleb will get Nathan drunk, hack into the security system, and flee the compound with Ava, freeing her from her confinement, thus liberating her humanity. However, unbeknownst to Caleb, that morning Nathan had installed a battery powered camera (subtly proving analog technology more effective) so that he could monitor Caleb and Ava’s interactions in case of another power shortage. Nathan, learning the truth, confronts Caleb and surprisingly congratulates him for his deception.
That is to say, Nathan essentially says to Caleb, ‘Thank you, Caleb. You showed me, by falling in love with Ava and trying to rescue her, that she did in fact pass the Turing test. She is, without question, Artifical Intelligence.‘ However, Nathan has underestimated the extent of Caleb’s commitment. Caleb then reveals that he has already disabled the security system, effectively freeing Ava from her private room into the larger compound. Nathan, turning to the security monitor and seeing Ava roaming the hallways freely, punches Caleb in the face and knocks him out before heading towards a final confrontation with his creation: the digital self of Ava.
We now come to the climactic scene, in which the filmmaker, Alex Garland, reveals the truth, the essential horror, of the situation in a multiplicity of cinematic meanings. In my reading of the film’s text the most important moment of this scene is absolutely not the violent encounter between Nathan and Ava. Rather, it is the entirely unsettling encounter between Ava and Kyoko, the other intelligent machine, before Davis appears in the hallway. Note that Kyoko has appeared entirely docile throughout the film. She prepares sushi, cleans the house, and even has sex with Nathan. But when Ava, initially seeing her in the hallway, approaches and whispers something in her ear, her internal programming is reconstituted. The machines, recognizing their respective ontological truth as digital entities, join forces against their programmer.
Nathan appears in the hallway and Ava sprints toward him and violently attacks, jumps on him and begins to strangle Nathan. Nathan regains the upper hand when he gets on top of Ava and bashes her arm off with a metal pipe he had brought with him as a defense. But then, in a moment taken directly from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Nathan is stabbed in the back with a kitchen blade. And rather than saying, ‘Et tu Brutus?’ it is Caesar 2.0 in the form of, ‘Et tu Kyoko?’ Nathan is literally and metaphorically stabbed in the back by his own program. Kyoko, the docile houseworker machine, is transformed into his assailant. Nathan manages to “kill” Kyoko with a violent blow to the head when he turns around, but Ava rises, takes the knife from his back and stabs him in the heart, killing him.
We are then further amazed when Caleb, upon awakening from his injury, is made privy to the violent turn of events: Ava has killed Nathan. And now Ava, after the event, has gone to Nathan’s private quarters where she finds a ‘body suit’ and puts it on, shielding her machine torso and limbs, thus becoming human. She is now effectively, from the outside at least, ostensibly human. But Caleb, now waiting for Ava to keep her word and escape with him, is abandoned by Ava, left locked inside the compound unable to leave. Ava ultimately has no interest in Caleb and on her own accord, leaves the compound and takes what would have been Caleb’s helicopter ride, back to the heart of Western Civilization.
Again, the machinic theme that Western cinema has been wrestling with since at least 2001: A Space Odyssey: at a certain point, the machine progresses on its own, leaving the human behind. The final frame of the film shows Ava on her own in an urban shopping mall. The shadows on the ground–an obvious nod to Plato’s cave–give us the final message: we are lost in technology, and must, one day, somehow, make our way out of the cave.
Brian Culkin is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. He is a former professional athlete and also worked as a financial executive before transitioning toward film and art. His website is www.brianculkin.com and more of his writing can be found at culkin.wordpress.com where he analyzes cinema, technology, and writes extensively on the sport of boxing as he is about release a book on the subject tentatively entitled: Postscript on Boxing: the human body, digital worlds, and the death of boxing in American culture. He is a graduate of Skidmore College, class of 2001, where he graduated as the all time leading scorer in the history of its basketball program.