'Ex Machina' and the Moral and Intellectual Facets of AI Development

by Evan Sawdey

27 July 2015

Ex Machina treats its audience with reverence and care, and as a result, it's a film that can be dissected and appreciated by both humans and sentient robots alike.
 
cover art

Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Domhnail Gleeson, Alicia Vikander

(Lionsgate)
US DVD: 14 Jul 2015

Ex Machina has absolutely zero new ideas in its storyline. Movies dealing with the inevitable rise of artificial intelligence and what that would mean for humans have been churned out for decades, from the hopeful (Steven Speilberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) to the schlocky (Eagle Eye, the Terminator franchise), with the results ranging from genius to misunderstood to Arnold Schwarzenegger. As of now, it’s a concept that exists primarily in the realm of science fiction, and yes, Ex Machina is the only the latest in a never-ending series of entries about the dangers of humans playing god.

So why is Ex Machina so damn good?

Ex Machina is an exemplary piece of science fiction filmmaking because at its core, it’s a simple story told by three primary characters. It’s simple enough that it could be adapted as a stage play with minimal effort, yet it’s layered and nuanced enough to justify why it works best in the medium of film. Its production design but most especially its special effects serve as a stunning entry-point into writer-director Alex Garland’s dynamic vision.

Yet the numerous moral and philosophical quandries Ex Machina presents wouldn’t land were it not for the unique binaries each central character inhabits. On one end of the spectrum, there is Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant multi-billionarie who truly embraces what it means to be a human: he works out, he drinks heavily, he spends a majority of the film roaming his intensely-isolated mega-property barefoot, and sports a frayed-but-deliberate beard. Each one of these elements highlight his fundamental human-ness, which, when coupled with his brash, arrogant, whim-driven personality, makes for a character that you fully believe as someone who would cut themselves off from the world in order to work on (and perfect) the world’s first proper artificial intelligence.

On the other end, of course, is his creation, Ava (newcomer Alicia Vikander in a breakout role). She is a fully-functional robot in need of a charging station. Her midsection, arms, and legs are translucent, so you can actually see her moving parts. When we first meet her, she has realistic-looking hands, feet, and a face, while everything else is robotic.

She asks numerous questions, seems very soft-spoken, and has a genuine curiosity for the world that exists beyond the small living space that Nathan has provided for her. As the story progresses, she adds clothes and even artificial skin grafts to her frame, slowly and carefully blurring that line between human and robot.

Caught in the middle, however, is young programmer Caleb (Domhnail Gleeson), who works for the gigantic company that Nathan created and happens to win a contest wherein he gets to spend a week with the founder himself. Young, precocious, although still very much naïve, Caleb proves to be a personality pitched almost perfectly between Nathan’s human essence and the mechanics that (literally) operate Ava’s heart. He is a human, but a follower. He’s a young buck who (mild spoiler) learns that he wasn’t chosen as the winner of this contest because of his deft programming abilities, but because of his pornographic interests and his “everyboy normality”.

Caleb is just a cog in a machine. His purpose is to determine if Ava will pass a Turing test. If passed, that means that someone interacting with Ava would not be able to tell if she’s a human or a machine. Caleb argues that Nathan is cheating, showing him firsthand that she’s a machine right from the get-go. Nathan says that was a deliberate move, because the real test is whether or not Caleb will still maintain his opinion after spending a full week with her.

In one rather notable exchange, Caleb grills Nathan on the fact that Ava has gender—and a gender imbued with sexuality, at that. Nathan pushes back and asks, why wouldn’t an AI have a gender? If its role is to imitate that of a human, why wouldn’t it have such fundamentally human characteristics? Caleb ponders this during his multiple sessions with Ava.

The “interview room” is small glass box inside a much larger contained room. Caleb is isolated while Ava gets to walk around Caleb’s interview box on three sides, roaming and in her own way prowling around her young prey.

Ex Machina isn’t a thriller per say, but it does build tension in a constant, gradual fashion; an ominous crack in Ava’s plexiglass cage upon Caleb’s arrival hints at something much sinister. Questions arise, such as the responsibility one has upon creating something as unique and rich as consciousness. Even with its potent ending, Ex Machina leaves a viewer filled with more questions than answers, but only in the most philosophical of senses. If that isn’t enticing enough, then just wait ‘til you see the dance sequence.

The special features are merely featurettes and an hour-long documentary, the former are all available online and the latter is unique to this release. The interviews with the cast prove to be very earnest (and boy, is Isaac a lively one). The interviews with the visual effects artists and production designers best highlight unique characteristics in the film that one may miss upon first viewing. It’s insightful but never too self-congratulatory, making for a plainspoken but compelling look as to what went into the making of this minor-key miracle.

Although Ex Machina doesn’t bring any new big ideas to the table, it expands and probes moral and intellectual facets of AI development. Ex Machina treats its audience with reverence and care, and as a result, it’s a film that can be dissected and appreciated by both humans and sentient robots alike.

Ex Machina

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