The following contains spoilers for Ex Machina. You have been warned.
Ex Machina is currently clawing its way into more theaters nationwide each week, but is still in a pretty limited run. Which is too bad, because by our estimation it has quite a bit to offer.
If you still haven’t had the opportunity to see Ex Machina, this is definitely a movie you want to see pretty cold, so check out our review and come back here once you’ve had a chance to see it. For those of you who have seen the movie, well! It’s high time to dive into some details.
Tim: So… I’ve heard a tiny bit of mixed reaction (among generally positive sentiments ) regarding Ex Machina – the comparison I heard, in particular, was to the final third dropoff in Sunshine, which Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland also wrote – but the more I’ve been thinking about Ex Machina, the better I think it is. So let’s start off with some baselines. Thumbs up? Thumbs down?
Erik: Thumbs up, way up. My thumbs and any other thumbs I can get a hold of to force up. This was one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. But then again, I’m the guy who liked Chappie, so what do I know?
Tyler: Can “Thumbs Sideways,” be an option?
Tyler: I guess you could say that, but I don’t know if the final third was really all that different from the rest of it for me. I definitely enjoyed the first two-thirds more than the last part, but I can’t say I was captivated by this the way I was meant to be, especially in the climax. Maybe I was just expecting a bigger payoff.
Tim: I think that’s maybe the weakest part of the movie, particularly in the plot and character departments. The movie dives hard into some surrealist territory. Thematically, it was strong enough for me. And I guess this dovetails right into one of my biggest points I want to get into a spoiler-y discussion about. I can’t help but see most of this movie as a parable about the exploitation of women. The whole construction of the film is pointing to the juxtaposition of supposedly robotic Ava and the supposedly human men. I really want to get into some of the details, but for starters, am I alone in seeing this?
Tyler: I missed out on that aspect. Maybe that just speaks to my assumption, or rather, expectation that most A.I.s in science fiction are given female traits. The feminist angle makes the movie much more interesting now that I think about it, though.
Erik: I didn’t see it as exploitation of women in particular. I thought it more was about the arrogance of the humans, or maybe the arrogance of creators. The arrogance of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) thinking he could control his androids. The arrogance of Caleb for thinking that he could make an android fall in love with him (for, frankly, no reason).
Tyler: The movie definitely has an interest in turning sci-fi conventions on their heads, be it the Deckard-figure who saves an android from its controlling creators after psychologically testing it.
Tim: Right, so the things you both just identified are why I think this movie is brilliant, because it is absolutely a piece of science fiction that uses those genre trappings to talk about a real-world issue. So a couple of things. One, Erik, you’re spot on with the arrogance of the main male characters as they relate to a machine. But then two, look at how the movie manipulates this interaction. The first time we ever see Ava is when she is her most mechanistic. The film wants us to identify with the perspective of Nathan and Caleb. It’s almost uncanny valley territory with this very human face plastered onto a body that is so decidedly inhuman.
Erik: When I first saw Ava in all her spine-revealing glory, I thought I heard the filmmakers saying, “We dare you to find this sexy.” For the record, I didn’t find her sexy (not that I’ll ever admit to, at least), but she definitely had my curiosity piqued.
Tyler: We are definitely forced to second-guess ourselves once Ava puts on her “skin” and appears as if she’s a naked woman. Same as when we find out that Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) maid, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is an earlier version of the AI project.
Erik: It’s funny, when I was at a panel at SXSW that featured Garland, Isaac, and others who worked on the film, Garland brought up this little tidbit (and I’m paraphrasing): the act of creation is not Godlike, it’s humanlike. That’s kind of what interested me about Nathan, I think the guy desperately wants to be a god (or at least be thought of as one) but he’s so painfully human. Remember the dancing scene?
Tyler: What did you all think of that?
Erik: Best scene in the movie – no, I’m not kidding. Because it kind of encapsulates that idea of Nathan as a god and human. The scene demonstrates the absolute control he has (or he presents himself as having) over his environment, over Kyoko, and over Caleb. But, at the same time he wants to be cool, he wants Caleb to dance with Kyoko and with him – that’s how I took it at least.
Tim: It’s the essential paradox of his character, isn’t it? He wants to be the creator of an independent entity, yet wants to exercise absolute control. When Kyoko is dancing with him, she’s not adding anything to the dance. She’s just copying him, she’s just a shell that fills out an essential function, not a co-creator. And here’s where I’ll defend the ending on more than just a thematic basis. If Ava is indeed sentient, and we’re given to believe she is, she might also be said to be essentially imperfect and given to emotion. I’m not just saying that she’s a woman, she’s emotional; actually, not that at all. Rather, even though Caleb’s use of her has been pretty benign, she’s maybe unnecessarily vengeful in the absolute pursuit of her own goal – freedom. It’s sort of imperfect in a really beautiful way that enhances the personhood of her character.
Erik: When I initially saw the ending, I was pissed at Ava. Killing off Nathan made sense, but what horrible crime did Caleb commit? I was confused, there seemed to be no logic to her decision. But then I thought about it and realized, well (as you said, Tim) she’s vengeful, she’s pissed off. That’s pretty darn human.
Tim: Just for the record, I am too…
Tyler: I guess it was his punishment for assuming Ava would need to be “rescued” either because she was AI or because she was a woman. Maybe because he bought into the whole Creator/Created roles that Nathan tried to keep in order. I’m still processing it all, I guess. My biggest issue with the final third was that it didn’t pay-off everything that was set up. There’s all this discussion throughout the movie of “what is intelligence/consciousness/humanity,” and how it can be quantified, programmed and tested but I didn’t find the final answer, “It can’t,” satisfying. Do either of you think the movie was even trying to answer those questions?
Tim: No, I don’t especially, although I can see how that might have been unsatisfying. Let me ask you a question back: how did the setup for Caleb’s sessions with Ava affect you emotionally? Did you have any sort of visceral response to their physical setup?
Tyler: Not really. For a minute, I thought that Caleb might actually be the real AI that was being tested since he was seated for the majority of the test sessions while Ava paced around him, in a more spacious area but as we alluded to earlier, that idea was squashed when Caleb cut open his own wrist and found blood, not metal.
Tim: So here’s my fuller answer to your original question, then I’m interested to hear Erik’s take. I don’t think the movie ever prioritizes answering the question of what makes an intelligence or consciousness. There’s no technical breakdown of how this might work, and so the conversations in the movie center more on philosophy. Personhood. And that’s again where I see the sci-fi setting drawing out a conversation about gender relationships in society.
Tyler: Let me explain a bit more by what I mean by “setup.” At the beginning of the movie, Nathan and Caleb agree that the only way to test the veracity of AI is to get to a point where the person interacting with the AI, Caleb, forgets they are, in fact speaking with AI. I never got the sense that movie was moving towards figuring that out. Maybe we as an audience was supposed to feel a strong connection to Ava to come to that realization but I never did.
Tim: That is one of the hurdles of the movie, I agree. I think I just see that setup as a way for getting the audience in a particular headspace so the movie can flip the script on us later rather than being a question it’s concerned with pursuing a real answer to. It’s more part of the premise designed to get us elsewhere than it is a real tenant of the film.
Erik: Well, this might be cheating, but I’m gonna refer back to the panel at SXSW. Garland did pose the question (again, paraphrasing), “How would you know someone has consciousness?” He said that Ava’s smile at the end (after she exits Nathan’s bunker) proves she does have it, because up until then, she has been acting human for Nathan and Caleb, in order to aid in her escape (her primary motivation). When she smiles, she’s not performing for anyone, the action was her own. And after hearing that, I’ll think about it every time I watch the movie from here on.
Erik: Nope, but I don’t really care too much about explanations (even in sci-fi) as long as the story’s strong (and I thought this one was). I usually tune out technobabble anyway.
Tyler. Yeah, that never bothered me.
Tim: Well that settles that. On to another question! This flies in the face of where I actually came down by the end of the movie, but for a significant portion of the film, I wondered if the version of Nathan that Caleb was interacting with was actually a robotic replica, and the real Nathan was hidden away elsewhere in the bunker. Thoughts?
Tyler: I didn’t think of that.
Erik: That particular theory didn’t enter my head, but about a million other similar ones did. That was part of the reason I loved the movie, at it’s core, it’s a mystery. And like any good mystery, it keeps you guessing the whole way through, coming up with your own ideas about who did what, where the plot will go, and what secrets will be revealed by the end. I think that’s the best way to do heady, thoughtful films like this: build your complex ideas around a strong central narrative. Otherwise, it just becomes a lecture. Also, on a different subject, I’m calling it now: Oscar Isaac gets an Oscar nod. This was a character you actually learn very little about from the script, so the fact that he was so memorable I think is owed to a very layered, and most importantly, physical performance from Isaac. He could have easily been an evil genius, or simply a smart, “I’m better than everyone,” douchebag, but the fact was, though I didn’t necessarily like him, I always wanted to know what he was going to say or do next.
Tim: I think the character benefits a lot from being out of the spotlight most of the time. He’s got some quirks that, if we were forced to explore them in more detail, might unravel a bit, but it works within the context. I liked Isaac’s performance, and I think he does everything the role requires, but I wonder if that will be enough to actually grab a nomination.
Tyler: The cynical side of me says there’s no way it will happen.
Erik: Well, I’ll check back with you guys in ten months.
Tim: Haha fair enough.