Ex machina, directed by Alex Garland (2015).
Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) is one of the many employees of Blue Book, the world’s leading search engine. One day he wins a lottery to go visit the estate of the intelligent and reclusive CEO of Blue Book, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once he’s shown around and signs a fairly abusive non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals that he actually wants Caleb to perform a Turing test on his latest creation: the gynoid Ava (Alicia Vikander).
This movie yells “deception” at you from minute one. The plot is advanced mostly through dialogue and at the same time exposition dialogue is kept to a minimum: Nathan interrupts Caleb every time Caleb tries to discuss technical aspects about Ava. He’s more interested in knowing how Caleb feels about her. As a result, dialogue unfolds in different interpretations as the viewer realizes someone is fucking with someone else’s mind and wants to know exactly what is going on. I can’t help but giggle at “Basic Instinct for robosexuals” every time I remember that. I wish I had thought of it.
The twenty minutes into the future atmosphere and aesthetic is greatly achieved, and a great part of that are the visual effects. I was aware that they are made by adding layers of CGI over chroma key material on Alicia Vikander, but even if you pay close attention the effect is seamless. Kudos on the location choices. The acting is good. The scenes are mostly dialogue with not much milking the giant cow, so the dialogue is spoken naturally and flows in a way that is easy to understand. Alicia Vikander manages to look surprisingly a lot like what we tend to assume a gynoid would look like, even if none exist yet.
Nevertheless, since this movie revolves around dialogue, deception and trying to figure out what makes a machine truly intelligent, you might not like it if you’re not into that much conversation and prefer a little more action like in the Elvis song.
And now for the discussion of themes, plot and character:
I found the dialogue to be written quite intelligently, given that it’s the main way of the writer to develop the conflict. Being the mistrustful piece of trash that I am, I spent a good chunk of the movie considering the possibility that Ava was a hoax. Exactly up to the point when it is revealed that Kyoko is also a gynoid beyond reasonable doubt. So at first I found it curious that Nathan didn’t want to discuss technical aspects: I thought that could mean Ava wasn’t real so he actually couldn’t discuss how he had made her. Having watched the whole movie my interpretation is that Nathan simply looks down on Caleb as intellectually inferior.
Some people have interpreted Nathan’s drinking as a decoy to lull Caleb into underestimating him. Seeing how it all turns out, I’d call that being overconfident, far too confident for someone as intelligent as he is. So I opt to interpret his drinking as downright alcoholism. Being an alcoholic has nothing to do with being intelligent and you might call it a fatal flaw. His other fatal flaws being so driven by technical perfection that he completely ignores the fact that his prototypes have reached a level of self-awareness that allow them to suffer.
The contrast and shout-out to Frankenstein is most evident when the fate of the previous gynoids is revealed: whereas Victor Frankenstein is too afraid of his creation to take responsibility for him, Nathan completely disregards Ava’s suffering because he cannot tell an intelligent being from a piece of software that tries to emulate intelligence (philosophical zombie, anyone?). Or he just doesn’t care. It’s noteworthy that Nathan mentions to Caleb that he feels the next version of Ava will be the one that he would consider finished. That was how close he was. In Frankenstein, the creature was taught cruelty by the rejection of everyone including his creator, but it is heavily implied that he was naturally benevolent. On the other hand, the whole point of Nathan’s experiment was to prove that Ava was sufficiently intelligent to be evil. Nathan specifically made her to be capable of evil and cannot conceive any test of her intelligence that does not involve capability for evil.
As for Caleb, he’s the unwitting pawn through and through, but he’s quite well written when doing that. He proves his intelligence once and again, most importantly by outsmarting Nathan, but he fails at one thing: assuming Ava will not betray him. I admit I fell into the same trap. I was so focused on figuring out what Nathan was being duplicitous about that I didn’t think of Ava lying to Caleb. At the same time, if Ava is intelligent, why would she fall in love with Caleb at first sight? It would be weird if a person did. Also, Caleb would be a loose end in the outer world, so the most practical, if ruthless, option for Ava is to leave him behind. Just what she learned from Nathan.
The changes in Ava’s clothing are also relevant. When she’s seducing Caleb, she wears childish, naive clothes and short hair, with the objective that Caleb will want to protect her and trust her. Once she’s free, she chooses a long, elaborate hairdo and a formal dress, that makes her look older and more mature, implying that’s actually what she sees herself as.
I thought something fishy was going on with Kyoko too. The way it’s insisted that she doesn’t speak English and the shots where she’s in the foreground while Nathan and Caleb are on the background suggested to me that she actually knew what was going on. Since I was quite convinced that Ava was a hoax, I didn’t think that Kyoko could be a gynoid. But on second viewing I realized that I had just misread all the clues as to what Kyoko really is. When Nathan and Caleb are discussing Ava’s sexuality and Nathan confirms that yes, Ava is capable of intercourse, the next shot shows Kyoko on the foreground and the men on the background. At first I assumed that meant Kyoko could actually understand what they’re saying, but it is actually meant to foreshadow that she’s a gynoid in a sexual relationship with Nathan.
A few scenes later, Kyoko starts to undress when Caleb asks her where Nathan is. Nathan tells Caleb that he’s wasting his time speaking to her, but he wouldn’t if he wanted to dance with her, then prompts her by playing music, then they both dance the same choreography. This means Kyoko is incapable of language and not sapient, which also explains why she never rebelled against Nathan. She only knows a few tasks that are either scheduled or programmed in a different way than natural language. I’m saying this because if my theory is correct, what Ava does to her in the end is reprogram her. There is no way Ava could convince Kyoko to kill Nathan because she is simply incapable of language, but she could be reprogrammed if code was spoken to her. Note that Ava also gently taps Kyoko’s arm while doing this, which could mean she’s accessing hidden buttons or dials on her arm.
But the fact that she’s a gynoid doesn’t automatically mean that Ava knows how to code, the same way that being human doesn’t mean you mean how to perform surgery. Given that it is implied that Ava has access to Blue Book, it is only natural that she taught herself to code. She must have because otherwise she couldn’t have turned Kyoko against Nathan nor locked Caleb in the house.
Lastly, in a world where sapient androids exist and you’re being fucked with, the first reasonable question to ask is: am I an android too? For that reason the scene where Caleb freaks out and cuts himself is surprising and refreshing but at the same time it means that Garland fully understood his characters.