General Comments and Plot:
It was a beautiful movie. There were no plot-holes, although I’m sure programmers, abstract physicists and others who are really, really pick, would disagree. It was set in a gorgeous location, there were so few characters, I could count them on my fingers. The last movie I saw was Selma, so this was a real break-away.
The basic plot is that Caleb, a programmer working for this company that runs a search engine called Blue Book, has been called upon to see how this artificial intelligence (AI), in the form of a human woman, works. He spends time with the AI Ava’s creator, Nathan. Nathan wants to find out if Ava passes the Turing Test. And the strange thing is, Caleb knows Ava’s an AI. So there is a nice new dimension to that.
And shit happens.
Important Trigger Warnings if you plan to see it (spoilers):
- There is a tense feeling that Nathan is being sexually abusive. I believe that to be true, but for the most part you do not see any violent encounters in the movie.
- Caleb slits his forearm when he is in the bathroom to try to see under his skin. There is a lot of blood.
- There is a lot of nudity, which is strange. But it seems very passive and nothing is happening. But you see the whole form of the biological female figure at one point or another.
- There is a bit of claustrophobia of the film. You get the sense of the setting, and a lot of it is underground, and it plays a part in the end of the movie. So, not good if you are incredibly claustrophobic.
- There is some verbal abuse towards Ava by Nathan. He tears one of her drawings up.
- Nathan is drunk a lot. A lot, a lot, throughout the film. It can get uncomfortable.
The film was absolutely beautiful. There was a very calm, undertone hidden in the setting, which was this gigantic lab/fortress built in the middle of nowhere. Everything was very monochromatic from object to object, except this Jackson Pollock painting, which I am no art historian and cannot find (exactly). It was one of his drip paintings, which was characteristic of looking like total chaos. But planned chaos. And the painting proved to be a very poignant symbol for intelligence, artificial or otherwise.
For 7 days, Caleb stays with Nathan (who looked a lot like bearded Shia Lebeouf, but wasn’t), joined by a non-English speaking Kyoko (who turns out to be a previous AI version). Each day Nathan asks Caleb questions, and Caleb spits out the most technical and scientific jargon I’ve ever heard. It was something that would make sense if you were listening to it. Caleb is skeptical that Ava is just speaking off her programming but notices that she tells a joke, at one point.
Caleb throws out examples like the Chess Playing Robot. It plays chess, but does it know it is playing chess? Could it explain chess? With Ava, Caleb got a lot of “I don’t knows” and that is probably because Ava did not have any stimuli. She seriously lived in a concrete cave, underground, with some artificial trees behind glass. So the topics that Caleb and Ava shared were very conversational and limited. She didn’t talk about the solar system, or cars, or watermelon (although I guess she didn’t really need to eat?). She could speak about herself. And she would ask Caleb questions about him and his life. And people cannot know what they do not know. And that might sound like they’re “stupid” but that is one facet of intelligence – not knowing then learning to know. Caleb can’t tell if Ava knows that she doesn’t know, or was just programmed without the information. Was she acting off of her own instinct, or off of programming?
Anyway, the Pollock painting comes into play. Nathan shows Caleb the drip style painting of Pollock. Pollock was known for this style. It was messy, confusing, it made no sense, and made sense at the same time. It was planned chaos. Automatic art. Just letting your mind wander and let things fall where they fall, that is what Pollock did. It’s like when you’re doodling in class and you don’t know what to doodle but you do it anyway. If Pollock made 100% perfect masterpieces (what we’d consider them) it would seem mechanical, robotic, not like a human. If Pollock made 100% disasters, he would be ignored. But, he found that middle ground. To paint without really painting, in a technical, academic way.
There are many gorgeous shots of the Pollock painting. I found it to be one of the more beautiful aspects of the film.
There was a really weird aspect of the Turing Test that affected many aspects of the film. For many Turing Tests, the person does not know that they are interacting with a robot. They aren’t aware of it because the robot is meant to act human. If the person doesn’t end up figuring out it is an actual robot, then the test is passed. (I’ll list examples below.)
However, Caleb is aware that he is interacting with a robot. Nathan tells him. He isn’t necessarily interested in seeing if Ava will pass for human, more so, he is interested in Caleb’s opinion of Ava, even though she is AI. And that is not necessarily something that would come up during a normal Turing Test. Because if a human, knowing they are interacting with AI, can be brought into the sense that it really doesn’t matter that they are AI. Of course, some of this was probably done because Nathan had several previous models, (all of which were beautiful, slim, women).
The whole film was tense. It was sci-fi, but it was also a bit realistic, and part horror. You are lead to believe that Nathan is a villain, then Kyoko is a villain, then you switch to Caleb, then Ava. I see Nathan as evil for keeping his AI in a locked room for (what essentially was) her whole life. Then I see Caleb as evil because he ends up turning against Nathan. I didn’t like Caleb the whole movie anyway because he was pretty boring and unmemorable. While typing this post I forgot his name, in the beginning. At the end, Ava escapes with Caleb’s help. She tells him to wait as she goes into Nathan’s room, opening the horror closets filled with the remains of his previous AI models, and begins harvesting their parts to make herself look human; hair, clothes, covering the parts of her body where there isn’t any skin. Then, after telling Caleb to wait, she locks him in the building underground, with no escape, and then travels to modern day society and blends in with the people (I assume). It ended in a total down note.
Who is the villain? Nathan for seeing himself as a God? Caleb for finding Ava too human? Or Ava for escaping and leaving Caleb to dehydrate in an underground house?
While I admit leaving Caleb to die was horrible, Ava was not necessarily the villain. Nathan created her. His ego was already puffed up before Ava was created, but Caleb definitely helped. I have been trying to figure out what was going on – Nathan appeared to be (and kind of was) an asshole, but when he told Caleb, “I did not program her to flirt with you. How do you know she’s not pretending to like you to help her escape?” it hit me that Ava, whose end goal was to be the most human AI, could lie. Ava could tell lies, it was in the programming Nathan put into her. She could read micro-expressions and tell tone of voice. Not a lot of people could do that. It was obvious that Caleb could not tell if she was lying. So he fell for her wanting to escape. But she could’ve at least brought Caleb with her.
The God-Complex is very prevalent as well. Caleb quotes Oppenheimer: “I am become death, The Shatterer of Worlds.” Nathan translates this to himself as, “I am a God.” So his ego exploded. And I think seeing him see himself as a God made him appear to be a bigger asshole than he was. But creating intelligence? That’s such a strange, broad, terrifying concept. And to have that much of an ego is bad.
It is similar to how people feel about… Snape being a villain in Harry Potter. Like in the first book, it turns out he was trying to help Harry Potter and not kill him during the Quidditch Match and he didn’t let the troll in. And he is still a dick, but you’re like, “Hey, he’s not a total dick.” Then you get to learn that the only reason Snape even really seemed to give a shit about Potter was because he was in love with Potter’s mom and he was doing it because of that. You have to watch Ex Machina for yourself.
I’ll get more into this in the next section, but the whole film seemed to implicate that AI is the grand collection of all wily, women stereotypes: thin, pretty, nice voice, manipulative of men, playing damsel in distress. And that sounds cool because it’s like, “yeah, women are smart!” but also, “women are bitches!”
Hollywood Feminine Portrayals, even in Artificial Intelligence:
“Women, whatever their qualities—intelligent, vulnerable, strong—are always presented in an attractive form, as if the package is the only way to deliver these qualities.”
So in this article, Ex Machina has a Serious Fembot Problem, it dissects the fact that artificial intelligence is gendered, even though the whole concept of AI is not. It references several films involving AI where “male” AI characters do not need sex appeal. For instance (minor spoiler?) Nathan begins to talk to Caleb about how if he wants to have sex with Ava, Ava is able to have sex. But I’ve never personally seen a film where male AI has been described as being “fuckable”. And this article seems to imply that as well. This is problematic.
“Obviously, wanting affection is part of what makes us human; by showing that, Ava is showing a highly-evolved part of herself. But by only showing that, and her highly manipulative nature, she is left as a less-than-whole character.”
Manipulation is a human trait. But using manipulation as a tactic to build a relationship to benefit yourself? It would have been brilliant. It could have been. But the way men and women are portrayed in film give the audience different vibes, even if the characters are AI.
I had a hard time realizing there were these slight feminist issues until towards the end of the movie because I believe I saw Ava as being intelligent but fearful of that intelligence. Like, because she had no stimuli she had a very quiet, awkward sense about her. As I saw her as an AI and not a human, I grew into wanting her to be human, but knowing she couldn’t be.
The article does a better job explaining.
Face value? Go see it. Wait, if you want. But watch it on a big screen. It is beautiful. Gorgeous setting, awesome dialogue. Nathan speaks like a real billionaire genius who is bored and also an alcoholic, Caleb is weird and wonky, and Ava is something to behold. Worth the watch.