“I want to talk to you about the greatest scientific event in the history of man.”
–Nathan, Ex Machina
The most successful indie SF film of 2015 revisits and genders the Modern Prometheus, raising, predictably, more questions than we can answer.
Not to be confused with the anime of the same title.
Title: Ex Machina
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb
Oscar Isaac as Nathan
Alicia Vikander as Ava
Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko
A young employee of Bluebook (aka “Not Google”) gets hired by his company’s eccentric founder to assist on a very secret project involving artificial intelligence.
The film’s problematic examining of AI, independent thought, gender, and even race has led to controversy and consternation. Ex Machina does not get a free pass simply because it’s well-made, or because it hangs its worse excesses on its narcissistic, sexist Dr. Frankenstein figure. However, I believe its strength comes from its dramatic examination of those issues, however uncertain and flawed any given viewer may find that examination.
I understand the need to build character and context, and so this isn’t a really big deal:
But is there a rule saying the first act of all indie SF films has to move at as slow a pace as can be?
Originality: 3/6 We’ve had many takes on the Modern Prometheus since Frankenstein, and more than a few have understandably dealt with the specific problem of machine AI. This film provides some twists of its own, including a problematic but fascinating commentary on gender.
Effects: 6/6 The effects used to show Ava’s robotic nature are excellently realized.
Acting: 6/6 The characters inhabit their roles—none more so than Alicia Vikander as Ava.
Emotional Response: 6/6 The movie has been written, directed, and acted to create strong responses…
Overall: 5/6 …and the breadth and depth of the debate it has created shows it has been successful. Flaws and all, Ex Machina may be the best indie SF film since Moon, and it’s great to see it succeed despite a lack of spaceships and explosions.
In total, Ex Machina receives 36/42.
Of Gender, Race, AI, and that Ending
Warning: Spoilers. I advise against reading the following if you have not yet viewed the film.
The film’s discussion of AI has been pre-empted, in many cases, by its consideration of gender and even race.
The most villainous character is darker skinned than the more likable of the two men, who is blonde. The Asian AI is subservient, and the one who dies in the escape attempt.
The ending might be viewed as both a feminist and an AI-evolutionary statement, but it comes after a film with a Bluebeard’s Closet full of dead, naked fembots, and discussions of them by two deliberately problematic male coders.
Ex Machina consciously casts the god-to-human debate as a male-to-female one, with its founder creating gendered female robots he also, not incidentally, uses as slaves and sexbots. Part of his test of AI involves seeing if it can outsmart a human; Ava does so, in a large part, by manipulating the more powerful male figures around her, in the manner traditionally ascribed to woman in a male-dominated world, where the ability to manipulate may be the only power afforded them.
Ava and Kyoko take revenge on Nathan, and (since Kyoko dies), she leaves Caleb to die (assuming Nathan doesn’t have a security protocol, where someone checks up on him if he doesn’t check in regularly). She does so… Well, why? Because she has only been manipulating him and pretending to have feelings? Because that’s what them independent women do, especially to NICE GUYS like Caleb? Because his escape plan made no provisions for the more seriously-mistreated Kyoko? Because she views all men as a threat? Because she views all humans as a threat?
How you answer that last questions will significantly affect how you feel about this movie.