Initial Reaction: Ex Machina (2015)

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Proceed with caution- This is a typo-filled, quick analysis of the film, Ex Machina, and therefore contains plot spoilers.

A friend recommended Ex Machina a while back when it was first released in April of this year. I finally watched it today after seeing that it was available for streaming through Amazon Prime. Perhaps because I am a Bladerunner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep fan I wasn’t too interested in seeing another film about an AI that should be set free. What I hadn’t expected was that the film is masquerading as a film about AI, or really using AI as a mask to hide what it is really a film about: the Turing Test. The film is beautiful and picturesque and replete with meaningful visual and dialogue-derived references. However, the entire film is less than the sum of its parts. It is intelligent but to little end. I think the film is supposed to highlight the same things that all science fiction with AI’s does- that we should treat anything conscious with equality. And Ex Machina does this, but it feels very formulaic. The robots are given female genders, some of them are even asian. The place where Ex Machina truly shines is within its individual characters, most notably that of Nathan and Ava.

It should be noted firstly, that the characters are given names which have meanings tied into the movie’s narrative. Caleb in Hebrew means “devotion” or “whole-hearted.” Nathan or Nathanael in Hebrew means “God has given” or “gift of God.” Ava or Eve in Hebrew means “living one” or “life,” and we all know the story of Adam and Eve, so I won’t elaborate. Just as the names reflect the behaviors of its characters, the props and settings also have metaphorical meaning within the story. A quick Google search turns up story after story, all of which seem to be relevant to the stories of the film’s characters. The Gustav Klimt portrait that makes quite a few appearances in proximity to Ava is a portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. A quick search about Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein shows that she commissioned the creation of the famed Haus Wittgenstein, an architectural marvel, but failure as a home. One of the Wittgenstein family stated that “it seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me.” The home was meticulously crafted, but ultimately its creators were unable to understand what they were creating. This is a theme seen in the actions of Nathan and Caleb of Ex Machina.

What really made me look into Ex Machina was the ending of the film. Like the film’s human characters, I witnessed Ava pass the Turing Test that I, the viewer, administered to Ava. I was taken completely by surprise when Ava locked Caleb in Nathan’s compound, basically, to die. I should have caught on that Ava was somewhat fractured in her motives and perhaps duplicitous because she is often shown in reflection, a common trope in film called “doubling.” Anyway, I couldn’t stop wondering what Caleb’s fate meant to the film. It is a parallel to the life that the AI’s had under Nathan. And although the AI’s would not starve to death, the parallel imprisonment points out quite harshly, that the entrapment of the AI’s was for all intent and purposes, a death sentence.

Some analyses have pointed out that perhaps Caleb is able to break free. I don’t think he is able to. His key card won’t open Nathan’s door and his previous programming should have opened the doors during the system shut down, but the doors were still locked. Caleb’s blind devotion, firstly to Nathan, and then to Ava, were his downfall. Because Caleb is the first character that we meet, I immediately tried to make moral sense of his fate. Aka, is Caleb actually “good?” He would not have set the AI free had he not been able to fall in love with her and he very easily decided that Nathan deserved to die for his past actions. Interestingly, the moment before Caleb sets his plan in motion, we hear Nathan muttering about past good deeds providing protection in the future and Prometheus. Ironically exactly the opposite happens. So in conclusion, although Caleb believes himself to be a “good” person, whether or not he is actually “good” is ambiguous.

The film is full of cool art and references that make it worth watching, but its ending forces an end to the film’s most interesting elements. In the last act of the film, it is revealed to us that most of what we have seen and learned of Ava and Nathan have been constructed to manipulate Caleb, and therefore the audience since the film is shown from Caleb’s perspective. The truth and lies and half-truths are jumbled and indistinguishable by the end of the movie. As poetic as that sounds, it is only that- poet and nothing more. The film does this purposefully, but unlike a movie like Funny Games, in which you realize at the end that the movie’s main characters are actually the two crazy guys in white whom we know nothing about still, Ex Machina effectively mutes itself. The emotions felt throughout Funny Games are not made invalid by its ending in addition to it being a very cleverly formatted story, whereas Ex Machina leaves its viewers with very little new stuff in the AI-genre and very little growth in its characters. In fact, the ending leaves its characters somewhat dimensionless. Every character fulfills their initial expectation.

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