Ex Machina

I tend to peruse my Netflix and Stan accounts with dismay. Firstly, they clash with the portrait I paint of myself socially, as someone who ‘doesn’t watch television.’ Secondly, I find that I’ll open an account with a streaming service because I want to see something specific, like Parasite, for example, and then I’m confounded by the volume of crap I don’t want to see that comes with it.

And then, I am beset by FOMO when I sit down and watch something for thirty minutes to find out it wasn’t any good at all. I have just lost another thirty minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. I think it’s probably all driven by the belief that lurking somewhere within their voluminous catalogues are some things that will reward me for time spent.  

Fortunately, Ex Machina is the kind of film that single-handedly renews subscriptions. It’s about as sophisticated as mainstream narrative films get, and carries with it an impact that settles into you over days, as only genuinely prescient science fiction can.

Caleb Smith is an advanced programmer at Blue Book, a fictitious software company that administers the world’s largest internet search-engine. He wins a staff lottery, the prize being a week’s stay at the estate of the reclusive company owner and mastermind, Nathan Bateman.

Upon arrival, Nathan welcomes Caleb and presents him with a contract whose onerous stipulations suggest the true reason for his stay. After Caleb signs, Nathan reveals that he has been working on an artificial intelligence and Caleb has won the opportunity to subject it to the Turing Test.

Named after Alan Turing, polymath and World War Two code breaker, the test aims to establish whether or not artificial intelligence can effectively pass as indistinguishable from human.

Nathan then introduces Caleb to Ava, his clearly robotic, yet uncannily beautiful creation. Caleb begins interviewing her, and we are cast into a nexus of relationships that includes the spectator themselves.

It soon becomes very clear that Caleb is being exploited by Nathan, but to what end is not immediately certain. This suspicion stalks the viewer through the film as it builds the convolutions of its themes.

Caleb has not won a lottery; he has, in fact, been deliberately selected and then groomed as a gambit in the test, which becomes a struggle for ascendancy between Nathan and Ava.

Ex Machina treads some of the paths that viewers of Blade Runner will be familiar with, pertaining to the implications of human beings ‘playing God’, a responsibility implicit upon the creation of autonomous, conscious intelligence.

However, Ex Machina does so in a more philosophically astute, and complex way, not least of all because these questions are no longer at the frontiers of imagination. Science and technology have filled in the landscape of thought to the degree that these questions are contingent moral features of an apparent reality.

And while Blade Runner cast these questions as an ominous presence in the background of what was essentially an action film, Ex Machina has woven them directly into the fabric of a human drama.

Does Nathan’s ‘machine’ possess a legitimate, ‘real’ consciousness? Questions proliferate as Nathan and Ava struggle to manipulate Caleb. The constant question of intelligence as the basis for moral right to survival stalks every event like a mordant shadow.

The film’s opening scenes set up Nathan’s lottery win, but also one of the principal metaphors for the story; the fairy tale of Bluebeard. This is signposted when Caleb receives a key-card upon admission to Nathan’s home. The card allows access to some rooms, while others remain off-limits. The implication is that Caleb is a jejune bride, but a bride for whom?

Caleb has been drawn into a maze constructed by a superior intelligence which has turned him to its purpose. So, too, has the film’s viewer.

The two men often discuss the interview sessions with Ava as being like magic shows, one of a number of elegant metaphors the film uses to tell its story. Conventional narrative films constantly deploy tricks to create suspense and surprise, often through deception and misdirection.

At one of the major final reveals, Nathan, who has consistently lied to and manipulated Caleb for the duration of the film, explains that Ava was a rat in a maze and Caleb was the cheese. In order to escape, she had to utilise characteristic aspects of human intelligence, such as empathy and humour, to effectively seduce him.

When a spectator watches a narrative film, they too consent to patterns and strategies, like mazes and magic tricks. However, unlike Caleb and Ava, the spectator is the beneficiary of that experience.

But if Caleb is manipulated, Nathan is murdered and Ava escapes, what happens to us?

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