Two male characters spending the majority of the movie discussing human consciousness and tackling philosophical questions may not sound like an interesting hook to some, but its execution in Ex Machina is truly a work of art, and embodies the tradition of classic science fiction. Like Domnhall Gleeson, one of the movie’s main actors said: “Just because something is science fiction doesn’t make it just spaceships. In my head, they tell you more about people than they do about machines.”
Alex Garland, screenplay writer of 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go makes his directorial debut with Ex Machina. The title of the movie alone evokes the universal question all of science fiction tries to answer: “What makes us human?” Ex Machina, or “from the machine”, immediately incites feelings of the uncanny, challenging our preconceived notions of what it means to be human.
The movie sets itself up innocently enough, in that it deceives its audience into a seemingly simple plot. A programmer of the world’s most popular internet search company, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a contest to meet his hero, one he describes as the “Mozart of Computer Programming” – Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb then travels to Nathan’s abode, where we are first introduced into the first lie, in a movie where the central theme is deception and manipulation. Nathan’s hideout and laboratory is in the middle of a natural, beautiful landscape, the exterior of which is an inconspicuous cabin in he middle of the forest. Upon entering, Caleb finds himself in an immense mansion, complete with modern decoration, minimalist furniture, a vacant-looking Japanese maid, and a variety of android skins bearing creepy human expressions as decorations on the wall.
Caleb’s task is deeply complex – he is to administer the Turing Test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), the android that Nathan has been working on in secret for the past few years. The Turing Test examines the machine’s ability to determine whether or not it is able to persuade another human of its humanity. Reminiscent of the Voight-Kampff test from Philip K. Dick’s Do Android Dreams of Electric Sheep? and/or its film adaptation, Blade Runner, both tests tackles the problem of what separates androids, or replicants, from human beings – thus, forcing us to re-examine what truly makes us human.
The movie re-examines our human attributes one by one: session per session, Caleb finds out something about Ava that makes him feel emphatic towards her plight. One of the most interesting qualities that Ava chooses to embody is sexuality. She seduces Caleb, in an eerie scene where she puts on clothes to hide her mechanical parts and emerges in the scene looking completely human. The movie emphasizes that Ava’s ability to manipulate, lie and deceive, one of which she does through seduction, is what truly makes her human, which reinforces the negative outlook the movie has on humanity.
Another pervading theme in the movie is the juxtaposition between the abstract and the figurative. Ava continuously produces replications when it comes to her art, from drawing her room to drawing Caleb. In direct contrast to this, in one of its iconic scenes, Nathan introduces Caleb to a Jackson Pollock painting. Pollock, known for his spontaneity when it came to producing his art, and having his emotions drive the art, instead of trying to derive meaning before execution, is exactly Nathan’s point: to be human is to be non-deliberate, to act from within, and mostly without meaning.This of then brings the question to mind: how does free will – the thing that makes us undeniably human – play into a non-meaningful, non-deliberate action? How are we supposed to make conscious decisions?
And of course, the theme of magic versus science is another interesting motif in the movie. There are multiple instances of misdirection, another variation of manipulation, in the film, which is continuously referred to by its characters. We are first introduced to it when Caleb asks Nathan whether or not Ava is a diversion tactic – like a beautiful magician’s assistant meant to distract its audience, so that he would fail at realizing the level of her sentience. As the movie progresses, the audience are also challenged to determine which actions of its characters are a product of control, which actions are non-deliberate, and which actions are a product of another character’s manipulation.
Deus Ex Machina, or God from the Machine, is a literary trope that originated from Greek tragedies, wherein a character or an event suddenly appears and explains and/or concludes the conflict in a single blow, thus creating happy endings for all. It is a definite cop-out, because it falls short of its readers expectations – a conflict, when so carefully constructed, must be explained and concluded in the same way. By invoking this trope from the get go, Garland successfully misdirects his audience into thinking that his movie will end un-abstractedly, succinctly, and happily. Instead, we are left with more questions than we have answers, feelings of uncertainty and curiosity – attributes, that surely, make us human.