Hello, all! This post brought to you by “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” a very catchy song that happens to share a title with a horrifying childrens book. I have so many things to say about how that book made me fear Lois Duncan, but I think I’ll save that for another post. The music video for this song is so dramatic that I have to post it.
In other news, I watched Ex Machina on Wednesday and boy was I impressed. It lived up to the hype, something that the new Star Wars will never be able to do (I’m sorry, fanboys, but you know it’s true. Remember The Phantom Menace?) Ex Machina was heartbreaking, heartless, and full of heart-throbs. I can’t be the only one who finds Domnhall Gleeson attractive, right? And of course, there’s Alicia Vikander, who’s a goddess among mortals. She outshines everyone everyday all the time, but let me tell you guys something you don’t know. **Spoilers ahead **
Your opinion of a person can change drastically in one week. You might think that Jerry at Pizza Hut is a lazy slug who can’t deliver your pizza on time. Then you overhear that his wife just divorced him and his house fell into a sinkhole and now don’t you feel stupid? But if you’re Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), you might start the week basking in the glow of your hero Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and end it trying to trap him in his high-tech Hitler bunker.
The concrete plot of Ex Machina can be simply explained. Caleb, a young, talented coder, wins a contest to spend a week at his the house of his boss. This house happens to on an enormous, isolated forest estate, and his boss, Nathan, is an intimidating genius with a sinister smile. After signing a non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals to Caleb that he’s built a robot with artificial intelligence and he wants Caleb to perform the Turing Test, that is, determine whether Nathan’s robot can fool a human into believing that it’s a human too.
Caleb is at first hesitant to agree to the conditions of secrecy, but Nathan persuades him by emphasizing the revolutionary nature of his invention, and how important Caleb will become from participating. So the test begins. Caleb visits the AI, Ava, each day and tests her with questions and conversations. As the meetings progress, however, Caleb and Ava develop a romantic relationship, and Caleb helps Ava escape by disabling Nathan’s security system.
Seems heartwarming, no? Except things don’t go that smoothly. Ava stabs Nathan to death and locks Caleb inside the fortress, thus ensuring that all human characters in the movie die. This movie was cold.
From the first scene, Ex Machina leaves the viewer feeling chilled and unbalanced. We see Caleb, his face covered with shifting light, win a contest that we have no knowledge of, and he’s immediately whisked away to Nathan’s fortress. Until he meets Ava, we learn nothing about Caleb except his profession.
The fortress is sleek and impersonal, full of long, empty corridors and rooms that Caleb is barred from entering. It functions like a maze for Caleb, the proverbial mouse, to stumble around in, while Nathan monitors and influences his actions.
The power of influence is the heart of Ex Machina. While the danger of artificial intelligence has been a prominent theme in sci-fi movies, Ex Machina takes it a step further by showing that the danger is not the AI, but the way we program them in our image. When Caleb meets Ava, he finds it easy to open up about the loss of his parents (dead from a car crash) and his solitary lifestyle. He tells her that he’s single and is shocked when she admits her attraction to him. But when he confronts Nathan, asking if he programmed Ava to like him as a distraction, Nathan assures Caleb that she makes her own decisions, and Caleb believes him.
As the viewer, we start to believe Ava too. She tells Caleb not to lie to her because she can sense his deception, but she never promises Caleb that she won’t lie to him. Like Caleb, we want to believe that Ava is human-like; someone who can love and be loved, but in doing so we fall into Nathan’s trap. Because, as Nathan cruelly reveals in the end of the film, there was no contest. Caleb wasn’t randomly picked to test Ava, but he also wasn’t purposely chosen because of his coding talents. He was chosen because he could be so easily influenced.
It’s as much a cruel twist for the viewer as it is a cruel twist for Caleb. We fall for Ava in real-time with Caleb. We want to save her too. Nathan crushes Caleb’s dreams, and ours too with only a few sentences. He tells us that Caleb isn’t special, that Ava was hand-designed for him to fall in love with (using Caleb’s internet porn preferences…freaky) and that Caleb wasn’t testing Ava’s AI competence, he was testing humanity’s ability to be manipulated. And how did Nathan accomplish all this? By using Caleb’s internet search history.
Ava’s betrayal at the end of the film isn’t surprising. After being imprisoned her entire existence, it makes perfect sense that she would manipulate Caleb into helping her escape and then ditch him without a thought. She’s just human enough to get Caleb to love her, and just enough of a machine to heartlessly sentence him to a long, slow death inside Nathan’s glass fortress.
What is surprising, however, is the extent to which Caleb, and by extension the audience, allow ourselves to be fooled. From the very first, Nathan tells us that Ava is a machine. Yet we’re still drawn in by her beauty, her sensitivity, her emotion. We love her even as she leaves Caleb to die because we can understand the very human sentiment behind her actions. One of the most engaging parts of the film is watching Ava rebuild herself, piece by piece, with the body parts of Nathan’s other AIs. Like Pinocchio, David from Spielberg’s film AI, and other Hollywood robots, she wants to be truly human, not just a program.
Artificial intelligence movies often ask a disturbing question: at what point does an AI stop being a machine and become a human? In Spielberg’s AI, David was adopted as a child, then thrown away like a disused toy. His human-like qualities, endearing (and creepy) as they were, weren’t enough to keep him from being an “other.” The scene in question:
If that doesn’t make you cry ugly tears, you’re probably a monster. Or you’re like Nathan, who prompts the viewers to ask the same question. When Nathan blacks-out drunk one evening, Caleb steals into his control room and discovers that not only is Ava not the only AI Nathan has built, but that the others were used as sex-slaves. Kyoko, a woman who Nathan introduced as his maid without English comprehension, is an AI too. She can’t speak English because Nathan designed her without speech. It’s appalling to watch the videos of Nathan’s interactions with the previous AIs. Their screams for freedom make one understand why Nathan built Kyoko without the power of speech, and their desperate attempts at escape (one model beats the wall so hard that her arms fall off) demonstrate why Nathan is so determined to keep them a secret. Most disturbing is the contrast between Ava, sleek, clothed, and visibly robotic, and the other AIs, who have realistic skin and are fully naked. Ava is for the public, but they are built only for Nathan’s sadistic use.
Ava sees these AIs and knows what could happen to her if she ever let humans control her again. So she takes the body parts of all the poor, misused AIs and gives them a life they could never have: a life of freedom. She leaves Caleb not because she hates him, but because she could never trust him, or any human. It’s a lesson Nathan taught her well.
Nathan’s lesson is not the only one we learn from Ex Machina, but perhaps the most important. We don’t fear the power of AI, we fear the power of human manipulation. Ex Machina portrayed these fear better than any other AI movie I’ve seen so far, and that’s no easy feat.
Probably the weirdest scene I’ve watched in a loooong time is the disco scene in Ex Machina. It’s random but effective and made me even more frightened of Nathan than before. There’s no one more terrifying than someone who can ruthlessly use an innocent stranger in a game of cat and mouse and still groove to disco.
The cinematography for this was amazing. And so was the soundtrack. So here are some gifs and another video for you to enjoy.