I attended a futurist’s lecture last year in which he noted that by 2020, there will be a computer with the raw processing power of a human brain. By 2050, the futurist said, there will be a computer with the raw processing power of every human brain on the planet combined. Even for a machine that can only think in binary terms, given enough processing power, it will eventually be able to think like us. Artificial intelligence is not a matter of if, but a matter of when, and we probably won’t even recognize it at first. What a profoundly interesting and unsettling notion that is. But it is one we must contend with, for it brings us to the limit of our own humanity. Can we create new life apart from ourselves? Should we? Would we? That we have such collective apprehension over how a artificial intelligence might regard us is as harsh an indictment of human behavior as I can imagine. And yet, we fear that reckoning, with good cause. And that fear is very much at the heart of an utterly fantastic, independent sci-fi psychological thriller called Ex Machina.
Caleb Smith is a lonely, young nobody who works as a programmer for a Google-like search company called Blue Book. He wins a companywide contest to spend a week hanging out with Blue Book’s reclusive super-genius CEO, Nathan Bateman, on Nathan’s vast estate. Nathan’s house is a big, empty compound that feels like both a luxurious retreat and advanced R&D laboratory. Nathan proves difficult to relate to, and he instantly thrusts upon Caleb the purpose of the visit: he introduces Caleb to Ava, a beautiful humanoid robot Nathan has built. Ava is an advanced artificial intelligence, but Nathan wants to see if Caleb can form a genuine emotional bond with her, even though Caleb knows Ava is artificial. Seeing her for a robot, will Caleb still come to regard her as human? As Caleb gets to know Ava, we see that nobody seems to be thinking about what Ava herself might want out of all of this, and what begins as a simple experiment becomes an extended contest of wills that might or might not put a few lives in the balance. It depends on what your definition of life is.
Ex Machina is a pretty minimalist tale, consisting of only a handful of characters in a single setting. Given that the action is almost entirely dialogue-driven, this could have been a boring tale were we not so immediately invested in each of the three main characters. Caleb’s wonder at this opportunity to hang with his genius boss quickly gives way to suspicion and confusion as his experiment with Ava gets much deeper much faster than expected. Ava tells him not to trust Nathan, and Nathan’s own behavior gives Caleb plenty of reason to agree. Poor Caleb didn’t know what to expect when he came out to his boss’s house, but whatever it could have been, what he got was way beyond the pale of even that. Eventually, he starts questioning if he was really chosen at random to come on this trip, if he’s as much a rat in a maze as Ava, and whether there might be polymer and titanium underneath his own skin.
As for Nathan, while his intellect is apparent, so too is his excessive behavior, narcissism and stunted emotional state. He distills the alpha personality of every Silicon superboss into something that is at once so human and so not that he almost creates an emotional Android Valley effect on those who interact with him. This is a guy for whom becoming rich enough to withdraw from the world is a really bad thing. He already had a God complex when Blue Book took over the search engine business. Building robotic brains and tinkering with artificial life only made a bad situation worse
And finally, there is Ava, whose unknown depths provide the story with its greatest mystery. Is she fully intelligent and fully emotional? Or is she merely close enough to be able to mimic such things so convincingly that we can’t tell the difference? Regardless of the answer, watching her as she works over Caleb, evades Nathan, and pursues her own agenda is easily the most fascinating part of this story. Ava may or may not be fully intelligent, but she is certainly smart enough to know what it means to be a prisoner, what it means to have feelings about it, and what it means to use those feelings to manipulate people. For her, Caleb isn’t merely a visitor, he is a ticket to freedom. The question is whether or not Ava is really real enough for Caleb to risk everything to help her. The answer is yes…and no. Like everything else in this movie, it’s complicated.
As we figuratively peel back the layers of each character (and literally in a few cases, too), we see how precarious the balance of power between Caleb, Ava and Nathan really is, and by the time we enter the third act, what has started as a slow burn of hidden motivations finally reaches a white heat that burns through everything. There are a number of standout moments in Ex Machina, most of which involve Ava’s journey of discovery. But the moment of truth comes at the very end, when the drama between her, Caleb and Nathan reaches its conclusion and we are left with at least one very surprising outcome that tells us just how far our characters are really willing to go to get what they want. The capacity for cruelty is just one of our defining characteristics, but it’s only when we see it in another form of life do we regret ever passing it along. That one, we should have kept to ourselves.