Ex Machina (2014)

This is not the kind of thing I typically watch, and it is creepy. Very well done, very thought-provoking, but in the end, creepy as all heck.

Tomorrowland was a cheerful attempt to show technology as ultimately good, which is not a popular thing to do, and might not have succeeded. Ex Machina is an attempt to show technology as ultimately scary, which is maybe also not easy, but more often succeeds—certainly it succeeded in this case.

There are only a handful characters in the movie, but their interactions are fascinating. The dialog does a better job of exploring the “ghost in the machine” theme than either of the Ghost in the Shell movies. The movie tackles the nature/nurture debate from the standpoint of art, using a Jackson Pollock painting as a metaphor for choice. The setting, which serves to underscore the contrast between man and machine in the movie, is a supermodern forest retreat which (as I surmised) actually exists.


Below are some thoughts on this movie and other android movies, as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, because even indie movies have a rising-falling plot structure.

My Beat Sheet for Ex Machina

Opening Image
Caleb’s computer is scanning him.

Caleb helicopters to the luxurious, remote woodland hideout of a rich genius named Nathan to collaborate with him for a week as an intern on some secret project. Caleb explores parts of the mysterious compound and signs an NDA.

The project turns out to be a lifelike female android named Ava who is equipped with a sophisticated AI. Caleb’s task for the week is to test Ava and decide whether she is conscious.

Caleb protests that a Turing Test is meaningless because he knows Ava’s a robot; Nathan says the real test is for Caleb to believe Ava is conscious despite knowing she’s a robot.

Break into Two
Caleb meets Ava. Nathan asks him what he thought, and Caleb expresses amazement. Nathan, creepy narcissist that he is, compares himself to a god.

B Story / Fun and Games
Caleb experiences a power cut that leaves him locked in his windowless underground room. (Afterwards, he tries unsuccessfully to place a phone call. To whom? Ghostbusters, duh.) Nathan waves away the issue with the power.

In the second interview, Ava flirts with Caleb, and there’s another power cut. While the CCTV cameras are (presumably) off, Ava tells Caleb not to trust Nathan. After the interview, Nathan questions Caleb about what Ava said during the power cut. Caleb does not repeat Ava’s warning or admit that she reacted in any way.

In the third interview, Ava dresses in human clothes and a wig to please Caleb; subsequently, Caleb asks Nathan why the AI was made female. Nathan says that there’s no such thing as a human without a sexual identity, and notes that sex with Ava is anatomically possible. Nathan hopes Ava’s attraction is as natural as Jackson Pollock’s paint splashes.

In the fourth interview, Caleb compares Ava to a character in a thought-experiment called Mary who is raised in a room containing only black and white. She is aware of the idea of color, but cannot truly understand it because she has never experienced it.

Caleb loses all respect for Nathan. Via the CCTV camera, Caleb sees Nathan drunkenly tear up a drawing Ava made, seemingly out of a total lack of respect for her. Then Nathan performs a dance with Kyoko, which confirms Caleb’s belief that Kyoko is Nathan’s slave and that Nathan is insane.

Bad Guys Close In
In the fifth interview, Ava asks Caleb some probing questions, including what will happen to her if she fails his test. Afterwards, Nathan tells Caleb he plans to make a better AI, which effectively means destroying Ava, or making her another slave like Kyoko. Caleb thinks that would be murder. He fears even more for Ava when he sneaks into Nathan’s office and browses videos of Nathan’s previous projects because he sees the androids as people who Nathan jailed, abused, and killed. Caleb plots with Ava to help her escape. Caleb’s plan involves getting Nathan drunk.

All is Lost
Nathan refuses to drink any alcohol, instead pressing Caleb to share his conclusions now that the internship is over. Caleb says Ava passed the test, but Nathan’s not so sure. What if Ava is just simulating emotions? Finally, Nathan stops playing mind games and explains that he installed a battery-operated camera and heard Caleb’s escape plan. He even makes Caleb watch the recording.

Dark Night of the Soul
Worse, Nathan explains that Caleb’s real role in his experiment was to be manipulated by Ava. Caleb was chosen for the “internship” not for his intelligence, but for his emotional vulnerability. That hurts. Really hurts.

Break into Three
When Ava cuts the power, Caleb admits that he doesn’t need to get Nathan drunk again to reprogram the security system, because he has already done it. Oh, crap. Nathan knocks him out.

Ava starts walking around the complex and refuses to return to her room, despite instructions from Nathan to do so. Kyoko and Ava kill him. Then, however, Ava abandons Caleb, who has revived, dresses herself in the skin and clothing of previous androids, and exits the house, leaving Caleb locked in Nathan’s office, doomed to die.

Final Image
Ava is at a busy intersection, looking at the people, just as she said she wanted to do in one of her interviews with Caleb.

Android Movies

I don’t want to live in a world where androids who pass as human actually exist. At least not until after we make a bunch of happier movies about androids. Most of the ones I can think of are dark.

Off in another fictional direction, there are some happy Pygmalion-plot stories, as well as some unhappy Frankenstein ones, but most of the sci-fi movies I can think of involve obviously robotic robots like Transformers, or clones like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, or something that isn’t quite the same, like the humans in Dollhouse who are natural-born humans but are used as programmable escorts, or the machines in The Matrix, which only look like humans inside the digital universe they created, or AIs that live invisibly inside communication networks, like the one in Person of Interest.

Oh, I guess there’s Data from Star Trek. Star Trek is generally optimistic. Clearly I should watch more Star Trek.

Food for Thought