Dear Ex Machina,
When one begins to examine the idea of an artificial intelligence, not to mention the factors that might have to be considered to determine if it truly is an intelligence and not just a simulation, the process almost invariably becomes introverted. After all, to understand a man-made consciousness or intelligence, we must first fully understand our own inherent consciousness and intelligence. What about our thought process makes us dynamic or special, and what in us is simply biological programming. How much of what we might consider superfluous or specifically biological imperative must be added into an artificial mind in order to make it human? If we are so driven by hunger, desire, sex, loneliness, and even anger, should those protocols be programmed into a construct of our own making? Base elements of our animal brain are often thought of as beneath our intellectual powers, but in truth they are the fuel we burn in order to power our more analytical and thoughtful machinations.
This is a heady concept, an existentially terrifying rabbit-hole down which to tumble, and yet it makes up only a fraction of the thematic weight that you carry, Ex Machina. One would expect nothing else from the directing debut of writer Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later), yet it is still surprising just how much intellectual fodder he manages to pack into your script. The story – about a solitary office worker who is invited to the remote home of his company’s enigmatic CEO for a week – is spare and sparsely populated, but it is this slim bone structure that allows for the of meat of the story to make up most of the weight of the film.
When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out that he has won a company-wide competition to spend a week with the elusive genius who founded the company he is elated beyond words. Following a staggering helicopter ride and a lonely walk through the woods, Caleb finds himself in the presence of the hyper-masculine tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the kind of man who tapes up his hands and knocks around a heavy bag after a long night of drinking alone. The two have an awkward moment, barely defused by Nathan calling it out in true alpha male fashion, and quickly settle in for the long week ahead.
Nathan has a secret, though. To be fair, Nathan is a man seemingly built of secrets, but the initial secret that sets the events of the plot in motion is this – he has created an artificial intelligence, and he wants Caleb to act as a judge of his success. The only way to do this, of course, is to have Caleb interact with the A.I. and see if he thinks that it could pass as a human intelligence.
What follows is a series of interactions between Caleb and Ava (Alicia Vikander), the humanoid machine that houses the complex hybrid of software and ‘wetware’ that constitutes the artificial intelligence. One of the greatest virtues of your story is the way that the characters think and act with regards to their situation. Caleb is flush with wonder as he speaks to Ava but he also keeps his wits about him, pushing forward with his analytical approach to the situation for as long as circumstances will allow. Nathan actively discourages the scientific viewpoint, looking instead for a visceral wow factor that would align more with the common-man’s response to the situation. In a way, he’s also pushing for the truer test of the artificial intelligence, the way in which it reaches you on an emotional, human level.
This helps us to understand one of the most basic and yet startlingly original ideas at the heart of this film, yet one that is kept oddly subtextual, lacking the kind of specifically targeted dialogue scenes that the components of this idea are given. Caleb questions the purpose of giving a machine intelligence sexuality, gender, and other “human” concerns. The meaning of true intelligence and adaptive thinking is contrasted with the concept of a simulation of the same. Thought experiments are expressed and explained and debated. The central scientific mystery is teased and explored in philosophical and practical terms, spoken outright and pondered in knowing glances.
The thought that an audience will be left with, however, is the gap between intelligence, both artificial and natural, and humanity. Caleb does his best to let his intelligence act as a check against his basic humanity, shielding him from the moral and emotional implications of his interactions with Ava. Nathan ceded his humanity to allow his intellect to furnish him with power and wealth and nearly godlike influence. Where does Ava fall on this spectrum? When humanity and intellect seem to conflict or stifle one another so readily, can the attempt to create intelligence out of whole-cloth even allow for the possibility of humanity?
The question is there, but it is not in your mind to answer, Ex Machina. Maybe that is because the answer depends on the viewer’s own balance between the two. Maybe that is because the answer is inherently unknowable, but even being able to address the question is a victory.
There is so much to you that I have yet to broach, and yet in some ways that is a blessing to anyone who may be reading this. The twists of your story shouldn’t be spoiled, and half the fun of observing the acting and hearing the dialogue is in discovering the care and attention paid to the emotional and intellectual reality of the situation. The Ava Sessions, as they are called in the course of the film, each act as an intriguing one act play, and the conversations between Nathan and Caleb seethe with nervous, claustrophobic tension. Every actor seems to be effortlessly striving for greater heights from scene to scene, their ascent being aided by the thermal updraft of one another’s performances.
That your narrative proceeds along a certain path could be seen as transparent plotting, though I prefer to look at it as the expression of a frankly distressing inevitability. In modern Hollywood a premium is set on surprising twists or reveals, often at the expense of narrative logic, and some people may look to your relative lack of tricks as a failing. To those people, I would ask this question:
A clock works in a specific way; a wound spring moving gears in a specific manner to swing an arm in a single direction. We know this – it is unsurprising. But if that clock is attached to a bomb set to explode off at the stroke of twelve, does knowing the direction and mechanism of the watch’s arm make the ensuing detonation any less harrowing?
Staggered and impressed,
Brian J. Roan