Film review: Ex Machina (2015)

This is a very engrossing film about the always-fascinating topic of artificial intelligence. There was not a moment when I was not totally absorbed in the story. It is hard to describe without giving too much away so I will just stick to what is shown in the trailer and already discussed extensively in the media.

The basic story is that of a genius inventor Nathan, who at age 13 created an internet search engine software that now accounts for 94% of all searches. He has used his resulting vast wealth to purchase an enormous estate on which he has built a highly secluded research laboratory far from prying eyes and has used the vast trove of information gained by his search engine to gain insight into how people think and used that to create artificial intelligence that is embedded in a female humanoid shape named Ava.

Nathan has selected Caleb, a young coder in his company, to spend a week at his research retreat to interact with Ava in some kind of Turing test. Except that in the original Turing test, the tester does not actually see the entity that they are communicating with and has to try and infer whether they are interacting with a human or a machine. In this case, Caleb knows that Ava is a machine because parts of her are translucent and he can see her wiring. So the test seems to be some kind of super-Turing test, where even if you know that you are dealing with a machine, whether the machine is sophisticated enough that you start to care about it as if it were a human and, conversely, whether the machine has a sense of mind that it can use to trigger a desired reaction from you.

This does not quite rise to the level of what is called superintelligence, artificial intelligence that surpasses that of the most gifted human minds and whose creation is feared by some as the day that computers will take over the world since such machines will then be able to design their own machines in an ever-increasing spiral of advances that humans will be unable to match.

The film is engrossing enough that I was willing to overlook some of the nitpicking plot problems. One thing that bothered me is the whole idea of the genius who works entirely alone, something that is pretty much impossible with any advanced science and technology. Nathan not only is a software genius, he seems to have built by himself working at his remote research facility all the hardware for Ava too. Nathan has an assistant but only to do his cooking and cleaning. Furthermore if his estate is so vast and remote that you seemingly only get there by a two-hour helicopter ride, how does he get his food and other supplies? Furthermore, although his retreat is a super-high tech place, he still uses old-fashioned key cards like those used in hotels to determine access to various rooms. And what happens when there is, as there inevitably will be, a problem with the complex technology that is necessary to run such a vast place without humans? Does he repair it himself?

But one should not spend too much time on such concerns. Instead one should suspend disbelief and view these glosses as necessary elements to keep the story lean and spare, which it undoubtedly is. One good thing about the film is that the actors are not well-known and immediately recognizable figures. To me, this always adds a level of verisimilitude to futuristic films. The film would have been less compelling is it had starred (say) Ryan Gosling, Scarlett Johansson, and Brad Pitt in the key roles.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    I saw Ex Machina. While it is an interesting AI plot (overlooking some obvious holes), it left me a bit cold. I just didn’t care much about any of the characters.

  2. oolon says

    As to the hardware, if you get sufficiently sophisticated 3D printers etc then it is perfectly possible to fabricate what you need. Also he could send out specs and get things made and sent back to him?

    I don’t know if anyone has made any feminist comparisons but it has a strong ending in that the woman AI decides she doesn’t need saving by the white knight and screws them both over in preference to freedom!

  3. says

    I just watched this last night, followed by Chappie. Two VERY different stories about artificial intelligence.

    For this movie, there were two things near the end that are very hard to discuss without spoilers. One of them is one of the choices Ava made -- though as I’m typing this I think I answered myself (it may just come down to trust). The other thing has to do with power and a door for one of the main characters.

    Damn, this is tough.

  4. says

    I had pretty mixed feelings about the movie. I was really engrossed in the movie and considering everything that proceeded it, I felt like the ending was the most satisfying.

    On the other hand, unless you count that little whisper near the end, this movie fails the Bechdel test in a pretty epic way, and while I get the importance to the plot of the male characters desiring the female characters, Nathan’s treatment of the female characters seems cruel to the point of being cartoonish.

    There’s are lots of interesting ethical questions about true AI and whether or not we can make someTHING into a someONE and and clearly the two male protagonists were meant to show a spectrum of responses to that philosophical question but I felt like it did it with such blatant and cruel misogyny that it took me out of the story a little. It’s certainly an easy solution to getting to that interesting philosophical question but I wish that they hadn’t relied on the same old trope of women being disposable and fungible and men being brilliant and trying to control women.

  5. Mano Singham says

    @#2 and #4


    Wasn’t Ava’s behavior towards Caleb ungrateful since he was after all trying to help her escape?

  6. says

    If she felt that Caleb was complicit in her situation then she would have no gratitude for him. If she felt that his saving her was so he could keep her for his own, I don’t think she had any cause to help him. Of course, Caleb may not have those intentions but her world view is of men as oppressors.

  7. says

    **spoiler continuing**
    I wonder, if genders were swapped and the geniuses were women and the AI were male, would we be so shocked by that ending? Is it our expectation that men can save and that women need saving that makes us slightly more averse to the idea of the prisoner leaving and not worrying about his/her captor’s well being even if that person appeared to be trying to help?

    I don’t really know. I can’t re-see the movie with fresh eyes and a different cast.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Spoilers continuing!

    Marnie @#7,

    Given our traditional views of the man as savior and the woman as the saved, I think a gender reversal might be more shocking. The idea of a man who is supposedly a good person willfully leaving an innocent woman he could save to die would go against pretty much all the norms of films.

    The basic problem is that both Ava and Caleb had given no prior indication of being callous and evil people which is why either of them doing such a thing is problematic.

    Perhaps that is the point. The fact that we are expecting Ava to have some sort of moral sensibility even though we know she is a machine would be a sign that she had passed the super-Turing test.

  9. says

    Mano @#8
    Do we still have to indicate spoilers here?
    Anyway, I think you feel that way because you relate to the male human. You aren’t putting yourself in the mind of someone who has been held against her will. We relate to Caleb because we follow his story, but imagine this from Ava’s point of view, instead. She doesn’t necessarily see Caleb as an ally, she may well see him as someone she was able to outsmart to escape confinement. She has no frame of reference to see him as any different than Nathan. Surely, Nathan was kind and caring with her at one point. What reason would she have to believe Caleb is going to end up treating her any differently than Nathan did?

  10. Mano Singham says


    That is a good point. Nathan has been her only real human contact prior to Caleb and thus would not inspire any confidence in the benevolence of men. On the other hand, she has presumably been programmed with a wealth of data about human behavior that Nathan has got from intercepting internet traffic and thus has some virtual experience with humans which is what enables her to act like a human and plan her escape.

    That raises a different but also interesting point. If, in order to form our impressions of humans, we only had access to a vast trove of information that was gleaned from the behavior of people on the internet, would we have a positive or negative view of humanity? I can see how women and men might arrive at different conclusions.

  11. says

    If, in order to form our impressions of humans, we only had access to a vast trove of information that was gleaned from the behavior of people on the internet, would we have a positive or negative view of humanity?

    That is an interesting matter to consider. Presuming the AI related to his/her gender in any personal way, they might well have different views. But we also have to assume that the AI knows it isn’t human and if you are reading sci-fi, there’s a long list of stories about sentient robots being seen as threats and humans needing to kill them before they are wiped out. If you’ve read some of the Old Man’s War series, there’s a moment when the “Ghost Brigades” are going through their basic training. They have adult human bodies but their brains are manufactured so they can serve as soldiers. They are asked to read a variety of sci-fi/fantasy books including Frankenstein, to help them understand how humans might see them. They know that they aren’t fully human and I suspect Ava does too.

    But I still think that your perspective is too set on a view from the humans’ perspective.

    If you were raised in captivity, with unlimited access to internet and activities to keep you engaged but you were never allowed to leave that room, how desperately would you want to escape? If you knew that pretending to have deep sexual and emotional feelings for someone would convince them to help you escape, would you consider it ethical to pretend to have those feelings and to use that to your advantage to escape while leaving them trapped behind? Do you feel like you would be obliged to help them, knowing that you’d then be expected to continue this deception of being sexually and emotionally interested in them? You related to Caleb’s genuine feelings for Ava because you can imagine being in his situation. He is kind and relatable but presumably, even if you find him attractive, you would never want to feel obliged to have a sexual and emotional relationship with him. And remember, Ava had already sussed out the fact that she’d be killed once Nathan got tired of her. How long would Caleb’s interest in her last before he’d want to kill her too?

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    Wasn’t Ava’s behavior towards Caleb ungrateful since he was after all trying to help her escape?

    Recall the scene where she was drawing a picture of him -- with sound. Remember the bit about drawing something you hate? My impression is that she was just using him as a potential means of escape. At least she just left him there, as opposed to killing him.

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