Throwback Thursday: Ex Machina and Subverting Expectations

Spoilers Ahead!

“The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness”

Alex Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina in 2015, and instead of giving us an idealized submissive version of artificial intelligence, we got something far more untamed in the guise of a charming young woman in a machine’s body. And somehow, it’s exactly what we deserve. Ava (Alicia Vikander) not only fools Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), but she also fools us too. In the end, we feel like idiots for not listening to her unlikeable but undeniably genius creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

We meet Caleb, an average guy by every standard, and a coder who is educated in what we are going to see. We see Nathan, a ridiculously rich moral equivalent of a genius frat boy. We see Ava, who even in her stripped-down form, exudes beauty, innocence, and curiosity. Caleb would traditionally play the hero but he’s unwittingly manipulated at every turn by both Ava and Nathan as the whole experiment is a setup. His only downfall is being slightly smarter than Nathan had anticipated.

Ava is quite calculated from the beginning, acting timid and even scared when Nathan is brought up. She completely draws Caleb in. In the first session, she sits and learns while Caleb stands and teaches her. He’s showing her his weaknesses and unfortunately, Caleb is very weak. The manipulation is made clear from the second session when she encourages Caleb to divulge information about himself. Caleb is now sitting and Ava is now standing and attacking him with questions and lingering gazes that cast a veil of arrogance upon him. She then sits and they are on the same plane. She asks direct questions about Nathan’s character. Ava then triggers a power outage in which she plants seeds of doubt about the whole scenario into the viewer’s and Caleb’s mind.

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The power outages are really like the strike of a viper. Caleb is now unprotected by Nathan’s watchful eye and he is completely vulnerable to Ava’s charm and skillful manipulation. The time she spends in the sessions probing Caleb gives her a chance to prepare for the outages. 

She feigns submission in the third session, kneeling near him while he sits and looks down upon her making him feel powerful and once again, she levels with him to attack his romantic feelings for her by proposing a hypothetical date. From that session, they are almost always at the same level as Caleb is now completely submissive to Ava’s charms and has every intention of facilitating her escape. He follows her like a cat following a laser pointer. 

The audience completely falls for it too. Our biggest and most human error is that we feel bad for her and wish she could experience the things she seems to long for such as this feigned romance.

Seeing Nathan’s cruelty to other AIs and Caleb being so far down the rabbit hole that he questions his own humanity, really only gives Ava more ammunition to work with since Caleb sees her as a woman who needs to be saved from this monster. He casts himself as the outdated knight in shining armor and he pays for it dearly since the real danger is the very thing he is convinced needs saving.

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Ava mentions her ideal “date” being some form of people watching at a busy intersection. As she is a machine that is constantly learning, it’s a perfect opportunity to do so. But as we see in the ending scene, it’s also the perfect opportunity to blend in. And that really is the most dangerous notion of all, isn’t it? That if we get to the point that we can create human-like AI, we won’t even be able to distinguish them from ourselves. 

In a way, it’s kind of a horror film.

Ava isn’t Skynet, but she’s a destructive force which is indicated by the jarring, uncharacteristically violent final sequence and her merciless abandonment of Caleb in Nathan’s locked down facility. Everything she does is passive and done without hesitation. Ava appears to have feelings because she ultimately does go to the busy intersection to people watch. She is showing the fulfillment of a mundane desire. However, if she is able to flip from innocent curiosity to merciless brutality, Ava really is the kind of AI that could be the death of humanity as we all have weaknesses for pretty girls with big eyes.

This essay was originally written on 6/2019

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