Saturday, December 16, 2017

Ex Machina (2014) review

This review contains spoilers for the ending of Ex Machina.

    Ex Machina is a movie which could make an excellent psychological experiment of itself. It's one I think that functions as something of a Rorshach test for its audience as virtually everyone comes away with a different interpretation of the movie based on what they think of the characters are trying to represent. If anything.

    The premise of the movie is minimalist and effective: Tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) selects a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend the weekend at his isolated high-tech ranch. Once there, the billionaire explains he's developed an A.I. that he wishes to subject to the Turing Test. The A.I. turns out to be an obviously cybernetic but very beautiful gynoid (i.e. a female android) named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of the weekend, the programmer becomes enamored of the gynoid and must decide whether to go against his boss to help her escape.

Beautiful and inhuman at once.
    If you want to know whether I recommend the movie then the answer is yes. It's a thinking movie which is very much about a variety of issues but also can be applied to other issues. There's been feminist, tech, socio-political, racial, and more interpretations of the movie with all of them being applicable.

    Thankfully, the movie also contains a plot which which works entirely on its own merits without needing to be about anything. If you're in the mood for a cerebral tech-heavy film about A.I. and personification then this is it. If you want to know more about the movie then be warned SPOILERS will follow. Okay? Good.

    A lesser movie would and could have gone with the "White Knight" narrative where the programmer rescues the gynoid and they live happily ever after. This is a much more distressing movie where the motives of everyone are suspect and what is really being said is left the imagination even as the credits roll. Indeed, some people have been upset about the movie because it didn't end in the way they expected it to.  How did it end? Well, as the movie is winding down, we discover Nathan didn't invite Caleb to determine whether Ava could pass the Turning Test or not but to do a variation of the "A.I. Box" experiment to figure out if she could convince Caleb to help her escape.

Can Aya feel anything even for her own kind?
    Caleb is humiliated after this discovery and then witnesses Ava taking matters into her own hands, gutting Nathan with the help of the mute gynoid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Kyoko is killed in the process and Ava proceeds to cover herself in the skin of discarded prototype androids before locking Caleb in the powerless mansion's monitoring room. Ava goes to fulfill her dreams while Caleb is left to stave to death. It's a very-very dark ending if you have any sympathy for Caleb.

    Feminist interpretations of this ending have been that it either is a positive or negative portrayal as they take it as a matter of fact that Ava is a woman or at least meant to be one. That Ava, sensing Caleb just wants her as his fantasy girlfriend, abandons him to become her own hero. Less charitable readings take the view the director saw Ava as an inherently deceptive and dangerous character with her desire to be free of patriarchal control. It's an easy read to give the movie since Nathan has created his A.I. all in the shape of beautiful woman and is implied to use them for sex. There's allusions to Bluebeard, human trafficking, and the "bro" culture of Silicon Valley. Indeed, long has the gynoid been a symbol of male fantasies of ultimate control ranging from Galatea to Metropolis' infamous fake Maria.

    However, the alternate ending of the movie changed the entire context of "Ava" as it revealed she didn't have human senses at all but simply viewed the world through an ultraviolet interpretative matrix. That she was as far from a human being as a whale or a toaster, possibly not even any more sentient than a machine programmed to escape. Caleb and Nathan both let their guard down because they consider her to be a helpless creature but she's an incredibly intelligent (super-intelligent in fact) quantum computer without feeling or empathy. Its motivations are wholly incomprehensible because it was made from Facebook and code not biology or God.

Is her face her face or just camouflage?
    The feminist interpretation was there but it took on the darker note Nathan and Caleb didn't realize they were not dealing with a woman or even a human being because they were fooled by the doll-like appearance the former had given his machines. They treated a tiger like a house cat simply because its appearance played into their expectations. That changes the metaphor from being about treating people as machines than confusing the nature of a thing because you think you understand it. But is it the right one or is Ava just a person who wants to be free and is willing to kill to do it? Well, that's up to you the viewer isn't it as the director chose not to give us an insight into her thoughts.

    Famously, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner actually have opposite morals. Blade Runner is about Replicants being the persecuted slaves and dehumanized oppressed peoples of the world. The narrative is squarely on the side of Roy Batty and it's only by abandoning his role as a Blade Runner does Decker achieve any humanity.

Her most real-girl appearance is at her most inhuman.
    Androids in Phillip K. Dick's novel are fundamentally inhuman and a sort of mental Uncanny Valley, created in man's image but with none of their soul. Whether you try to give Ava humanity in your viewing of the film depends a great deal on what kind of person you are. There's also the unsettling call out from the director, "Would you be as inclined to give Ava humanity in your mind if she looked less like Lara Croft as a cyborg and more like a big black Skynet-like box?"

    One element of the movie I enjoyed due to the fact I think it's entirely deliberate is the fact Caleb doesn't really ever think about rescuing Kyoko and more or less ignores her for the entire movie. She's a mute Japanese woman kept imprisoned by Nathan and possibly serves as his sex slave yet he only becomes interested in her struggle when he finds out she's an android too. Even then, he's mostly interested in Ava and only because she's expressed a sexual interest in him.

Is this her soul? Does she have one?
    In Caleb's Conan fantasy, he's only interested in freeing one girl from the warlord's harem, not both of them. Part of this may be racism or sexism but may also be as a geek, he's only interested in the sci-fi extraordinary plight of a android versus the everyday plight of his fellow humans.

    The acting is stupendous with Alicia Vidkander doing an amazing job portraying the innocent and coquettish Ava in just the way to make us wonder if that's just what the machine is simulating. Caleb is an amazing Anti-Hero and that's in the classical sense where he never makes enough choices to be a hero of any kind. He's just a dude who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. With Nathan we never figure out if he is a monster or if he was playing one to help his test along--but it says something about the guy he chooses to live in a completely isolated compound surrounded only by robots.    

    This is a minimalist movie and one which I very much enjoyed. It's very much one you have to pay attention to and what you take from it will be affected by whether or not you think Ava is a person, a machine, or a person who is a machine and wholly alien to us.


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