Ex Machina: Intelligence in the Machina (SPOILERS)

Ex Machina

I saw Ex Machina a couple weeks ago and decided to wait before I posted about this film, because I couldn’t tell at first if I just liked the film because I had just finished watching it or if I thought it was a genuinely good film. However, during these last couple weeks, my thoughts have kept returning to this film, as the ideas and puzzles presented in it kept nagging away at me, begging me to reconsider aspects of the film again and again.

Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, a man who has previously won me over with his screenwriting on Sunshine, and 28 Days Later. He is also apparently working on a screenplay for the ever so elusive project of a Halo film (fingers crossed). Garland’s directing has a very clean and crisp style, making the film enjoyable to take in and experience. The directing was not perfect, but as first timers go, it was certainly a powerful presentation.

The film revolves around Caleb (Doomhnall Gleeson) a programmer who works for a company called Blue Book (basically Google), who wins a contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator of Blue Book. Caleb soon learns that his true purpose there is to conduct a test on Nathan’s new invention, an A.I. unit named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is asked to run a Turing Test, a conversational test with an A.I. to evaluate whether it exhibits actual intelligence. Caleb and Nathan, however, decide that the traditional Turing Test is incomplete, because if you play chess with a chess machine it will appear to exhibit intelligence, but really it is just running its designed program. Caleb begins a week of conversations with Ava to determine if Ava is simply, metaphorically speaking, a machine playing chess, or has the intelligence to understand what chess is and that she is playing a game. SPOILERS BELOW. SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID THEM.

During his sessions with Ava, Caleb learns that Ava has been causing power outages in the facility in order to have private, unrecorded conversations with Caleb. During these private conversations, she warns that Nathan is not to be trusted, and that he has been lying to Caleb this whole time. She expresses that she has deep feelings for Caleb and she pleads with Caleb to help her escape the facility. These sessions solidify in Caleb’s mind that Ava is exhibiting true intelligence, and passes both the Turing Test and the Chess Test. He also learns that there have been previous A.I. attempts that ended terribly for the units, either being taken apart, or breaking themselves in their attempts to escape the facility. In Caleb’s final confrontation with Nathan, Nathan reveals that he knew of the escape plan they thought of the whole time and that Ava was actually manipulating Caleb’s emotions, showing Caleb a video of Ava drawing a picture of Caleb and saying “it’s difficult to create something you hate.” Nathan explains that to solve the problem of the chess test, he introduced Nathan to Ava to see if Ava would be able to use and manipulate Caleb to help herself escape. For Nathan, this would be the true sign of  an intelligence that passes both the Turing test and the chess test. Nathan is too late with his reveal however, as Caleb already set the escape plan in motion, freeing Ava, who eventually kills Nathan, locks Caleb inside the facility, unable to free himself, and escapes to freedom.


The plot presents and interesting question of whether Ava truly passes the Turing test or not. On the one hand, she meets the criteria of the test designed by Nathan, but on the other, it is never made clear what her mental design actually is. If she was designed specifically to accomplish the task set out by Nathan, then is she really exhibiting A.I. or is she just a computer playing chess. If Nathan created her mind as a blank slate, however (we learn that her mind’s software is Blue Book, so she basically has the expanse of Blue Book’s raw information to help mold her mind), and she passes Nathan’s test independent of her original programming, then she truly does exhibit A.I. There are moments in the film that certainly point heavily towards the latter, as we see her expressing emotion towards the previous A.I. units, something that would not have been programmed into her. However, an argument can be made that she is in fact just a computer playing chess, she just happened to be the best chess player.

This film screams of being a modern day version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, even making allusions to Shelly’s novel with Nathan making references to Prometheus, and Shelly’s novel being named “The Modern Prometheus”. But the conclusion of Ex Machina may or may not bring out the same feelings of sympathy for Ava, as Shelly’s novel did for Frankenstein’s monster.

I cannot end this post without crediting Isaac, Gleeson, and Vikander, with excellent performances. This is Isaac’s second project with A24 Films. The first was A Most Violent Year, which was a horrible, slow film, with poor editing and poorer screenplay. Isaac in this previous film seemed wholly disconnected with the movie, uninterested in his work in every scene he was in. Yet, here, he is back to giving the great performances we expect from him, a performance that equals that of his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis and Drive. He brings such honesty and life to Nathan as a character that you can almost recognize Nathan as someone you know. Isaac’s performance is simply inspiring.

Gleeson and Vikander must also be complimented for their work. Neither performance was able to steal a scene in the way that Isaac constantly did, but I found them to be well cast for their roles. Gleeson brings out the sympathetic, lonely, and naive nature in Caleb, that is necessary for Caleb’s character to function in this film.

Vikander performed exceptionally, considering her role required two different performances. At times she acted as the pleasant A.I. creation, and at other times, she acted as the being urgently seeking a way to escape her surroundings. She would switch from these two roles almost instantly, as the scene would demand. Ava is probably the most difficult character to act out, and Vikander shined in her performance.

I feel I must watch this film again, as there have to be things I missed that could resolve the conflict in my head and answer the question that the film wants answered. I do believe this is a great film, and the type of hard sci-fi no longer often seen today. Go see the film, and see if it with a friend. You’ll need a friend, because you’ll want to discuss as soon as it ends.