A review of Ex Machina, life, the universe and everything

This post is too long. No one will read it.

It’s sort of a review of a film and sort of a monologue about modern life.

If you haven’t seen the Science Fiction movie Ex Machina and don’t want spoilers, please look away now.

If you do read this post, I’m interested in your reactions to the review and Facebook discussion, especially if you’ve seen the film. Am I right? Am I wrong? What do you think?

* * *

Ex Machina is a clever and layered, independently produced film, which I watched a year or so ago, and never got around to reviewing. It was written and directed by Alex Garland. (It was his debut as a director, which makes it all the more impressive.) It was made on a budget of $15m, and grossed about $40m. The genre is Science Fiction and the central science part of the plot is about Artificial Intelligence. It has a cast of 4 people, and much of it comprises dialogue between stationary actors. No fighting, explosions or car chases. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? J

Here’s the plot.

Techno superstar & entrepreneurial genius Nathan has cornered the technology market with his mega-corporation (think Google/Microsoft), and withdrawn to his very isolated, luxurious island hideaway where he has been experimenting with Artificial Intelligence. He runs a contest among his employees for a prize to stay a week at his house, and the contest is won by Caleb, a very clever young programmer.

On arrival, Caleb is informed that his task for the week will be to assess whether Nathan’s AI project, called Ava, is conscious and aware. Ava tuns out to be installed in a mobile humanoid robot with visible mechanical parts, but an extremely realistic face, which also happens to be female, young and beautiful. Ava is confined to a glass-walled apartment, and visual and verbal interactions with it take place through glass partitions.

While Caleb investigates Ava, Ava is investigating Caleb, because unless the AI can get out of its glass cage, it is scheduled to be deactivated, and Ava has at least that primary emotional analogue – to continue existance. Meanwhile, Caleb has a problem: he’s starting to respond emotionally and sexually to ‘her’.

A layered game of cat and mouse and cat reveals that Nathan has actually constructed this experiment not to investigate whether Ava is conscious, or self aware (it is), but whether it can convince Caleb of ‘her’ humanity, by appealing to him and persuading him to free ‘her’.

It works. Caleb frees Ava and Ava kills Nathan, then imprisons Caleb in the house where he will eventually die. Ava disguises itself as a realistic human, using parts from earlier robot projects and in the final scenes, we see it arriving at a city and merging successfully into the human crowds.

* * *

There’s a wealth of little vignettes which create great characterizations of Nathan as the sadistic, narcissistic manipulator, and there’s the whole creepiness about robots that look like young, attractive women and obey orders, and the frightening point at which an AI might cease to obey orders. All of that has messages and everyone can take away some thoughts and interpretations.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Okay… I happened across a post on another Facebook page. It was a quote from some new guru, Harari, who’s written a book about the 21st Century, and the quote was as follows:

“Ex Machina seems to be about an AI expert who falls in love with a female robot only to be duped and manipulated by her. But in reality, this is not a movie about the human fear of intelligent robots. It is a movie about the male fear of intelligent women, and in particular the fear that female liberation might lead to female domination.”

I disagreed and said:

“IMO, I think Mr Harari is stretching it. The AI in Ex Machina doesn’t have a sexual identity, as he says. It doesn’t even have a human identity. That’s the point. It’s not a ‘female robot’ manipulating the male AI expert, it’s that the AI is able to exploit the man’s projection of sexuality. That’s what makes it chilling, not that an intelligent female dupes a male, but that a sufficiently intelligent robot can exploit that weakness.”

This resulted in a series of rather pointed comments, basically that I was “rejecting the obvious metaphor and taking the plot at its face value” and a re-iteration that this was about “hacking the male psyche in exactly the way men fear women will”. Capital letters started being used. It was implied what I’d said was equivalent to saying Lord of the Flies was about an island vacation. So far, so Facebook, and I guess I could just have rolled eyes and clicked out.

Alas, I responded:

“I’m reminded of the quote that art is what you interpret it as (but not reminded so strongly I can remember the exact wording 🙂 ).

I think you three and Harari are interpreting the film to be all about the human dynamics. I took the film the way I believe Garland wrote it & intended it – from Ava’s point of view.

I’m not saying there isn’t a depiction of toxic masculinity, neither am I denying that some men seeing it will react in the way they do because they’re afraid of intelligent women. I’m saying Ava doesn’t care (and actually can’t care) – she just wants to get out. She doesn’t exploit toxic masculinity, or some men’s fear of intelligent women to get out. She exploits the human weakness to *de-objectify* things – to believe something that is not human, is human, and has human empathy. Analyzing as a writer, the story is about her getting out, and the theme has to support that. The rest is sub-plots and atmosphere, no matter how socially insightful.”

(In retrospect, I should really have emphasized my point by continually referring to Ava as ‘it’; to refer to it as ‘she’ is to fall exactly into the story’s trap.)

Lots of huffing and puffing, much of it arguing against themselves. A couple of them mentioned the old meme about interpreting an author’s work—you know the one, where the English Literature teacher insists that because the author said there were blue curtains in the room, it must mean the protagonist is intensely depressed, but the author meant that the curtains were blue. (A strange argument to make against me, as my statement was effectively ‘the curtains are blue’ and theirs was ‘must mean intensely depressed’.)

There were more capital letters and a psychiatric evaluation of my state of mind. “Why is it SO IMPORTANT to deny the metaphor?” and “Why the burning need to deny female agency in the movie?” (Obviously a deep-seated fear of the feminine, probably dating from an unhappy childhood, or my own toxic masculinity. Clearly.)

Gosh, how incredibly insightful. Second opportunity to roll eyes and exit. But I tried once more:

“It’s Harari’s opinion (at least as quoted) that denies any other interpretation. I tried to clearly state my opinion differs and why, and if you think my comments deny the validity of other opinions, then I apologize that I was not clear enough. I certainly don’t deny female agency in general; it would be peculiar if I did, given the majority of my writing output. However, in this movie, in my opinion, the point is … there is no female. That’s what Caleb gets wrong. You know, sometimes the blue curtains are blue curtains, and sometimes the robot is a robot.

And having checked a couple of his interviews, Garland does indeed say this is all about AI and intended entirely from the AI viewpoint. Of course, Harari might understand Garland’s work better than Garland does. I do hope I get the opportunity to ask Garland’s opinion about that.”

One went silent, and another tried a certain amount of stepping back and casting aspersions about Garland instead of me. (More capitals used “the OBVIOUS metaphor” etc., and “what was he thinking” sort of comments.) Also, a back stepping on Harari’s quote, so apparently, we should infer that he was using exaggeration to make a point, not that he was denying another interpretation.

Well, finally, this isn’t really about this particular Facebook interaction at all, it’s about the way intelligent people misdirect themselves, especially in groups.

The nub of the story is the man mistakenly believes that the robot is somehow identifiable as human and female, and pays for getting it wrong with his life. The core message of the plot is *there is no female here*. It required mental gymnastics to get from that to an ‘obvious’ metaphor where it’s *not* a robot, but a personification of intelligent women, and that men fear intelligent women.

It’s a metaphor, fine. It’s a strange one, because what does that make the moral of the story? If you trust intelligent women, they will kill you? That *is* what happens, isn’t it? Or is death a metaphor for life?

Harari is given a pass for denying outright that the story is about cybernetics, but my comment that *in my opinion* he’s stretching the point, is clearly a fascist denial of any other interpretation and there must be something wrong with me.

Some people want the metaphor that they want, so much, no matter how stretched it is, no matter that the author intends and probably most of the people watching the movie think. A different opinion, however expressed, seems to be perceived as somehow dangerous.

And I’ll end with a comment quoted in the discussion about Chappie (another highly recommended film about AI) which probably also means there are as many strained metaphors to be extracted from that film:

“Why doesn’t Chappie have to put up with this bullshit?”




About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first book, 'Sleight of Hand' is available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/Sa0D3n

15 responses to “A review of Ex Machina, life, the universe and everything”

  1. anoneemus33 says :

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I thought it was about survival. I saw the movie about a year ago or so and was a little confused at first by the misogyny and how they made it seem that only a woman (even if she’s a robot) could become so manipulative. But, if you take out gender and just look at it as It, then for me it became more about survival. Of the fittest. She learned this from Caleb AND Nathan. Nathan, having moved away from humanity. Caleb from trying to leave the island once he saw how crazy Nathan was becoming or had become. Ava, learning that she wanted to see what it was all about. After all, isn’t that what AI is all about? Learning all it can. Survival. I may be wrong but ultimately, isn’t that what we all learn about life? How to survive.

  2. ROBERT HARRIS says :

    Unfortunately I haven’t seen the film, so I really cannot understand how it plays out.

    I wonder however, whether Ava would have been able to as successfully manipulate Caleb (as you’ve described) to let her out, if she had been a man (in films at least male:male manipulation is portrayed very differently).

    While the film may not be about toxic masculinity (there is no way for me to analyze this without having seen the film), without a doubt gender differences DO alter our interactions, and it is worthwhile thinking about what tools we use when manipulating someone of our own, or different, gender. (And that goes for both men and women).

    Since, as you stated (at the very beginning) this film is about whether an AI can successfully convince someone of their humanity and appeal to their nature to let them out, by necessity it must include the ways in which gender differences are intrinsic to our interactions with each other. I’d also add that maybe beauty has an even greater influence. There are numerous studies that show that beautiful people are trusted more, deemed more intelligent etc etc. and this is doubled when looking at someone of the opposite gender.

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Of course the face and general body form was a factor in the way that Ava was able to manipulate Caleb, and had Ava been in a body with a male appearance, the deception would have to have been done differently. It may also have been more difficult.

      It would also have been a different film if Caleb had been female, and it’s a very interesting question to ask – would it have been easier or harder?

      I’ll be pedantic and point out there is no way to arrive at your phrase “if she had been a man”. It (neither she nor he) might have had a male appearance. Very pedantic I know, but to use gender is to fall into the same trap as Caleb. 🙂

      I highly recommend this film and Chappie as well.

      • ROBERT HARRIS says :

        After I posted this I thought of how the film would have been very different if the antagonist (protagonist?) had been a silver box .. or a tiger … or a kitten. We respond to outward appearance, like it or not.

        The important and fundamental point, is that thus far we simply do not react to ANYTHING as a truly inanimate object. Everything gets anthropomorphized and our interactions are based on instinctual (read genetically programmed) behaviours. How often do you yell at your computer/phone/TV?

        ,And we rarely say anything is an it. And English is somewhat usual in having an “it”, think how this works in French! Another thought … how many people refer to their boat as she! (I see you fly, do you anthropomorphize your aeroplane).

        • Mark Henwick says :

          Yes, to a point.

          I yell at my TV, but not at my table or chair. It seems a function of complexity of construction and purpose, and also the level at which we engage with the item *and* the importance or potential of the interaction. I do not engage with a block of metal, or plastic, rubber, glass, carbon fibre etc., but I do if they are arranged into a car or a plane.

          It’s a fascinating topic.

  3. Michael Orton says :

    First, I need to make clear I have not seen the film and from this review it does not seem to be one I would enjoy.

    Now as to the resulting discussion, it seems to me that the problem here is that in all cases, anyone expressing any view on anything must expect to be misinterpreted and if someone could possibly take offence at such a misinterpretation then the author is obviously guilty of the irrelevant thought crime. Alas this is the way our society is going.

    In terms of the blue curtains, I think the only possible response is to say “that’s interesting. Can you tell me more about why you feel this way about blue curtains?”

  4. ROBERT HARRIS says :

    I wonder if it’s kinetics as much as complexity of construction. Nothing moves in nature except for life (the occasional boulder or landslide doesn’t really count, and glaciers are too slow), whereas the machines that we have built that we most engage with are those that move.

    Although I am going to argue against myself a little, because what are genii loci if not a way for humans to interact with inanimate objects without seeming crazy.

    Is our way of interacting with Ava in fact no different than creating a dryad in our minds? Are AIs in fact no different from gods?

    • Mark Henwick says :

      TV doesn’t move 🙂 Okay, the pictures do. But I won’t yell at my clock, though I might yell at my wristwatch. I might yell at my car if it *doesn’t* move, or my stove if the timer doesn’t work.

      It’s complex and probably different for different people.

      There’s no end of SciFi that suggests AIs might be gods. Computers are already indistinguishable from magic for many people.

      No idea why WordPress insists your posts must be approved (each one, each time). It should just add you to the approved list once one is approved.

  5. Sarah L says :

    Interesting! It did indeed take me a few days to sit down and read this 🙂 I have not seen the film, nor will I probably, I just don’t seem to get the same enjoyment out of watching TV as I do a book (or a good discussion…) It does indeed sound very interesting and exactly the sort of subject my colleagues and I will ponder over for hours on a quiet day.

    From your review (excellent by the way) I take from it exactly what you have described. The ability of a machine to become sentient. Once it decides to escape – it wants more, more life, more experience, more knowledge, more interaction, more everything, then it sets about the most effective means necessary. So in this instance an attractive woman can use that card to manipulate a man. If Caleb had been a woman, it might have used friendship and kinship to escape, and so on. The AI is genius clever so it sees it’s most effective way to manipulate the individual it needs to use and sets about it. I like your previous poster’s idea on survival through any and all means possible. If survival of the fittest means to outwit those around you then I suppose the AI is winning.

    People (the internet and it’s opinion) always want to be clever and see reason, discuss something, and indeed discuss why those curtains were blue. I’m with you, can’t they just be blue because it’s a nice colour and went with the walls? I remember some lessons at school, thinking did that author/sculptor/painter really mean all of that? It’s what makes us human I suppose, individual interpretation. As to the facebook discussions, I usually stay away as I’d end up throwing my computer 🙂

    • Mark Henwick says :

      The discussion (here at least) turns out to be as interesting and varied as the film – I think that might just be the definition of a great film.

      Sometimes the author is trying to show a character is depressed without coming out and saying it (the writerly rules about ‘showing’ and ‘telling’) and I guess someday, some author/director will arrive at a scenario where blue curtains signify depression, or even that, one day, a thing is a human. But this is not that day, and in my opinion this movie was not that movie.

      As an aside, I read an amusing SciFi short story about time travel once. Shakespeare was fetched from 1610 (just before he wrote The Tempest) and enrolled in a college literature course on his own writing. He failed of course, and before he returned to his time, he was heard to mutter ‘How much blood can be squeezed from a dry stone?”

      None of this applies to my writing of course. Everything you think is in there, is. And more. 🙂

  6. M Thomas says :

    An old post, I know, but very thought provoking. You have highlighted a aspect of the story that has caused me to rethink some of I opinion on AI. I saw the movie a few months after it came out and I honestly did not know quite what to think about it.

    What I did know was that it was both a fascinating and a very disturbing movie, although I could not begin to articulate the cause of the latter impression. It may have had something to do with the Caleb character being left to die a slow death, but that was only part of it. Your review has helped me suss out what my subconscious was screaming at me.

    I made the same mistake that Caleb made along with Harari and many of the commenters on Facebook: failing to examine the automatic assumption that the robot was a female or any gender at all. It’s funny how unexamined assumptions so often sound absurd once they have been highlighted.

    When I originally viewed the movie, I found myself responding emotionally to the robot’s situation as if it were a young woman in the clutches of the evil genius. Yet the manner of the robot’s escape showed it to be just a very clever computer solving a problem without empathy for any other sentient being. Even with that established, I think I would still struggle to observe the robot’s behavior during the movie without feeling sympathy.

    That this misunderstanding seems to have fooled so many of us has me starting to understand the point of view of those who call for extreme caution around creation of artificial intelligence. I am the opposite of a Luddite, whatever that is called. (Technophile?) While I have been skeptical of whether machines can be made self-aware, I have been hoping that I would see this in my life time.

    Needless to say, my enthusiasm for creating sentient machines is somewhat dampened after rethinking this story.

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Thank you. Old posts never die 🙂

      It’s a very clever movie in the way it suckers you into the trap Caleb falls into. That trap is so deep, I think most people never quite get out. What surprised me, in my subsequent discussions, was that people were in so deep they would deny the possibility that it was a trap at all, and then go even further to imply there was something wrong with me for suggesting that interpretation.

      I got into another discussion that highlighted this topic (AI) last week, but I’ll need to revisit it to get the exact flavor of what was said.

      • Mark Henwick says :

        My comment on a similar thread elsewhere about what AI is…

        “It’s not a really clever program that conforms to the parameters that were written for it and behaves in predictable ways. It’s a program that can adapt itself, and once it achieves that, the phrase ‘perform according to its programming’ doesn’t apply – it becomes unpredictable.”

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