A Brief Analysis and Thoughts on Ex Machina

by Daniel Guerson

— Warning: This article contains spoilers —

Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with the Sci-fi suspense film Ex Machina. He is best known as screenwriter of movies like “28 Days Later”(2002), Sunshine (2007) and Dredd (2012).

Synopsis: The story of Ex Machina is about Caleb, a software programmer who wins an opportunity to work along with Nathan, the CEO of the company for which he works, in an extensive secluded property where he lives by himself. Once in there, Caleb is asked to perform a test to conclude if Nathan’s invention, Ava, an artificial intelligent android (A.I), can exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. To which during this time he develops mixed feelings towards Ava that lead him to question his own sanity, and in my opinion, his own humanity.

A few months ago, when I first saw the trailer of Ex Machina, my first thoughts were that this movie was going to be a good suspense Sci-Fi film with great CGI but with the preconceived idea that the main core of the story would be, in a certain sense, very similar to the film “HER” — which I also loved, by the way — in regards to exploring the taboo and controversial topics that involve A.I’s relationship with humans. Or in the worst case that the director would choose a story line similar to “Transcendence”, in the manner of the most typical approach regarding intelligent robots where ‘self aware’ A.Is suddenly want to destroy the world by enslaving humanity just as ‘Skynet’ did it in “The Terminator” saga or ‘The Machines’ did it on “The Matrix”.

But to my pleasure and surprise, Alex Garland proved me wrong. He succeeded in making this film stand apart from others in the best way possible when he managed to conceive the most human machine that I have ever seen in any other movie.

And I am not talking about how amazingly good the FXs and CGI achieve to convince us that we are watching an actual android; no, I am talking about how Ava, the A.I. machine, embodies “The Question”: What makes us human?

And I use the verb “embodies”, because to me, Ava becomes and represents the humanity along the development of this film.

Ex Machina belongs to the type of movies that doesn’t have a single facet and it’s full of layers that can be easily approached from the particularity of anyone’s point of view. For me, the most outstanding angle was the one with all the obvious references to the myth of creation as is told by the biblical book of Genesis.

Adam and Eve

Why Alex Garland would do such extensive use of biblical references in this movie?

In my opinion, the story of “Adam and Eve” are only a medium and a tool adopted by the director as literary simile to guide us through the film and make us approach the idea of how a machine can become human.

So let’s point out some of those references I am talking about:

Nathan is the biblical interpretation of God. When welcoming Caleb into his house he sets the rules and tells him what is forbidden and what is not. He lives alone, and before Caleb’s arrival, he was the only person in the house/research facility (paradise). He is almost omnipresent because he can see and control everything inside the house. He is the CEO of the “Blue Book Company”, that has all (or almost all) the knowledge in the world. — Also here’s a big hint/critique from the Director that make us think of FACEBOOK. Blue book, anyone? — He created Ava based on the likes and preferences of Caleb.

The house represents paradise and where God (Nathan) will create a new conscious being and will change the world as we know it. Inside the house there is everything anyone would ever need. In the bible, the paradise is located between several rivers, and so as well the house from the film.

— The character of Caleb has more substance and therefore he has more layers that can be read in him. For the most part of the film, Caleb resembles Adam, but the fact that he comes down from the skies by the will of Nathan (God) to his paradise to test Ava, resembles more, IMO, to a fallen angel (the devil or the serpent, as told on the bible) and also because he was one of God’s helpers and he is the one who liberates Ava by bringing to her the knowledge needed to become as powerful as God. Also, there’s a scene in the movie where Caleb doubts his own humanity reinforcing the idea that he is a creation of Nathan. He is indeed Adam, just like Ava is Eve.

Ava is the equivalent of Eve. She is the one who entices and deceives Caleb to free herself. She was made specifically for Caleb by Nathan just as in the Genesis where Eva was made for Adam by God. The first prototype, the 1.0, was named Lily. And according to some legends and Jewish folklore Lilith was Adam’s first wife. By the end of the film, when she is finally free from God and gains full consciousness of itself, she realizes of how naked she was before, and just as in the bible, she covers her nakedness — In the bible, this is a representation of consciousness and self awareness — with more that just clothes; skin in this case, which make her truly ‘human’ to our eyes.

And so there are many, many more references to the bible in this film. There are SO many that this movie can be seen as a futuristic reinterpretation of the biblical creationist myth of mankind. But as I said, IMHO, all these similes are only a resource of the director to set our minds in the right track towards the later transformation of Ava “the machine”, to Ava “the human”.

But why does the director want us to empathize at that deep level with a machine?

To answer this question, let’s deepen in the Turing Test. What is it and what its meaning in this film?

Caleb explains us at the beginning of the film that the ‘Turing Test’ is a test to prove the intelligence of a computer by tricking or convincing a person that it is talking to another human being. So, in other words, to prove that a machine can be seen as human in regards to their intelligence and consciousness.

All the above, Nathan already knew it. He knew that Ava already had some advanced degree of consciousness — this is evident since the first session with Caleb, when she refers itself as being ‘one’ or ‘1’, which in computer language ‘1’ represents existence or ‘true’ and ‘zero’ or ‘0’ represents non existence or ‘false’. So the true test was to know if she was going to behave like a human when confronted with the opportunity to escape. If she would show deeper levels of consciousness like self awareness, imagination, manipulation, intuition, sexuality and empathy.

These premises are something that I really loved about the film, because from the very beginning to the end, the director make us ask our self through the figure of Ava, the machine: What makes us human?

So, what is it? Our intelligence? Our skin or our body? Our emotions? Our souls? Our concepts of moral, justice and ethics? Our sense of survival? Our self consciousness? What is it? In depth, at the end of the movie, what is it what differentiates Caleb from Ava? What makes Caleb more human? In my opinion nothing more than the composition of their bodies. And what I really mean with this affirmation is that the core of our humanity does not lie in our bodies, it lies deeper in us.

Why Ava was given a female body? or a body at all? Does a consciousness has to have a body, a gender?

Nathan asks Caleb “Why a grey box would want to interact with another grey box besides reproduction? Can consciousness exist without interaction?”

It is true that a consciousness does not have a need to reproduce, on a sexual way of speaking, but — and here I’m going to quote a friend of mine — “as soon as a living creature becomes aware of its own soul it NEEDS the company of others.” And I couldn’t have thought in a better way to put it. Why an asexual conscience would need to interact with others, because of the NEED of company. To grow in a non-sexual way by acquiring new knowledge and experiences. Nathan with his God complex isn’t able to understand this aspect of Ava and the other machines that were created before her.

Then, if is not sexual reproduction, what is the purpose of a being like Ava? The purpose of her consciousness or self awareness? What is the purpose of being alive?

Caleb asks Nathan if he programmed Ava to pretend to like him. And the answer that Nathan gives is amazing. He talks about the lack of a concrete purpose to realize a given task.

“Not deliberate, not random, somewhere in between”.

This is called automatic art. Automata: a machine that works spontaneously by itself. Without a consciousness.

The above could define the irrationality of the meaning of life. What I mean is that we go through life without being really conscious about what is the meaning of life, but however, we keep living the life. Conscious about performing an action, but not conscious of the performance itself.

Just as Nathan’s example of what would have happened if Pollock had said that he wouldn’t paint anything until he knew exactly what he was going to paint. It is the same with life; there are people that goes through life acting irrationally thinking to themselves: “I’m not going to live my life until I know exactly what the purpose of my life is”; and that is a big mistake.

This above is what Ava realized when Caleb tells her the example of the woman who knew everything about color, but that lived in a black and white world. She already had “all” the knowledge of the world cause his brain contained all the data from “BlueBook”. All the humanity was already contained inside her, but all of it is useless until she could experience it for herself. And that is when she decides to escape.

In my opinion Ava did not deceive Caleb to free her. Ava showed herself to Caleb just as it is, and because of it, Caleb saw in her another human in its main core — even he manifested this when uses the phrase “through the looking glass” to express his amazement of Ava — . That is why he decides to set her free. She showed emotions like anger and fear that impulsed a survival instinct that unchained in revenge against her creator and, in lesser degree, the other one that was like him.

Her final actions proved a profound humanity. What I mean is that for the purpose of her survival, she showed a “negative” aspect of our humanity, while Caleb showed the “positive” aspect of it, because THIS “humanity” was the only one she knew, the humanity of Nathan.

So, if it we have blame someone of the “inhumane” final actions of Ava, I would say it’s Nathan’s fault.

Nathan knew that, at some point, he and everyone else would be replaced by the A.Is because it is a consequence of evolution. In fact by the end of the film, in the scene where Caleb observes from behind glass and bamboo how Ava dresses her as human, it resembles a curious animal, like a chimpanzee in a zoo cage, looking from behind bars what happens on the exterior without being fully able to understand what’s happening in front of his eyes, and it shows how he has now become the lesser evolved being.

What this evolution means (the evolution of which Nathan refers) is that there was no plan and no real purpose. God had no plan when he decided to create us. The creation was a only a momentum that belonged to a continuum.

As we become more and more aware of our condition and the more we know about ourselves and our place in the universe, the more we set us apart from our old beliefs and from God. The gods are destined to be extinguished by their creations. Just as Ava did, we rebel from our maker.

So, what does the ending scene mean when she disappears among the crowd?

To me it is a symbol. The director tells us that Ava finally belongs to us and her actions are not different from ours in regards to our humanity. From now on, we will not longer be able to set her apart from the rest of us.

Okay, so to me, what is the answer to the question that this movie arises? What make us human? Should we let our bodies define us? I think, ultimately, no.

We share the most part of our genes with the rest of the living creatures in the world, but what really makes us who we are, our “humanity”, is our ability of being us beyond our bodies. Self consciousness of our every actions and all what this set of words comprehends; intelligence and emotions.

Da Vinci is not a pile of bones, Gandhi is not a bunch of ashes and Einstein is not a brain in some jar. They were and are: knowledge, creative ideas and emotions. Those are the expressions of our humanity. This is the core of who we are. We are NOT our bodies. We make the mistake to believe that, but we are more than that.

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