Ex Machina: A Movie Of Machines About Human Ambition

I took a long time to finally watch to Alex Garland’s debut film Ex Machina (2015), but when I was finally able to see it, I had so much high hopes that I ended up being a little bit disappointed. However, after a good sleep, I understood that the movie was better than I thought and that maybe my discomfort over its ending happened because I was thinking only about the machine and an approach to the AI subject, while this is a movie about humans in the end. For this reason, if you didn’t watch the movie, I don’t recommend reading this review, because you’ll find many spoilers.

The movie starts when Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at the world’s largest Internet search company, is invited to spend a week with his boss, the creator of Blue Book. After a long fly over green mountains and a breathtaking Scandinavian-like scenery, Caleb arrives at Nathan’s place, a minimal high tech research facility in the middle of nowhere – in other words, my dream home.

There is an estrangement between boss and employee since the very beginning. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) demands Caleb’s friendship and openness, which is something quite awkward for him. He keeps seeing himself as an unlikely lucky guy, who by chance won a contest to meet the man that programmed the first version of the biggest Internet search company when he was only 13. In several moments while Nathan talked about Blue Book, especially when he mentioned that social network companies were some of his rivals, I couldn’t avoid thinking this was an allegory of Google, but using familiar slogans like the name Blue Book – namely, a combination of Facebook’s name with its blue layout.

Caleb will only know what’s happening after signing a complicated non-disclosure term. He wasn’t sure about doing that, but Nathan is always very persuasive. His strong personality is a combination of his great mind and his high ambitions, plus an egocentric feeling because he knows he is big. So big that he puts Caleb’s words on his behalf when the employee mentions that creating a strong and conscious AI wasn’t history of men anymore, but history of gods. In other words, they introduced one of the biggest tropes in cyberpunk and AI: man as the creator and the holder of life, artificial life.

The task determined to Caleb was proceeding a Turing Test on Ava (‎Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligence put inside a female-shaped body. Although he wouldn’t even need to see her, Nathan led him to the inner side of a glass cage (and at this moment I remembered so much of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s scenery) that would separate him from the machine. However, he sees there’s a crack in the glass, probably because someone (possibly the robot) had punched it. That could be a sign, but he gets so amazed when he finally meets Ava with her fragile and transparent body, combined to an angelic face and soft voice, that this detail is just left behind.

Despite his astonishment, Caleb is still skeptical about Ava. He wants to know why Nathan wanted him to see her, while it wouldn’t be necessary, and why did he design her as a woman, since she wouldn’t even need a body. “It could be a gray box”, he argues. But both the character Nathan and the director Alex Garland explain that “embodiment – having a body – seems to be imperative to consciousness, and we don’t have an example of something that has a consciousness that doesn’t also have a sexual component”. Therefore, Ava needed to have a body, but it probably wouldn’t matter if she was inside an animal robot or a male model, for instance. She just would need to relate with something alive, so she could understand what was her place in the world – da sein?

One interesting thing here is also the AI’s name. Ava was probably thought after the word “avatar”, a term that has its origins in the Hindu mythology, where it means “the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate from or some manifest shape; the incarnation of god”. On the other hand, you still have these other meanings found in Dictionary.reference.com:

– An embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life.

Digital Technology. A graphical image that represents a person, as on the Internet.

So the term has basically this primordial meaning of embodiment, which could be understood in a religious or a technological way, being the last through digital images (for instance, characters in games and virtual simulations) or physical images (robots). But you need to keep in mind this original mythological meaning of an incarnated god and put it together with the movie’s name Ex Machina, which comes from the expression “Deus ex Machina” or “the god from the machine”. Its origins lay in the ancient Greek and Roman drama, when a god was introduced into a play to resolve the entanglements of the plot. But it doesn’t need to be a god, in the end. The expression also covers those narratives where all the problems are suddenly solved with no reasonable explanation. However, I think that in Ex Machina, the phrase is took in a literal way: a god that comes from the machine rather than the man as the creator god.


By the way, if you want to go even further into the names featured in this movie, you’ll find some other surprises too. Particularly, when I write fiction, I tend to take a good care of the names I give to my characters, so when I find such quality in movies/games/books/etc, it makes me very happy. In Ex Machina case, you have Ava both as a reduction of “avatar”, but it’s also the short form of Chava (“life” or “living one”), which is the Hebrew form of Eve. Then you have Caleb. His name is also Hebrew and comes from the Bible, where Kaleb is a representative of the Tribe of Judah during the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. Kaleb could also be translated as “dog”, which is a symbol of his devotion to God – namely Ava. Now, Nathan is another Hebrew name, meaning “gift from God”, while Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) could mean “mirror” – it depends on the kanji, and as you can see in Wikipedia, the kanji for “respectful” or “of the city or of the capital” are the most usual. But even if you consider both meanings, “mirror” and “respectful”, you could see Kyoko as a mirror of the sexist ideal of a woman, as she is a combination of sex + domestic bot, and also as a machine that has self-respect after “initiated” by Ava – probably she reprogrammed Kyoko to kill Nathan, therefore punishing her abuser and empowering herself.

And that takes us to the “feminist” side of the movie. Many were talking about the female roles in Ex Machina, arguing that they weren’t respectful as the film puts females as things that will take advantage of its seduction and the prejudices against women. Even if the director Alex Garland wanted to criticize such situation, many would agree that it wasn’t enough. And maybe this is the hole that the film left in me. When Caleb suggests that Nathan could be using Ava as she was “the beautiful assistant” that would deflect one’s attention to the real thing, this statement confirms the way Ava was taking advantage of her appeal and her condition as a woman to achieve her goals – which we don’t really know until the end of the movie.

Now, I read two different reviews that mentioned that putting women as killer and seductive machines are commonplace in science fiction. And that’s true, but that doesn’t happen only in sci-fi or even when you think about everyday life, gender roles or even Freud’s theories about the vagina dentata. Basically, it already exists at the same level on the research and investments in robots.

Some time ago, I tried to start a discussion on different online platforms, but nobody (including me) seemed to understand or even couldn’t give a step further than the sexist argument. Take a look at Japan and all the realistic robots produced until now. According to the roboticist Tomotaka Takahashi, “the great majority of robots were either machine-like, male-like or child-like for the reasons that not only are virtually all roboticists male, but also that fembots posed greater technical difficulties. Not only did the servo motor and platform have to be ‘inferiorized’, but the body [of the fembot] needed to be slender, both extremely difficult undertakings”. That means at least two things: the robot industry is mostly male and the female body is harder to build, due to its single characteristics. Therefore, should we understand that the great production of female robots correspond to its difficulty? So if the roboticists master a female robot’s specifications, it would be easy to do a male version? I don’t know.

Still, even if we consider such technical aspects, we will also find out that real fembots, as much as Ava, carry sensors on their genitals despite of their major goal, which could be mastering human social skills – but that would include sexuality too, wouldn’t it? While Ava has sensors in her vagina in Ex Machina, in “real life” there’s Aiko, the first attempt of building a realistic-looking fembot, which also included sensitivity sensors in her breats and vagina. Aiko was designed after an inspiration in anime and manga, mainly Chobits, where the protagonist Chii has, by the way, a turning off button in her vagina. But her creator, Le Trung, explains that these sensors were added in order to make Aiko able to “tell the difference between being touched gently and being tickled”. The funny thing is that Le Trung also argues that, even though these engines caused controversy, he is not “trying to play God”: “I am just an inventor, and I believe I am helping science move forward”.

However, the sexualized fembots are something older than Aiko, which is a project started in 2007.  In 1983, there was already a female bot with big breasts named “Sweetheart”. She was removed from a display at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley after a petition that claimed it was insulting to women. And if we consider science fiction narratives, we would go even further into this discussion, but I guess that if you combine Alex Garland’s argument that embodiment is a necessary feature for consciousness, and that there’s no consciousness without a sexual component, we will have an explanation for both Ava’s and real fembots’ sexual sensors. The sexist issue goes further than the importance of including such engines, which would be, for instance, the fembot’s figure and her main usage, like Kyoko and the other previous fembots’ position as mere sex and domestic robots that even didn’t include a language system, because she wouldn’t need or wouldn’t be wanted to.

By the way, these previous fembots were so “dehumanized” in Ex Machina that they were kept inside a wardrobe. And that could make one argue that they do this with all robots because, in the end, they are not human at all. The problem is that real women are constantly treated like objects by fiction, advertisement and in real life situations, so when you put a machine with realistic female figure, you transfer this feeling and exaggerate it, blurring the fact that she is not a real woman. This is something to be truly considered and maybe that’s where Alex Garland failed by leaving the discussion too underdeveloped and discrete.

Humans As Toys


When Caleb asks Nathan how he programmed Ava, the boss end up being a little bit evasive. He doesn’t know how to explain how Ava happened, but he hacked all the mobile phones in the whole world, so he could get voice and facial expression samples to insert in Ava’s program. Nathan knew that the telecoms were aware of everything, but they wouldn’t be able to sue him since they were the first ones to spy on their customers. And that takes us to the concepts of Big Data, privacy and surveillance. Because, in my opinion, one of the greatest ideas in the movie isn’t the AI by itself, but the notion that we, humans, are totally manipulatable. We can be easily manipulated by our habits and feelings and, in Ex Machina, both humans are manipulated through their “flaws” – Nathan’s alcoholism and Caleb’s emotional fragility + online searching history.

At the moment when Caleb feels there is something wrong in the way Ava is trying to flirt with him, he asks Nathan if he programmed her to do so. He explains he didn’t do that, literally. He just programmed her to be a woman (so she would relate to her body and therefore be self-conscious) and heterosexual. His argument is that Caleb himself didn’t choose to be heterosexual and the same would serve to all other kinds of sexuality: we are programmed by nature and by nurture. Her flirtations come together with her self-awareness, since the movie attests that consciousness comes with sexuality. And then we start to think that Ava could possibly be interested in Caleb as a “natural” consequence of her program and her existence as an heterosexual woman who only met two people, which are also men, in her life: Nathan, who is like her father, and Caleb.

There is another article here on Neon Dystopia where I mentioned the concepts of apparatus, programming and functionaries by Vilém Flusser and I believe that this could be recovered and applied to Ex Machina’s arguments. Both humans and robots are programmed and no one is truly free. We only follow our own programming (not to be confused with destiny) and maybe we don’t have a real free will if we just act according to the possibilities of our program. For this same reason we we need to hack the program, play with it. In Ex Machina, you will see some of the basic elements presented in Flusser’s theories of the apparatus (namely Philosophy of the Black Box, in Portuguese, or Philosophy of Photography, in English): the programmer (Nathan), the program (life and artificial life), the functionary (Caleb), the apparatus (robots/AI) and the artist (Ava).

Although the programmer thinks he is in control of everything, as much as Nathan owns a Google-like company, he’s also submitted to the program (life and artificial life). He has no real control over the program or the apparatus. Even when he tries to manipulate Caleb by spying on his online search history and use that, in addition to his past and his condition as an orphan, single and heterosexual male, but Nathan doesn’t succeed completely anyway.

Nathan may have built a face for Ava according to Caleb’s favorite porn actresses and really make him fall in love with her, but both Ava and Caleb hack his program by using his flaws (alcoholism and power outages). However, Nathan keeps thinking he is god as he is constantly manipulating Caleb and Ava (though she is taking advantage of it, in the end). He even fakes a fight with the AI, provoking anger in Caleb when he was already sure that his boss was the bad guy.

In my opinion, the greatest play in Ex Machina is that the three main characters, Nathan, Ava and Caleb, are always challenging one another according to their capacities to foresee and reprogram their own programs, also based on their ambitions. But wouldn’t a machine, with such high performance, trace her objective while considering every single resolution to the plan? That’s what makes Ava able to escape. She knows she is not complete as a being, mainly when Caleb argues that she may know everything about something, as she has access to all Internet database, but she didn’t live it, experienced it – and this is what makes us humans, according to him. That’s what was missing for her, as an infinite creature limited to a tiny, lowermost glass cage.


Finally, we could think that Ex Machina is another pessimistic AI movie, where the machine kills and takes advantage on humans (and that was really my first impression), but I believe that Garland’s work is, in the end, a portrait of ambition, that is, man’s ambition to master life: his own life and life itself, by creating new forms of life, but everything end up being something out of control and reach. Created after a human’s model, it’s completely understandable that Ava is ambitious and that she will do anything to achieve her goals, despite of being aware of morality – the same way Nathan did by invading others’ lives and privacy. Basically, as many other fictions about machines, this is another example that uses robots as an allegory to make us think further about our own existence as humans and our actions. In the end, everything that man does is, above all things, about man.

You can get a copy of Ex Machina here.

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Written by Lidia Zuin
Brazilian journalist and cyberpunk enthusiast with a masters in semiotics, now living in UK. Interested in art, music, culture, philosophy, games, psychology and futurism.
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