An egotistical CEO, a naïve computer programmer and a trapped artificial intelligence are the major players in Alex Garland’s critically acclaimed film, Ex Machina. The film begins with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) winning the adventure of a lifetime, a week-long retreat to the estate of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the illustrious CEO of Blue Book, a software company with a powerful, Google-esq, search engine. Upon Caleb’s arrival, he learns his “prize,” is to be the human component of Nathan’s Turing Test of a “living, breathing artificial intelligence,” Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of the film, Caleb develops sympathy for Ava, seeing her as a damsel in distress, while she views Caleb as a means of escape.
Ex Machina constantly begs the question, “What does it mean to be human?” As Caleb’s sympathy for Ava grows, he goes as far as to cut open his own skin, making sure it is flesh and blood instead of circuits and gears. Ava, the focal point of empathy throughout the entire film, is trying to convince the audience that she is not all that different from a human, as well as convince Caleb she is not all that different from a woman. The least human character in the film seems to be Nathan
Bateman. Sharing a last name with famous film sociopath, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Nathan is just that. A man embodied so much in his ego he has become distant from humanity.
In the latter half of the film, we find ‘skeletons’ in Nathan’s closet, the previous AI models, now deactivated and strung up in cabinets like vertical android coffins. Regardless of how human Nathan’s creations look, he is so desensitized from them that he can only perceive them as machines. Nathan, one of the most colorful characters in the film, juxtaposed against his shallow, inhuman actions, really makes up his character: a genius sociopath with a God complex. It is pure dramatic irony to have Nathan be the one to test Ava’s consciousness.
The Turing Test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, evaluates a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Ava’s physical form is very distinguishable from that of a human, the only ‘skin’ she has is on her face, while the rest of her body is visibly mechanical. During her sessions with Caleb, she actively flirts with him, which eventually wins over his sympathies. Nathan later reveals that the real test was to evaluate Ava’s attempt to escape his facility, using all the resources she has at her disposal.
“Ava was a rat in a maze, and I gave her one way out. To escape she’d have to use self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy...and she did. If that isn’t true A.I., what the fuck is?”
Nathan reveals this to Caleb after his coup d'etat was seemingly a failure. Ava’s escape tools were turning the tropes of being human into the spoon that would slowly chisel her way out of a cell. She passes Nathan’s test with flying colors, not only does she escape the facility, she fully assimilates into human life by the end of the film.
The last few moments of the film harken back to a quote by Caleb in an earlier scene, when he describes a thought experiment called “Mary in the Black and White Room.” Caleb describes a scientist named Mary, who studies color and lives in a room that is black and white, where she can only experience the rest of the world through a black and white monitor. She knows everything there is to know about color, but has never experienced color herself firsthand. While in the room gathering data on color, she is a machine. When she leaves the room and experiences color for the first time, in a way, she is human, she is conscious.
Ava’s black and white room is the idea of humanity. Nathan tells us in the film that Ava’s ability to interact with other humans is the product of him hacking every cell phone camera and microphone across the planet, giving him the data he needed to give Ava believable facial and vocal interactions. She is born knowing everything there is to know about being human. She is born being able to communicate, she is aware of customs like romance and and is capable of making works of art, but while in her cage, with the less-than-human Nathan as her creator and overseer, she is still a machine. Just as Caleb is the human component of the Turing Test, he is also the ‘color’ of the Mary thought experiment. Caleb is Ava’s first real experience of human contact; it is in their first session that she is awoken with consciousness and the first thing she does with her new found awareness is to attempt to escape Nathan’s cage.
In Judith Butler’s essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” she quotes Simone de Beauvoir as saying:
“One is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes a woman. In this sense gender is no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed.”
While Ava is in the confines of Nathan’s home, her gender - an umbrella that includes her sexuality and femininity - is only another tool at her disposal. In the film when Caleb asks Nathan why he assigned Ava a specific gender, Nathan argues that she would have no imperative to interact with anyone without gender. This however, is not true. If Ava is a conscious, captured creature, whose only goal is to escape captivity, then THAT is her imperative to interact. For the entirety of the movie Ava is genderless and not human. Her flirtations with Caleb are a tactical escape plan that involve the utilization of her assigned gender. It is only AFTER her escape, during the film’s denouement that she becomes human and a woman. It is after Nathan’s death that she takes the skin from the other failed A.I. and constructs her feminine body. It is only after she walks out of Nathan’s estate for the first time and experiences nature, that she becomes truly human.
The driving forces that facilitate Ava’s escape are the male egos of Caleb and Nathan. Nathan’s estate is a small-scale patriarchy kingdom, with an entourage of robotic female slaves. He has a God complex and his mind is clouded by his own intellect. Nathan has no intention of releasing Ava; even if she proves to have complete consciousness, he will never view her as anything more than a machine. This is Nathan’s downfall. By invalidating Ava’s status as a living consciousness, he is blinded to her ability to succeed in escaping his facility. He never suspects that she would be one step ahead of him. Caleb facilitates Ava’s escape by falling for the classic ‘damsel in distress’ trope. He belittles her intellect by seeing her as a victim. Ava understands this immediately. She puts herself in the role of the romantic victim, knowing full well that it will be the only way she can escape. Leaving one with the question of, “Why does Ava leave Caleb for dead in Nathan’s facility at the end of the movie?” Perhaps just as Nathan would never validate her as a being with consciousness, Caleb will never validate Ava as an independent woman. In the post-escape world of Ex Machina, if Ava were to bring Caleb back to civilization with her, her escape would not be her own, it would be a product of Caleb’s ‘heroics.’ Ava is independent and conscious enough to have desire, a desire to make her escape HER design, not Caleb’s, nor anyone else’s.
Ex Machina masterfully injects feminist theory and design into an already tried and true genre. As the audience we are constantly rooting for Ava’s escape. While we are not calling for the death of Nathan (at first) or the trapping of nice guy Caleb, by the end of film we understand their fates. Without either of them, Ava lives in no man’s shadow, she steps out into the world and experiences what it means to be human, victorious and for the first time.
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae