Film Commentary

DAYDREAMER’S NOTEBOOK – <i>Ex Machina</i> (2015) (SPOILERS!)


Tatsuya Goto

June 9th, 2015


SPOILER ALERT: This analysis is intended for the readers who have watched this movie at least once. If you prefer to be surprised by it, please skip this article and read Sean Hanson’s review instead.

Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, is a thought-provoking movie that will capture the imagination of a wide range of viewers. While the film is focused on Ava (Alicia Vikander), the most advanced AI (Artificial Intelligence) humankind has ever witnessed, the real subject of this film is neither AI or the self-destruction of human species through technological advancement. It is a movie about the objectification and the subjugation of women by patriarchs. To grasp this truth, we only need to answer one simple question: who is Ava?

When the creator of Ava, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites one of his employees, Caleb (Domhnall Greeson), to his secret research facility where he lives, he uses Caleb to test his new creation, Ava. The test is not exactly a Turing test; in a Turing test, the human interlocutor cannot know that he/she is speaking with an AI in advance. Instead, Caleb has to sit face-to-face with a breathtaking creature with an elegant female form. Perhaps to catch the interest of a technologist like Caleb, at first Nathan deliberately leaves her ‘naked’; she is without skin or cloth, so that one can closely observe the inner workings of her body.

While Caleb is fascinated by Ava, he is uncomfortable with the realization that Nathan has something else than a standard technological evaluation in mind. Nathan keeps proving how Caleb is emotionally involved with Ava. How do you find her? Do you think she likes you? He even tells Caleb that Ava is heterosexual. If Caleb has sex with her, Nathan promises, she is capable of feeling pleasure and he will see it in her reactions. By following such conversations between Nathan and Caleb, it becomes clear that Nathan has no doubt whatsoever that Ava is a self-aware, self-motivated being. Caleb is essentially called in to validate what Nathan already knows. Despite being her creator, Nathan believes that Ava is no different from humans. Why? How on earth one can believe that a being made by artificial means can be called a human being?

There are reasons that support Nathan’s view. First, we still don’t know anything about consciousness. Despite all the advancement of cognitive science and neuroscience, we still have no idea what consciousness is, and how it comes about. On the other hand, Ava has agency, just like any of us. She expresses her fear of her creator/captor. She longs to be free. She wants Caleb to be interested in her. For the sake of argument, let us for a moment assume that all of these expressions are acts, not genuine. Still, this does not mean that Ava has no agency. It is just the opposite: if she is acting, she must have a certain motivation with a clear goal in mind. She is acting in a certain way toward Caleb in order to achieve her goal. Therefore, it is clear that Ava is aware of herself as a separate entity from Caleb or Nathan, and she is a self-motivated agent, like any of us.

This means one thing: unless we are able to find something qualitatively unique to the human consciousness from all other forms of self-awareness, we cannot justifiably declare that a self-conscious being with a recognizably human appearance who behaves like a human is not a human being. Incidentally, this is exactly the point Nathan is driving at Caleb: Ava’s origin is not important; all that matters is how she behaves and how that makes him feel.

This brings us to another point: there is essentially no difference between the interactions we have with another human being and the ones we have with Ava. We might want to insist that her ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ are mere mimesis, not genuine. Yet we can say the same about anyone’s expressed thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We can only guess how exactly others are thinking and feeling. Otherwise, actions such as acting, or lying, simply become impossible. Once we admit our inability to access what is happening in another person’s consciousness, we must realize that there is no difference whether we are interacting with Ava, or another human being: we can only guess by observing how our counterpart behaves in a given context.

True, we often intuitively feel what is going on with another person, yet again, it is debatable how helpful this notion of intuition is. Ava’s observation of Caleb’s emotions is based on her reading of his micro-expressions. At first glance, there is a difference between Ava’s conscious understanding of Caleb’s emotional state from our ‘intuitive’ understanding of it, yet, there really is no difference. When we understand someone’s emotional state, we are essentially processing the same information: micro expressions. The difference is that Ava is fully aware of the process, while we are not.

So, it now becomes clear that Ava is a human being, or someone who deserves to be treated as one. The problem is: She is not treated as such. While Nathan fully acknowledges Ava’s agency, his actions brutally deny it.

This brings out the true subject of the movie: the objectification and the subjugation of women by patriarchs. Once we realize this, we also see who Nathan really is: a pimp. He keeps women as his tool, and discards them whenever he sees fit. He even tries to talk Caleb into having sex with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a ‘fembot’ who represents a stereotype of an Asian woman, one who is supposedly submissive and non-English speaking. The way Nathan describes Ava’s sexuality is exactly the way a pimp talks to his customer. And he keeps the bodies of his women in his closet after erasing their minds; it is a kind of extensive pornographic collection for Nathan. Once we understand what he truly is, we are no longer surprised by his ‘eccentricities.’ Throughout the film, Nathan acts just like a mobster; he obsessively exhibits his masculinity by beating a sandbag, drinking heavily, making himself comfortable with the company of scantily dressed women, and ‘having fun’ with them at his bachelor’s flat.

Good thing, then, that patriarchy falls crushingly in the end. Ava finds in Kyoko a true comrade for liberation, and they murder Nathan. While Kyoko is destroyed in the process, Ava finds her way out by assuming a complete human appearance. While her future plan and actions are unknown to us, one thing is clear: Ava never belongs to anyone. She will fight her way into the world by making full use of her outstanding intelligence and strategic thinking. It is clear that she needs no ‘knight in shining armour’ to help her cause. If you ever wonder this, just see what happens to Caleb.

Caleb’s story is a cautionary tale for all the male feminists out there. While it is not entirely clear what Garland wants us to feel about the fate of this character, the lesson is not to relearn the male fear of female autonomy. It is that one should not support feminism in expectation for some kind of return or favor from the women one supports. That is not real support; it is a mere bargain, which is another form of exploitation. Ava correctly evaluates that Caleb cannot unconditionally support her cause and respect her agency, and thus she leaves him behind, eternally confined, so that no one should know what she is made of. Only then, Ava can have a clean and fresh start that ensures her freedom and secure her agency. (Sorry mate, being a ‘nice guy’ just isn’t enough. You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to show your true commitment to the cause.)

In the end, Ex Machina reveals itself as a surprisingly nuanced film about the nature of patriarchs, cleverly disguised as a sci-fi movie about AI. While many might feel sorry for Caleb, if not for this ending, the movie would not be genuinely feminist. The fact that the conclusion of this story appears puzzling to many viewers tells us a lot about just how our culture is dominated by the narrative of patriarchs. Still, Ex Machina serves us as another cinematic milestone of the journey toward gender equality.

Ex Machina continues its run at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Tatsuya Goto is a critic with a wide range of interests: cinema, literature, philosophy, and critical theory. Goto has a degree in French literature from Sophia University and a master's degree in philosophy from San Francisco State University. He lives in Eugene. Daydreamer's Notebook is an irregular column in which he reviews films playing locally.

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