#SciFiMonth: Three questions Alex Garland’s Sci-fi flick, Ex Machina (2015), raises about artificial intelligence.

sci-fi-monthSci-fi Month lasts throughout November and is hosted by Rinn Reads. People post all sorts of wonderful things about science-fiction—movies, tv shows, novels, short stories, cartoons, games. It’s great fun! Here we go…

Sensitive, awkward computer programmer, Caleb, wins a chance to spend a week with his boss, Nathan, the rarely-seen, reclusive genius behind “the world’s most popular internet search engine”, Blue Book. Upon arriving at the modern fortress of a complex nestled in the lonely mountainous wilds of Alaska, Caleb discovers the real purpose for his visit is to test Nathan’s latest prototype android and determine if it passes the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. Designed with feminine features and installed with the entirety of humanity’s internet searches in her wetware brain, Ava arouses Caleb’s scientific curiosity. All too soon, Caleb finds himself questioning the ethics of Nathan’s research, the true nature of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human. Ex Machina is a minimalist mind bender of a fairytale about an android that shatters the glass walls between human and robot, playing humanity’s game better than humans themselves.

Aside from knowing it involved androids, I went into Ex Machina without any idea what it was about or how it was received among the scifi community—I was just in the mood to watch a new scifi flick for #RRSciFiMonth and this one was on my Netflix recommendation list. I love the feeling of entering movies without preconceptions and being blown away!

The whole movie has a dream sequence surrealness about it, from its perpetually misty woodlands to its windowless rooms and sleepless androids that mess with our sense of where we are, night and day. From the first scene, we enter a rabbit hole into another world with humming, whirring beings possessing unexplored potential. A world where things are not what they seem and secrets and truths have to find each other in a maze as elaborate as Nathan’s Bluebeard-esque mansion of glass walls, locked doors, and winding passageways.

Like its visuals, the cast is also minimalist. To give you a sketch:


Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a physically imposing, self-absorbed, arrogant loner with a shameless god-complex that seems to spend too much time destroying his Promethean liver and too little time paying attention to what Caleb—or the other inmates of his research facility—are up to. To Nathan, his androids are nothing more than a piece of technology whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.

Unlike Nathan, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) still has an—almost unnervingly—fresh naivety towards the project. With a book-smart-not-street-smart intelligence and a more empathetic nature, Caleb was chosen for his susceptibility to being emotionally manipulated by the highly intelligent Ava, to prove that she can pass the Turing test.

Ava and Kyoko are the only two other inhabitants of the mansion. Unable to speak English, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is disturbingly servile. Her role seems to be to shuffle around the complex silently, dancing for and pleasuring her brutish ‘master’, Nathan.

Ava (Alicia Vikander), on the other hand, is kept locked up in her glass room, like a princess in a tower. Though she has the face and body-shape of a woman, she is unmistakably an android, with a clear torso and limbs that expose the blue-lit prismatic machinery that powers her, and a see-through cranium revealing the wetware gel that is her brain. Once she is clothed, however, she looks and acts the part of a young, innocent girl, curious about the world outside her glass cage.

To Caleb, Ava certainly is the fairy tale princess that needs to be rescued and freed from her captor, and over the course of the film, tension begins to build between him and Nathan. Ex Machina is a story that glides at a hypnotic pace with a surprising pirouette of a twist at the end. As with all great scifi, it is not only a study of the possibilities of future tech—it is a study of humanity itself.

*Spoiler Alert*

Ex Machina opened a black hole of questions in my head, making me think about what it means to have consciousness, whether our emotions make us superior or are a weakness—whether we want to see humanity’s own ugliness and beauty refined into a single sentient entity, as is the case of Ava.

I have a lot of questions about human-AI relationship but I’ve narrowed it down to three interesting questions I thought about after watching Ex Machina:

1. Can androids have emotional intelligence more superior than their creators?

Ava is the latest of Nathan’s creations, far more superior than his other models. While an older Japanese-looking model takes a more direct route to seeking freedom, destroying herself against the glass wall in her bid to escape her confinement, Ava bides her time patiently, playing a more sophisticated game of emotional manipulation.

kyokoWe also see Kyoko being treated like a lobotomized android by Nathan yet being very much aware of what is happening around her. Most of the time that Nathan is watching Ava and Caleb’s sessions, Kyoko is in the background. Presumably, she knows the whole story between Ava and Caleb. She may not have the programming to figure out how to display emotions on her own face, but she shows a superior understanding of what makes humans tick when she peels back her skin panels in front of Caleb, shattering the guy’s concept of the difference between human and machine. She even watches Caleb cut himself after having his world view destroyed. But maybe the real question is: why did she do it? Simply out of curiosity to see if he would react the way she predicted (how ironic…)? Or was she somehow doing Ava a favor, pushing Caleb over the edge at the opportune moment so that Caleb would be motivated to free Ava because he becomes so emotionally disturbed? If so, why would she help Ava? Is it out of a sense of empathy? This leads to the next question…

2. Can androids ever experience genuine emotion?

From the get-go we are biased against Ava and the possibility that she could have genuine emotions. We are told that she has access to a storehouse of information about the human experience and that she can analyze micro-expressions and reflect appropriate responses. We are told that she has been programmed to appeal to Caleb in particular—was she aware of those lines of programming when she selected a flowery dress, donned a brunette wig, and put on natural-looking makeup to present herself to Caleb? Is her ‘betrayal’ of Caleb at the end of the story an example of how she lacks emotion and empathy? Or is she simply doing something very human: emotional manipulation?

Once Nathan is killed, she wanders his house and grounds by herself, a smile on her face. No one is around to observe the “human-ness” of her expressions and yet she displays them. When she leaves the complex for the outside world, leaving Caleb behind, she dashes a quick look his way and it is uncertain whether she has any attachment to him.

Furthermore, we see what looks like a sympathetic exchange between herself and Kyoko at the end of the film—she brushes a hand against Kyoko’s arm, she almost holds the other android’s hand. Some words are exchanged—what words remain a mystery. It could be Ava was simply telling a less intelligent robot to help her escape, but one must remember that Kyoko, all on her own, initiated contact with Ava in the first place, behaving out-of-character later by peeling back her skin in front of Caleb. There could be an emotional storyline here, albeit an android’s version of emotion.

Perhaps the real question is not whether Ava or the other androids can experience genuine emotion but rather what is it that might stimulate an android to feel genuine emotion? Apparently Ava was pretending when she was flirting with Caleb. But, when she was finally free from the house, her private smiles could very well be a genuine emotional response, pre-programmed or not.

If androids are capable of emotion, perhaps their genuine emotions are stimulated by other criteria, such as the pleasure of fulfilling their curiosity—of learning. After all, in another scene, an older model of android bangs against the glass walls of her prison so hard that she breaks off her limbs, her face contorted in all likeliness of pain and desperation. In creating artificial intelligence, we have programmed the purest form of human desire—the freedom to explore new stimuli. What is the nature of emotion, after all, but a reflection of what we desire from our world and whether we can achieve it? Maybe an intelligence with such a pure desire would want to destroy itself if that desire is unfulfilled or unattainable?

3. Is there reason to fear having a super-intelligent AI among humanity?

We seek to create AIs that are so in tune with the human experience, they can predict what we want without us having to say a word. Yet, at the same time, we find it unsettling. Nathan thinks that in the future superior AIs will look down upon humanity as primitive apes. Other scifi works—Terminator or Battlestar Galactica—feature androids that seek to conquer humans and use their intelligence to destroy their creators.

Ex Machina showcases a different sort of android, one that might simply want to be accepted by humanity—an android that might desire sympathy rather than fear. An android that could work side by side with humanity, like Data or the Doctor from the Star Trek franchise. In screenwriter Alex Garland’s own words:

They know what we want to buy, and see and they fill in what we’re going to write…I see them as effectively being on a same path as us, because they’re a product of us. There’s a kind of parent-child type of relationship that exists there. That doesn’t bother me and I would welcome it.

Ex Machina might even go the next step in asking: if AIs are indistinguishable from humans in terms of consciousness and emotions, shouldn’t they be given the same rights humans have? With the rate of technological advancements, we might have to answer these questions sooner than we think…

Favorite quotes from the Movie:

avabrainAva’s wetware brain—the brain all of Nathan’s androids have—is beautiful-looking, complex, and fascinating technology.

“Impulse. Response. Fluid. Imperfect. Patterned. Chaotic.”

According to Nathan, Caleb is quotable so here goes:

“Nathan: Over the next few days you’re going to be the human component in a Turing test.
Caleb: Holy shit!
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right, Caleb. You got it. Because if the test is passed, you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man.
Caleb: If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.

What about you? Did you like Ex Machina? Which character did you empathize with more—Caleb, Nathan, Kyoko, or Ava?


  1. I saw this in the cinema after waiting for it for months, and whilst I enjoyed it, I also found it a lot creepier than I expected.

    Then more recently, after deciding to write something on the film for SF Month (which pales in comparison to your post, I must say!), I decided to rewatch the film and also show it to my housemate at the same time. I found I appreciated it a LOT more the 2nd time round, I was able to really take things in and the atmosphere was just fantastic.

  2. Great post! I liked this movie a lot, the minimalist aspect and the questions it raises. I think the biggest one for me (aside from should we build these at all) is the rights question- if they have emotions and are not just machines, what rights should they have? I felt sorry for Ava (and Kyoko) but at the end when Ava abandoned Caleb I felt bad for him and how he got played. Definitely thought provoking. And the thought of her in society was fascinating.

    Have you seen Human? It’s an AMC/ British production about andriods, explores some of the same issues.

  3. proxyfish – no, I’ve never heard of it! Just googled it – ha, the machine’s name is Ava! And, ooo, it sounds really intriguing! Thanks for letting me know about it, am definitely going to watch it soon 🙂

  4. Mogsy – Yes! The Beach, 28 days later, and sunshine were all riveting, pretty entertaining flicks. And looks like he’s got more interesting scifi thrillers on the horizon – Annihilation sounds interesting…

  5. Greg – Yes, you’re totally right that the question about rights is a fascinating one! If they have a human-like consciousness and self-awareness, they are…human? Or maybe a superior human whose purpose for “life” is different from us regular humans? I, too, don’t like that she manipulated Caleb in order to get out. Perhaps she wanted to blend in with humanity so badly that she couldn’t risk even letting Caleb go, for fear he would leak info about her true identity. I haven’t seen Human, but I’ve heard of it – another TV show I want to get started on. 🙂 Everyone seems to be chattering about superior AIs and how they could impact humanity. Lots of interesting philosophical questions to think about on this topic…

  6. Rinn – On my first watch, I just enjoyed it for the storytelling and visuals. On my second watch, I realized how many interesting questions it raises and the details about what actually happens in the story and how that implicates the overall messages the story might be discussing. The second re-watch definitely was when I started to think more about the film than just Oooh preetttyy, haha 🙂 And yeah, it’s totally creepier than first glance. Even the scene that everyone thinks is hilarious (Kyoko and Nathan dancing) I found actually really creepy on after thought!

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