Caleb Smith has just won the lottery.
It’s not the kind of lottery most people ever have a chance to play. The 26-year-old coder at the world’s largest search engine, Bluebook, has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with their famously reclusive president, Nathan Bateman.
How reclusive? Well, to get to the guy, Caleb is flown by helicopter to an unspecified mountainous wilderness … and dropped off with no residence in sight. “This is as close as I’m supposed to get to the building,” the pilot says. “What building?” Caleb asks. “Follow the river,” the pilot instructs.
Caleb follows it, finally finding Nathan Bateman’s home, most of which is nestled—without windows—into the surrounding granite. It’s not just a home, Nathan tells him. It’s also a research facility. And Caleb, it turns out, has been chosen not just to hang with the hotshot Mr. Bateman. He’s been picked to test the fruit of Nathan’s game-changing research: a robot named Ava.
Ava is a beautiful, voluptuously sculpted robot with an all-too-human face. Caleb’s task? To apply the so-called Turing Test in order to ascertain whether the machine’s artificial intelligence has actually achieved independent consciousness.
Caleb tries to play it cool with his disturbingly manipulative boss and the beautiful “woman” he’s created. But it’s obvious Caleb’s falling for her—just as Nathan had anticipated.
And Ava, it seems, is falling for Caleb, too.
But that’s hardly the only evidence that Ava does indeed have a mind of her own, as Caleb and Nathan both soon discover.
On a basic storytelling level, Ex Machina invites us to see Caleb’s chivalrous (and infatuated) response to Ava as both natural and noble. (He tries to save her from destruction and free her from Nathan’s cruel control.) On a deeper level, the film delivers a disturbing cautionary tale about the rapid advancement of technology and surveillance, asking philosophical questions about whether humankind will ever have the ability to create self-aware, intelligent beings—and what that might mean to both us and “them.”
In one of several question-and-answer sessions, Ava provocatively asks Caleb, “Are you a good person?” Caleb’s not initially sure how to respond, but eventually mumbles, “Yeah, I think so.” Though he’s not perfect, Caleb does seem to have a basic human decency that’s clearly contrasted with Nathan’s near-mechanical machinations.
Caleb eventually tells Ava he’s testing her in an attempt to understand how sophisticated her sense of consciousness is. She puts the pieces together and asks him what will happen at the end of the test if she “fails.” Will she be “switched off”? When Caleb responds, “It’s not up to me,” Ava shoots back, “Why is it up to anyone?” The movie’s focus on the possibility of sentient machines, then, touches tangentially upon the deeply human questions of morality, choice, identity and responsibility. Caleb treats Ava (albeit through his own romantic objectification of her) as more or less a real person. Nathan, the creator, treats her as just another version of advanced software. And we can’t help but wonder who has a better grasp on what’s “right.”
While Nathan is in a drunken stupor one night, we get one of the film’s few clues that he’s perhaps not completely at peace with what he’s created when he talks about feeling shame and confusion, repeating the phrase, “The good deeds a man has done before defends him.”
Though the film flirts with some high-minded concepts about the creator and the created, it doesn’t offer much explicitly spiritual content. Nathan says his invention will be the greatest in history, which prompts Caleb to say it’s not the history of man but the “history of gods.” Nathan later claims that Caleb said about him, “You’re not a man, but a god.” Caleb quotes Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key figures in the development of the atomic bomb, who said (himself quoting the Hindu god Vishnu from that religion’s text the Bhagavad Gita), “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Interestingly, the film’s Latin title, Ex Machina, is derived from a spiritual concept. (More on that later.)
Several scenes depict full-frontal female nudity. All of them involve female robots played by flesh-and-blood women. (Caleb watches a video of several of the naked “models” who came before Ava.) We also see inside a “closet” containing five or six different female “skins,” with breasts fully visible. Ava chooses one such skin and puts it on. She studies her completely naked form in the mirror (as does the camera) in a lingering scene. Without her human skin on, Ava tries on a woman’s dress and stockings. Caleb watches via video feed as she removes the items in a scene that’s charged with eroticism. Indeed, Caleb often watches Ava on camera in an objectifying, voyeuristic and creepy way. He eventually figures out that Ava was designed by Nathan specifically to attract him by using Caleb’s pornography searches on the Internet to design her.
Nathan’s always mute personal assistant, Kyoko, repeatedly skips wearing a bra under her shirts. She tries to get Caleb to engage with her sexually, unbuttoning her shirt for him and sitting naked on a bed. Nathan, meanwhile, kisses her and pulls up her skirt, revealing her bare backside. (It’s clear they have a sexual relationship.)
Eventually we learn that Kyoko is a robot, too. And using the f-word, Nathan crudely tells Caleb he’s designed his female robots with the ability to have sex and that they can feel pleasure while doing so. We see both Nathan and Caleb shirtless (and the latter man in just boxers). There’s talk of how our sexual identities is shaped.
Nathan punches Caleb hard, knocking him out. He also hits Ava’s arm with a dumbbell rod, breaking off her left forearm. And he strikes another female robot, knocking her jaw off. Kyoko pulls back pieces of her skin to reveal the robotic form underneath. Caleb witnesses her actions and begins to wonder if he’shuman. To find out, he uses a razor to slice open his arm. He then hits a surveillance camera in his room and smears it with his blood. We see an angry robot attempt to break free of a glassed-in room. A man is stabbed twice and dies in a puddle of blood.
Crude or Profane Language
Twenty-plus f-words, and five or six uses of the s-word. We hear one or two each of “p—,” “d–n” and “b–tard.” God’s and Jesus’ names are misused once each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Nathan drinks (mostly wine and hard liquor) daily, and it’s suggested he’s doing so to self-medicate the “pain” of his egotistical genius. Several times we see him get very drunk, to the point of passing out. Caleb drinks beer, wine and vodka as well.
Other Negative Elements
Extreme levels of manipulation for selfish ends consume this sci-fi story.
The title Ex Machina is the last part of the phrase Deus ex machina, which literally means “god from the machine.” During plays in Greek and Roman times, stagehands would sometimes use a crane to lower characters or “deities” into a hopeless scene to change the outcome of events at the last moment, producing a “miraculous” solution to an otherwise unsolvable problem.
Here, Nathan certainly exudes godlike pretentions. But more to the point is the level to which the machine Nathan’s made has risen. It’s a machine with a stunning artificial intelligence that goes far beyond merely passing the Turing Test. It’s a machine named Ava who steals Caleb’s heart … and eventually shatters it with the same kind of cold, calculated cunning that her creator so perfectly modeled for her.
In ways not far removed from Ridley Scott’s seminal exploration of what it means to be human in 1982’s Blade Runner, Ex Machina flirts with the questions of whether a robot can truly be alive, whether humans should be wary when it comes to creating artificial intelligence, and whether our love affair with increasingly godlike technology will be our undoing.
But those are not the only things poking at provocation here. Alas.
From the moment Caleb meets Ava, the story’s charged with an electric, erotic undercurrent that culminates with several graphic scenes putting female “robot” bodies fully on display. And, clearly, Nathan has created his fembots with sex very much in mind.
So Ex Machina is an intriguing, chilling, flesh-filled rumination on the potential possibilities and pitfalls of AI—a cautionary tale about high tech that must be treated with high caution itself.