Nick Olszyk: “Ex Machina” Looks Great, Thinks Poorly

Like hipsters, the movie "Ex Machina" has a cool look but is ultimately rather shallow and pretentious

MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating:
Reel Rating: (2 out of 5)

Hollywood has produced many films that deal the possibility of sentient robots, and Ex Machina is…one of them. It starts with the fascinating premise of examining the relationship between three characters: the creator, the creation, and the control. Which is human? Which is machine? Does it matter? The film raises many of these compelling questions only to go completely awry in the frustrating third act. Although some characters are more likeable than others, none aspire to be authentically an image of God.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a grunt computer programmer at BlueBook, the world’s largest internet search engine/media/everything else tech company, whose life is suddenly changed when he wins a private week-long getaway at the mountain forest cottage of CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac, the gunslinger Catorce in For Greater Glory). Caleb’s boss has been secretly developing a female android called “Ava” that may have crossed singularity and achieved consciousness.

Caleb will be the control in the famous Turning test, which gauges whether someone can tell the difference between a real person and the robot. Ava is sweet and charming yet just a little creepy—think Audrey Hepburn meets HAL-9000. During Caleb’s questioning, the power shuts off temporarily and Ava reveals that something about Nathan is terribly wrong. “He is a liar,” she pleads. This leads Caleb to an awful discovery, and he begins to consider finding a way to release Ava; that is, if he can trust her.

Early in the film, Nathan admits his arrogance bluntly. “I am God,” he states. He isn’t, and the outcome of Ex Machina is a horrific reminder he isn’t. This desire, of course, to imitate God by creating life predates Isaac Asimov. In the legends of Greece, the titan Prometheus is punished for all eternity for bringing fire to humans, a technology exclusively the right of gods.

Closer to the Christian view of pride is the myth of the Golem, a creature created by a rabbi from clay and secret Kabbalah verses. Yet such a creature was an abomination because it was made with the breath of mortals and would wreak havoc until destroyed. Ava seems human and appears to have just intentions, but is only a mass of wires and electrical impulses. Not matter how efficient such machines become, they will always be imperfect reflections of man.

True artificial intelligence will never exist, but real monsters certainly might.

One aspect that makes Ex Machina uniquely a film of this age is how the internet affects everyday life. Ava is able read emotions and expressions because Nathan stole facial recognition information from millions of cell phones. “The companies even knew it was happening,” he casually remarks. Caleb becomes furious when it is revealed he didn’t really win a contest but was specifically chosen based on his background: single, without family, shy, and impressionable.

Nathan admits he even based Ava’s appearance on Caleb’s “pornography search profile.” “We are all a result of programming,” Nathan asserts. Yet search engines are also reflections of people’s decisions; they do not make truth. In reality, no one is “programmed” to do anything. Yes, genetics can cause certain predispositions, but everyone has free will.

All of these ideas barrel back and forth towards an ending that is as predictable as it is sick and twisted. What is the ultimate conclusion of Ex Machina? It’s hard to say. One key to unlocking the mystery is an important element of its mise-en-scène: the hipster lifestyle. Nathan is the quintessential example: he is a genius coder but lives in the middle of the woods; he can quote philosophers yet gets drunk constantly; he sports a huge beard and sideburns with glasses and a shaved head.

Like hipsters, Ex Machina looks really cool but doesn’t have much to say and comes off a little pretentious. In the end, man should fear data mining and search engines—not the robot apocalypse.

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About Nick Olszyk 201 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".