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In 'Ex Machina,' a Robo Babe Raises Powerful Questions

Still image from the "Ex Machina" trailer. (IMDb)

In a widely reported speech last October at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Elon Musk, entrepreneur/engineer of PayPal and space exploration vessels, was succinct. “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon,” he warned.

I thought of Musk while watching “Ex Machina,” by turns a droll and haunting chamber piece from writer-director Alex Garland. It follows a search-engine billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac, surrogate for the Musks and Brins and Zuckerbergs of that world), who predicts to his employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), “One day the AIs [artificial intelligence machines] are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

Isolated in a Nordic Eden far from his company headquarters, Nathan uses cutting-edge technologies and materials to create artificially intelligent robo babes. One of them is a comely and sexually functional beauty named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Shaped like a Barbie, with full breasts, lissome legs and a face sweeter than marzipan, Ava has a midsection and thighs that are transparent, all the better to see her wiring. Her “skin” is fishnet mesh, with its implications both of showgirl and animal snare.

Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava’s sentience. Are her answers those a human would give? Or is there something else going on here?

In the spirit of cautionary prophesies such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Demon Seed,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Her,” Garland’s provocative film raises questions of gender, ethics and existentialism.

Gender: Why in movies like “Ex Machina” and “Demon Seed” are scientists male and their creations embodiments of fetishized females? Ethics: Why in movies (think “A.I.”) do humans create machines with human capacities and retreat from them when they exhibit human needs? Existentialism: Does artificial intelligence (think Samantha, the operating system in “Her”) surpass the human kind? Are these AI creations (think HAL in “2001” and Proteus in “Demon Seed”) a threat to humans, out to subjugate their creators via manipulation, murder and rape?

Such questions haunt “Ex Machina.” (They are not the kind that arise during “The Avengers: The Age of Ultron,” in which a robot wants to destroy humanity in order to save earth.)

More like Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Garland’s “Ex Machina” announces itself as a budding romance between a male human and a female-configured AI in the near future. Its frame is not one of futurist allegory but of a present-tense urgency.

One searching for clues about the intentions of the secretive Nathan (Hebrew for “gift from God”) will note that he sports a biblical beard and fires Socratic questions, like bullets, at his visitor. Isaac, lately the title character in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” here has a menacing swagger and musical patter. Caleb (in the Old Testament one of the Israelites who makes it to the Promised Land) is cowed by Nathan’s physicality and intellectual nimbleness. Gleeson, a self-effacing actor in the tradition of Hugh Grant, uses pauses to great dramatic and comic effect. But it is Ava (a Hebrew variant of the name Eve) who is the most mysterious. In Vikander’s performance, Ava is both as submissive as a geisha and the smartest one in the room.In this brave new world imagined by Garland, the boundaries between human and artificial intelligence are transparent but solid, like that between the natural and the constructed. The film was shot largely in Norway fjord country at an eco-hotel built of glass. In the movie, humans can look out to landscape and cascades and picnic there; the cyborgs can look but not leave. In Nathan’s windowless subterranean laboratory, a wall of industrial glass separates Caleb from the doe-like Ava. He can look and wants to touch.

Garland suggests — transparency can conceal as well as reveal — that the glass separating humans from humanoids is cracked and could shatter. In his film’s nicely constructed first two acts, I guessed that I was watching a new-creation-myth love posing as a love triangle. I was half right, but I’m not going to tell you which half.

When the film concluded, I was floored and unmoored. Is the fact that humans make movies like this about artificial intelligence a sign of a moral consciousness distinguishing humans from other species? Or is the film’s implication that in the future, artificial intelligence will become the last vestige of humanity?

Read Carrie Rickey (@CarrieRickey on Twitter) on her website,

Carrie Rickey
In addition to writing film reviews and essays for Truthdig, Carrie Rickey has been a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Village Voice and an art critic at Artforum and Art in America. Rickey has…
Carrie Rickey

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