Ex Machina (2015) – A Turing Test Between Humanity and Artificial Intelligence

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This blog post was written by our contributor, Deepu Babu.

“Can consciousness exist without interaction?” [48:27]

Every so often a movie is released, generally without too much fanfare or advertising, and for the most part, goes by unnoticed by the general public, but keeps itself alive in the underground circuit. You eventually watch it at the recommendation of a good friend, albeit a slightly eccentric nerdy friend. An hour or so later when the credits roll up, you lean back in your seat – with a colourful combination of confusion and understanding, but a knowing sensation of enlightenment.

This is one of those movies. It’s a film where each action and scene is intentional and thoughtfully crafted from start to finish, one that’s visually and aurally captivating, with a rich and unique storyline that’s been equally translated on-screen by the relatively unknown actors. An underrated gem of a film, in my opinion.

Ex Machina, by definition, is a derivative of the latin word Deus Ex Machina, meaning “God from the Machine”. It is used to indicate a contrivance (a thing which is created skilfully and inventively to serve a particular purpose) in a story where something all of a sudden has a power not really described before that resolves the principal conflict of the story.

The movie jumps straight into the crux of the story-line from the very first scene, where the protagonist, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a computer programmer at a Google-esque internet search company (Bluebook), wins a prize to spend a week with the super genius CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his futuristic remote mountain private estate. Once there, Nathan reveals that the competition was rigged and that Caleb was intentionally chosen to be the human component of a Turing test to be conducted on Nathan’s latest humanoid A.I invention Ava (Alicia Vikander). A Turing test as explained by Caleb in the movie is “It’s when a human interacts with a computer, and if the human doesn’t know they’re interacting with a computer, the test is passed. A passed test tells us that the computer has artificial intelligence”. “If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man, that’s the history of Gods”.

As complex, random and diverse as human nature is, when observed it is almost very predictable (when faced with certain circumstances). It is this message that I feel is the director, Alex Garland, was trying to convey.

The first words that the CEO, Nathan says when he meets Caleb for the first time are:

  • Nathan:Caleb Smith…
  • Caleb: Hey (in an understandably awe-stricken/nervously confused tone)
  • Nathan: Dude!

While Nathan may be described as one, he certainly does not come across as your standard uber-genius multinational CEO, especially after the above narrative. With a shaven head and hipster-envying, neatly groomed beard, the first few scenes show him ending off a boxing workout routine and then nonchalantly revealing his hungover state from the previous night before downing an antioxidant smoothie. Is this really how such a CEO would conduct himself around anyone? Probably not! But don’t be fooled by that, there is more to this than meets the eye.

There are many complex themes at play in this intricate movie which may or not reveal itself initially, but nonetheless very intentional.

Nathan is almost Frankenstein-ish by playing God, isolating himself psychologically and geographically in an attempt to create artificial life. He is often bully-ish and belittles the timid Caleb to remind him who’s the genius boss. This leads Caleb to side with Ava who eventually becomes sexually attracted to her, leading him stray from his initial mission to secretly help her escape Nathan’s fortress.

This leads to another theme in the movie about false Gods. While Nathan thinks of himself as intellectually God-like due to his invention and the initial praises from Caleb, he appears irrationally psychopathic with his lover Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and tries to root out the other false God at play – Caleb.  When Ava tells Caleb not to trust Nathan, Caleb exhibits an almost God complex by a need to control things and chooses not to disclose this information to Nathan in order to protect Ava. Caleb naively believes that he’s the chosen one to save Ava from the cruel clutches of evil God Nathan. This is representative of the false God theme where one believes they are bigger than the Gods themselves.

Another theme that is portrayed in the movie is the use of the internet and search engines. Caleb’s every action is monitored and recorded by Nathan in the movie, closely mirroring our current experience online (a la NSA?). While Ava’s intelligence is powered by Bluebook’s worldwide search data and browsing patterns, it is also revealed that Ava is physically based on Calebs porn preferences (very similar to current online marketing and advertising behaviours). Poor Caleb was click baited, hook line and sinker.

There is an almost undeniable feminist theme that plays out. Ava’s escape is a triumph for her, for us the audience invested in her journey, and for women who have struggled and sacrificed to have their voices heard – a need for basic human value. Nathan is almost brutishly caveman-like in his bullying behaviour, sexually domineering and binge drinking habits, reinforcing the feminist theme.

While I may have missed some themes, these are the ones that stuck out for me. These are themes that represent the limitations of man. A man that strives for progress and perfection, but is flawed and incomplete at the same time. A great movie that definitely passes the Turing test.  

My Final Score:

  • Cinematography : 9/10
  • Script : 8/10
  • Costume & set design : 9/10
  • Music : 8/10
  • Visual Effects : 9/10
  • Acting : 8/10




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