Deus ex machina is a literary device which was used in ancient Greek drama where a god would be introduced in the play to resolve an issue. Literally, its definition is “god out of the machine.” In today’s literature or films, it means a problem is worked out by artificial means.
In the movie, Ex Machina, altering the phrase for the film’s title and theme serves as an ironic twist. Removing god out of the machine takes the idea of artificial intelligence a step further by casting Ava (the machine), without a sense of conscience or humanity. Something I kept thinking about long after the closing credits rolled.
Some of the most memorable actors in movies haven’t always been human. From HAL-9000 to the Terminator T-800 to Wall-E, machines have played both villains and heroes.
AI isn’t a new subject for scriptwriters, but the way it’s handled in Ex Machina is. Writer and director Alex Garland chose not to go for the epic blockbuster like the Terminator series but for a setting as intimate as a stage play with only four principal actors and a single futuristic set. Ideas, not action, drive the story forward, yet the central idea at the heart of the movie is as huge and deep as anything you’ll see in more traditional genres. Although 2001: A Space Odyssey portrayed HAL and the astronaut, Dave Bowman alone together, the setting of the space station and the theme of the space-time continuum was much more grand.
In Ex Machina, bright and friendly programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a company-wide contest and gets an invitation to genius inventor and CEO Nathan Bateman’s (Oscar Isaac) futuristic home/office to work on a special project the visionary has kept a secret. After Nathan’s gorgeous but eerily quiet assistant Kyoko gets Caleb settled, the project is unveiled: Ava (Alicia Vikander), a true artificial intelligence in a sleek form that’s a combination grace and feminine beauty. Caleb’s job is to get to know Ava, to put her through her paces and see if she passes a kind of Turing test to see how close she comes to humanity.
While the original intent of Alan Turing’s test was to see how well a machine could think like a human being, the test Nathan sets for Caleb and Ava has more to do with emotion. Could Caleb come to think of Ava as a person? Would he fall for her? Would he want to rescue her from the isolation Nathan imposed on her as he would for any person who was trapped behind glass and chrome? Thanks to Gleeson and Vikander and some beautifully subtle framing by Garland, the scenes of quiet conversation between man and machine felt as compelling as any good drama.
That’s what made me excited about this film: It isn’t all chrome surfaces and slick special effects as a lot of science fiction is. Ultimately, Ava not only passes any test set for her, but she also reveals herself to be utterly alien. However, she’s able to act human well enough to fool both men. It’s also a movie about something thoroughly human in the way the principal actors form relationships. Watching the men deal with something that has super-human intelligence without human ethics or morals raised some interesting questions about what it means to be human.
I love it when a film makes me think about the larger themes it contains instead of just entertaining me for the 120 minutes or so of its run time. Would Ava have had the same effect on Caleb if she’d had a featureless metal face? What if she’d been a man and had an overall male shape? Ex Machina echoes other man-versus-machine movies and even older themes about technology like in Frankenstein or, Metropolis. But Ex Machina did it with a sophistication and subtlety that made it feel original.
About the author: Jonathan Roberts is an NYU Tisch student of cinematic and commercial filmmaking with a passion for storytelling.
FilmThat™ is a video production company founded and run by Jonathan Roberts. FilmThat.com™ explores the world of filmmaking and visual narrative. Favorite topics include impact driven screenwriting, producing, directing, shooting, and editing cinematic, corporate and documentary films.
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