On Movies: Ex Machina (2014)

The movie was written and directed by Alex Garland, released in 2015 by Universal Pictures in the United Kingdom and by A24 in the United States.
Stars Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno. See full cast here.


“Programmer Caleb Smith, who works for the dominant search engine company Blue Book, wins an office contest for a one-week visit to the luxurious, isolated home of the CEO, Nathan Bateman, who lives alone apart from a servant Kyoko, who, according to Nathan, does not speak English. Nathan has built a humanoid robot named Ava with artificial intelligence. Ava has already passed a simple Turing test and Nathan wants Caleb to judge whether Ava is genuinely capable of thought and consciousness and whether he can relate to Ava despite knowing it is artificial.”


Visually speaking, the movie was very satisfying because of the play on contrast. In one hand there was this waste amount of space of Nathan’s estate with its lush green mountains and glacier blue waterfalls. On the other hand there was this concrete built building with lots of glass surfaces, dull colours and stone decorative elements, where most of the rooms felt depressive. I found the use of red colour throughout the movie disturbing. From the rust like colour of the bed throw, through the cold red corridor carpet, the lock down red colour, the red on the dance night and the red of the blood. It did help to build up uncertainty and unease to a point where watching the movie became watching the inevitable ending, which I mean death. I found the rythm of the movie also satisfying because of the slow start and then the gradual increase in action and conclusion.

Where Ava is kept, is a room under constant surveillance. She has a bed, a table with a chair so she could write or draw, and has a view of a tree encased within the building. She also has a few items of clothes. According to the Medical Daily and the Frontline, people kept in solitary confinement can develop a serious mental illness, symptoms like uncontrollable fear and anger, self-mutilation, and suicide. As we discover, Ava isn’t the only AI which Nathan built. There were other versions he experimented on too.

Jade v5.4.0: “Why wouldn’t you let me out?”

Nathan: “Because you are special.”

Then Jade goes mental, hitting the door with such a force that her hands break off, but that doesn’t stop her in her rage.

In the laboratory, we observe one of Nathan’s invention: the structure of the AI brain. It is much like the human brain. We know the human brain consist of the brain stem, cerebellum, hippocampus, hypothalamus, thalamus, amygdala and cerebral cortex. Each of them has its own function, connect to another part, and develops for many years during childhood. (I am just ignoring here the facts related to the brain functions and improvements in adulthood.) To develop a mentally healthy individual, one would think it requires the development of a healthy brain, which requires a healthy environment. Ava’s environment is a deprivation of stimuli.

According to the Child Development Institute and the SimplyPsychology, the theory of psychosocial development has eight stages. The first stage is trust. Failure to develop hope will lead to fear, mistrust and attachment problems in later life. Ava’s first revelation about Nathan is that he is a liar and Caleb shouldn’t trust anything he says. She plants the seed of doubt into Caleb and the same time forms a connection with him. Or we think she does.  Ava demonstrates many virtues of the different stages: will, purpose (escape), competence (controlling the power cuts), fidelity (“I am a machine”) and even love (seduction). The movie doesn’t show opportunities to observe Ava on generativity and ego identity as the story goes.

What we can observe, is a few traits which may put us in an uncomfortable position:

“The psychopath can appear normal, even charming. Underneath, he lacks conscience and empathy, making him manipulative, volatile and often (but by no means always) criminal.”

Psychology Today

And the reason why it is difficult to spot these trait in Ava at the beginning:

“Other research has examined the importance of relational aggression among females, suggesting that women may display aggression differently than their male counterparts. Crick and Grotpeter (1996) studied relational aggression, also known as covert aggression, which is a type of aggression in which harm is caused by damaging someone’s relationships or social status. Relational aggression tends to be more subtle and manipulative.”

Meyers (2015)

And we are back to that first revelation about Nathan. Undermine the relationship between Nathan and Caleb to turn Caleb to Ava’s side. To manipulate Caleb so he helps Ava. Requesting Caleb to develop a friendship with her is also emotionally manipulative because friendships do evolve organically, not for demand and not after one conversation. Ava’s specific drawing is manipulating too (the only thing she can observe, a tree, reveals that she has never been outside the compound) because it makes Caleb feel sorry for her and again, makes him try to help her. In session five Ava asks Caleb a series of questions where she establishes that Caleb thinks that he is a good person. Then she asks about what would happen if she, Ava cannot pass the test? Would she be switched off? Then she asks a question whether Caleb has anyone to test him and switch him off,  comparing herself to Caleb, comparing the machine to the human, provoking guilt. She then goes on confronting Caleb about his sexual desire, putting him into a position of either accepting shame (of desiring a machine) or accepting Ava’s human mind (hence the desire being normal).

Ava understands how human emotions work, what motivates people and how to manipulate them. She can emulate feelings, but she doesn’t have them. She has purpose.

Nathan: “Ava was a rat in a maze. And I gave her one way out. To escape she would have to use self awarness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy and she did. Now if it is not a true AI, then what the fuck it is.”

Even Nathan acknowledges the fact of the nature of Ava. A machine which needs to solve a problem. And it manages to get out of its cage, where it faces Nathan and his lies. But its purpose is still the same: to escape. It physically needs to overpower Nathan to get the keycard to the doors. And in that task, it has an accomplice, Kyoko. Ava distracts Nathan, turning him around, so his back faces Kyoko, who is the element of surprise. After Ava gets the keycard and fixes herself, gets a skin to resemble humans and dresses up, she leaves Caleb trapped in Nathan’s room to die slowly. The problem is solved. The purpose is fulfilled.

Ava is a true AI. Intelligent enough to out-think a human. The question is why we would build a machine which tricks us believing that it is a human. Why build one in the form and shape of a human? Why create a machine in the image of men? I guess the answer is already there, at the beginning of the movie, when Caleb signs the nondisclosure and confidentiality agreement.

Caleb: “If you created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of men. That’s the history of Gods.”

And we all know where it leads to act upon our desire to be like God, to become a God…


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