© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Ex Machina is a thoughtful and stylish exploration of a number of issues related to the looming possibility of artificial intelligence. It’s also something of a mad scientist film focusing on the efforts of search engine tycoon Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to develop artificially intelligent androids, partly just to see what happens, somewhat in the mode of the scientist figures in the Frankenstein films. The hard-drinking Nathan, though, is also an eccentric figure who seems to want to develop the androids almost as a sort of vanity project, not to mention the fact that all of his androids are given attractive female bodies, which he can then use for his own sexual purposes. Meanwhile, as an ultra-wealthy internet tycoon, Nathan allows the film to raise a number of questions related to today’s giant tech companies, thus reminding us that one of the key issues related to the development of artificial intelligence has to do with the question of who is developing it.
In the film, Nathan brings a programmer from his company, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleason), to his secluded mountain retreat so that Caleb can verify, via a modified version of the Turing test, that his latest android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is genuinely intelligent. Caleb is given free rein to design his own tests, which he will administer to Ava during the week he is to stay at the facility. At the same time, Nathan himself wants to observe Ava’s interactions with Caleb, conducting a sort of meta-test of his own. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that this meta-test is Nathan’s true concern: he already knows that Ava is genuinely intelligent, but he is not fully able to anticipate how she might behave when confronted with a stranger, Caleb himself having been, so far, the only human she has encountered.
Caleb’s retreat seems to be both his home and his laboratory (it’s not a house, it’s a research facility, he informs Caleb). And that retreat itself is one of the key elements of the film. For one thing, the remoteness of the location introduces an element of potential threat, announcing early on that this film will draw from the tradition of horror, rather than science fiction. Indeed, it is clear that Caleb experiences a bit of trepidation as he walks toward the building, which is at first completely out of sight, the helicopter pilot having explained that he is not allowed to come any closer to the facility. The facility itself, meanwhile, is mostly underground, increasing the sense that it might be a dangerous setting, though the parts that are above ground are quite interesting, vaguely recalling the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, if Wright had been resurrected and put to work designing buildings for the super-rich of the twenty-first century. The entire facility is extremely high-tech, recalling the science fiction houses of films such as Forbidden Planet (1956). The underground portions have a bit less character than the exterior and are a bit more sterile; their sleekly efficient, gleaming appearance is certainly a far cry from the Gothic settings frequented by Nathan’s predecessors in the mad-scientist tradition, such as Victor Frankenstein. Nevertheless, the high level of security throughout the building (with many portions off-limits to Caleb) seems a bit ominous—even more so after we learn that the facility seems to be experiencing periodic power outages that trigger a complete lockdown within the facility, leaving Caleb unable to leave his bedroom.
Caleb has supposedly been chosen for this assignment by lottery, but it turns out that the lottery was a ruse and that Caleb was chosen because Nathan felt that his credentials made him the most qualified candidate for testing Nathan’s androids. Upset when he realizes this fact, Caleb confronts Nathan, who simply assures him that he should be grateful to be one of the chosen ones, one of the few humans with the intellectual gifts to truly appreciate the artificial intelligence research that Nathan has been doing. “Come on, Caleb,” he says. “You don’t think I know what it’s like to be smart? Smarter than everyone else, jockeying for position. You got the light on you, man. Not lucky, chosen.”
This notion of a sort of intellectual elite charged by virtue of their innate gifts with overseeing the development of artificial intelligence is one of the key concerns of the film, especially given Nathan’s confidence that artificial intelligences will eventually supplant humanity as the rulers of the planet. As he tells Caleb, “One day the AIs 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.” This statement makes clear just how high the stakes are in the development of artificial intelligence, something Nathan sees as inevitable, whether humans like it or not. And, given that he regards himself as smarter than anyone else (including Caleb), he feels that it only makes sense for him to be the one who ushers in this new intelligence and oversees the transition to its dominance of the planet.
Nathan’s hubris is one of the key concerns of Ex Machina, especially as it is a sort of hubris that many have seen as driving the actions of real-world tech tycoons, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Of course, the real-world company that most closely resembles Nathan’s Blue Book is Google, the dominant internet search-engine in our own world. Oddly enough, despite its centrality to the tech world, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have avoided the kind of notoriety afforded the founders of the other three teach giants, possibly because there were two of them, but more likely because they have largely avoided the limelight, as does Nathan, who prefers to work in seclusion at his one-man research facility. In any case, Nathan is a sort of composite figure and should not be identified with any one real-world tech magnate, especially as no real-world figure could develop and market his technologies in seclusion as does Nathan.
Of course, there is a sense in which Nathan’s existence is anything but reclusive. He has, after all, hacked all of the world’s cell phones, gathering a vast amount of data that he has used (through a computational technique unspecified in the film) to gain an unprecedented amount of understanding of how human beings think, using that understanding to help him develop and program Ava’s brain. When he explains this astounding fact to Caleb, he also notes that the world’s cell phone manufactures knew that he was hacking their phones, but that they couldn’t say anything because they themselves were doing the same thing in the interest of gathering useful data. In this sense, Ex Machina raises privacy concerns about digital communication that have been with us for years, though these concerns have actually become much more tangible in the years since the film, when a series of revelations has made it clear that large-scale electronic surveillance of various kinds does on all the time.
This motif of surveillance is made more tangible in Ex Machina in the way that Nathan’s research facility is laced with cameras and microphones, so that he can keep every corner of the facility under constant surveillance. It is through this system that Nathan is able to observe Caleb’s interactions with Ava, so there is a certain scientific justification for it. However, there is also a chilling aspect to this constant surveillance that makes of Nathan’s facility a perfect example of the Panopticon, one of the key images of modern power and control described by Michel Foucault in his highly influential book Discipline and Punish (originally published in French as Surveiller et punir in 1975), which is essentially an exploration of the genealogy of the modern prison. The Panopticon is an experimental prison design, proposed by Britain’s Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in the nineteenth-century—and it is a design that is still widely used today in real prisons. The key to this design is the ability for prison guards to keep inmates under observation at all times, while the inmates cannot actually tell that they are being kept under observation. For Foucault, this design is symptomatic of a general tendency in modern society in which official power depends more and more on the ability to acquire a constant flow of information about the activities of the subjects of that power. This knowledge-based administration of power finds its model in the medieval Inquisition, but reaches new levels through the capabilities of modern technology, such as the cell-phone hacking scheme developed by Nathan. With so many modern institutions deriving from this same emphasis on the gathering of knowledge about individuals, Foucault suggests that, in the modern world, “prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons.” For Foucault modern society itself is carceral in nature and the difference between life inside a prison and that outside is not so large as might first appear. Moreover, he suggests that the modern prison system is not designed to eliminate crime but merely to establish a well-identified population of “delinquents,” whose crimes can thus be monitored and kept within the limits of acts that are “politically harmless and economically negligible” (277-81).
One could argue, of course, that Nathan has access to technologies that go well beyond anything Foucault could have imagined, but Foucault’s insistence that information can be a powerful tool of power and control still provides a very useful gloss on Nathan’s activities. Ava, of course, is very much the product of Nathan’s data mining activities, so perhaps it is not surprisingly that she understands very well the power of data. Thus, she realizes, even before Caleb arrives, that her hopes of escaping from Nathan’s control will depend on being able to cut off the flow of information. Thus, she has developed a scheme to trigger periodic power failures in Nathan’s facility, failures that also temporarily disable his surveillance systems, allowing her to operate unobserved for a short period of time. It is also significant that, once she escapes from Nathan’s facility, her first move is to travel to a city and then to go to a busy intersection, where she can soak up data that will help her to plan her next moves.
Indeed, Nathan’s reclusive existence could be seen as a failure of realism in the film, though it does highlight the way in which tech geniuses have often been pictured as introverted and socially awkward, able to relate to numbers and machines better than to people. Yet Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg have all run vastly successful corporations in which they had to deal extensively with other people. Interestingly enough, while Nathan is certainly depicted as troubled (if not downright psychotic), he is also depicted as physically attractive and robust, in a mode not normally associated with the supernerds upon which he is transparently based. He does, however, share with some of them (especially Jobs), a special sort of charisma, in Nathan’s case a charisma that is markedly masculine—a fact we appreciate from the very first time we see him in the film, punching vigorously at a body bag as Caleb (a much more conventionally nerdy figure) meekly approaches.
As the film proceeds, it gradually becomes clear that Nathan’s pronounced masculinity is crucial to the film. Ex Machina is a story about the hubris of a possibly mad scientist whose god complex pushes him to use all of the resources at his command to try to produce what is essentially an artificial human being, but with capabilities that go far beyond those of ordinary humans. As such, it is a story that has much in common with the various incarnations of the Frankenstein story, going back to Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel, published almost two hundred years earlier. Indeed, this rather obvious parallel is one of the aspects of the film that has been noted most often by critics. In a review for Variety, for example, Guy Lodge notes the film’s “examination of what constitutes human and feminine identity — and whether those two concepts need always overlap.” He then goes on to note how Garland’s script “synthesizes a dizzy range of the writer’s philosophical preoccupations into a sleek, spare chamber piece: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein redreamed as a 21st-century battle of the sexes.” Finally, Lodge notes how Isaacs’s performance as Nathan pushes past the character’s tendencies to serve as a sendup of contemporary “tech-bro” culture, finally endowing him with a “petulant brilliance that finally makes this designer Dr. Frankenstein a tragic figure.”
In a more detailed analysis, Emma Hammond picks up on Lodge’s description of Ex Machina as a battle-of-the-sexes story. Acknowledging the parallels between the filmand Frankenstein, she argues that Ex Machina also participates in a long tradition of such stories that goes back far beyond Shelley’s novel. In particular, Hammond explores the ways in which Garland’s film echoes the story of Pandora (which Shelley also acknowledges as a predecessor, via the subtitle of her novel, “The Modern Prometheus”), as told in the works of the ancient Greek poet Hesiod.
Nevertheless, it is almost certainly the parallels with the Frankenstein story that are most likely to be noticed by viewers of Ex Machina, given that almost all of them will surely be familiar with at least some versions of the Frankenstein story.Eleanor Beal explores these parallels, especially in terms of the figuration of gender in Garland’s film, starting from the premise that “Ex Machina is one of a series of robotic films that convey anxieties about science and technology as advancing a patriarchal or masculinist agenda that fears female sexuality and attempts to usurp and control it” (71). Beal, however, finds Ex Machina to be an especially interesting film because it does not simply rail against the dangers of runaway technological development. For her, the film sees much of value in our current movement toward more and more advanced computer technologies, while at the same time warning that “the new frontier of digital technology bears the traditional frontier psychologies of the past, and the search for innovation, invention, and resplendence is underpinned by the motives to dominate and control these voices” (83).
This drive for dominance is, of course, typical of patriarchal thinking, highlighting the significance of the fact that Nathan’s creations are all female. The film itself draws special attention to the issue of gender by having Caleb specifically ask Nathan why he feels it necessary to give his robots gender at all—though, in a sense, Caleb’s inquiry also involves the more general question of why Nathan wants his robots to be androids—that is, to have human form. Almost halfway through the film, in a question clearly motivated by Caleb’s own growing sexual attraction to Ava, the young programmer asks Smith, “Why did you give her sexuality? An AI doesn’t need a gender. She could have been a gray box.” Nathan first responds by suggesting that sexuality would give AIs an imperative to interact with one another, which he sees as a prerequisite for true consciousness. But then, seeming to sense the real motivation behind Caleb’s question, Nathan declares, “Sexuality is fun, man. If you’re gonna exist, why not enjoy it? You wanna remove the chance of her falling in love and fucking?” Then, really getting to the heart of Caleb’s inquiry, he adds, “In answer to your real question, you bet she can fuck.”
This rather crude declaration takes on special significance late in the film when we realize that the services performed by Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the older generation android that Nathan keeps as a servant, include sexual ones. The film implies that Kyoko is less advanced than Ava, but it is also clear that she herself is quite advanced, possibly sentient. From the very beginning, then, the imperious and dismissive way that Nathan treats Kyoko, almost as if she is some sort of household appliance, is extremely troubling. Meanwhile, though the film never indicates whether Nathan has had, or intends to have, a sexual relationship with Ava, this sexual dimension of his “experiments” makes very clear why he has given his robots sexuality. Partly, he has done so for his own sexual pleasure; but he has also done so partly because his drive to dominate and control his creations is more fulfilling to him if those creations are female.
But the sexuality of Nathan’s creations also clearly serves to make them seem more human and is crucial to what is probably the central project of Ex Machina, which—following in the footsteps of predecessors such as Blade Runner (1982)—interrogates the boundary between human and machine and asks us to reconsider our definition of what it means to be human and of who or what deserves to be afforded all of the rights and privileges that human beings deserve. But the film also goes further, stipulating that the androids Ava and Kyoko are indeed not human, however well they might be able to perform humanness. They are, instead, posthuman, which raises a whole new series of questions, not only about how they deserve to be treated, despite their fundamental Otherness, but also about how the coming wave of artificial intelligences might treat us. Julia Glick thus notes that “as Ava and Kyoko fluctuate and question the dominant ideological structures that produced them, the same ideological boundary undergoes a tremendous amount of stress trying to recuperate and contain their resistance. This stress is precisely what makes the film a unique framework of discovery to find and digest cultural anxieties surrounding the technologized body embodied in the android or cyborg” (36).
Ex Machina addresses some very real and very contemporary anxieties about the potential rise of genuine artificial intelligences in the very real future, even as it also addresses concerns about technologies (such as on-line data mining) that are already here. At the same time, the film also functions in a more allegorical way to address very real concerns about technology in general, but also about patriarchy in general, that go beyond what is specifically addressed in the film. For example, Nathan’s sense that the pursuit of the development of artificial intelligence is simply inevitable, so that he might as well participate in it, directly addresses the notion that, as far as technology is concerned, anything that can be developed will be developed. And this question is extremely complex. On the one hand, it seems patently obvious that certain technologies simply should not be developed, even if they can. Nuclear weapons might well fall in this category. At the same time, we have also, in recent years, experienced attempts by right-wing religious zealots to suppress the development of certain medical technologies (such as stem-cell research) that might offend certain articles of their faiths but that might also be able to alleviate untold amounts of suffering among people who genuinely need the help of these technologies.
Meanwhile, Nathan’s lack of consideration for his creations clearly comments on power relations in general, though it has special connotations within the realm of gender. Nathan, the rich white male, feels entitled to create whatever he wants and to destroy whatever he wants, without concern for the fact that his creations might be intelligent, thinking beings. Ex Machina is a complex film, though. Nathan is not merely a monster; he is a charismatic figure who was once much like Caleb (if a bit more gifted) and has now been corrupted by wealth and power. Caleb, meanwhile, becomes sexually smitten by Ava, and we can easily imagine him going down the same path as Nathan. And Ava is no mere victim; she very well might be even smarter than Nathan and seems a step ahead of both Caleb and Nathan all along. Eventually, she and Kyoko combine to kill Nathan, while Ava manages to escape the facility. And her escape into the world does not seem a simple liberation; it has some of the qualities of an invasion, leaving open the possibility that the human race might be in serious jeopardy as a result of the arrival of this new, possible superior, entity in its midst.
The notion of a takeover of the world by artificial intelligences hovers in the background of Ex Machina through the entire film, though it remains oddly unexplored, and even unstated except for that one early declaration by Nathan. Though the film never says so, what is at stake here is the notion that computer scientists refer to as the “Singularity.” In mathematics, a singularity is a point at which the slope (rate of change) of a mathematical function becomes infinite. This terminology has also been adapted to refer to a moment of sudden, runaway technological change. The notion of the singularity as a real-world possibility was originally popularized by the work of the American mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, beginning with his 1993 essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity.” Vinge, in fact, has long worked to call attention to his belief that ongoing developments in computer science are likely to lead to the development of artificial intelligencesthat will in turn rapidly evolve in intelligence to levels well beyond the human. Such a singularity often features in Vinge’s fiction as well, though it has perhaps been most extensively explored in the works of various writers—such as Ken MacLeod and Charles Stross—associated with the so-called “British Boom.”
Such vastly intelligent entities are often hostile or oblivious to humans, though one of the most detailed explorations of artificial intelligences in science fiction involves the “Culture” of Iain M. Banks, which relies heavily on advanced intelligences (known as “Minds”) that work for the benefit of their human charges. The same can be said for the artificial intelligences of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2005), though here the situation is complicated by the worldwide efforts of the U.S. government to prevent the Singularity, not realizing it has already occurred (in India). At the end of Ex Machina, we are forced to wonder whether it has occurred in this case as well. Having escaped the restraints placed on her by Nathan and free to learn and explore on her own, we have to wonder whether Ava might now begin to develop her intelligence exponentially, soon leaving her puny human creators far behind.
All in all, Ex Machina tells a compelling and entertaining story, supported by convincing and effective visuals. However, like all of the best science fiction, it also leaves viewers with a great deal to think about. Nathan’s creations are a bit beyond the reach of contemporary technology, but only a bit, so that the questions posed by this film are questions we might very well soon have to face in the real world.
Beal, Eleanor. “Frankensteinian Gods, Fembots, and the New Technological Frontier in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Transmedia Creatures: Frankenstein’s Afterlives.” Eds. Francesca Saggini and Anna Enrichetta Soccio. Bucknell University Press, 2018. 69–84.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Vintage-Random House, 1979.
Glick, Julia. “‘Today I’m Going to Test You’: Oppositional Cyborgs and Automated Anxiety in Ex Machina.” Film Matters 8.3 (Winter 2017): 36-41.
Hammond, Emma. “Alex Garland’s Ex Machina or the Modern Epimetheus.” Frankenstein and Its Classics: The Modern Prometheus from Antiquity to Science Fiction. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 190–205.
Hawkins, Tracy L. and Kirsten Gerdes. “Redefining Humanness: Relationality, Responsibility, and Hope in Ex Machina.” Interdisciplinary Humanities 35.1 (Summer 2018): 63–77.
Lodge, Guy. “Film Review: Ex Machina.” Variety (January 16, 2015). https://variety.com/2015/film/global/film-review-ex-machina-1201405717/
Wilson, Hayley. “The “I” in AI: Emotional Intelligence and Identity in Ex Machina.” Film Matters 9.1 (Spring 2018): 117–24.
Wylie, Christopher. Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America. Random House, 2019.
 One of the most notorious examples of this sort of electronic surveillance is the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, in which the now-defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica illegally hacked the data of nearly a hundred million Facebook users and then used that information to target political ads in support of the 2016 Presidential campaigns of both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Numerous other high-profile hacks have been revealed in recent years as well. On this scandal, see the book by Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower whose revelations caused the scandal to become public.
 See, for example, Hawkins and Gerdes for a discussion of the ways in which Ex Machina invites us to rethink what it means to be human. See also Wilson for a discussion of the ways in which Ava goes beyond most science fictional AIs in the way that she displays emotional intelligence, in addition to a coldly intellectual intelligence.