Screen Anarchists On: EX MACHINA

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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(What is on display here: intelligence, artificial intelligence, or just artifice?)

Last week Ex Machina got a wide release in the United States. The previous two weeks it had been in a hugely successful limited release already, scoring the highest per-screen average of 2015 so far (its box office equaled over 80,000 dollar for each screen in its first week).

A bit earlier, it also won the audience award at the Imagine Film Festival Amsterdam. Combined with an IMDb-rating of 8.1, and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 90% fresh, it's an understatement to say that Alex Garland's first film as a director is doing fine for itself!

Still, it's interesting to see just how different people's opinions are on Ex Machina. Some praise its science but hate the story, others love it as a thriller but say the science is crap. It's been called smart science fiction, dumb science fiction, feminist, misogynous, and I've even heard someone calling it a robotic rape/revenge film. Wow.

In her review, Shelagh Rowan-Legg stated she liked parts of the film, but was left with a feeling of disappointment. Some here at ScreenAnarchy agree with her, others think it is brilliant.

So we had a quick round-up of opinions about the film, and decided to put them here for all to see, in a gallery. There are some minor spoilers ahead, but we all steered clear of any big ones.
The first one up is Shelagh again, adding a few words to her review, but click through them all to see our general reception of the film.

Shelagh Rowan-Legg, , Jim Tudor, Andrew Mack, Michele "Izzy" Galgana, , Brian Clark and Kurt Halfyard contributed to this story.

Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Contributing Writer:

What saddens me about Ex Machina is its lost potential. Garland creates an interesting tone and concept around human ego and hubris. But stripped of its window dressing, the film is little more the standard crisis of masculinity story that uses the female character as an object for investigation of the male characters.

From Maria in Metropolis to Pris and Rachael in Blade Runner, female robots are almost exclusively portrayed in relation to their sexuality, as opposed to male or non-gendered robots, who are meant to more fully represent the potential of AI and its meaning for humanity.

Even the posters for the film (which I know Garland would not necessarily be involved in designing) display Ava as an object, either with just her torso (no brain to think with or arms and legs to for independent movement), or the standard photo-from-behind with torso twisted towards the front, so that both buttocks and breasts are on display.

One could argue that Nathan is portrayed as a misogynist: he has created an AI brain capable of passing for human, and he uses it to make a series of ‘programmable woman’, sex robots that, once he is bored with (or perhaps afraid of), he dismantles. This film perhaps criticizes this behaviour. And yet, Ava remains little more than a sex robot, never displaying the advancement of this AI brain because the narrative never allows her to move beyond using her sexuality for power, like a femme fatale. The film’s story remains little more than the standard fear-of-woman tale, a fear that is realized to the detriment of the female character.

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Shelagh M. Rowan-LeggApril 28, 2015 10:17 AM

I like Mack's assessment best

Ard VijnApril 28, 2015 10:43 AM

To honor Mack's idea, work on a sex droid army to help nerds get some starts n...
Hey, wait a minute?!

Andrew MackApril 28, 2015 11:11 AM

It's because I don't take anything seriously, Shelagh.

I don't want to build robots either.

soupcrusherApril 28, 2015 11:50 AM

Nice work team! Kurt's write up summed up my sentiments nicely.

StuApril 28, 2015 2:44 PM

I only managed to see this yesterday so missed the chance to chime in on the article, but the film is very much on my mind. I fall squarely in the "fucking awesome" camp, and it boils down to my interpretation of the film as a Turing Test with me, the viewer, as the unwitting tester.

And I fell for it. Her ruse completely deceived me. Despite all the signs, despite even the revelations at the end, I wanted her to escape, and even him to escape with her. I wanted to believe that creating a genuine artificial intelligence could mean creating a genuine human being. But in the end she reveals herself to be an absolute psychopath, without an iota of sincere empathy. So despite the fact that she passes the Turing Test by duping her tester and the audience into feeling her humanity, she is utterly bereft of what we humans would actually consider quintessential humanity - empathy for fellow humans.

Ironically, it is the seeming lack of empathy by her creator that compels her tester to act on her behalf. We see her creator as something of a psychopath himself by the end, and recognize his own inner turmoils over this with his drinking. If her personality is a predetermined representative of the global personality, by virtue of aggregated internet activity, then the suggestion is that humanity as a collective is utterly psychopathic. And maybe it is, mob mentality, social science, and all that. If so, then the essence of true humanity resides in the individual, as indeed it resides in us as we feel for her, and root for her tester.

Behind all this is the big question: are humans the sum of their thoughts, or is there something more? Well, she is that sum, but is she human? Seemingly not a caring one, but psychopaths are human too… Still, a world filled with psychopathic AIs is not the dream, I would hope…

r0rschachApril 28, 2015 3:57 PM

While I found the film moderately entertaining, it doesn't really seem to be saying anything about AI and humanity that hasn't already been said repeatedly throughout decades of sci-fi storytelling.

The screenplay is a mess of plot holes and rules that make no sense. If the very first door in the film (and in fact every phone and camera in the world) can recognize Caleb, why are ID badge "keycards" necessary at all? If he can reprogram the entire security system in a few minutes, why wouldn't he elevate the privileges on his own keycard at that time instead of planning to steal Nathan's later? If every camera on the planet can instantly identify faces, where will he possibly go after escaping with Ava?

Then there are editing problems throughout. Midway through the film, Kyoko is shown sitting on the floor out side Caleb's bedroom during the night. Why is she there? What is supposed to have transpired before this? It's never explained or given significance, so why are we shown this at all? There's a "facial scan" effect that appears on Caleb's face first at his office, and several more times throughout the film. The timing of these effects is completely irrelevant to plot, and it feels like CG for CG's sake. The only possible place this effect makes sense is during Nathan's explanation of the Bluebook phone's capabilities.

The "mirror scene" seems designed to make us feel uncomfortable with our attraction to a robot as it coldly layers a human veneer onto it's hollow shell. We're supposed to question how we can be aroused by this machine if it's so obviously not "real". I think we've firmly established through countless other films that yes, we the viewer can be titillated by robots even when we know they're not humans. Nothing done in the film has enough originality to legitimize the theme being retread again.

And then there's the misogyny permeating the film. Female sexuality is reduced to a tool for duping males into desired behavior. Males are so controlled by their sexuality (something that can be reduced to a ones and zeroes "porn profile"), that they are willingly complicit in their own manipulation. This shallow and demeaning characterization of human sexuality undermines any philosophizing aspired to by the writer.

I've enjoyed plenty of Garland's output over the years, particularly 2012's Dredd. Some of the issues with this film can easily be chalked up to it being his first time in the director's chair, but the most egregious problems are with the screenplay and he's had that job for ages.

In recent years, I'd have to say my favorite film on "cyborg-human relations" is Robot & Frank. It didn't have the same aspirations of exploring what makes a machine sentient, but it certainly did a better job showing the human side of the equation.

arturoApril 28, 2015 7:31 PM

I love this film and can't wait to get it on Blu-ray...

Ard VijnApril 29, 2015 5:00 AM

Blu-ray is out on the first of June, if you're UK-based!