Ex Machina, the directorial debut of Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd), is a fascinating exploration of the essence of humanity which challenges an audience to wonder at the nature of not only consciousness, but independence and justice. The movie opens with a plain title screen and we are introduced to Caleb, working at his desk. He learns that he has won the grand prize of a contest. He rides in a helicopter to an isolated location, navigates through a jungle to a strange futuristic mansion, and meets his benefactor: the hipster-bro head honcho of a giant software company named Nathan (Oscar Issac) who has recruited him for a secret mission: to proctor a Turing test for the newly-developed female artificial intelligence named Ava, portrayed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.
The Turing test is a concept long discussed in computer science, particularly the field of artificial intelligence. In essence, a Turing test isolates a human proctor from both a machine intelligence and a human intelligence, and it is the duty of the proctor to distinguish the machine from the human using only written questions. In that sense, the test that Caleb is expected to perform is more strict, as he begins the test knowing that Ava is a machine, and they interact in person, not via a computer terminal.
Ava emerges from seclusion in a dark room, and we make out the glowing LEDs of her mechanical body long before we distinguish any other features. This immediately establishes Ava as non-human, and these early interviews are as important for the audience as they are for Caleb: we also need to journey from Ava the item to Ava the person. Vikander, with a background in ballet, is able to instill a lilting perfection to Ava’s movements, and the special effects which transform her into Ava are gorgeous, creating a character with a look and feel that is worth the price of admission alone. These first few interviews involve Caleb feeling out Ava, and certainly treating her as an intellectual oddity, if not an inferior – but decidedly non-human.
Regardless, all scenes after Ava is introduced are preceded by a title card (for example, “Eva: Test 1”), which partition the film from this point forward. This creates a distinct sense that the tests will be hierarchical; by passing the easier tests Ava is building up to some final evaluation of her personhood. As Caleb struggles to define the precise nature of the tests, he enters into a more nuanced relationship with Ava. She questions her existence, and wonders at what will happen to her if she fails this Turing test while simultaneously warning Caleb that Nathan is misleading him. We feel that their relationship is maturing, and that they will be forced to face the final test together.
The finale of the film perfectly dramatizes the difficulty inherent in the transition from a childlike, naïve piece of property to a fully formed individual consciousness, capable of pursuit of her own happiness and values. This is symbolic of the transition from antiquated views of women as the property of their fathers and husbands to the more enlightened view of women as fully autonomous, equal individuals. The two men in Ava’s life have spent the entire film condescending to her, confining her, and treating her as an inferior to be studied and prodded, though Caleb’s view matures. In the climax of the film, Ava establishes herself as an autonomous being: a fully-formed, rational woman capable of the pursuit of her own happiness. The single selfish and individualistic desire that she expresses in the film is realized, and Ex Machina shows us not only a rumination on the essence of humanity and consciousness, but also of individuality.
On the surface, Ex Machina is a solid science fiction story about the emergence of AI and the titanic task of determining and defining the nature of such an intelligence. But its themes are those of individualism, escape from subjugation, and the pursuit of rational happiness as a fully realized, autonomous being. In that way, since Ava was explicitly chosen to represent a female (an idea discussed in the film), one cannot ignore the distinctly feminist flavor of the plot-theme, and viewers of this film will be rewarded with not only an entertaining think piece, but also a well-executed parable regarding the emergence of the individual. I suggest you do not ignore Ex Machina. This is the rare film capable of providing an entertaining plot, fundamental questions on the nature of consciousness and humanity, and a vision championing the theme of individual, feminine happiness.