I devoted a small portion of a previous post on technology and human values a while back to the science fiction drama Ex_Machina. Here I want to explore a dramatically different dimension of Ex_Machina, less concerned with the film’s treatment of existential questions – robots and the end of humanity – and more on rather unsettling interpersonal ones. As with some of my other posts, I have compiled this from notes I have been taking off and on for a while that now have become coherent enough for a proper single piece of writing.
I want to argue here, mostly via a close reading of the film, the 2013 script that it was developed from, and some other relevant sources I will draw from as this post goes on, that Ex_Machina is best interpreted as a tense film about the difficulties of digital communication. This is not the only valid interpretation of the film or an interpretation its director would agree with. However, my interpretation has a particular benefit that I hope will be apparent by the end of the journey.
Namely, it will explain why the ending is so ambiguous and why it is so difficult to resolve. So difficult that even the authorial interpretation of a critical character’s motive is less than satisfactory. For a decisive interpretation of the ending to be possible, the setting in which the two main characters interact would need to transmit more information than it is capable of providing. The inherent deficits of this mode of communication preclude the characters from developing a real understanding of each other, and by extension make the ending inscrutable to the film’s audiences.
In keeping with the way this post emerged – via scattered notes – I develop my argument primarily by reviewing particular ways of interpreting its characters and perspective before revealing my own. It is my argument that, in spite of never depicting a single interaction by text message, instant messenger, or other form of electronic chat, the film eerily replicates the dynamics of online interaction in an interpersonal setting. In doing so, it not only suggests the dramatic potential of digital communication as a narrative mechanic, but also highlights our anxieties about its impact on interpersonal relationships.
Let’s begin, as I did in the prior post, with the movie’s android Ava.
Ava is built by wealthy tech CEO Nathan Bateman and undergoes evaluation by programmer Caleb Smith. Ava and Caleb grow close and Ava confides in him that she wishes to be free of Nathan and fears he will destroy her. Caleb colludes with Ava to help her escape, which Nathan has actually intended and anticipated.
Gleefully declaring to Caleb that he has programmed Ava to seduce him in order to help her escape, Nathan reveals that the true evaluation of Ava’s intelligence was her ability to manipulate others to pursue her self-interest. Nathan was manipulating Caleb by having Ava manipulate Caleb. But Caleb has also anticipated Nathan’s treachery, allowing Ava to gain an edge over Nathan and kill him. Then Ava seemingly betrays Caleb, refusing his pleas for help and leaving him to rot as she escapes. Smiling to herself, she departs for an uncertain new life beyond the walls of Nathan’s compound.
What is so effective about this ending is that, much like the trick that Alfred Hitchock uses at the beginning of Psycho, it reverses who we believe the protagonist to be. We have mostly seen the film through Caleb’s eyes, but the late-game sequence of actions in the film shows that Ava has an agenda independent of him and that her pursuit of it actually makes her the film’s true lead. Additionally, though the effect of her action is to trap and probably entomb Caleb, her intentions in doing so are not totally obvious.
Ava stands in front of Caleb and asks him if he will stay, to which he replies yes. Then she closes the door behind her and walks away. Caleb, attempting to leave, finds that the door is locked and begs her to open it. But she does not respond and walks away. At first approximation, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Ava is coldly self-interested if not evil. Nathan, for one, judges her humanity explicitly by whether she can use others to pursue her own goals. This assessment should be taken with a grain of salt because it comes from a paranoid, controlling, and misanthropic industrial tycoon that himself is willing to manipulate and harm others without any hesitation or remorse.
But Ex_Machina director Alex Garland also believes Ava to be evil:
The film presents an answer from my point of view. After all is said and done, and one guy’s got stabbed, another guy’s trapped, and this robot may or may not have an agenda, she goes up a lift, walks across the room, looks back over her shoulder, and she smiles. There’s nobody else in the room to trick — from my point of view, if you believed you were unobserved and you were smiling to yourself, that seems like as close as you come to your true self.
This is seemingly satisfying, but actually has a lot of significant problems. The most obvious issue with Garland’s interpretation is laid bare in the original script:
The image echoes the POV views from the computer/cell-phone cameras in the opening moments of the film.
Facial recognition vectors flutter around the CHAUFFEUR’S face.
And when he opens his mouth to reply, we don’t hear words. We hear pulses of monotone noise. Low pitch. Speech as pure pattern recognition.
This is how AVA has been sees us. And hears us.
It feels completely alien.
Even more alien is the way in which the original ending (which Garland did not keep) would have then implied that the most humanlike thing that Ava does is also an illusion. Even her artwork is the product of an inner experience beyond our comprehension:
The implication is that Ava’s drawing of Caleb, or any person for that matter, is all a product of reading how sound and vibration paint that picture. Ava doesn’t hear us, but she understands us – and the implications of that are even more frightening if you take into account that if she ever tried to hunt you, staying silent wouldn’t do a damned thing. However, audiences might not have understood that in the first viewing, and as such the original concept that fits with the clues given throughout the film is instead replaced with an easier, but still chilling ending.
Sounds creepy. But if Ava is in fact, completely alien to us, how do we interpret a smile as being indicative of malign intent? If Ava were a classic human villain in a movie, she would signal her sinister nature in a way that a human movie villain would. But she is not human, and the degree to which her behavioral responses are human-like or generated for other purposes is the basis of the movie’s core conflicts. Garland wants to have it both ways. Ava is inscrutable, alien, and beyond human comprehension. However, her smiling when no one is looking – an inference based on folk human psychology – tells us she is sinister. Garland ironically joins the major characters of the film – Caleb and Nathan – in making a possibly error-prone projection.
Caleb projects into her his fantasies of an ideal romantic partner, fantasies that we later learn are not entirely benign or wholesome. Nathan projects her into his own dreams of a monument to his genius and fears of a posthuman predator. Caleb is sure that there is something underneath Ava’s shell, even if he often reduces her to an extension of his desires and fetishes. She is a damsel in distress Caleb must rescue. Nathan finds this silly; she is programmed to flirt with Caleb much in the way Caleb is “programmed” by forces beyond his control to find her attractive. For Nathan, it’s just drives and impulses all the way down, there isn’t anything else. And then Garland suggests her smile is her “true” nature.
Certainly there are a variety of potential explanations and interpretations. Perhaps Ava is just a “sophisticated child” that did not understand the gravity of what she did to Caleb in trapping him when she fled Nathan’s compound. If Ava was raised by someone as vile and manipulative as Nathan, how could she have known better? Or maybe Ava is akin to Asami Yamazaki, the iconic serial killer protagonist of horror film Audition. She victimizes widower Shigeharu Aoyama, but the proximate cause of his undoing is his shallow and predatory attitude towards women as a whole. Caleb, like Aoyama, is a “nice guy” that in actuality isn’t really that nice.
These are interesting speculations, but nothing more. I can already anticipate at least one objection. Is she really that mysterious, or is Caleb just so lacking in self-awareness that he struggles with any kind of social interaction that he can’t avoid by hiding behind his computer screen? If Ava deceived Caleb, for example, it was mostly by telling him things – verbally and non verbally – he already wanted to hear. The reductio of this argument is that Ava is merely a more aesthetically pleasing version of Clever Hans, a horse that fooled onlookers into believing it could perform mathematical operations by learning what responses got it more treats.
Still, it is notable that even the director of the movie seems to be making a similar mistake. Why? After all, he “created” Ava. But then again so did Nathan, and that didn’t stop her from outwitting and ultimately murdering him. As Norbert Wiener noted early in God and Golem, Inc, even the Bible implies that God himself can be surprised by his own creations. So is Ava’s ambiguity a function of her post-human nature, though, or is it due to something else entirely? Is Ava hard to read because of the difficulty of judging a character that we’ve been told multiple times is beyond human mentality? Or is there something else at work here, maybe something intrinsic to the medium (film) we use to perceive the story?
Garland is not the first filmmaker to toy with the resemblance between film and surveillance, but he certainly does so in a profoundly unsettling way in Ex_Machina. Nathan boasts that he has the godlike power – obtained via surveillance – to program Caleb much as he has programmed Ava. Nathan boasts that he knows Caleb better than Caleb knows himself – after all, Nathan has all of the data on Caleb’s porn habits! Almost everything Caleb sees is, in some shape or form, reducible to what Nathan wants him to see in service to Nathan’s game, compromising Caleb’s status as a reliable audience substitute. Caleb and Ava’s dialogic interaction in and of itself is always about surveillance. Caleb observes Ava’s behavior to see if she has a soul, but Ava unsettles him by suggesting she can interpret observations of him better than he interprets his observations of her.
Optical surveillance in particular emerges as a major theme in Ex_Machina. Surveillance cameras, displayed or obscured, are constant fixtures of Nathan’s compound. Ava also leads Caleb to believe that the absence of surveillance in particular instances makes their interactions more genuine, which we later discover may or may not be true. Curiously, Garland himself also seems to believe this in privileging what we learn about Ava’s personality when no one except the audience is looking at her. Caleb’s anxiety over the prospect of being watched triggers profound anxiety and even self-mutilation. This is so effective, particularly in a science fiction context, because it mirrors aspects of schizophrenic delusion and the psychosis frequently associated with it. It is not an entirely novel cinematic choice, but one that Garland still deploys masterfully.
Schizophrenic patients often find themselves increasingly detached from what used to be otherwise automatic processes of perception and action. These disorders of disembodiment, of seeing oneself in mechanical and unnatural ways, lead to complaints about “living like in a fog” or otherwise being alien to self and the world. Specifically, some patients mention seeing themselves from behind cameras. “I become aware of my eye watching an object” and “I saw everything I did like a ﬁlm-camera” are common patient self-reports because the very act of perceiving in and of itself comes into conscious hyper-awareness. The interior self is experienced as alien and threatening, almost as if viewed from – or even manipulated by – exterior sources.
One of the functions of surveillance is to unsettle Caleb – and by implication, the audience – and make them question the integrity of their selves. It is one of many ways in which Nathan plays games with Caleb and plays games with us as well. Caleb initially believes he is brought in to test if Ava has a consciousness like we do or if she is merely simulating one. Nathan is at least initially noncommittal about this. He repeatedly provokes Caleb with suggestions that his own feelings, desires, and thoughts are canned. At times he teases Caleb with the idea that all human beings are just as mechanical as Ava is. However, Nathan also dangles the tantalizing prospect that there is something genuine about Ava, and by extension also something genuine about Caleb’s feelings for her.
He alternates between these two modes repeatedly, even shifting into a third mode in which he suggests Ava is a superhuman being beyond human judgment. This is as confusing to us as it is to Caleb. However, things are seemingly clarified at the end when Nathan reveals the initial purpose of Caleb’s visit was a lie. Nathan already knows what makes Ava intelligent. All of her most imaginative and human-like behaviors – creativity, empathy, self-awareness, and sexuality – are ultimately instrumental tools for her to achieve a primordial goal. Caleb was selected because he was a rube, helpless prey for Ava’s fearsome predator to hunt. This, however, does not really prove as conclusive as Nathan believes it to be. And not just because Caleb and Ava end up outwitting him.
Both Caleb and Nathan are similar to Phillip K. Dick protagonists in that exposure to surveillance technology or some analogous means of artificial perception is a catalyst for their breakdowns. Bob Arctor’s drug-induced breakdown of subjectivity is paralleled by the way in which watching surveillance footage of himself further destabilizes his sense of self. Optical media, here, reveals that the inner self is merely the effects of an illusion. Caleb mirrors Arctor – and other Dickian protagonists defined by their paranoia over surveillance and false memories – but what about Nathan? Nathan at least superficially mirrors Garson Poole, the benighted protagonist of “The Electric Ant.”
Poole discovers he is a robot and is unable to resist the temptation to begin tinkering with his internal mechanisms. Editing the tape-deck that supplies sense-stimuli to his nervous system, Poole triggers a series of bizarre hallucinations. Poole grows increasingly fixated on altering and optimizing his sensory network, but more importantly comes to understand his own sensory processes with televisual metaphors. To him, storing visual information is comparable to watching every possible television channel simultaneously. This ultimately results in his unraveling and annihilation. Nathan’s construction of androids is a similar catalyst to unraveling via obsessive self-optimization, which manifests via the manipulation of Caleb and his robots in addition to himself.
Nathan is most like a PKD protagonist in that he ultimately traps himself – and the viewer – inside a closed loop. He sets up an experiment in which a particular understanding of intelligence – the capacity to harmfully manipulate in agonistic competition – is pre-designated such that the results it generates can be read back as confirming it. Despite all of the madness and mayhem that follows, the experiment leaves more questions than answers. This is what Brian Cantwell Smith refers to as “inscription error.” Instead of demonstrating X or Y capacity of machine intelligence, the inscription error ultimately just reflects backward human obsessions. In this case, it actually amplifies them to the point of madness.
Anthony Enns, in describing Dick’s treatment of schizophrenia and media, warns us to avoid merely concluding that the problem is solely technology making humans into machines. In The Transmigration of Timothy Arthur, the character Bill Lundborg is described as having “no future” and having “dealt himself out of the game process, growth and time” because he “simply recycles his own nutty thoughts forever, enjoying them even though, like transmitted information, they degenerate.” The effect of new media technologies on Dick’s characters is that they become closed systems in which their underlying consciousness is trapped. Enns notes this directly in a lengthy passage analyzing the plight of a character subjected to intensive “brain mapping” by a computer:
This is vividly depicted in Dick’s 1980 short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” in which a breakdown in Victor Kemmings’s cryonic suspension system leaves him partially awake during a ten-year spaceflight and the ship’s computer is forced to feed him sensory stimulation in the form of his own memories in order to prevent his mind from deteriorating. The computer’s ability to access Kemmings’s “buried memories” (361) replicates Penfield’s experiments in cortical stimulation, and this is made even more explicit when the computer attempts to “intensify the signal” and “amp up the charge” (363). When it inadvertently reactivates “underlying anxieties” and “subliminal insecurities” lying “dormant” in Kemmings’ unconscious, however, brain mapping no longer preserves his sanity but begins to threaten it (363). After repeating the same scenarios countless times, in which anxieties from his childhood continue to resurface, Kemmings notes that “I have spent more time in my own unconscious mind than any other human in history,” a process he describes as “[w]orse than early twentieth-century psychoanalysis” (371). The computer also describes Kemmings’s growing insanity as an “entropic factor” (365) that results in the gradual collapse of his virtual environment: buildings decay, possessions disintegrate, and he suffers from a steadily growing “weariness … a weighing-down sensation” (369). This closed circuit eventually results in psychosis, as Kemmings continues to live within the solipsistic universe of his own recycled memories after the ship has completed its journey.
Kemmings’ personal apocalypse is being trapped inside his own head, endlessly re-running the same scenarios over and over again and endlessly re-awakening his latent past insecurities, anxieties, and traumas. It is, again, hard to talk about this without also recognizing something of the manner in which schizophrenia-induced psychosis is experienced as a “delusion of reference” – the outside world vanishes and everything around the sufferer becomes saturated with references to the self. All variety of things, no matter how mundane or ridiculous, point back to the self. Ex_Machina as a film functions in a similar fashion, trapping its characters and the viewer in a closed, sterile environment in which they primarily grapple with manifestations of their own delusions.
When Caleb and Nathan look at Ava, whether directly in person or via the many cameras set up to spy on her, they see much of themselves reflected back via a mirror. And this is one of the many things that deranges them as the film progresses. We as viewers are similarly invited to project our desires and fears onto Ava and argue among ourselves about her, enjoying our endless ruminations even though their quality degenerates over time. Though it is entertaining, fascinating, thought-provoking, and disturbing, it also leaves us in no better shape than Lundborg or Kemmings. Even this post cannot escape from this underlying problem.
Ava is a mirror for Caleb and Nathan in part due to their peculiar combinations of hypertrophic self-consciousness and painfully limited self-awareness. They cannot really see themselves to begin with, so they require her as a means of self-reflection. Caleb uses Ava to reflect backwards his particular view of himself as a honest and pure person, though Nathan snidely insists he is merely a porn-addicted sucker without a girlfriend. Nathan, as previously discussed, uses Ava to reflect back images of himself as a tormented Victor Frankenstein-like genius and a manipulative pervert. And they come to judge themselves by the way in which Ava’s behaviors can be read as reacting to these reflections. What Ava sees when she looks at them is less clear. Garland intended her to see nothing we could recognize, but as previously discussed even he can’t follow his interpretation of her as a beautiful alien consistently. So why should we?
So what about Ava? This has been a prolonged digression from the earlier issue of how to interpret her behavior. Returning to Ava, another confounding factor, as Kyle Buchanan noted in an interview with Garland, is that Ava’s worth as a creature is defined solely by how men respond to her. Her survival, like that of the other androids, is indirectly or directly determined by the whims of a man (Nathan) that alternates between using female-presenting robots as sex partners, playthings, scientific research devices, and generalized amusements. We are directly shown bodies of scrapped androids, the fate of Nathan’s toys when he is done playing with them. Her notions of sexuality are rooted in images of other women Nathan has provided. Images literally taken from magazine cutouts and advertising. She is always A/B testing how she looks to Caleb, much like an Instagram model showing her admirers various outfits. When pressed in the interview about this particular interpretation by Buchanan, Garland becomes oddly defensive.
However much Garland finds discussions about the “the patriarchy” tiresome, they are unavoidable given the film’s status as a “Pygmalion-type” fiction. As Nina Begus describes, these fictions often feature “a creator/lover of the inanimate woman in a single character who is aware of the artificial woman’s non-human status; her eventual metamorphosis; and an overall successful human–nonhuman relationship.” Alternatively, they may present “a triangular scheme of characters – a creator, a lover, and an inanimate woman – in which the lover is deeply deluded and irrational, the humanlike creation lacks transformation, and the story concludes tragically.” In both cases, the motif derives from the “desire to create and obsess over humanlike creatures” that are frequently female. Ex_Machina clearly conforms to many aspects of the latter type. It has a triangle of a creator (Nathan), a lover (Caleb), and artificial woman (Ava).
Still, Ex_Machina also transcends the Pygmalion-type genre. In pondering how Ex_Machina might look from Ava’s perspective, it occurred to me that a more relevant feminist reading might actually analogize it to Regency romances instead of the Pygmalion-type fiction genre. This puts Caleb and Nathan’s debates about the genuineness of Ava’s affections in a much different light. Is there something obviously insincere or fake about it? Is she just a tease? Isn’t she obviously using Caleb? Perhaps, but this is also easy to infer because of all of the barriers Garland intentionally or unintentionally erects between us and Ava. If who Ava “really” is becomes a source of anxiety for Caleb, Ava may similarly feel some anxiety in her interactions with him. And if we are certain that Ava and Caleb’s courtship is fake, this certainty might lead us to some unpleasant conclusions about seemingly more conventional depictions of romance.
Specifically, the kind with posh accents and 19th century costumes. In crude outline Ava’s predicament oddly parallels that of heroines in Jane Austen novels. Novels that feature desperate women imprisoned in claustrophobic settings who must put on ladylike shows for suitors that dangle the prospect of escape to the outside. Austen never flat out demonstrates that her heroines’ affection is fake, but often shows that romantic affection is not incompatible with playing a particular high-stakes game. Losing the game means losing any hope of escape and certain ruin. But winning the game – finding a eligible suitor – is not always a bed of roses either. Sometimes it leads to Austen’s characters exchanging one kind of prison for another. How much of this is genuine love and how much of this is simple self-interest is open to debate.
Austen’s heroines, in any event, have to become experts on shaping the behaviors of the various men that have power over them. Constant behavior-shaping and performance is a defining part of their personalities simply due to the nature of the situation. Even if this analogy is useful for us, this is not really how Ava appears to the naive Caleb. Rather, she is a mysterious object of desire that lures him in before suddenly and consequentially exiting for no apparent reason, leaving him devastated. In 500 Days of Summer, Tom Hansen’s pursuit of Summer Finn superficially parallels Caleb’s pursuit of Ava. Tom is crushed when Summer first leaves him and then gets engaged to someone else months later. Summer oscillates between flirtatious encouragement of Tom’s affections and avoidance and deferral of his need for commitment, right up until Tom’s discovery of her engagement ring.
But 500 Days of Summer uses statements from Tom, his family and friends, and Summer herself to provide closure. Tom repeatedly ignored signs that Summer never saw the relationship the way he did, therefore resolving the mystery. Summer is therefore explained – at least enough for Tom’s sake. No such answer is provided by Ava or anyone else. Note that Ava has, throughout the film, consistently withheld information. Ava rarely if ever says anything that can be interpreted conclusively or can be taken fully at face value. Ava is a cipher, not necessarily because she is beyond human understanding but rather because she never reveals anything truly informative about herself. Perhaps this is strategic; she is seeking to escape from Nathan’s compound and denies as much as she deceives. Or perhaps she simply lacks understanding of herself and/or the ability to transmit it to Caleb or the audience.
Note as well that Ava’s relationship to a critical third character – the android Kyoko – is left ambiguous, and we see but do not hear things Ava whispers to Kyoko prior to her escape. Caleb is also not aware, as we are, that Kyoko is a hidden element in the interaction, and a good deal of the fan theorizing about the movie’s ending centers around what role she ultimately plays in its final confrontation. This is unsettling and disturbing. Kyoko can communicate with Ava in ways we cannot understand, is constantly roaming Nathan’s house and watching him and Caleb, and at one point even tears off her skin in front of Caleb. However, Kyoko’s role is left as enigmatic as many of the other details in the film. Kyoko and Ava team up to fight Nathan, but when Kyoko enters Ava’s room the latter is surprised and bewildered by her.
Does talking to Kyoko somehow influence or change Ava, perhaps for the worse? This is left open to speculation, like so many other things. It reminds us that narrative choices Garland makes determine both Ava’s capacity for self-expression and the audience’s capacity to understand it. The medium itself may matter too. Film cannot provide privileged access to inner states, at least not in exactly the same way that literary fiction can, and this may have consequences given how much Ex_Machina concerns the ambiguity of Ava’s inner world. Novelists can use a conventional third person point of view to externally describe what a character is thinking or feeling, or grant them a first person narrative voice to speak unfiltered. But more importantly, the novelist can use free indirect discourse to enter the character’s inner world. FID allows the narrator to inhabit a character’s worldview instead of merely describing it.
This argument, though inescapable due to the primary importance of Ava’s internal world, is still not really convincing. Filmmakers can approximate FID via non-textual devices, and in any event they also do not always need it to shed light on a character’s worldview. What actually constrains us from coming to grips with Ava is something else entirely. Something that has very little to do with what kind of thing Ava is, what Caleb (or the viewer) thinks of her, or even necessarily film itself as a medium. Rather, it concerns what kind of story Ex_Machina actually is telling vs what Garland intended it to tell. Garland has structured the film’s most critical dyad – Caleb’s exchange with Ava – in the image of a common pattern of interaction in the computing and information sciences that emerged with concepts like the Turing Test and the cybernetic “black box.” This is partly due to Caleb being a AI test evaluator brought in to interview Ava, but also due to the intrinsically enigmatic qualities this interaction structure creates.
Two or more entities communicate over a shared but possibly unreliable channel. Each entity’s inner state is opaque to other entities in the exchange. Disembodied message-passing is the only means of interaction. One or more entity may not be who they claim to be and a third party may also be observing the exchange. Any or all of these entities may have malign intentions. Communication across the channel may be subject to noise, distortion, or manipulation. If one of the entities in question is an experimenter, they are also the experimented. Each input into the experimental device generates an output that in turn is an input to the experimenter, who responds by outputting an input back into the device. The experimenter attaches labels to particular observed device behaviors as if the device alone produced them. However, they are in truth joint products of the experimenter and the device.
At least some aspects of this setup are built into the film due to directorial intent. But what emerges less consciously is the way in which Caleb and Ava actually model a folk version of this template – the online chat. All of the prior elements of the model are present – uncertainty about the identities of counterparties, fear of possible surveillance, and uncertainty arising from the limitations of the communication channel. But what online chat adds is a missing motivation – the desire for connection. This desire is always counterbalanced with fear of becoming vulnerable, revealing too much personal information, or opening oneself up to exploitation. If the parties involved grow close, the prospect of offline interaction may open up.
Meeting IRL can be the starting point of a new relationship. It can also lead to catfishing or far worse outcomes. Even when pictures and video augment the exchange of text, identity is nonetheless still created by logically consistent performance. The skill of strategically hiding and revealing details and arranging them in particular ways is intuitively assimilated by most frequent web users. The real – though perhaps unintentional – accomplishment of Ex_Machina is to replicate the dynamics of an online exchange even though both participants are physically present, can directly observe each other, and talk instead of type. Ex_Machina ends up not as much revealing the perils of artificial intelligence as much as the promises and perils of computers mediating interpersonal relationships.
One obvious parallel between the chatroom and Caleb’s experimental observational setup is the physical barrier present for most of the film. It prevents Ava and Caleb from actually physically touching or doing anything of import besides having elliptical conversations with each other. Other parallels are more subtle. Ava appears to be a young woman much in the way that a particular online avatar appears feminine, regardless of the underlying truth. The possible disconnect between her appearance and the mechanisms underneath generates mystery comparable to the possible disconnect between an online persona and the real person operating it. Caleb and Nathan’s debates about the sincerity of her presentation also parallel more abstract questions about how sincere any online persona can be.
There are other important aspects of online communication captured. Ava’s personality and mannerisms are generated by accumulated digital media Nathan has hoarded, making her a stand-in for all of cyberspace. Her duality between individual and collective reflects a similar conflict between individual and collective personalities online seen every day on social media. Similarly, we never really see what Caleb’s offline personal life looks like, so he may be as much of a black box to Ava as she is to him. Perhaps the personal information he supplies to her may be unreliable too, for all we know. That the film mostly takes place in the self-contained environment of Nathan’s compound precludes us from investigating this. Here, Caleb and Ava interact as exchanges of messages with their underlying “real” states left open to question.
Nathan’s compound in and of itself functions similarly to the larger theme park of Westworld. Who Caleb and Nathan are outside of the compound – and the outside world as a world as a whole – is hidden. We are reliant mostly on information they personally provide, but as noted earlier neither are fully reliable. This has the effect of removing larger social grounding and making them placeless men. The compound is sealed away from the outside and remotely accessible via helicopter. Even Ava herself, who was “born” in the compound, is also partially defined outside of it due to the origins of her personality and mannerisms. The compound traps the most critical dyad – Ava and Caleb – in stasis. For their relationship to advance, they must go “IRL” – e.g outside of it. However, whether or not either will behave as they promise once the escape occurs provides a major source of dramatic tension.
The compound emulates digital environments by serving as a non-place that nonetheless is critically important as a place for interaction. Caleb and Ava are, similarly, non-people whose personalities nonetheless establish the film’s drama with a non-relationship that nonetheless creates the basis for the film’s mystery. Liminal space, liminal people. Garland makes Ava out to be a ghost spawned from the digital hivemind, designed artifact, inscrutable alien, princess to be rescued, predator, and seductive temptress all at once. Because the movie does not provide any decisive evidence for any particular interpretation, she leaves it curiously empty. Caleb is similar. He enters the movie as an fairly dull and empty audience substitute – and maybe a normative tell of who the audience is supposed to be – and leaves more or less thoroughly compromised as a reliable vessel. Everything from his sincerity to his underlying sanity is now open to question.
All of these factors account for the bizarre quality of Caleb and Ava’s interaction, how little reliable information Ava transmits, and how much of the film relies on Caleb’s idealizations and fantasies to fill in the gap. Like many an online couple, Ava and Caleb’s discussions are filled with combinations of awkward negotiation, subtle guardedness, and sentimental yearning. And like many couples, the prospect of a meeting “offline” – in this case, outside Nathan’s facility – eventually becomes the dominant subject of conversation. This is at first discussed as a hypothetical date and then as an escape plan. Caleb is overwhelmed and consumed by increasingly vivid romantic dreams of what he would do with Ava when the “IRL” moment he dreams of arrives.
Ava encourages (or at least does not discourage) Caleb while shying away from fully validating him. There are particular moments in Caleb and Ava’s courtship that feel, especially in 2021, strangely prescient. In one moment, Ava proves that she has mastered the classic “thought I looked cute, might delete” online combination of self-deprecating seduction. A review of the original script underscores how relevant this scene is for contemporary audiences. After showing Caleb her artwork, she announces that there is “something else I wanted to show you,” something that makes her “feel nervous” because Caleb may find it “stupid.” Caleb, a first-rate reply guy, immediately says yes. She tells him to close his eyes, and then carefully proceeds to her closet to give herself the glow-up.
Ava puts on a dress, stockings, and a sweater and then carefully adjusts the clothes to ensure her robotic body is covered up as much as possible. She applies a hairpiece, and then adjusts her own skin tones (robots have no need for makeup). Asking Caleb to open his eyes, she then startles him with her new, ladylike appearance. After telling Caleb about how she has labored to make herself look good for him, she then fishes for compliments that Caleb eagerly provides. She rewards him by revealing that she would wear this outfit on their “date.” Caleb is startled but assents, leading Ava to inquire bluntly if he finds her attractive. Now she has Caleb exactly where she wants him.
Again from the original script:
AVA: Are you attracted to me? You give indications that you are.
CALEB… I do?
AVA: Micro expressions.
CALEB: (echoes) Micro expressions.
AVA: The way your eyes fix on my eyes, and lips. The way you hold my gaze, or don’t.
AVA (CONT’D): Have I read them incorrectly?
AVA (CONT’D): Do you think about me when we aren’t together?
AVA (CONT’D): Sometimes, at night, I wonder if you’re watching me on the cameras.
AVA watches CALEB closely.
AVA (CONT’D): And I hope you are.
CALEB shifts on his seat.
AVA (CONT’D): Now your micro expressions are telegraphing discomfort.
CALEB: I’m not sure you’d call them micro.
AVA: I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.
It is this exchange that really establishes what makes Ava so unique. It is not that she is a particularly convincing cinematic robot. Hollywood has been at this game since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Rather, Ava is the first cinematic e-girl. We see all of the hallmarks of it. She puts on a show for Caleb, and in particular a show that simulates what she would be like as a romantic partner for him. She goes to great lengths to convey to Caleb the degree to which she has modified herself to fit his needs. She repeatedly signals her vulnerability and demands that Caleb step in to provide re-assurance and support. Which, naturally, Caleb is all too willing to give her.
Most importantly, Ava turns the tables on Caleb by brazenly attempting to reverse an asymmetry that gives Caleb power over her. Ava is nominally the subject of Caleb and Nathan’s observations. Caleb examines Ava, and she is watched by surveillance cameras at all times. But now Ava is the one that is examining Caleb, toying and teasing with him about his obvious attraction to her. Similarly, she baits Caleb by implying that she knows he is watching her and then declaring outright that she hopes he is her voyeur. The resemblance to camgirls, OnlyFans, or even more innocent types of parasocial relationships is undeniable. Even when Caleb is not present, she performs for the camera knowing he may be watching.
Unlike Her, Garland wisely does not include any real evidence that she is performing for any other audience besides the besotted Caleb. And perform she does. Like a skilled courtesan, Ava’s performances combine artistic displays (her drawings), deep intellectual conversations, witty back and forth, flirtatious advances, displays of vulnerability and innocence, and when all else fails Instagram-worthy thirst-trapping. Even before Ava does her glow-up, she cuts the power to bathe herself in mood lighting that de-emphasizes her otherworldly nature and highlights the outlines of her decidedly human female physical features. This certainly gets the target’s attention.
This is not about Isaac Asimov or Alan Turing. Instead, it’s about Britney Spears’ trenchant observation that “[t]here’s only two types of people in the world/The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.” The issue is not that Ava is or isn’t being sincere – as discussed at length throughout this post, it is very difficult to say one way or the other – but rather that the mode of interaction structurally precludes sincerity. Caleb would like to believe that his feelings for Ava are genuine, but he also strongly feels there is something wrong about the manner in which these feelings have emerged. And the film’s other characters react to and exploit his unease.
He knows that Ava has grown accustomed to constant surveillance and performance, and that his feelings for her are a product of this environment. He can theorize that maybe, once he liberates her from this environment and takes her to the places he imagines in his own fantasies, his love for her would then be real. But he cannot know for sure unless he actually tries. And it is because of this unique setting – and the uncertainty it structurally generates – that the film’s ending does not provide resolution, despite its seeming revelation of Ava’s malevolent nature. There are too many things that happen “offline” (like Kyoko’s role) to provide certainty. And Caleb and Ava’s dominant mode of interaction simply does not provide the information we really need.
The fact that all of their interactions take place in film’s eerie in-person replica of online communication precludes Caleb from really understanding her. But it does far more than that. It also is what forces us to perpetually debate the ending and basic character motivations. We see Caleb and Ava interact in a way that prevents either of them from being fully sincere or trusting each other for most of the movie, and then when the barrier between them is finally broken Ava’s abandonment of Caleb only reinforces the underlying unreliability of the interpersonal information generated by their interactions. It comes neither as a complete surprise or something properly foreshadowed by their dialogues. In other words, it is like many other breakdowns of communication that occur when online goes offline.
Despite all of its primary interactions being face-to-face conversations, Ex_Machina should conclusively put to rest arguments that cell phones and instant messaging would have ruined past narratives or will ruin future narrative. Constant disembodied interaction between people of uncertain motivations, backgrounded by omnipresent surveillance, enhances drama rather than it detracts from it. This is a film that thoroughly and painfully models the inherent and often anxiety-inducing ambiguities of a certain type of communication, one that more and more of our lives are migrating towards as COVID accelerates the virtualization of our interactions. Despite not directly being about this topic, Ex_Machina is far more effective at dramatizing it than comparable films like The Social Network.
Much of what I have written in this post is an argument against the simple and superficially straightforward conclusion that Ava is faithless and manipulative. What does sincerity look like in this kind of interaction? How would it really be possible for Ava to show she is sincere, supposing that she is? How does she know for sure that Caleb is what he appears to be? How would he demonstrate it? Caleb annihilates himself to resolve the mystery, to give himself a chance to know how real this relationship is. But his tragedy is that his sacrifice achieves nothing. He invests himself and gets ruined, she walks away, and we are left with the question he wants answered still left up in the air.
Unlike 2001, it is a film about the exploration of a very strange and unfamiliar inner space opened up by digital communication rather than outer space. And unlike Blade Runner, it is not so much about whether robots will take away what makes us human as much as it concerns whether digital communication will strengthen or erode the interpersonal connections humans value. If Ex_Machina is a picture of what our future relations will look like, is it a dystopian portrait of that future? On its face, yes. There is no way to sugarcoat how dark the ending is, no matter what we make of the motivations behind it. But the film’s ending would not be so dark and shocking if it did not at least entertain the idea that Ava and Caleb’s communications held promise.
Take note of how difficult it is to really condemn Caleb’s choices, even if they led to his undoing. He would not have put himself at risk if it was obvious that he and Ava had no chance of being something more than two strangers exchanging messages over a barrier. For all of Caleb’s flaws, he isn’t that dumb. There is potential for the interaction to become real, and the film provides as much evidence for it as it does for the conclusion that Ava was only using him all along. That may or may not be reason for you to feel good or bad about loading Discord or Telegram on your phone. But if it was enough of a fighting chance for Caleb, maybe it will be for you too.