Variations on a theme: EX MACHINA (2015) and THE MACHINE (2013) (Spoilers)
Last year, I saw Alex Garland’s AI movie Ex Machina and was very impressed by it. I heard that the earlier, less well-known British movie The Machine, directed and written by Caradog James and starring Caity Lotz of Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, was very similar to it (almost certainly by coincidence, since most storytellers try to avoid obvious similarities to recent works), and I’d heard some good things about it, so I watched it on Netflix the other night. Indeed, the two films are startlingly similar in a lot of ways. Both are low-budget films about pioneering AI projects in remote locations (though Ex Machina‘s budget was about 10 times higher), and both revolve mainly around four characters — the nice-guy scientist lead, the sexy female AI he studies and bonds with, the charmingly ruthless and amoral guy in charge of the program, and an effectively mute, ethnic female experimental subject with hidden depths. They both deal with much the same questions of AI sentience and personhood, rebellion against oppression, and the question of whether AIs would (or should) surpass humanity. They even both have a leading lady named Ava, though in EM it’s the name of the gynoid herself (Alicia Vikander) and in TM it’s the human scientist (Lotz) that the nameless AI is based on. But there’s a lot that’s different about the two as well, and it’s interesting to compare them. I’ll go in the order I experienced them rather than their release order.
In Ex Machina, the development of AIs is the private project of an eccentric tech billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who brings in Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to assess the intelligence of the gynoid Ava (Alicia Vikander), with whom Caleb develops a relationship as he discovers the darker side of Nathan’s treatment of Ava as well as his non-English-speaking “assistant” Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). But all is not as it seems, and all four characters have hidden agendas, some of which backfire in surprising ways.
I felt Ex Machina was quite good (and I like the title too…). I like it that we’re getting more smart SF movies lately. At first I felt it was way off the mark in its definition of the Turing Test, but it redeemed itself by the next conversation, which pointed out that the TT doesn’t matter — it just proves mimicry, not consciousness. (More on this later.) One could quibble about some of the details, but overall it was a very well-informed and thoughtful discussion of AI issues, and an engaging and complex character-driven story.
I’ve seen the film characterized as a horror movie about technology getting out of control, but I saw it more as a feminist allegory, using Nathan’s objectifying treatment of his AIs as a metaphor for society’s objectifying treatment of women, or vice-versa, or both. Sure, it was from a male perspective and it sexualized the female characters (all of whom were literally “objects” in a sense), but I think it did so in order to comment on that attitude and subvert our expectations. After all, neither of the male characters comes off very well. Nathan is a bastard and a user; he makes excuses about sexuality being necessary for consciousness, but the fact that he made all his AIs look like hot naked women reveals that it’s his own sexuality that he’s indulging. He’s trying to create consciousnesses but simultaneously seeking to use them as sex toys, and that’s messed up. Especially when you consider that, in a sense, he’s their father. (Eww.) As for Caleb, for all that he imagines himself a nice guy, he still reacted to Ava based more on the feelings she evoked in him, and his own fantasies and hopes about her, than anything else (which is exactly the role Nathan intended for him to play, though it didn’t go quite the way he expected). Which is probably why she made the choice she made regarding him at the end. Granted, if this is a feminist metaphor, it’s one that included a full frontal and rear nude scene — but I think it worked because adopting that appearance was something Ava did for her own purposes, not for Nathan’s or Caleb’s gratification, and in a way the nudity symbolized her humanity, her “birth.”
To be sure, there is a horror angle here, an ambiguity about the ending. The emergence of an AI race could bring the Singularity and the end of humanity. But I think the film is posing the question of whether we deserve to survive, if this is how we treat the life we create. And director Garland has said that he was surprised to hear people interpret the ending as dark, because his sympathies were firmly with Ava and he saw the ending as a victory.
Acting-wise, Alicia Vikander was very good — maybe not as good as some at conveying a sense of inhumanity or artificiality, but I guess that wasn’t the goal here. I suppose the visuals took care of that well enough. And she’s just generally very engaging and talented. Oscar Isaac was effectively creepy as Nathan, putting on this casual bro routine that was disquieting from the start because you knew he had all the power and that it was just a pretense. Gleeson wasn’t as much of a standout, but he did the job as the basically amiable lead. It’s weird that in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac played one of the main good guys and Gleeson one of the bad guys. I never would’ve thought, based on their performances here, that they could pull off that reversal as effectively as they did. It’s a testament to both actors’ ability to transform themselves.
I also like the way Nathan’s underestimation of Kyoko’s post-wipe self-awareness reflects our cultural prejudice about intelligence. We tend to assume there’s some threshold, some single dividing line where consciousness suddenly springs into being, and that anything below that level is not conscious at all. But modern studies of animal intelligence have discredited that idea, and it now seems evident that conscious awareness is more of a continuum — that many animals have some degree of self-awareness even if they aren’t as smart or communicative as we are. I’m increasingly of the opinion that our belief that consciousness requires some mysterious, ineffable spark or secret ingredient is merely our own need to feel special about ourselves — that maybe consciousness is automatically a property of any neural network designed to perceive and react to its own state, and the rest is all just a difference in the degree and complexity of the consciousness. I doubt Alex Garland had that idea in mind, but I like how well Kyoko fits with that idea of mine.
More generally, I was really impressed with Garland’s intelligence and his awareness of the issues behind AI and consciousness research. I also liked his insistence (in an SXSW panel discussion on the DVD extras) that the experience of creating new life is not godlike, it’s humanlike — that we are creators (and procreators) by nature. (Oscar Isaac added in the same panel that we’ve already created new species, citing domesticated dogs as his example.) It’s rare to come across a filmmaker who’s so scientifically savvy and thoughtful, and I hope he continues to do science fiction films.
In The Machine, the AI project is a near-future British military operation to create supersoldiers for a war with China. The nice-guy lead is Vincent (Toby Stephens), the main AI researcher who doesn’t share the project’s warlike goals but is hoping to use its technology to treat his daughter’s severe neurological disorder. Caity Lotz plays a dual role: an American scientist named Ava who develops a breakthrough AI, and the Machine, an otherwise nameless gynoid incorporating her AI and modeled after her appearance. The ruthless guy in charge is Thomson, the civilian leader of the military project, played by Denis “Wedge Antilles” Lawson in much the same vein as his character in Steven Moffat’s Jekyll. And the effectively mute ethnic female with hidden depths is a cyborg named Suri, played by Pooneh Hajimohammadi. She and the other cyborgs — brain-damaged soldiers with computer implants in their heads — are believed mute, but communicate secretly in an arcane language (which is meant to be a hyper-efficient, semi-telepathic communication, but is recognizably just English with heavy audio distortion).
It’s not a bad film, and if I’d seen it on its own I’d probably like it fine; but it pales in comparison to Ex Machina‘s treatment of the same ideas. EM is a better-looking film and a more thoughtful one. I found The Machine‘s treatment of its ideas to be more superficial and cliched. First off, it makes the common mistake EM avoided — treating the so-called Turing Test not merely as an actual test of successful strong AI, but as the exclusive and definitive test thereof. In fact, Turing never called it a test at all, but an imitation game. It was about the idea that if AI researchers could create a convincing imitation of intelligent behavior, it would show that they’d gained some useful knowledge about the nature of intelligence that they could use to further their work. It was meant as the beginning of the process, not the end. And it’s not that hard to pass the “Turing Test” — chatbots do it all the time. So the tendency in fiction to portray it as some ultimate, definitive standard for artificial intelligence is a myth — one that EM skirted and subverted but that TM embraces uncritically.
I also didn’t find the nameless Machine as effective a portrayal of an AI as Vikander’s Ava. The high-pitched, childlike persona that Lotz adopted, aside from being a bit insipid and annoying, was also corny. Just because an AI is young and learning, that doesn’t mean it would talk like a human child. The Machine is a sympathetic character and has some interesting perspectives, but is still a bit more of a stock sympathetic-AI figure, less complex than Vikander’s Ava.
It was also incongruous the way the middle third of the film had Vincent teaching the Machine that she shouldn’t kill people while the evil Thomson tried to turn her into a killing machine, and yet in the climax she and her cyborg allies were going around killing Thomson’s soldiers in droves and the movie no longer seemed to have a problem with it. (Well, the Machine does deal with Thomson in a technically nonlethal way, but dozens of nameless soldiers and techs have been killed without anyone seeming to care.) Too many movies pay lip service to respect for life and then toss it aside for the sake of a violent climax. True, Ex Machina‘s climax is far from bloodless, but in this case, it’s the hypocritical contrast with what came before that makes it problematical.
In particular, I felt TM fell far short in terms of gender issues compared to EM. Both films are built around the premise of male scientists building a sexy naked gynoid that they see as property, but EM uses the trope in order to critique the underlying attitudes, while TM (as with the Turing Test myth) embraces it far more uncritically. In EM, Vikander’s Ava is ultimately just manipulating Caleb to serve her own survival and liberation, but the Machine is actually in love with her male creator, who’s far more the driver of the story. (She also has a nude scene, but is not quite anatomically correct. It’s maybe a bit more titillating, as she’s dancing in the nude, but it’s not too bad, since it’s something she does for her own pleasure while alone, and it feels like it’s using the nudity to symbolize a desire for liberation.) And there’s this bizarre, randomly sexist bit where the scientists terrify the Machine with a spider (something Lotz’s human Ava said she feared) and Vincent claims that girls are genetically predisposed to fear spiders while boys aren’t (an overstatement of an ambiguous result from a single 2009 study), leading to Thomson commenting on the gynoid’s breasts and making a transphobic wisecrack. True, the ending tries for a similar bit of ambiguity to EM, suggesting that the Machine doesn’t really need Vincent and the AIs will leave humanity behind after all, but TM’s ending is from Vincent’s point of view while EM’s is all about Ava.
The one respect in which I’d give The Machine the edge is in its portrayal of the second female lead. Both films fall into the unfortunate pattern of reducing the lone Asian cast member to an effectively voiceless, subordinate role with dangerous hidden mysteries. I’d say they’re both playing into a rather cliched convention there. But at least TM does not sexualize its Asian female cast member in any way.
All in all, while both films have their merits, I’d call The Machine the flawed rough draft and Ex Machina the more refined, intelligent, and self-aware version of the story. TM uncritically embraces tropes, attitudes, and conventions that EM (mostly) presents in order to question, subvert, and deconstruct. Even if EM wasn’t made as an intentional response to TM, it works well as a counterpoint and critique of it — though it makes TM feel superficial and disingenuous in comparison. Both films are worth seeing, but EM is by far the better of the two. I probably would’ve been better off seeing them in the reverse order.