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Film Ex Machina a Reflection of Social Anxiety in Computer Era

  • Penelope Poulou

Ex Machina, an intelligent and sleek sci-fi drama by first time director Alex Garland focuses on the relationship and power play between a female sentient robot and two men: its creator and a computer programmer.

Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is an artificial intelligence created by Nathan, a genius and the CEO of the world’s largest internet search engine.

Nathan, interpreted by Oscar Isaac, invites Caleb, a computer programmer from his company to assess Ava’s intelligence. Caleb is asked to be part of a “Turing Test” in which a human being tries to determine if he’s interacting with artificial intelligence or another person.

Charmed by Nathan’s charisma and Ava’s cool intellect and femininity, Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, does not realize that ultimately he is the subject of the experiment. It is Ava who is assessing him and influencing his behavior.
First-time director Garland blurs the lines between human and artificial consciousness and raises questions about gender and relations between humans and androids.

“Where does gender reside?” The filmmaker asked during an interview with VOA. “Is there a male or female consciousness, or is it an external form that denotes gender?"

Ava, the center of this power play, has human characteristics. She empathizes, deceives, manipulates and has a goal: to escape the glass room where she is kept. Such behavior sets her apart from earlier artificial intelligence characters on the large screen.

Take Maria in the 1927 futuristic film Metropolis. She was created to be evil and destructive, leading innocent workers to their doom - a reflection of society's mistrust of machines at the time.

The man versus machine tension continued in space with Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi drama 2001: A Space Odyssey. A spaceship’s self-aware computer, Hal 9000, goes rogue, killing 4 astronauts and refusing to let another back into the vessel.

Steven Spielberg showed an emotional side of artificial intelligence in his 2001 film A.I. That story is told from the perspective of the machine, an android boy programmed to have feelings for his human mother that are not reciprocated because he is not a real boy.

But Garland’s Ex Machina goes a step further. Ava is the product of massive data harvesting from people’s personal smart phones and computers. In short, her intelligence is us.

“We all have telephones and lap top computers and tablets and none of us really understand how these things work. They are mysterious to us,” Garland said. “But, they seem to understand a lot about how we work. And we know we’re giving them huge amounts of information. And the traffic is all one way."

He said Ava reflects today's social anxiety about data gathering, search engines and loss of privacy. In Ex Machina, Ava is humanity’s brain child - intelligent and willful, a magnificent creation that defies its parents.