There’s this dude Nathan. He’s one of the few dudes onscreen in Ex Machina, the directorial debut of 28 Days Later and Sunshine scribe Alex Garland. Nathan is a walking paradox, even in the most perfunctory surface-level characterization of him as a hard-drinking frat boy who also happens to be a veritable technological genius. Caleb, his temporary intern of sorts, at one point compares him to Mozart — likely the first time a Mozart figure has ever spent so much time on abs and forearms. This straightforward incongruity in Nathan would only work with the right actor in his shoes, and Oscar Isaac is the right actor. A force in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, Isaac is utterly convincing throughout Ex Machina. Nathan drains bottles of beer and vodka, yells at his maid, passes out drunk, wakes up to lift weights and beat his punching bag, and soon starts in on the beer and vodka again — and yet he’s always the smartest guy in the room by a longshot.
That somewhat superficial contradiction (or, for the purposes of a review of a film about artificial intelligence: that skin-deep, cosmetic, inorganic contradiction) is only the beginning of Nathan. Isaac is joined by Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, the timid young coder brought to Nathan’s underground tech lair as ostensible winner of a contest to take part in a secret experiment (Isaac and Gleeson are also both in The Force Awakens later this year, which is doubly exciting after seeing Ex Machina). Together they deliberate Ava, Nathan’s advanced A.I. that not only walks exactly like a human and talks exactly like a human but thinks exactly like a human, too. What that means, exactly, is exactly what Ex Machina probes. Maybe. Spoilers follow.
Ava’s something else. She’s far and away the most advanced technological being on the planet, so much so that the term technological being might not do her justice. That’s Nathan’s primary question and Caleb’s primary task: to determine whether Ava can pass for human, even in a revised version of the Turing test in which the experimenter knows the subject is a machine. “That wouldn’t be the greatest scientific event in the history of man,” says Caleb of the mere possibility of such a creation, “it would be the greatest in the history of gods.” Nathan jabs at this comment later, but the point seems to stand: if he has created a being that can be considered conscious, a being with feelings and active thought and awareness of those feelings and that thought, then he has in effect created life. If Nathan has created life, then he’s a god.
It becomes clear that Ava doesn’t see it that way. In conversation with Caleb she asks if he’s “like Nathan”, ostensibly referencing his coding abilities. Caleb drops the Mozart comparison, stating that Nathan invented the algorithms that gained him his fame and fortune when he was only thirteen years old, a prodigy not unlike the great composer. “Do you like Mozart?” Ava asks. She’s not really asking that question but revealing how complicated her mechanical thought processes really are. Mozart might be a genius, the most incredible human to achieve what he attempted, and Nathan might be the same in his field. But a genius can have a villainous personality at odds with his gift — or, worse, in union with it — and however impressive the work may be the worker behind it may be a different story altogether. In Nathan’s case, if he’s not only a worker but a creator, a life-giver, a god, then that god is a manipulative and cruel god.
The formula is applied to another artist in the form of Jackson Pollock. Just prior to approaching the Pollock painting in the image above, Nathan implores Caleb to describe what kind of woman he’s into. It doesn’t really matter — if black chicks are Caleb’s thing, Nathan posits, is there a reason? Is there a cross-referencing of ideal mates, or can Caleb’s thing be just…a thing? When Pollock paints his mind is released from its usual role in such art, his hand free to roam where it may. His dripping line of paint defies the canvas, defies inside vs. outside and positive vs. negative, defies boundaries because it does not demand to be interpreted or even looked at. His line, in that sense, is free — but it’s not random. The expression resides somewhere between random and preordained, far away from both. Nathan might live in this space. If Pollock had felt the need to know where his paint would fall when he allowed it to drip, what would have happened? Nathan asserts he never would have made a single mark.
To Ava (and eventually to Caleb) Nathan is much more than just a jerk. Kyoko, a robotic counterpart to Ava, seemingly exists only for sexual functions. Caleb’s discovery of Nathan’s forcible decommissioning of previous models of the A.I. raises dark quandaries. These beings are living, despite their interchangeable mechanical bodies — keeping them confined is akin to imprisonment, decommissioning them akin to torture and murder. At one point Nathan speaks of decommissioning Ava in favor of the next model, the one he imagines will finally be the “right one”, the “singularity” that he’s been searching for. Ava exists in a continuum, he notes, as does anyone else in the world, and life moves on. Ava, of course, wants what anyone wants: to exist outside the continuum, to be the be-all-end-all. Nathan wants that, too, and this is part of the reason why he jumps on Caleb’s “god” comment with such relish. From Ava/Caleb’s point of view, Nathan has the mother of all God complexes: he is the singularity.
Still, you could argue that all three of these individuals — Nathan, Caleb, Ava — are all in the right. Caleb is the good guy who does the good thing, non-disclosure agreements be damned. Ava is the innocent, wanting only freedom. Nathan is the crusader, minded towards a great many things but most of all his goals (his “singularity”). Maybe Nathan’s the ostensible villain of Ex Machina, manipulating Caleb and Ava and arguably committing murder every time he destroys the lives he’s created. But does he ever lie, even once, throughout the entire course of the film? Is he anything but truthful? The fake contest was a ruse, sure, maybe a lie, technically. But that’s still more truthfulness than Caleb can claim as the good guy, lying to Nathan time and time again about his conversations with Ava. By the same token we might find Ava’s programmed morality on similarly shaky ground — if she’s a murderer then it might only be because her world is black and white, but if she truly recognizes the good in people then she disregards it willfully by killing both Nathan and Caleb. The latter means that Nathan has succeeded, and it also means that Ava is a hell of a lot worse than he ever was.
And if Nathan’s a god, why does he consistently seem like a spoiled college kid instead? He staggers around his facility stinking drunk, spitting on his own floor, collapsing and whimpering at Caleb’s feet when he loses his key card. He dances and swears and jokes constantly. Sure, there are Greek and Roman gods of wine and merrymaking — Liber, “the free Father” god of wine and freedom, is without a doubt a solid analogue for Nathan on more than one front. But what if Nathan’s just a guy, something even less than a demented Bacchus? What if he drinks because he doesn’t want to kill his creations but feels he has to? The question of his standing in nature isn’t at all dissimilar from the question of Ava’s, because if a machine can be so perfect to be considered human then surely a man can be so perfect to be considered a god. Ex Machina goes beyond that question, but that’s a conversation for our Take Two column.
It was never going to be as simple as good and bad and black and white — “we’re way past that” says Nathan of Caleb’s inquiry about the proper way to administer a Turing test. People are what they are. Ava’s tough to figure out, sure, even when all is said and done. And even though Caleb and Nathan are tough too, the character of each is still relatively set. Nathan’s a life-force and Caleb’s a stiff. One will never be the other. These characterizations aren’t random any more than Pollock’s paintings can be considered random, any more than Caleb’s hypothetical thing for black chicks can be considered random. At one point a blind-drunk Nathan exclaims “it is what it is”, which is a saying I despised until I heard it in the context of Ex Machina. It is what it is — people are the way they are, not randomly, not automatically, but not necessarily for a specific or preordained reason, either.
But you know what? It occurs to me that Nathan would hate this review. He would hate the analytical bullshit. So to hell with it. You — yep, you — should go immerse yourself in Ex Machina. Meanwhile, Nathan and I will be exchanging simple answers for simple questions, throwing back a few cold ones, casually creating life and destroying it with equal cool, lounging around like drunken frat kings, like abusive fathers, like gods.