Dangerous Robots are Too Mainstream

Alicia Vikander as a non-mainstream robot
“Dangerous Robots are Too Mainstream”
A Review of Ex Machina by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O
Reel Rating, Two Reels

            Hollywood has produced many films that deal the possibility of sentient robots, and Ex Machina is…one of them. It starts with the fastening premise of focusing on the relationship between only three characters: the creator, the creation, and the control. Which is human? Which is machine? Does it matter? The film raises many of these compelling questions only to go completely awry in the frustrating third act. Although some characters are more likeable than others, none aspire to be authentically an image of God.
            Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a grunt computer programmer at BlueBook, the world’s largest internet search engine/media/everything else tech company, whose life is suddenly changed when he wins a private week-long getaway at the mountain forest cottage of CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac, the gunslinger Catorce in For Greater Glory). His boss has been secretly developing a female android called Ava that may have crossed singularity and achieved consciousness. Caleb will be the control in the famous Turning test – whether someone can tell the difference between a real person and the robot. Ava is sweet and charming yet just a little creepy. Think Audrey Hepburn meets HAL-9000. During Caleb’s questioning, the power shuts off temporarily and Ava reveals that something about Nathan is terribly wrong. “He is a liar,” she pleads. This leads Caleb to an awful discovery, and he begins to consider finding a way to release Ava – if he can trust her.
            Early in the film, Nathan admits his arrogance bluntly. “I am God,” he states. He isn’t, and the outcome of Ex Machina is a horrific reminder he isn’t. This desire to imitate God by creating life well predates Isaac Asimov. In the legends of Greece, the titan Prometheus is punished for all eternity for bringing fire to humans, a technology exclusively the right of gods. Closer to the Christian concept of pride is the myth of the Golem, a creature created by a rabbi from clay and secret Kabbala verses. Yet such a creature was an abomination because it was made with the breath of mortals and would wreak havoc until destroyed. Ava seems human with just intentions but is only a mass of wires and electricity. Not matter how efficient such machines become, they will always be imperfect because they are reflection of us, including original sin. True AI will never happen, but real monsters just might.
            One aspect that makes Ex Machina uniquely a film of this age is how the internet affects everyday life. Ava is able read emotions and expressions because Nathan stole facial recognition information off millions of cell phones. “The companies even knew it was happening,” he casually remarks. Caleb also becomes furious when it is revealed he didn’t win a contest but was specifically chosen based on his background – no family, shy, impressionable, and single. Nathan admits he even based Ava’s appearance on Caleb’s “pornography search profile.” “We are all a result of programming,” Nathan asserts. Yet search engines too are reflections of people’s decisions; they do not make truth. In reality, no one is “programmed” to do anything. Yes, genetics can cause certain predispositions, but everyone has free will.
            All of these ideas barrel back and forth towards a sick and twisted ending that is easily predictable. The ultimate conclusion of Ex Machina is hard to say. One key to unlocking the mystery is an important element of its mise-en-scène: the hipster lifestyle. Nathan is the quintessential example. He is a genius coder but lives in the middle of the woods. He can quote philosophers yet gets drunk constantly. He sports a huge beard and sideburns with glasses and a shaved head. Like hipsters, Ex Machina looks really cool but doesn’t have much to say and comes off a little pretentious. In the end, it is data mining and search engines man should fear, not the robot apocalypse.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 30th, 2015.