"Ex Machina" brilliantly captures the horror and hubris of the modern tech CEO
(If you live in New York, you can still catch Ex Machina on the big screen at Nitehawk Cinema. It's definitely worth seeing in a theater, and also Nitehawk is the best).
If somebody told you the basic plot but little else about the 2015 science fiction film Ex Machina, you'd be forgiven for thinking, well, that the world doesn't need another film like Ex Machina.
The directorial debut of longtime Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) tells a story of a man who tries to play God and pays the consequences for it; a story human beings have shared ever since we first invented gods to spurn. It's the tale of Frankenstein, of Dr. Moreau, of HAL Laboratories. And in Ex Machina, this unholy creation is a hyper-advanced robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) who possesses artificial intelligence so complex that she's able to effectively replicate human consciousness.
Again, we've heard this one before. But what makes Ex Machina stand out among these well-trod narratives is not the creation, but the creator: one Nathan Bateman, the reclusive billionaire CEO of BlueBook, a search engine giant modeled after Google with a touch of Facebook's penchant for manipulation.
Played with bro-genius aplomb by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) Nathan is equal parts Dr. Frankenstein, Elon Musk, and Howard Hughes. Through this character, the film operates as something more than a deft observation on the nature of consciousness, the hubris of man, and other familiar themes audiences have come to expect from the narrative Mary Shelley perfected 200 years ago. Ex Machina also offers a timely and deeply resonant commentary on the modern digital era. And in Nathan, Garland has created a proxy for every irresponsible Silicon Valley founder who strives to create a world shaped by ubiquitous algorithms -- algorithms which, by aggressively amassing data about their digitally-addicted users, are capable of not only predicting human behavior, but manipulating it.
The Terminator was wrong: It's not the big humanoid robots we need to worry about. It's the tiny algorithmic ones, guided by the hands of CEO sociopaths. (Though let's face it: we have to worry about the humanoids, too).
Before getting into the film's grand thematic statements, it's worth pointing out the subtle yet astounding sense of craft with which Garland breathes life into this narrative -- a process as detailed and deftly-executed as Nathan's creation of Ava.
Like The Thing, Alien, and practically every great science fiction horror film, Ex Machina wastes no time in setting up a clever "bottle" narrative -- meaning the film takes place almost entirely in one setting and with as few characters as possible. One of these characters is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson who played a robot himself in Black Mirror's best episode). Caleb is a mid-level programmer at BlueBook who after winning a company-wide lottery is selected to stay at Nathan's secluded home for a week -- presumably to test out his new top secret project. After a hours-long helicopter ride through threatening grey skies, Caleb is dropped rather abruptly in the middle of an abandoned clearing.
"This is as close as I'm allowed to get to the building," the pilot tells Caleb, before ominously warning him to duck down to avoid getting decapitated by the helicopter blades. This is going to be a treacherous week.
The first glimpse both Caleb and the audience see of Nathan is of the CEO brutally pummeling a punching bag against the serene backdrop of a mountain stream. He's a ball of violent chaos amid the tranquil perfection of nature -- not unlike the Jackson Pollack painting hanging in Nathan's otherwise austere sleeping quarters, which along with the rest of the house is as sleek and sterile as an iPod. The point is, without chaos there can be no order -- or at least that's what a self-proclaimed tech luminary/maniac like Nathan might tell himself when fooling with nature and the lives of millions of people.
Nathan is beefier and bro-ier than the mad scientists and tech nerds audiences usually see on film. Chummy, brilliant, and a little douchey -- Airbnb's Brian Chesky comes to mind -- the character faithfully captures the contradictions of the Silicon Valley alpha male founder. If the guy was born with a smaller brain he would spend his days trading workout tips on men's rights forums. Instead he runs the most powerful corporation in the world.
From their initial interactions with one another -- and in keeping with Silicon Valley etiquette -- Nathan treats Caleb less like an employee and more like a college bunk-mate, explaining that he'll have to skip breakfast on account of having "the mother of all fucking hangovers."
"Was it a good party?" Caleb asks.
After a couple beats of awkward silence, Nathan responds: "Party?" Whatever he's up to, it apparently leads him to spend a lot of time drinking himself into a stupor alone.
Next, Nathan takes Caleb on a tour of a house, and here Garland puts into place a rather ingenious plot mechanism: The doors to every room in the house are locked and can only be opened with a key card. Caleb's key card works on some doors, but if he encounters a door that won't open automatically for him, that means the area is strictly off-limits. It goes without saying that Nathan's key card provides full access to every room, along with whatever dark secrets and menacing unknowns are concealed therein. As you might imagine, this plot point is used to great dramatic and suspenseful effect throughout the film. But moreover, it effectively immerses the viewer into Caleb's perspective -- we want answers as much as he does and are therefore as frustrated as he is when encountering a door that won't open, a secret kept hidden.
As these subtle portents continue to build, so does the tension -- subtly, organically, and almost imperceptibly -- bringing with it a realistic and powerful sense of dread. And this is precisely what Alex Garland does best. From The Beach to 28 Days Later to Sunshine -- three Danny Boyle films based on stories or screenplays by Garland -- the writer is unparalleled when it comes to putting in place the structure, rules, and restrictions of a doomed narrative, aligning the components of character and scenery in a way that's just ever-so-slightly off-kilter. Like in all his stories, the world Garland's created in Ex Machina is like an impossibly intricate handcrafted watch, but with an important piece missing -- and neither the viewer nor the protagonists know what that missing piece is, yet. This allows an ocean of menace and unease to slowly amass beneath the best laid plans of its characters, as Garland conjures an enormous amount of suspense for what's to come.
Of course, some might argue that Garland is too good at setting scenes, framing mysteries, and building suspense, to the detriment of his ability to deliver on these early overtures toward greatness. That's because in all three of his collaborations with Boyle, Garland propped audiences' expectations up to impossible heights during the first and second acts -- only to fail to reach those heights in the third. Sunshine, for instance, may hold up as an entertaining midnight monster movie. But after a gorgeous and gripping two acts that tease the audience's capacity for awe like few science fiction movies ever have outside of Kubrick's 2001, viewers were naturally disappointed when the concluding act revealed the film to be less a mindblowing vision of the future and more, well, "an entertaining midnight monster movie."
But after watching Ex Machina, I wonder if those films ran out of steam not because of Garland's writing but because of Danny Boyle's unfortunate tendency toward bombast. Because here, in his directorial debut, Garland succeeds in sustaining that strange brew of suspense and wonder for nearly the entirety of the film. And he achieves this by maintaining that methodical pace to the storytelling, never letting the narrative skid off the rails like Boyle often does. Despite his capacity for orchestrating impressively elaborate setpieces and unforgettable moments of visual splendor, Boyle's third acts are like the cinematic equivalent of watching a poodle hyperventilate.
It's not until the film's final fifteen minutes that the micro-utopia built by Nathan falls to pieces. Before that, the film offers 90 minutes during which the characters do little more than talk to one other. The pacing is not dissimilar to Richard Linklater's Waking Life -- though unlike that movie, the content here is considerably more compelling than the Wikipedia entry for "Philosophy." The film's conversational arc involves Nathan slowly revealing the details of Ava's genesis to Caleb, though the audience is trained early on not to believe half of what he says.
One thing that is true is Nathan's disturbing explanation for how he programmed Ava to "read and duplicate" a seemingly infinite number of human facial expressions and vocal rhythms: The CEO did so by activating the cameras and microphones of every smartphone on the planet, then capturing and routing that data through his search engine's parsing algorithms.
"And all the manufacturers knew I was doing it, too," Nathan tells Caleb. "But they couldn't accuse me without admitting they were doing it themselves."
In almost any other movie, Caleb would have reacted in utter horror. Science fiction writers have long utilized everyman characters for little other purpose than to give voice to what the audience is assumed to believe.
But Caleb doesn't react like an everyman. He reacts like a programmer because that's what he is, cracking a half-smile as if to say, "Okay, that makes sense," before moving on to the next question. In the ethical framework of Silicon Valley, whenever sacrifices must be made in the spirit of technological progress, privacy is always the first thing to go. That's because the tech set have been through the looking glass -- they know how the social media and search engine sausage is made -- and are forced to come to terms with the precarious nature of privacy in the digital age. And they figure the sooner the rest of the world gets wise to this reality, the better.
Granted, many average consumers have already accepted the loss of privacy as a price of doing business. But as the film progresses, and as we learn more about what Ava is capable of, it becomes clear that the nature of the data Nathan collected is far more intimate than, say, a consumer's purchasing habits or film preferences. Consider, for example, that Ava is capable of simulating sexual activity in a way that's indistinguishable from her human counterparts. When this information is revealed, neither Caleb nor Nathan mention the implications of this: that BlueBook has infiltrated its customers' personal spaces at their most private and intimate moments. And, again, why would they mention it? Sexual intimacy is just another casualty in the war of innovation.
Defenders of Silicon Valley will say this is where the film goes past commentary into the realm of allegory; meaning that Google probably doesn't spy on its customers while they're having sex. That said, would you put it past Larry Page and Sergei Brin to do exactly that, given sufficient incentivizing to do so? Google might record its customers' sexual activities in the pursuit of money, but a more likely scenario is that the company would do so in the pursuit of what they and others in the Valley might consider an unquestionably lofty ambition. That ambition could be pure technological innovation -- in the case of like building a robot like BlueBook's -- or merely the expansion of the wealth of human knowledge, including but not limited to research into human sexuality. Companies like Facebook and OKCupid have already made it clear that they don't need your explicit permission to conduct "scientific research" on you. And considering the immense value these companies, their data, and their money can bring to legislators, defense officials, and other government stakeholders, there's a good chance they would get away with it.
But concerns over BlueBook's participation in the erosion of privacy and Silicon Valley's for-profit surveillance machine are almost quaint compared to the worst of Nathan's crimes against consumers. The data collected by search engines and social networks, along with the algorithms that parse them, hold the power not only to predict and replicate human behavior, but also to manipulate it. And without revealing the film's chief plot twist, Nathan exercises this control to very specific ends. This is perhaps the most plausible of any of Nathan's misdeeds: the tech companies of today already do this, though it's usually toward the comparatively harmless goal of convincing users to buy or click on something. But Facebook, for instance, has already been caught -- scratch that -- it's already proudly admitted to using its algorithms to manipulate the emotions of users, in order to better understand how and whether its service can lift or dampen a person's mood. To be sure, in Ex Machina, Nathan goes farther than Facebook, manipulating a person's actions. But it doesn't require a stretch of the imagination nor a monumental step forward in technological progress to accept this as a very real possibility.
If you've ever watched a dystopian science fiction film, you know they rarely end well. And so I don't think I'm giving much away in saying that by the end of Ex Machina a good deal of calamity befalls on the principal characters, both human and otherwise.
But unlike Frankenstein and the other stories Ex Machina resembles on the surface, the real victims of the film's conflicts -- which impressively run the gamut from "man-vs-machine" to "man-vs-man" to "man-vs-God" -- are not the creator, his creation, or the unwilling "everyman" participant. It's every digitally-connected man and woman on the planet, who for the sake of convenience or conformity or commerce have put themselves at the mercy of tech leaders guided by greed, hubris, a lack of principles, or all three.
In order to find the parts needed to build his monster, Dr. Frankenstein robbed graves -- an ethically questionable move but essentially victimless. The men and women he pilfered were all already dead. But when the new tech elite build their monsters, they'll go after the living. What's that line again about you being the product?