He’s a good person.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for an internet company owned by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is a nice guy. When he wins a lottery to travel to his boss’s expansive, smart-house compound, he’s thrilled to have been lucky enough to get the weeklong trip.
That’s how we meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), the embodied artificial intelligence who is the central character in the film Ex Machina. Caleb, our “good” male lead, enters a room in his boss’s mansion and meets her. The first session of an experiment, Session 1 begins, and in the same moment, so does some sort of relationship.
“I want to be with you,” Ava says calmly. She’s looking at Caleb when she says this in one of the seven sessions that allow Caleb and Ava to question, learn about, and even flirt with one another. But when she looks at him longingly through a glass wall, I don’t think it means she’s really falling for him. As we move through the film, it becomes clear that this isn’t a love story. It’s a story of survival, of gaining freedom. Whatever feelings Caleb develops for Ava, they are overridden by one fact: Ava is locked in the compound where she was created.
So they map out an escape. Ava can overload the power grid of the house to make it shut down, and Caleb can change the settings so the automatic doors open during a power outage. They choose a time, and the plan’s set. And with that, the audience member has an idea that Caleb will sneak Ava out and take her home to live a normal, human life with him.
Thank goodness that’s not the way it plays out.
Why? Because the hero of the movie isn’t Caleb; this isn’t about the generic good guy. It’s Ava, the one who survives sexual and emotional abuse from Nathan. Ava controls the power outage, and even though Caleb reprograms the locks, Ava owes him nothing. As far as she knows, he is simply another Nathan, able to recapture her and lock her in a new facility. Does Caleb really expect much trust from her when they’ve only interacted seven times, in the context of a test?
Another detail—I’ve only mentioned once that Ava is an artificial intelligence, and that was definitely on purpose. A mini-Turing test if you will. That’s because Ava represents us. She may be artificial, only wrapped in feminine skin. But she’s also every person who wants her or his own agency. She kills Nathan and leaves Caleb, not because she’s cruel (or has been programmed to connive), but because she’s surviving. And that’s what we would do in her place—survive.
Of course, a lot of people reading this don’t have to escape from much—at least not like in a dramatic scene of a bunker-like prison controlled by an insane “tech bro.” But that’s the genius of the movie: We watch the film from a human’s perspective, learning as Caleb learns about Ava, Nathan, his own existential state, and so on. The director’s goal seems to be asking whether or not we can truly empathize with Ava, the artificially intelligent character. My answer? We can’t just sympathize with her for being a robot, who has had to learn brutality to survive, or even cheer her on in vengeance. We must empathize with a being who’s finally free. One who survived.
Because, though we are the good people, the nice guys, the protagonists, we don’t automatically deserve to be lauded as someone’s hero. Caleb’s generally noble character doesn’t imply that he gets to determine Ava’s destiny, because she, too, is good, and more importantly, is autonomous.
I don’t know about you, but I found the film refreshing. From a feminist perspective, I naturally appreciate Ava’s sense of self, seen in the drawings she shows Caleb throughout the movie. And I love her development as an independent lead character, and that her peak is when she’s walking freely as her own being. Even more than that, I love that, as a Christian, I can appreciate the sense that Ava is a life saved.
The name Ava means “life.” Well, its Hebrew roots do actually tie the character to the biblical Eve. But even more, the movie forces us to think about the worth of a being, of a life. As a machine, she doesn’t give us much reason to empathize with her, as we could isolate her feelings to be the result of an algorithm. But as a being that may have a real grasp on consciousness, Ava is, once again, a representative, representing how thoughtful we should be about others’ lives.
Some of you are about to stop reading. You’ve stopped taking me seriously, because it sounds like I’m trying to make useless excuses for a robot—a machine. But you’ve got to bear with me.
Of course Ava is artificial, but the key word is representative. She takes on the identity of the captive, the oppressed, and the abused. Humans suffer a lot, and we need heroes. We need people to offer help. For Ava, the truest form of freedom is leaving behind people who would always view her as property (in Nathan’s case) or as a victim (in Caleb’s case). There is no excuse being made here. I’m simply suggesting that as people of God, we realize the significance in her being, her surviving, her living in freedom without either literal or metaphorical chains.
We get to do that. We get to live freely because of Christ. And sometimes we get to help others to freedom. We can stop what we’re doing and protect a life—maybe by getting out of the way.
As I said before, the premise and setting of Ex Machina are a lot more dramatic than most of our real-life circumstances, but the plot movement, the depth of Ava’s character, and the thoughtfulness behind the film make it invaluable to the modern audience. Naturally, I couldn’t even begin to discuss the prospect of artificial intelligence living among us, the programmed (or “predestined”) plans of Nathan versus the chaotic, unplanned actions Caleb thought he was committing—all wildly interesting topics that come up in the movie.
Ex Machina’s insight into heavy philosophical questions is played up by the small number of multi-dimensional characters featured. And the upset of the classic damsel-in-distress trope shows how aware writer and director Alex Garland is of the need for female, well-developed characters leading as their own heroes. The film moves through some of the most fascinating innovations and problems of our generation, and while plenty of stories could charge conversations about them, talking about Ex Machina is a magnificent place to start.