Oscar Outlook: Why Ex Machina is No Black Mirror


Before I really get to talking about the movie Ex Machina, I feel like I should tell you a little bit about my upbringing.

I was raised in a pretty strict Catholic household. Even though I don’t go to mass very often, I still list my religion as Catholic whenever I am asked. I believe in a lot of the tenants of the faith and I think, like Judaism, there is a cultural element that comes with being Catholic. One thing about Catholicism I have fully bought into is souls. Only people have them. They also have free will and an ability to work with tools, create something bigger than themselves, etc.

The other thing to know about me is that I was surrounded by engineers growing up. If you Google my dad, Glenn Welman, you will find mostly patent information, as he was a very prolific engineer for IBM during his 20-year tenure with the company. After he died, my uncles who were engineers would talk to me about projects. I’d see the inner workings of a computer, I heard stories about what it takes to code and how code works, and I am very much a person who understands that, while a machine can seem magic, it is still a machine.

So, these films in which the filmmakers want us to question where the line is for what constitutes a person when it comes to robots and artificial intelligence (AI), I am generally just not interested in that question. Robots are machine parts and code. They are not biological creatures with a spleen and a brain, they definitely don’t have a soul, so what is there to debate? It’s not a person.

People talk about AI and the fact that these computer programs will exceed humans in terms of intelligence, and that is something I do think is interesting and worth exploring, but at the end of the day, I still think if a piece of AI is programmed to “act human” it is never going to be a human and have free will. It will mimic it, but it is just code performing a task.

Hence why I didn’t really want to watch the film Ex Machina in the first place. It didn’t look particularly exceptional compared to other robot movies, plus one of its stars, Domnhall Gleeson, is part of one of the best robot/AI things I have seen in a decade, the Black Mirror episode “I’ll Be Right Back”.

***SPOILER ALERT: I am about to talk about plot points of both Ex Machina and Black Mirror. This is your chance to tap out***

What is amazing to me about Black Mirror is that the story centers on the emotional issues surrounding AI, coming at it from an angle you wouldn’t expect. A woman tries to replace her dead husband with a robot who has access to all his social media accounts, text records, and any other digital components of his existence. He sounds just like him and says things Ash, her husband, would say. The widow becomes increasingly reliant on pseudo-Ash to be her life companion to try and fill the void left by her husband. But, while this works a lot of the time, eventually she realizes there are limits to what this piece of artificial intelligence can do. There are certain things about Ash it can never know, it will not grow into an older version of Ash, it will not change and be different during life milestones like becoming a father the way Ash would.

Here are a few reasons why I find the episode amazing. First are the phenomenal performances by Gleeson and Hayley Atwell. Gleeson manages to establish charming real Ash and then create “almost there” Ash brilliantly. Atwell as the grieving widow has to run the emotional gamut of losing someone, thinking you’ve got them back, and then realizing once again that they are gone. As someone who has not lost a spouse, but has lost a parent, I thought she captured what having a massive hole ripped in your life feels like much better than most.

I also like looking at the emotional fallout of believing that artificial intelligence can take the place of a human being. It is a take you don’t see very often. We have all sorts of movies where an endearing  robot seems to be human-esque and we question our attachment to them when their “life” is put in peril, but this was one of the first things I’ve seen where you look at it from the other side—can this robot replace a person I once loved? It is an issue kind of addressed in the movie Her, but I found the third act to be rather confusing and clunky and trying to suggest a sense of agency with the girlbot he loves that I simply don’t believe exists.

Finally, I loved that this wasn’t a story focused on how technology works or prodded my brain with questions related to logic, but instead had me thinking emotionally about whether or not I would take a robot version of my dad if I could. Like Atwell’s character, when the concept was introduced, my mind went straight to, “if only,” but as the story progressed, my feelings grew much more complicated, so much so I still think about if I would do it if I could one year later.

So, that was why Ex Machina didn’t seem that interesting to me, and I originally put it on my “not interested” section of a Facebook post detailing my Oscar movie viewing plan. At least  six people told me I was missing out to skip it, so when I found out it was on Amazon Prime, I realized I had no excuse not to watch.

Let me start with a very clear statement: this movie is fine. I didn’t think it was particularly great, but it certainly wasn’t bad. Most of my issues with the film, like Mad Max, stem from the fact it just isn’t my thing. I don’t really have any questions on whether or not Ava, Kyoko, or any of the AI robots in this movie have agency or free will. In my mind, they very clearly don’t. So, when Caleb (Gleeson) discovers his boss and the creator of AI bot Ava, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) he has just kind of destroyed and junk-piled the previous bots, I don’t really understand why he is surprised or upset that it happened. Caleb is a programmer, and every programmer I know understands that, like writing, you rewrite and draft new versions fairly regularly.

This is a big plot point, so the fact I have a hard time believing this is how a programmer would react is an issue for me with the film as a whole. I suppose I can reconcile that Caleb who, based on his interactions with Ava, has never had a girlfriend in his life, is smitten to the point of losing some of his more logical thought. In fact, Nathan pretty much admits this is why Caleb was selected to run the Turing Test on Ava in the first place. (Note: I thought the box test was kind of part of this, which influenced my viewing experience, asI assumed the bots were all programmed to escape.) Nonetheless, it is still strange for me to think Nathan is a villain–he is more a guy who let his delusions of grandeur get the best of him and he pays the price for it. He is kind of a douchebag, sure, but a horrible, sadistic serial killer? Not so much.

The performances of the four characters in the film are all fine, and there is a very random dance sequence that just made my day. I think that, for a movie that is treading over some worn over territory, it did manage to talk about AI and bots in a more sophisticated ways than I have seen in other movies. My only executional complaint is that the concept that Caleb was selected by his eccentric boss was not clearly set up, but that is really a minor nitpick.

The problem remains though: I just don’t care about these questions. While it was nice to see Ava construct herself the way she wants to look at the end of the movie instead of having a male construct her, it didn’t resonate with me the way it did with others because in the back of my head all I could think was, “well, this is what you are programmed to do, so really a dude is still behind this…” Which means that all those moments that really got people thinking or really generated a reaction from the average viewer were lost on me; because comparing Ava to a person is like comparing a Furbie to a dog. The answer seems so obvious to me, I can’t even pretend to think about whether or not robots deserve to be treated like people.

Basically, Ex Machina was like my own version of the Black Mirror episode. It was fine for what it was, but compared to Black Mirror, it is just an imitation of something I’d rather watch because it has more heart and soul.

My Rolling Top Five
1. Bridge of Spies
2. Inside Out
3. Going Clear
4. The Intern
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron


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