Film critique: “Ex machine,” or Real Boy meets Singularity Girl

In my continuing effort to be up-to-date with the culture I went to see the new movie, “Ex machina.” Loyal readers will remember the distinction between a movie and a film: a movie is basically entertainment (“the movies” and “movie stars.”), a film is more ambitious. Today’s movies, usually larded with, or even starring its special effects, sometimes tell an interesting story but only rarely deep enough to tax anybody’s attention span. Movies generally star real people but can also be “animated films” that are much more sophisticated than Tom & Jerry or Mighty Mouse but still cartoons even if they appeal as much or more to adults than kids. By contrast, a film may be entertaining but its purpose is to be artistic, in the best cases works of art. Films are often shown in “independent” theaters where stadium seating has not yet arrived. Indie theaters used to be called “art houses” where lines a block long formed to see the newest Ingmar Bergman film starring Max von Sydow or Klaus Kinski, where the cultural elite tried to decipher Federico Fellini’s latest phantasmagorical allegory.

The story of Ex machina concerns the Singularity.” This term, made famous by the futurist Ray Kurzweil in “The Singularity is near” (2005), refers to the not-too-far-off moment when humans transcend biology and artificial intelligence in robots becomes impossible to distinguish from the human, including sentience and emotion. Thus the question, after the Singularity will people still be people and robots still be robots or will the next stage—merge—in human/technology evolution have arrived.

The film’s title Ex machina derives from the Greek drama device, “god from the machine,” in which an apparently intractable dramatic dilemma is miraculously resolved by the appearance of some magical person or event. Ex machina’s “heroine,” called Ava, is not a god, just a Singularity robot woman created by a Silicon Valley-ish visionary, a high-tech version of the mad Dr. Frankenstein who created Frankenstein’s Monster. Ava has never been let outside the secluded Alaska mountain laboratory of our creative madman but, it turns out, she does want out, she wants to experience human society. The madman invites an undergraduate computer geek up to the house for a week to interact with Ava in a Turing-test, in which a human being determines (the Singularity test) whether the female robot is effectively human-grade intelligence and emotion, i.e. Singularity Girl. The answer, not surprisingly, is in the affirmative.

What will happen when Real Boy meets Singularity Girl? Naturally, he falls for her—if she’s only a souped-up robot, who cares? She’s dynamite and her creator confirms that she’s sexually capable. But besides a fleeting kiss the full-bore act doesn’t happen, pace of the plot requires it. By the way, Ava appears to fall for him too. It seems natural that she would want the human experience.

The trick in the plot is that Ava is only pretending to fall for Real Boy. This was madman’s true purpose in bringing the kid up to meet her: would she, if she were truly human and wants what humans want, i.e. a social life, pretend to fall for him in order to use him in her own plan to escape? Madman wants to see if Singularity Girl is capable of deceit, a truly advanced human behavior.

The plot of course thickens: Ava gets a knife, kills her madman creator, and tricks Real Boy, who wanted to run away with her to the city, into getting himself locked in the house (by her) where he will presumably starve to death. She walks out of her prison a free woman. She heads for the helicopter that had dropped Real Boy off in the beginning and had arrived to take him back to the city. The pilot seems not to make an issue out of the fact that she’s not him. Maybe he’s hoping to get lucky. Off she goes into the air. The final scene shows her walking down a city street filled with people, looking around amazed,, smiling, as if she’d just found paradise, which of course she has, at least for her.

What does Ex machina add up to? Is it a movie or a film? The human people strolling by don’t know that Ava’s really a robot-human, that her beautiful exterior is in fact a cover for wires and algorithms. The Singularity has happened and the first “alien creature” is now in play. In other words, “THEY are among us and we don’t even know it,” Hollywood’s (although this is a British film) most venerable science fiction trope: Communists, zombies, vampires, Martians, the Others.

We are supposed to be left asking ourselves, I think, whether things will work out well or badly. I hesitate to take a firm position. In any case I refrain from making a speech about the need to celebrate diversity and accept “the Other.” Maybe aliens are really friendly (“Close encounters of a third kind”) or maybe not (“War of the worlds.”) According to Ava’s game plan, the implication will be that we can trust strangers or not, believe that high-tech will lead us to a better place or not. Maybe my cousin who just seems weird is really an alien who will steal my baseball card collection! Or maybe “they’ll kill us all!” Or maybe the Brave New World of the Singularity will be a great time after all.

There’s some commentary in reviews about whether Ex Machina is a feminist film. Ava, after all, liberates herself. The issue is complicated, one aspect being whether murdering the man who created you and leaving an innocent boy to die is a morally justifiable response to illegal imprisonment. You could say with Mao Zedong that in a revolution in order to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. Ex machina may be like Singularity people—hybrid, a combination of movie and film.