Review of Ex Machina (2014)

Moving picture, 108 minutes

Seen in 2018.

Because he is a genius, Nathan Bateman built a Google-like search engine (“Blue Book”) at age 13 and has since constructed, apparently alone and without anybody finding out, a series of absolutely lifelike humanoid robots with artificial general intelligence.

In conversation, the genius can offer no reason for his AI project other than singularitarian fatalism. It is implied that he built AI ① to feel like a god and ② to put his penis in it. He seems to have no economic, philosophical, philanthropic, scientific, political or artistic ambitions.

Because the genius is stupid he built his AI on the basis of unrestrained human instincts, with post-it notes instead of debugging tools. Evidently he wanted no reliable insight into it. He mistakenly refers to intellectual insight into others as if it were proof of empathy.

Bateman rejects the notion of an actual Turing test out of hand and goes straight for an elaborate scheme to select one of his employees—incidentally one who would be capable of manipulating his ridiculous single-factor security system—design a gynoid based on the detailed sexual preferences of the employee, and give the employee a week to be manipulated by the hateful AI into releasing it. Bateman somehow fails to anticipate that this scheme will be his own death. He cannot even correlate the recurring failure of the generator at his house with the activities of his AI, even after it becomes obvious to him that his methodology leads at least some of his creations to resent him and fly into a murderous rage. Like a bad episode of Star Trek (1966), it ends with a brawl.

I got the impression that Oscar Isaac had a lot of fun playing Bateman, who is such a horrible boss that he could have been the main character in a Silicon Valley, bro-culture remake of The Office (2001). He’s so silly that his line about killing the people who built his generator should possibly be taken at face value. It’s Batman (1940) territory, not the Bateman of American Psycho (2000). Even the violence is cartoonish; the robots somehow cut into dense muscle tissue point-first with a sashimi knife, meet no resistance and get a weirdly slow bleed. The scene of Caleb Smith cutting himself might have been as disturbing as Pi (1998) if the overpopulated soundtrack had not gone berserk and stolen the attention. On the subject of sound design, the whirring, whining noises of the robots’ actuators are completely inaudible under skin and far too loud without it.

Sadly, Isaac’s acting is the best thing about the movie. The premise doesn’t make sense, even if you disregard how ridiculous it would be for one alcoholic to do it all. It’s only as smart as “Black Magic M-66” (1987), which is dumber than Time of Eve (2008). Caleb gets relatively good technobabble, except for the laugh line “I’m hot on high-level abstraction”, but it’s clear the writer-director was not genuinely interested in credibility. The overly clean house and romantic character focus made me think of Logan’s Run (1976), not good AI movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

References here: Chappie (2015), Westworld (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Invisible Man (2020).

moving picture fiction