Bright Lights Film Journal

A Good Game of Chess: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015)

Is Ava simply a machine wearing a human mask?

“Ava was a rat in a maze, and I gave her one way out. To escape, she’d have to use self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy, and she did.”

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As far back as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), artificial intelligence has been a driving force in innumerable science-fiction films. From existential love stories (Blade Runner, 1982), to Cold War conspiracy thrillers (Wargames, 1983), to futuristic fairy tales (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, 2001), some of our finest filmmakers (Ridley Scott, John Badham, and Steven Spielberg, respectively) have pondered whether human-made machines are capable of genuine consciousness. In his directorial debut, Ex Machina (2015), writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, 2002; Never Let Me Go, 2010; Dredd, 2012) tackles the subject with his usual style and intelligence; while he borrows much from the aforementioned films and is never quite convincing in his philosophical suggestions, he considers artificial intelligence with a thoughtfulness rarely seen in mainstream science-fiction films.

The story is deceptively simple. In a quick, wordless prologue, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lonely computer programmer, wins a mysterious contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the brilliant and reclusive creator of “Blue Book” (a Google-type search engine), the company for which Caleb works. In an isolated research facility, surrounded by vast forestland, Nathan has been obsessively building humanoid robots, the latest model being the uncanny, eerily realistic Ava (Alicia Vikander). Refreshingly, Garland’s dialogue and Isaac’s performance upend the archetype of the physically weak, purely cerebral mad scientist; instead, Nathan is presented as a brilliant yet aggressive man’s man who lifts weights, drinks, swears, and endlessly ribs the more conservative Caleb.

Caleb’s job at the facility is to determine through the course of his “sessions” with Ava whether she is the first genuine exemplar of artificial intelligence, or if she is just a machine skilled at pretending to be human. Ultimately, it becomes clear that Ava is manipulating/seducing Caleb into helping her escape from the facility, all of which convinces Nathan that his latest creation is a true AI. While Nathan is confident in this assertion and Ava indeed looks and acts strikingly human, I do not believe Garland wants his audience to accept these conclusions as readily as his characters do.

Does Ava (Alicia Vikander) display artificial intelligence?

All of the evidence against Nathan’s interpretation is present in a short conversation between him and Caleb about, of all things, chess. Though Nathan is clearly Caleb’s intellectual superior, Caleb raises an integral point when he likens Ava to a chess computer and points out the inherent flaws of “testing” such a device. “You can play it to find out if it makes good moves,” begins Caleb, referring to the chess computer, “but that won’t tell you if it knows that it’s playing chess. And it won’t tell you if it knows what chess is.” Nathan agrees: “So it’s simulation versus actual.” The very same principles apply to Ava. Yes, she is able to make good “moves” (showing affection toward Caleb, earning his sympathy and confidence), but is she actually aware of what she is doing? Naïve, lonely Caleb becomes enamored with Ava, and she seems to reciprocate such feelings during their many conversations; yet it is never quite clear whether Ava is actually experiencing these feelings or merely mirroring Caleb. She says things to him that indicate genuine emotion (“Sometimes at night I’m wondering if you’re watching me … And I hope you are”), but does she understand what she is saying? Does the computer know what chess is?1

Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Ava’s creator

In fact, many aspects of the film parallel a chess game: the isolated, sleek house (the chessboard) within which various characters (the pieces) interact, deceive, and manipulate; Caleb and Ava’s limited access to certain rooms of the house (the strict rules of movement for each piece); and Nathan’s unlimited access to the house and all of its cameras (the King). As if to emphasize the house’s artificiality (cameras, sliding doors, keycards), Garland frequently includes shots of its immediate surroundings (lush foliage, waterfalls, clear skies). The entire film is a game, each of its participants (both human and robotic) vying for the upper hand.

Nathan’s isolated workshop …

… contrasted with frequent shots of nature

The question becomes, then, whether Ava genuinely wants to escape her imprisonment in the house (Nathan never allows her outside of her isolated room) and her “master’s” heartless treatment, or if she is simply playing the game for which she was programmed. Toward the end of the film, when Nathan reveals to Caleb that Ava was using Caleb as a means of escape and has no true feelings for him, Nathan takes this as proof that Ava is a true AI: “Ava was a rat in a maze, and I gave her one way out. To escape, she’d have to use self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy, and she did.” This interpretation is one way of analyzing Ava’s actions; another would be to look at them as the movements of a cold, calculating machine. After all, many of the qualities that apparently make her a true AI can be rephrased to match the qualities needed for a chess-playing computer (manipulation, planning future actions/moves, setting traps). Is there really that much of a difference between the two? Ava undoubtedly wins the game (she kills Nathan, traps Caleb in the house, and escapes to the outside world), but just because a computer can beat a human at chess does not mean that it is just as human (or more human) as its opponent; rather, it’s simply a better chess player.

Ava and Caleb during one of their “sessions”

For these reasons, it is ultimately difficult to sympathize with Ava. While Nathan is clearly a self-aggrandizing misogynist (he likens himself to God early in the film and uses another robot, “Kyoko” [Sonoya Mizuno], as a complicit, mute sex toy), Ava is still just a machine at the end of the day, an “it.” When Nathan uses a weight handle to bash off Ava’s arm, Ava neither cries out nor bleeds; her blank face betrays no trace of pain or anger (or any emotion, for that matter), and the severed arm keeps whirring away. When Caleb, trapped within the house, hysterically cries out to her for help, she doesn’t bat an eye. Early in the film, Caleb points out that it will be difficult to see Ava as human if her circuitry is in plain sight, and Nathan’s response is that the test can only be a true success if Caleb sees her as a human despite such conspicuous reminders of her artificiality. While Caleb seems to pass that test with flying colors (he is willing to lock Nathan in the house, presumably to his death, in order to flee with Ava), Garland is far less successful in getting his viewers to feel the same way. When we get a glimpse of Ava wandering the streets amongst real humans, we do not feel catharsis or happiness for her freedom, but instead get a bitter taste in our mouths. The film concludes with what seems to be the beginning of the end for humans, both male and female. Garland’s motives, therefore, are vague (perhaps purposefully so); does he want us to feel for Ava or be disturbed by her victory over the humans? Perhaps the only answer is a combination of the two.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) questions his humanity

Many of the aforementioned films that address AI (especially A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) ask the question: Is a human-made machine capable of being more humanlike than we thought possible? Ex Machina is most interesting when it inverts the question to: Is a human capable of being more machine-like than we thought possible? In one scene, Nathan points out that a man’s preference for a certain type of woman is not because he “did a detailed analysis of all racial types and … cross-referenced that analysis with a points-based system.” One’s sexual preferences are “a consequence of accumulated stimuli that you probably didn’t even register as they registered with you.” In other words, one’s preferences are experienced as just “being there” for no humanly discernible reason. When Caleb asks if Ava was programmed to be sexually attracted to him, Nathan explains that he simply “programmed her to be heterosexual. Just like you were programmed to be heterosexual.” How big of a difference is there between a human who is “programmed” (by genetics, upbringing, God, etc.) to be heterosexual and a robot that is programmed to be heterosexual? According to Nathan, there is not much of a difference at all. While Caleb initially hesitates to accept such claims, Nathan’s cold logic eventually has a drastic effect on how Caleb perceives his reality; in one disturbing scene, Caleb cuts his arm and draws blood, clearly in an effort to prove to himself that he is not one of Nathan’s robots. Scenes like this show how Nathan has Caleb completely under his thumb for most of the film. Later, when Caleb discovers that Ava’s facial design had been modeled on his internet pornography searches, it becomes clear that he has always been nothing more than an unknowing pawn in Nathan’s game.

Caleb draws blood to prove he is real

Unlike many science-fiction films, Ex Machina is concerned less with visceral excitement and more with exciting one’s intellect. It is a film bursting with perhaps too many ideas. All in one film, Garland touches on artificial intelligence, the subjugation of women (all of the female characters are robots and are often shown naked), the nature of reality, the abuse of technology by the wealthy elite, and human sexuality. In terms of the ideas tossed around by Nathan and Caleb, the film is a bit of a mess, but, like the Jackson Pollock painting admired by the two as they discuss the nature of creativity, that is also part of its beauty. Human life can be pretty messy, and perhaps that is what ultimately separates Ava from real humans, the machine programmed to play chess from the human capable of pondering the game’s deeper meaning.

Human disorder in all its glory: Nathan admires a Jackson Pollock painting

Note: All images are screenshots.

Work Cited

Kasparov, Garry. “The Chess Master and the Computer.” The New York Review of Books, 11 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

  1. Interestingly, HAL 9000 plays (and defeats) a human at chess in 2001, while Joshua asks Matthew Broderick’s character if he’s up for “a good game of chess” in Wargames. The association of artificial intelligence with chess also extends into reality: In 1997, IBM’s “Deep Blue” defeated Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a chess rematch (Kasparov 2010). []