The Implications of Artificial Intelligence: On Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’

April 30, 2015 | 6 books mentioned 14 3 min read

ex machina

I thought of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” as I watched the opening sequence of Ex Machina, a new film by Alex Garland. Caleb, played Domhnall Gleeson, peers into his computer in a techy looking office. He receives a message that he has won a lottery. As text messages pour in to congratulate him and co-workers clap his back, a look settles onto his face. Just as the opening of “The Lottery” glorifies our pastoral past too perfectly with flowers, “blossoming profusely,” Caleb, lit by the glow of his screen, seems to question. In a post-Edward Snowden world where our identities are tracked and online movements are monitored, is there such thing as random selection?

After his win, Caleb is flown by helicopter to a remote spot in the mountains and told to follow the river, which isn’t easy with a rolling suitcase. He finds the house of the CEO Nathan, played by a perfectly hollow-about-the-eyes Oscar Isaac, and is asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nathan’s house is actually a high tech research facility and Caleb has been brought in to conduct a test of a machine’s intelligence ability to pass as human, a Turing test. The rest film is structured around Caleb’s testing of Nathan’s artificial intelligence, Ava.

Ava, in a subtle performance by Alicia Vikander, is visibly robotic, though parts of her have soft, perfect skin. Her arms, legs, and waist show her mechanics, shaped curves hug her breasts and bum. When I first saw her, with my tongue in cheek I thought: Ah, a female character reduced to the important parts. And in this kind of reaction lies the cleverness of this film. It plays out as a test of theory of mind, or “awareness of mind” as the film calls it — the ability to understand your own beliefs, intents, and desires, but also to understand that someone else has a different set of the same.

covercoverRobin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist who specializes in primate behavior, studies how we hold several people’s intentions in our minds at the same time. In his book, Lucy to Language, he uses the example of Othello, that the plot requires audiences to understand, “that Iago intends that Othello imagines that Desdemona is in love with Cassio.” William Shakespeare requires the audience to understand four levels of mental representation. He raises it to a fifth level when, “Iago is able to persuade Othello that Cassio reciprocates Desdemona’s feelings.” To Dunbar, that is how Shakespeare weaves a narrative spell.

Ex Machina works on a similar level. Without spoiling the plot, the fun of the film lies in that Nathan intends that Caleb imagines that Ava is or is not feeling about Caleb, who may or may not believe Nathan. Kyoko, Nathan’s servant becomes involved, the plot gets another twist.

Dunbar makes an interesting point about writing. Most of us can follow to the fifth level of intention and enjoy a good story. However, far fewer have the ability to compose an interesting tale because the fifth level is most people’s natural limit. The ability to work at the sixth level, what makes a really interesting story, is rare. Shakespeare was able to, “intend that the audience believes…” Garland also successfully works a level higher and this is where the film soars. In taking and subverting current ideas about gender, sci fi, and the thriller genre, he gives us a sharp tweak and delivers a film about theory of mind that is deliciously hard to read.

covercoverGarland is author of The Beach, a novel that defined the darker side of backpacking in the 1990s and later became a movie staring Leonardo di Caprio. His next novel, The Tesserat, was called “taut, nervous and often bloody,” by The New York Times and was an early sign of his willingness to play with structure. He wrote the script for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the screen.

As an Ishiguro fan, I asked Garland about adapting Never Let Me Go. He was able to form an accurate belief about my intentions and said he felt “an acute sense of duty.” He had moments where he wondered why he could not just leave it as a novel, but, as with any project he works on, “it’s not a calculation, it’s a compulsion. You do it because you have to.”

With Ex Machina, Garland wrote the script and directed the film as well. At first he said it was a bigger step to go from novelist to screen writer, whereas moving from writing to directing felt smaller. The more we talked, however, the more Garland came around to seeing his work in novels and on the screen as very similar: “You start with a blank page. You engage the imagination. The problems of how it hangs together are the same.”

Like the best short stories, Ex Machina is sparse, taut, and precise. Every word of dialogue has weight and each shot has a purpose. As with Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the film ultimately shows the power of thinking about what we are doing and why. While the action in Ex Machina  shifts in sharp pivots, many of the scenes play out almost as if they are on the page with Caleb and Nathan debating the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. In other words, it’s fascinating.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her novel The Last Neanderthal is published by Little, Brown and Co., was recently featured in The New York Times, and is a national bestseller in Canada. Her writing has appeared in the Lenny Letter, The New York Times, Salon, and The Globe and Mail. Follow her @clairecameron or read more at


  1. Yesssss. So excited to see this tomorrow.

    Also, unlike several other incredibly-stupid-single-level-of-intention reviews, there’s no ridiculous debate about how feminist this 3-character AI movie is! Here’s a cookie, the millions.

  2. Suspiciously PR-ish review of a mediocre sci-fi film that says absolutely nothing you didn’t know about men (humans, if you like. But really men.) and whose central conceit (and the ending) will be obvious within the first 15 minutes to anyone who has seen even two or three sci-fi films in the past. It’s only a matter of how we get there. Admittedly that can be fun sometimes, but here it turns out we get there via long philosophical speeches that argue nothing of import nor create any suspense but do drop a lot of names. And since Garland is neither an especially good writer nor a natural director we get to have these references laboriously explained to us, leading to exchanges like (freely paraphrased):

    “I am become death, destroyer of worlds. I didn’t make that up, it was J. Robert -”

    “Oppenheimer, creator of the atom bomb, I know”

    If you have come to this movie to experience a debate on the potential and pitfalls of AI or even see some interesting characters sparring intellectually you’re in the wrong place. There are no interesting characters here, and nothing especially hard to read. Just run of the mill pulp fiction. Its raison d’etre is to give nice guys an excuse to ogle robot versions of the manic pixie dream girl (and that’s the female character that gets to speak) while patting themselves on the back about the villain’s “sexism”. This may genuinely shock the writer but two guys arguing about what do with a woman (or a fembot, or whatever) is not a tweak on gender, it’s the definition of cliche.

  3. @justaphotographer….

    It’s a movie about a Turing test, and the unknowability of other minds… it’s so far from “pulp fiction” that your comment literally doesn’t make any sense.

    Mainly, the reactions to the movie illuminate how dangerous it is to make a smart movie in the age “everyone’s opinion is equally valid.” Consider, for example, @justaphotographer’s confusion over the Oppenheimer quote. You said it was “name dropping” by Alex Garland in a “laborious explanation.”

    That scene, like the movie, is about intelligence. Who has it, who doesn’t. Caleb, who tries to name-drop Oppenheimer, as he tries to name drop a few other people, is trying to impress, or step-up to, the actual genius, Nathan. Nathan doesn’t name-drop, but Nathan knows the quote – he’s smarter than Caleb, but doesn’t try to show it off in conversation, because he doesn’t need to. Caleb is too busy trying to appear smart, and simply lacks the abilities that make Nathan a genius.

    It’s an illuminating scene about how people at different levels of intelligence interact, showing the difference between the smart and the scary-smart, a scene that made a WHOOOOOSH as it went over your head. Your theory of mind is bad dude – you attributed the name-dropping to Garland, but Garland was poking fun at name-dropping. Better get that checked out – I hear education and time away from the internet can cure that – or maybe just refrain from posting ill-formed rants about movies you should probably see again.

  4. @Mygod

    You must love Alex very much to go to bat for him in such tedious yet revealing detail and I’m quite touched by your concern for me but I’m rather a bit worried about you – taking other people’s random comments on the internet so personally is damaging your fragile ego and making you lash out in all kinds of embarrassing ways. I hear some time off from the internet can help with that.

    Unless you ARE Alex Garland, in which case, learn to write a screenplay.

  5. @justaphotographer…

    Oh no! You posted something stupid and someone put the effort in to correct you in detail, to which you had no response!

    Quel embarrassment!

  6. Don’t expect a response until you can figure out why smart people wouldn’t be impressing each other with a quote known to a middling undergrad but why a middling writer might put that in a scene in his movie. Until then you’re the perfect audience for this film so any more words will be wasted on you.

  7. Lol. holy crap this is like explaining theory of mind to a baby.

    Alright, person A wants to be seen as smart. Person B is very smart. Person A drops several quotes. Person B is silent. Person A drops another quote, finally person B points out that he knows the quote, and implies it is unimpressive to know the quote, implying also that he knew the quotes before but didn’t go around quoting “obvious” things – ie, precisely the pseudo-intellectual stuff any half-read undergrad would know that you claim this scene is attempting to show off.

    Maybe if it was in a picture book, would that help?

  8. If you two are studio trolls drumming up ticket buyers in a dreamy new fashion well….dammit…it worked. Now I have to go see it.

  9. I know this is difficult for you to follow and therefore you lash out, that’s normal for your type. It’s why you troll the internet, it’s safe territory where you can explain your theories without the risk of having to actually have a conversation (no, being an asshole doesn’t count) and having someone disagree with you.

    So one last time: this exchange between these two people is not believable because nobody with that background would try to impress their mentor by guilelessly quoting Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad gita. It’s not there to show off – lol – it’s to make things simpler for people like you. Take any of the truly original sci-fi’s this movie awkwardly recycles and you won’t see this kind of condescension but then again Ex machina – surprised I didn’t get a lecture on that too at some point – isn’t in that league. It’s product for a certain audience, and as everyone can see from *this* exchange, it pleases that audience well.

    Now feel free to rant some more or whatever it is that you spend most of your life doing, but that’s way more time than I should have given you already and I’m done.

  10. @Mark lol

    @justaphotographer Beyond your weird psychological projections, your lone response trying to prove you didn’t misunderstand is:
    “nobody with that background would try to impress their mentor by guilelessly quoting Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad gita.”
    Well considering that Caleb is a mid-level programmer, ummm, yes, he would, because the whole point of the scene is that he thinks saying that is really impressive. Caleb’s not very smart, that’s why he gets fucking played.

    AND this wasn’t your original objection (you modified it once I explained how the scene works, which you missed). Your original objection you repeat in the next sentence, where you say: “[the Oppenheim quote] is not there to show off – lol – it’s to make things simpler for people like you.”

    No, it’s really not. The point is that it’s Caleb (the character) who was trying to show off. Alex Garland is making fun of him, or at least, pointing out that knowing the quote is not impressive.

    Like, I’m honestly worried that you can’t follow this. You’ve missed it thrice now.

  11. “In battle, in forest, at the precipice of the mountains
    On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
    In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
    The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

    When Nathan is about to pass out from drinking, he’s reciting a scripture from the Hindu Gita: “…In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame, the good deeds a man has done before defend him.” According to Oppenheimer’s book “American Prometheus”, Oppenheimer translated and recited the poem a few days prior to a failed explosive test.

    This is what @Mygod is getting at.

    Caleb sat across for Nathan waiting for him to pass out drunk and didn’t even realize Nathan was quoting Oppenheimer. Nor did Caleb realize Nathan was fearful about what he was about to unleash on the world. Nathan was smart enough to realize a strong AI with access to all the world’s information would be as devastating as the nuclear bomb. That is why Nathan built the research facility out in the middle of nowhere.

    “It is Promethean man.”

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