I suspect that, like The Matrix, this is a film which is going to be much used in beginner-level discussions of key philosophical topics. It raises issues about other minds and artificial intelligence, mainly, but also – less explicitly – issues about human nature and gender.
The rest of this review will contain major spoilers for the plot of this film. The plot of this film isn’t very sophisticated, or its main point, so you might not mind, but I feel the need to warn you. The film should also have warnings for sexism, racism, violence, body horror (of the sci-fi, plastic-skin-peels-off variety) and self-harm. The 15 rating on the film is probably also for (female) nudity.
There are four main characters in this film, of which only three are speaking roles, of which only one is female, and she’s the robot/AI. The central mover in this film is Nathan (clearly a Stark sibling, as he much in common with Tony and the other Nathan), played by Oscar Isaac (splendidly, I might say – a really compelling and nuanced performance), who has set himself up in a
cave mountain retreat and built an AI. He wants to test the AI, so he brings in a guy, Caleb.
Nathan, by the way, has really shitty attitudes towards women, which do gradually become visible and are almost-but-not-quite problematised by the narrative. Big spoiler number one: he builds sexy women robots like his brother Tony builds Iron Man suits. Lots, and he keeps them in cupboards when he’s not sleeping with them. The fact that the non-speaking AI woman, Kyoko, is explicitly presented as Japanese adds a disappointing edge of intersecting Orientialism/racism to the sexism of the whole enterprise. Funnily enough (spoiler number two), his AIs hate him.
The film contains a higher than average number of references to philosophical literature. Centrally, it focuses on the Turing Test, which is adapted for some sensible philosophical reasons and some purely dramatic ones, and it also uses the Mary-in-a-black-and-white-room thought experiment in a way which suggests real engagement with the philosophical motives for it. There’s also a throwaway reference to Wittgenstein, but no significant Wittgensteinian content. The plot turns on a version of the Turing Test – Caleb must interview the AI, Ava, and see whether, despite knowing that she’s a machine, he is still convinced that she thinks and feels. Potential irritation caused by this change to the test is substantially mitigated by the conversation Nathan and Ava have about it.
Regardless of Caleb’s thoughts – which become more and more confused as the web of intrigue grows – I came away from the film convinced that the film makers wanted the audience to think of Ava as concious. Whether she has emotion is another question; I’m inclined to think that she does, although some of her actions at the end of the film might be used to argue otherwise. In any case, big spoiler number three, we learn that Nathan should have read more sci-fi, because the Three Laws of Robotics would have saved his life. Of course, he thought he was building an AI, to mimic humanity, and not a robot, and Ava perhaps most proves her humanity when she surprises both her creator and her examiner.
In order to do so, she collaborates with Kyoko. There is no audible dialogue in this scene, so it’s impossible to tell whether it’s about a man, but communication is clearly achieved. They are two named characters who are clearly presented as female – but I’m not sure whether, even if they did speak about, say, their longing for freedom as well as about Nathan, this would be a Bechdel pass. Do they have to pass the Turing Test before qualifying for the Bechdel Test?
As you can probably see by now, every line of thought about the plot of this film circles back to the question which is at the centre of the narrative: does Ava pass the Turing Test? Can she really think for herself, or is this a clever fake? There are a lot of clever fakes in this film, and whatever the other weaknesses of the narrative, it does succeed in dramatising problems from philosophy of AI (and issues about other minds) in much the way that The Matrix dramatised problems in epistemology and metaphysics. Ex Machina might not be a big hit in the box office, but I won’t be surprised to find it discussed in A-Level and undergraduate philosophy classrooms for some time to come.