As a warning, the article below contains spoilers for the movie’s ending. If you plan to read ahead, here’s a brief synopsis to get you up to speed:
Caleb writes code for the world’s most popular search engine. After winning a contest to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his private estate, he becomes privy to the secret research that Nathan has been conducting. Caleb is asked to participate in an experiment to judge the Artificial Intelligence that Nathan has been creating. Much like a traditional Turing Test, Caleb must decide if Ava, the AI, is thinking on the same level as a human being. As she continues to convince Caleb of how human she is, it becomes clear that she is unhappy with being trapped inside a glass box and facing the potential of being switched off and she loathes Nathan for his power over her.
What does it mean?
If you’ve heard the phrases Deus ex Machina or Diabolus ex Machina, you may have figured out how Ex Machina ends. For those of you who may be wondering what those phrases mean, they are often used to refer to moral (or immoral) victories at the hands of fate. When a hero survives through a turn of events or a villain is crushed under the weight of his own karma, you could say it was the work of “god out of the machine,” or Deus ex Machina. On the other hand, Diabolus ex Machina refers to the unfortunate demise of a hero or a plot twist that leaves a villain with an upper hand (as you may have guessed, Diabolus ex Machina is Latin for demon from the machine.)
Ex Machina purposely leaves the qualifier out of the title, because it’s up for us to decide if Ava, the endearing AI who just wants to be free to people watch, is a force for good or evil. Then again, the title may or may not be referring to Ava, even though she literally is the machine. Despite her circuitry, it’s hard to argue against her sentience and human emotion. The title could just as easily be referring to the consequences brought about by any character’s actions. In the same way, it’s left to us decide what actions were done from the moral high ground – there’s no clear cut god or demon.
Where it went wrong.
Overall, Ex Machina received great reviews, and for good reason: the production value, the story, the characters; everything comes together to make a movie that’s hard not to enjoy. However, plot holes introduced at the film’s climax may leave you with a sour taste in your mouth. Despite that, it still remains a great movie and well worth the two hours. Many people have commented on the fact that the movie could have just cut five minutes earlier. Caleb rescues Ava, she kills her creator, and Caleb is left screaming behind a locked door as Ava escapes. Fade to black.
But I think there’s a reason behind showing Ava on a busy street corner. She told Caleb that’s where she would want to go if she ever left, and she wasn’t lying. It shows that she really did share a part of herself with him, and there’s a chance that she may have changed her mind on leaving him to die. She may even regret doing so one day, and we can’t forget the cliche, “to err is human.” The ability to make the wrong decision is a distinct attribute of sentient minds. At least, that’s what the last five minutes meant to me.
So what’s wrong with the ending? If you’ve seen it, the plot holes are hard to miss. There are three major questions that could be explained away individually, but cumulatively they become overwhelming.
Why did Caleb rewrite the security code?
Caleb steals Nathan’s security card while he’s drunk and accesses the system to make it so all doors unlock in the case of a power failure. The doors usually lock down in the scenario, so after the change, Ava can easily walk out of the complex. The real question is, why didn’t Caleb just let her out with the security card? If he really intended to leave Nathan trapped in his own home, he could have easily done so by taking his security card with him.
Why didn’t Caleb’s security changes stick?
After Ava leaves Caleb behind, he runs to the security console and tries to use it to escape the house. When he inserts his own security card, the house loses power, and Caleb is left trapped. Except, Ava just escaped by cutting the power. Why didn’t Caleb just walk out? It certainly makes for a convenient plot point, and it’s possible that an unauthorized user accessing the system reset it, but we shouldn’t have to explain away these confusing turns.
Why the hell did a helicopter pilot take Ava from the estate?
Nathan lives on a massive plot of land, so it’s understandable that Ava would prefer to hitch a ride to get out, if only for the sake of saving time. So when the helicopter that’s supposed to pick up Caleb on his last day touches down, it’s understandable that she would want a lift. But wait. The pilot that dropped Caleb off told him that he was only allowed within a certain distance of the house. For someone who follows instructions so well, it seems strange that he would pick up a passenger that doesn’t look anything like the one he dropped off.
How it should have ended.
Let’s start from the point where Caleb steals Nathan’s access card. Instead of recoding the security system, Caleb does the more obvious thing – decides to use the security card. He wants to let Ava know about his plans, so he waits until the next day. Just like in the real movie, Caleb shares his plans with Ava when she triggers a power failure, and they’re both unaware that Nathan is watching them through a battery powered camera. Nathan is validated, seeing that Ava is able to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape, but he wants to see how far Caleb will go to help out her out – he wants more information to work with for his next AI model. So instead of trying to stop Caleb, he simply reprograms the security system to lock down all exterior doors and creates another security card in secret.
That night, Nathan continues his ruse by going along with Caleb’s plan. Nathan drinks non-alcoholic beers, but pretends to be drunk for Caleb’s benefit. We know he’s not really drunk, because when Caleb looks away, his body language gives us a queue. Unaware, Caleb goes forward with his plan when Nathan pretends to pass out. With the stolen security card, Ava and Caleb make their way through the complex, and we even take a moment to indulge in the scene of Ava adopting the skin of a past AI. When they finally arrive at the exit, they find it locked down.
Caleb shakes it off as Nathan being extra cautious and tells Ava to wait for him while he tries to reprogram the system. When he arrives in Nathan’s room to see that Nathan is no longer in his bed, Caleb becomes suspicious and runs back to the exit. He arrives just in time to see Nathan dragging Ava away before she drives a knife into Nathan’s heart. Ava turns to see Caleb standing behind a glass door in shock, and after their gazes meet, she grabs the new access card from Nathan’s pocket and walks out of the building, tripping a power surge and permanently locking the building as she leaves. We see Caleb slowly sink to the ground in shock before panning back to Ava.
Instead of a grabbing a ride on the helicopter, Ava just keeps walking into the distance. Fade out and back in. We now see Ava standing on the busy intersection. Her clothes are a little worse for the wear, a clue that she walked all the way back to the city. As the people rush past her, a small smile creeps across her face, just as a dim red light appears to shine through the fabric of her dress. As she falls to the pavement, it’s implied that her trek to society left her drained and without a source to recharge her power. Concerned onlookers rush to her aid, unaware that she’s anything different than human.
What does it mean for the future of AI? Does Caleb escape the complex? There’s still a lot of questions left to be answered, but they’re the kind that we want to have.
What do you think? Let me know if you have a better ending, or some more insight into the film.