Movie Reviews: Ex Machina vs. The Machine

Two transhumanist films with — at first glance — similar plots and themes made their appearance in the last year, The Machine (2014) and Ex Machina (2015).

Both films are British, lower budget (more on that later), had limited showings, and the plots involve smart guys dealing with smarter beautiful seductive cyborg girls named Ava (yes, the same name in both films).

But that’s about where the similarities end. The Machine, written and directed by Caradog James, is a more traditional action script, yet it retains enough psychological drama to compete with Ex Machina, a film all about psychology.

The Machine starts in the near future when the world is in economic chaos and the West is engaged in a cold war with China. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has replaced nuclear weapons as the existential threat. Britain’s Ministry of Defense is working on AI human-android composites using brain-damaged soldiers as guinea pigs. As advanced as these cyborg are, they are not working out as expected. They tend to flip out, i.e., kill their creators, at random times, and appear to lose their ability to speak for some unknown reason.

Based on that premise, the script obviously demanded a brilliant scientist, a cold “win at all costs” program manager, and finally, a female lead — one beautiful young brilliant and liberal (read, anti-war) visiting scientist — brought in specially for her AI resume.

One thing leads to another, and our brilliant peacenik scientist is reincarnated as a lethal cyborg. The rest is future…

Director James said he read up on robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) before writing The Machine, and it shows. He understood that strong AI — where the cyborg has intentionality and consciousness — requires more than just more processing power. It requires quantum computing. Details like this make it a stronger film than had they been left out.

On the other hand, Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is much slower, being more about the psychology of the future than about the technology. In other words, how real humans will respond to genuinely intelligent robots — especially ones that are very attractive.

The science is much more shaky in Ex Machina, but perhaps the human-cyborg interaction is better grounded. It’s hard to say since that day hasn’t arrived. It feels more grounded in the film anyway.

Ex Machina is about a brilliant AI creator and rich guy, Nathan, who brings in his best programmer, Calab, to give the Turing test to a new cyborg. To make things interesting, this must be done at a remote subarctic location where its only Nathan, Calab and the cyborg beauties.

As expected, something goes wrong. A tension develops between Nathan and Calab; the most advanced cyborg, Ava, is getting uppity — she is too interested in leaving her sunless basement laboratory environment. Imagine that!

Again, one thing leads to another — brilliant arrogance clashes with AI, leading to a “surprise” conclusion.

Ex Machina received much more acclaim than did The Machine, although I would question why. Is it the scripts? The special effects? The acting? I could understand someone arguing yes for the first two, while for the acting, I’d have to give both movies a draw — as in equally good.

But there’s more to it than that. One could also argue that Ex Machina is more style over substance. With a budget of $16 million, some wag said half of that was spent on the cyborg CGI midriff. Fair enough, it was very impressive. The script on the other hand, while having the gloss of sophistication, was pretty simple, and sometimes downright lame. Would the world’s top AI expert really ask his top AI programmer if he ever heard of the Turing test? LOL, that’s called educating your audience through phony dialog. Another big problem in Ex Machina, at least for the cybersecurity experts out there, is the single-factor identity card authentication for entering the laboratory. Less than double-factor is not likely even today, much less in the future, yet without this anachronism — or ignorance of the script writer–the plot would have fallen apart (the card was stolen, not his mind).

So we have two films that are similar on the surface, but quite different below the hood. Both were enjoyable in their own ways. Perhaps most interesting about the mechanics of each film though, is their respective budgets. While Ex Machina cost $16 million, The Machine cost less than one million! Take out Ava’s CGI, that might leave $8 million for Ex Machina, which was shot almost entirely in a windowless building probably rented for the filming. The Machine also was primarily shot in one complex, but it seemed to have a lot more special effects — making good use of large flat panel computer displays — and more variation of scene.

What happened to all that money Mr. Garland?┬áPlease remember reader, even Ex Machina is considered “low budget.” One hint where film money gets funneled is inflated pay for yeoman, or even crap, work. Note, in 2005 Garland was paid a cool million to write a movie script for the video game Halo, which then required extensive rewriting and still lingers unmade in financing hell! In other words, for someone else’s story, Garland delivered a crap script that was unfilmable, yet received the sum of 20 years of an average annual salary for what was only a few week’s solid labor! Folks, this is why local industries die or move overseas. Greed. Just saying. Let’s keep movie making local; let’s make them more like The Machine.