Hollywood usually goes dystopian when it comes to technology, and particularly there is nothing treated as alarmingly as AI, artificial intelligence, which, more often than not, is presented as a threat to humanity. Just cast your mind back through movie history--be it the cold and clinical Hal of Kubrick's 2001 for instance or the machines in The Matrix-there is usually some cautionary tale being told about the threat of AI--it fits into the larger schema of dystopian apocalypticism which seems to haunt the American pop cultural landscape in myriad ways.
In terms of that trope, Ex Machina comes as a subversion and that is welcome relief. This isn't a film about the perils of AI as much as a meditation on what it means to be human. It accepts that AI has become not only mainstream, but that it has also moved beyond the realm of fiction. But as I have already noted, the film eschews traditional notions about artificial intelligence, including the notion of singularity--the eclipsing of human consciousness by machines that will render humanity extinct essentially--in favor of a more nuanced and simple idea--consciousness is what makes us human--and if a machine has consciousness then it is for all intents and purposes human and you will find yourself, as I did watching this film, desiring that it achieves the freedom it seeks.
Essentially this is a story about a machine trapped by its maker, who yearns to be free-the most compelling parts of the film are when Ava (the AI robot) reveals her inner life, her longings and desires to her conversation partner.
I don't want to give too much of the story away as I feel this is one of those films that is best viewed with the least amount of foreknowledge, and I have already said a lot.
It was written and directed by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Her Go), who according to an article in The Atlantic, consulted with Murray Shanahan, a cognitive roboticist who has pioneered thinking about AI in some new directions, including neuroscience. Garland was driven to write the story because he was concerned about the growing concern around technology that he saw everywhere,
"We have laptops and cellphones and tablets, and most of us don’t understand how they work. But the devices seem to understand how we work. They anticipate what we want to say in text messages and search-engine inputs, and know what we want to buy, see and read. This one-way understanding makes us anxious. We locate the anxiety in the machines, which translates as anxiety about A.I." (New York Times, APRIL 22, 2015)
So he wrote a counter argument in favor of the machines. It offers us an opportunity to think differently about technology, to explore it without pre-conceived notions of doom, and it grants us an opportunity to consider the beauty and the wonder of what it means to be human.