WARNING – THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
“Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” -Ava
Going into Ex Machina, I expected a soundtrack reminiscent of The Matrix: something gritty and electronic, with beeps and boops and screeching computer noise. What I got was far closer to Her than The Matrix, with melodic textures emphasizing a decidedly human view of technology and artificial intelligence (AI).
Cold, reverberant soundscapes dominate the film, especially scenes involving the humans Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (Oscar Isaac). However, once the artificially intelligent Ava (Alicia Vikander) enters the picture, the soundtrack reflects a distinctly organic quality. The first guitar is introduced just as Caleb sees Ava from afar. Cellos erupt when we first meet Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s servant and AI prototype. Scenes of nature, however, are peppered with pulsating synths and digital noise. This inversion of humanity and technology permeates the film and gives it its distinctive, otherworldly quality.
Take, for example, the many sessions Caleb enjoys with Ava, under Nathan’s watchful eyes. A pulsating, heartbeat-esque bass synth enhances each of these intimate moments, helping to underline Ava’s inherent humanity, one of the central themes of the film. Her robotic body belies her very human personality, and the music furthers this contradiction. As Caleb (and the audience) try to decipher and define Ava’s unique reality, our preconceptions are consistently undermined by the instrumentation and mood of the soundtrack.
There is one scene in which human characters interact with “human” music, but the effect is notably uncomfortable; Caleb and Kyoko have a bizarre interaction in which Kyoko tries to initiate sex with Caleb, only to have Nathan interrupt. To Caleb’s increasing discomfort, Nathan and Kyoko begin a loosely coordinated dance, complete with loud, overwhelmingly out-of-place disco music. The apparent humanity of the music would be the only outlier of the human/AI inversion-dynamic of the film, were it not for the audience’s natural empathy toward Caleb, and our corresponding feeling of discomfort.
The intersection of Ava’s artificial intelligence and her humanity lies in her sexuality, which begins as a seemingly innocent byproduct of AI and develops into an invaluable tool at her disposal. At first, these scenes are notably absent of music; Caleb and Nathan discuss the purpose of sex and attraction in a moment of quiet relief. When Caleb and Ava do eventually kiss (during a poorly explained dreamlike fantasy), guitars suddenly burst through quiet ambient synths. As Ava learns how to control her sexuality, the corresponding analog sounds turn more and more digital, so at the final climax when Ava covers herself in synthetic skin and completes her attempt at becoming human, the audience is finally blasted with the computerized, bit-crushed noise that I had expected to hear throughout the film. The effect is powerful, and the inverted relationship between human identity and computerized music reaches its conclusion.
While the technology behind artificial intelligence is central to the film, the more salient point is the process behind Ava’s seamless interaction with humanity. Nathan is the founder and CEO of “Bluebook,” an obvious allegory to Google, and as such he holds an enormous wealth of information at his fingertips. In order to give Ava as much information to work from as possible, Nathan reveals that he has hacked into all the world’s search engine data—yes this is illegal, he says, but the phone companies can’t call him out without revealing that they, too, are illegally monitoring citizens’ private conversations. Apparently this film takes place in an alternate, Edward Snowden-less universe, but the point remains that megadata is very powerful, and a company’s ability to harness this power dictates its ability to grow and develop its technology. Nathan explains that while owning a search engine provides access to what people think, the real treasure is determining how people think, and that with the right analysis of humanity’s megadata we can recreate the human brain, and thus create artificial intelligence.
Whether this is a good idea remains to be seen.