Unlike technology, sometimes science fiction improves with age. Double Take is Popular Mechanics’ look back at sci-fi classics that have something prescient to say about today.
Four years ago, when Alex Garland’s instant sci-fi classic Ex Machina debuted, it dropped into a different era—the time before Cambridge Analytica, before Russian election trolling, before the catastrophic Equifax leak and too many others like it.
The world wasn’t naive, exactly. We’d spent decades knowing our personal data could be hacked, leaked, and abused by nefarious parties, of course. But back then, people tended to worry along individual lines, about a stolen identity or a maxed out account—not the data-driven mass manipulation that has been repeatedly uncovered over the past few years.
Ex Machina saw it coming. From a cursory watch, the movie plays as a classic AI apocalypse, rise-of-the-machines flick. But four very long years on, it’s easier to see what should’ve been clear all along. This is a movie about the weaponization of data. (Spoilers follow.)
If all you remember about the 2014 sci-fi movie is that it features one of the more unexpected dance scenes ever, here’s the quick recap of Ex Machina:
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer at a Google-esque company called Blue Book. After winning an internal lottery, he’s flown to a remote compound to meet Blue Book CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Smith learns he’s going to be the human component of a Turing Test and is introduced to his robotic partner, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot powered by next-level AI.
As the movie unfolds, Smith and Ava bond during their one-on-one tests and Smith comes to abhor Bateman, whose drunken cruelty begins to outshine his genius. Smith eventually helps Ava escape, which results in her killing Bateman and locking Smith inside the compound in the process. The last shot of the film sees Ava wearing clothes and synthetic skin to obscure the electronics that had been exposed all film. She’s visually indistinguishable from a real human, on the crowded street of a city: a killer AI loose and incognito in the world of humans.
Looking back on the film now, it’s easier to see the deeper dread draped over Ava’s story. Before the movie even begins, Smith is already the victim of a data harvesting, his lottery “win” having actually been the product of extremely specific and invasive data-based targeting.
SMITH: And you didn’t select me because I’m good at coding.
BATEMAN: No. Well, no. I mean, you’re ok. You’re even pretty good, but—
SMITH: You selected me based on my search engine inputs.
BATEMAN: They showed a good kid.
SMITH: With no family.
BATEMAN: With a moral compass.
SMITH: With no girlfriend… Did you design Ava’s face based on my pornography profile?
This is no arbitrary gut punch either. It’s the payoff of a seed planted much earlier in the film. While Bateman is ostensibly Ava’s creator, she’s more of an amalgamation of data stolen from thousands. When Bateman reveals that Blue Book hacked the world’s cell phones to steal data for molding Ava, he gestures at an even large matrix of snooping someone of his stature would be privy to. “And all the manufacturers knew I was doing it, too,” he says. “But they couldn’t accuse me without admitting they were doing it themselves.”