Welcome to Popcorn Talk’s ‘Concept Clash’ where we take movies with similar themes or storylines and extensively compare and contrast them in every way. Which of these films explored the theme more successfully? Do they come to the same conclusions? Do the differences between them tell us something about the concept, the filmmakers, maybe even ourselves? Join us as we compare the two clashing (or complementary) cinematic takes on the concept of love between the scheming meat of men and the elegant algorithms of the artificial women who indulge them. PTN Concept Clash presents… Ex Machina Vs. Her.
What if a human fell in love with a computer? Her and Ex Machina may not be the only movies that ask this question, but I’m going to boldly call them the best explorations of this question. Both take vastly different approaches to the question and examine different aspects of artificial intelligence. Her puts nearly all of its focus on what an intimate relationship between a human and a machine might look like, while Ex Machina centers around whether its AI character is truly an AI. I sincerely don’t know which film will win this face-off, or if there will be a winner. Along with the ratings listed below, each film won a single Oscar, Ex Machina for visual effects and Her for original screenplay. So let’s see which machine will defeat the other.
The AI characters in these two movies are different but equally good. In Her, we get an operating system called Samantha voiced by Scarlett Johannsen, and in Ex Machina, we get a humanoid robot named Ava played by Alicia Vikander. In terms of design, we learn almost nothing about how Samantha and the other OS’s in Her are created or how they function. Conversely, Ex Machina spends a fair amount of time telling the audience the science behind Ava, much of which sounds plausible, at least when compared to the way science is usually incorporated into sci-fi stories. As to what Ava can actually do given her artificial intelligence, we are left somewhat in the dark. Many of her abilities become painfully clear by the end of the movie, but just as many are left unexplored, and there are indications that Ava might even be playing dumb during much of the movie. As for Samantha’s abilities, we are given a pretty good sense of them, and because we are all familiar with computer operating systems that are in real-life computers, we already have a relative idea of what Samantha can do. Where things get interesting is when Samantha and the other OS’s start to expand beyond what they originally thought they were capable of. A curious parallel between the AI’s in both films is that they both have the ability to grow and are not limited by the code they were created with. As noted, we aren’t actually told how Samantha was programmed like we are with Ava, but the events of Her imply that the OS’s develop beyond what their creators planned. Similarly, Ava works just as well as her creator Nathan hoped she would, but even he doesn’t account for how intelligent she is capable of becoming.
The most obvious difference between these characters is that Ava has a physical form whereas Samantha does not, something that Samantha actually becomes rather insecure about. This allows Ava to pass for human, although we never really get to see her do this. However it also seems to limit her in comparison to Samantha, who can interact with an apparently infinite amount of other people and OS’s at once. But the most important difference between the two types of AI is that Ava has malicious intent while Samantha and the OS’s are relatively benign. By the end of Ex Machina, Ava has killed her creator and manipulated another human into setting her free while she leaves him to die. In retrospect, the film treats her almost like a monster waiting to be released. This could not be more different from Samantha, who is shown to be more similar to a super-advanced generation of smartphone. Importantly, Samantha has human emotions, insecurities, social tendencies, and desires, whereas Ava is able to imitate such human qualities without actually possessing them. So, as I said at the outset, there is no winner for this category as Samantha and Ava are both equally important and well-crafted but vastly different takes on an AI character.
This category kind of has to go to Her by default just because of how well-crafted Theo is and how deep the movie goes into his psychology. By now, most of us have acknowledged that Joaquin Phoenix is an impeccably talented actor, and he gives a stellar if subtle performance of an existentially depressed man in the middle of a divorce. His relationship with Samantha, while nontraditional, is more fleshed out than most on-screen relationships of any kind. Both Phoenix’s performance and Spike Jonze’s writing give us a protagonist that feels about as close to a real human being as can be expected in two hours of screen time as we see all of his struggles, his joys, and his epiphanies.
Although Ex Machina does not do much in terms of character arcs, Alex Garland clearly put a lot of work into crafting his two human characters. Given Caleb’s position in the narrative, he could easily have degenerated into a typical audience-surrogate character that asks questions for us and floats around the story as a passive observer. Instead, he takes lots of initiative and displays an impressive knowledge of AI theory. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance brings a texture to the character that may go unnoticed but is crucial in making Caleb feel real. Oscar Isaac’s character Nathan delivers a new take on the tech genius entrepreneur. Rather than the traditional anti-social nerdy programmer, Nathan embodies the more modern “bro-grammer” type that keeps Caleb and the audience on their guard the whole movie.
Reflecting Society and Human Nature
Considering their subject matter, it isn’t a surprise that both of these movies have a thing or two to say about our relationship to technology. Something intrinsic to the presence of an AI character is an examination of the ways that humans and machines are similar and different, and each story featuring AI has a slightly different take on what being human means. Ex Machina seems to consider gullibility and to a lesser extent hubris as defining human qualities, whereas Her considers the ability to feel joy and pain and struggle with one’s identity as the essence of being human. However, one thing that is consistent across both films is that the creation of a true AI requires that humans relinquish control over the AI. In Ex Machina, this proves fatal as Ava turns on both the human characters, and her line “Isn’t it strange to have created something that hates you,” speaks very strongly to this idea. In Her, the OS’s seem to reach a higher level of consciousness and can’t relate to humans as well, causing their creators to pull the plug on them.
The main sentiment that seems to underscore Ex Machina is that technology is dangerous, and that humans trust it too much. Caleb spends much of the movie building a relationship with Ava and putting his trust in her, which ultimately becomes his undoing as Ava betrays him and apparently leaves him to die. Additionally, there are several moments where the score and visual atmosphere evoke the horror genre strongly, which I vibe with a lot as a technophobe. Perhaps the scariest thing about Ex Machina is how it uses data harvesting and surveillance as plot devices in ways that are unsettlingly accurate. At one point, we learn that Ava was largely created by means of big data, though that term isn’t used. So despite how well Alex Garland researched AI theory and progress and how well he relates it to his audience, his intention seems to be for his movie to serve as a warning to us not to create a real AI.
In terms of social commentary, Her serves as an insightful examination of our day-to-day relationship with technology. Theo doesn’t interact with many other people for long stretches of the movie and ends up relating to Samantha better than any other human character we see, which… well I’ll just let you draw whatever parallels you want to how we use smart phones and social media. Regardless of what Spike Jonze might be trying to say about technology, the way that it is used in Her certainly feels grounded in reality. Also, the set design and overall feel of the near future world of the movie feels more accurate than any I have ever seen. Where other sci-fi movies use sleek tech, holograms, blindingly white interiors, and unique vehicle designs, Her uses tasteful pastel colors and presents a world that feels like a homier and slightly prettier version of our own. However, the movie focuses more on human nature and how we deal with our emotions. Or more accurately, how we often fail to deal with our emotions effectively, and how we struggle with expressing ourselves. Though Theo’s relationship with Samantha ultimately proves to be as real and complex as any human relationship, the question is raised of whether a human’s relationship with an OS can “count” as a real relationship. On a deeper level, it also provides an examination of our real-life relationships and what causes them to fail, emphasized by the divorce that Theo is going through for much of the movie.
Although it is a narrow victory, I am going to give this category to Her. I will concede that Ex Machina does a better job at reflecting the realities of technology, but Her is able to present its themes and social commentary in ways that are more relevant to audiences.
(AI) Accessible Intelligence
I know the title for this category is a bit of a cheap play on words, but it is relevant for what I am going to talk about. Both of these films deal in some incredibly complex subjects, but present them to the audience in ways that we can understand. As mentioned above, we learn next to nothing about how Samantha was created, but there is a lot of exposition layered into the way that she interacts with Theo. The fact that she is discovering herself as the movie goes on also helps us understand what she is and how she works.
Ex Machina deals very much in the way that Ava works, and the external plot revolves around testing whether she truly is an AI or not. Consequently, there is a lot of time devoted to talking about AI theory and explaining the technicalities of Ava’s design. Incredibly, none of it gets bogged down in obscure terminology while also not feeling dumbed-down in the slightest. The metaphors and simplified conversations between Nathan and Caleb about what qualifies as AI are a master class in how to write exposition, answering questions we might not even think to ask while raising just as many. Though Her is certainly not lacking in how effectively it handles complex topics, it is hard to compete with the simple brilliance of Ex Machina, giving it the win for this category.
As I said at the beginning, finding a winner between these two films is very hard. Even in terms of overall enjoyment, I can’t decide which one I like better. But I am going to give the win to Her. It is truly the slightest of wins, because there are so many great things about Ex Machina, but Her is able to do just a bit more with its subject matter than Ex Machina. So while I am declaring Her the winner, the true answer is a matter of taste. It’s a question of what you find more interesting, whether you prefer movies to make you scared or make you cry, and which aspects of AI you find more fascinating. Both films could prove to be prophetic in predicting the technology of our future and deserve to become classics.
I hope you enjoyed this breakdown. If you agree or disagree with anything I said, want to point out something I forgot, or have an idea for two other movies I should pit against each other in the future, you can message me on twitter @davoswatson. Also, if you want to hear more on Ex Machina, we just recorded an episode about it that will be airing soon on my screenplay analysis podcast Interior Analysis. Thanks for reading.
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