by Matt McKenna
Ex Machina is the debut film by Alex Garland, writer of the critically acclaimed zombie movie 28 Days Later. At first glance, Ex Machina appears to tread the well-trod sci-fi ground paved with the question, “What does it mean to be a robot with consciousness?” Indeed, the characters in the film mainly appear interested in knowing whether Ava, the humanoid robot, has genuine emotions, and viewers of the film would be right to point out this theme is hardly novel. But all this musing over the nature of consciousness is merely a smokescreen for the actual issue the film tackles: the failed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.
Ex Machina stars Oscar Isaacs as Nathan, the hard-bodied ultra-genius who has just maybe created an artificially intelligent robot named Ava played by Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, the relatively-smart weakling who Nathan handpicks to test Ava's sentience. The film is mostly sympathetic towards Caleb, who lays it on pretty thick as a wide-eyed kid gaga over being invited to Nathan's enormous estate after winning a nebulously defined contest sort of like Charlie in a Willy Wonka cyberpunk robot factory. After being equal parts confused and excited over Nathan's bizarre behavior and the paranoid security features at the isolated compound, Caleb is ecstatic to learn his role in this adventure will be to perform psychoanalysis on Nathan's potentially self-aware humanoid computer.
The similarities between Nathan and Caleb to Comcast and Time Warner Cable (TWC) should be immediately obvious. Nathan, the unlikeable punching-bag-pummeling, iron-pumping fitness enthusiast, is physically gargantuan the way Comcast is gargantuan with its 23 million subscribers. Caleb, by comparison is weak like TWC and its relatively miniscule 14 million subscribers.
And then the way Nathan attempts to recruit Caleb into his nerd-bro, hippy-frat technological determinism pseudo-religion is similar to how Comcast attempted to acquire TWC to create a hilariously monopolistic ultra-company that would own most Americans' access to the Internet. Indeed, neither Nathan nor Comcast are satisfied with their already dominant positions in the world as each takes steps to cement their futures as unassailable fixtures of their respective industries through the steady removal of competition. Where Comcast needs TWC to control Internet access to regions in which TWC has its own monopoly, Nathan needs Caleb's support to bolster his own self-image as a God-like creator of intelligent life.
All right, here come the spoilers–movie-ruining spoilers. I'm going to tell you the end of the film. Ready? Here it is: Ava manipulates both Nathan and Caleb into arguing, and in the subsequent moments, Ava kills them both, abruptly ending their nascent partnership. Is this not exactly how the Comcast-TWC merger went awry? Comcast (Nathan), a company known chiefly for its terrible customer service, and TWC (Caleb), a cable provider that looks passable only when compared to Comcast, are unable to join forces because the Internet (Ava) refuses to be tamed. Where Ava was able to use her emotional intelligence to manipulate Nathan and Caleb to gain her freedom, the Internet was able to use its distributed nature to compel citizens and regulators to push back against the merger of Comcast and TWC.
The message that Garland is trying to send through Ex Machina is that cable providers will be unable to corral the Internet to consolidate their power simply because the Internet is really hard to control. Sure, Comcast has made a killing by bringing high-speed Internet to large swaths of Americans, but the question remains, how will the company continue to grow now that most people have Internet access? Will Comcast's future role be relegated to that of a “dumb pipe,” unable to levy a toll against the valuable content flowing through it? And if Comcast does become a dumb pipe, how can it differentiate itself from other dumb pipes except by engaging in a profit-killing, consumer-friendly price war? Well, Comcast's first line of defense–buying up its potential competition to avoid a price war–appears to be failing. As Ex Machina points out through Ava's fierce independence, the nature of the Internet strongly encourages competition because its main value proposition is that it can't easily be owned by any single entity.
Even if Ex Machina was merely one more entrant into the crowded field of maybe-this-robot-is-sad-sometimes movies, it'd still be a pretty good one. However, director Alex Garland had bigger plans for his film as he uses the sentient robot motif to deconstruct the current conflict between giant cable companies that sell Internet access and the Internet itself. He even brazenly winks at the audience by naming a main character “Caleb,” an obvious anagram of “cable.” And while nobody expects Comcast to suffer an end as violent as Nathan's in Ex Machina, the end does appear inevitable. Perhaps when Comcast's comeuppance finally does arrive, I'll be charged a reasonable amount of money for decent Internet access.