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Children of a Lesser
(but Incredibly Tech-Savvy) God
Christina Bieber Lake

Ex Machina is a superb film. Its apt title evokes an ancient plot device in the world of Greek and Roman theater, the deus ex machina, which means “god from the machine.” In ancient theater, a common way to resolve a tangled plot was for a god to appear in the sky, literally dangling from a crane, and fix the crises below. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a film that continues a long line of “machines that go haywire” sci-fi romps, takes the god out and leaves the machine. What remains is a classic tragedy that exposes, yet again, contemporary high-tech hubris.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac), our tragic figure, is hauntingly familiar. He is exactly what Victor Frankenstein would look like if he started Google. Nathan’s Google is the fictitious Bluebook, a search engine for which he wrote all the code at age thirteen. Now in his thirties, he lives by himself in a remote mountain research facility accessible only by helicopter. When one of his employees, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a contest and is permitted to spend a week with the solitary genius, the creepy plot begins. Nathan doesn’t even greet Caleb at the door because he is out back, hitting a punching bag. He says he is recovering from a major hangover. When Caleb, nervously trying to make a human connection, says, “it must have been a great party,” we find out that Nathan was drinking alone. And this, we soon discover, is all that he does. He is the perfect example of the Silicon Valley techno-narcissist that Paula Borsook describes in her book Cyberselfish (2000). He is a loner with aggressively libertarian politics and a penchant for thinking he is right about everything. He constantly shows off his wealth, brilliance, and power to Caleb, belittling him at every opportunity.

Ex MachinaAfter he makes Caleb sign the mother of all non-disclosure agreements, Nathan introduces Caleb to his advanced AI, the humanoid machine called Ava (Alicia Vikander). The point of bringing Caleb to the facility is for him to conduct a Turing test, the test whereby machine intelligence is measured by having a disguised machine “talk” to a human and try to fool him into thinking it is a person. The test is usually done blind via text, but not here. Instead, Ava comes right out and starts making conversation in the flesh. She is witty and observant. Her responses were created by collecting and sorting massive amounts of data gathered by tracking people’s searches and responses on Bluebook (with no concern for user privacy, of course). Nathan is proud of Ava. He points out that if she can pass the test and earn the label “conscious being” it would be the greatest achievement in mankind’s history. Caleb agrees and notes that it is not the history of men that Nathan would be writing, “but the history of gods,” which Nathan promptly interprets as meaning that he would be that god whose history was being written.

Ava is the film’s centerpiece. She is, perhaps, the most beguiling AI ever to come out of Hollywood. Although she has a humanoid face and body, areas of her figure, such as her lower torso and limbs, are left uncovered by flesh so that her circuitry appears through a translucent encasement. Her brain is a gelatinous, spark-filled mound. She has a slightly raspy voice, which seems to be the requirement for female computer companions since we heard Scarlett Johansson in Her. Caleb and Ava spend several days together, during which they are constantly watched via video camera by her drunken creator. We soon find out that there is more to Ava than advanced cognition in ultra-sleek form. She has been causing power outages so that she can warn Caleb that Nathan is a liar and a creep. She is afraid that Nathan is going to turn her off, and she wants out. All of these scenes are saturated with a red pulsating light that lets us know that we are in Hal territory now, and human beings had better be on guard.

If all of this sounds gimmicky, that’s because it is, but the film’s cautious pacing makes it work. Alex Garland (who wrote the screenplay for the film 28 Days Later) is a master of Gothic suspense, and we eventually feel as trapped in the compound as Caleb proves to be. What is slowly revealed is the depth of Nathan’s megalomania, his utter disregard for anything or anyone outside of his project. No one can get in or out of his facility without his permission, and he moves around it like a hand grenade rolling slowly downhill.

The plot inches forward until we find out that Caleb is not the only one there. Nathan has a supposedly non-English speaking assistant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), with whom he has an undefined but obviously kinky relationship. When she comes on the scene, it becomes clear that the point of the movie is to reveal Nathan’s twisted desires. In short, it was no random choice to make Ava a female. She is designed to be everything that Nathan wants, so that he can be a womanizing male god like Zeus. Like Richard Powers’s novel Galatea 2.2 (following Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), the film thus delivers a powerful feminist critique. The name Ava puts together the Ave/Eva dichotomy that describes how women are permitted only the roles prescribed for them by men. You can be the all-good, loving mother of his children (Ave) or the sexy toy who he wants to mess around with (Eva). Ava is—or so Nathan would like to believe—both at once. He doesn’t need her to birth any progeny because now he can create lifelike beings. The only thing that such a man needs now is a perfect, Stepford wife.

The technology may be new, but the plot is very old, and as relevant as ever. Seen in light of a feminist critique of the all-too-prevalent Victor Frankensteins of the world, the film is chilling. It also provides tiny glimpses into some newer ethical potholes. For example, in a conversation about a Jackson Pollack painting, Nathan tells Caleb that the real challenge when designing an AI is to find something about being human that is not automatic. This comment reveals a great deal. Since Nathan doesn’t believe in the soul, to produce a sexy female machine that operates almost entirely on the level of nonconscious cognition would be a great step forward, evolutionarily speaking. If only we could just get rid of that pesky feeling of free will, which is an illusion anyway! Nathan tips his transhumanist hand when Caleb asks him why he even wants to make such a machine. Nathan replies, “It’s not a decision. It’s an evolution,” as if this whole thing were as inevitable as gravity. Unfortunately, the film does not allow a full exploration of the ethical problems of creating a near-sentient whore-bot. Instead, it takes the easy way out by simply giving Ava self-consciousness, as if such a thing emerges naturally and necessarily from high levels of cognition. (It doesn’t, which is a core issue in AI research and in consciousness studies in general.) When Ava “becomes” human, the audience automatically roots for her. What this proves might be the oldest truth in sci-fi, that films about what an artificial intelligence might actually look like would be boring. An AI has to have human feeling, desire, and a longing for freedom for there to be a plot to begin with. “Blade Runner” would have gone nowhere without this kind of anthropomorphizing.

So, alas, we can’t look to this film (or any of the films in its lengthy ancestry) to get a glimmer of the so-called Singularity, that day when machines will supposedly exceed human intelligence. But we can and should watch this film because it teaches us to worry about the kind of people who sit in rooms by themselves wanting such things. For if machines eventually end up exceeding humans in emotional intelligence, it won’t be because of what the machines have gained. It will be because of what humans have lost. A

 

 

Christina Bieber Lake is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College.

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