There have been films that use genre trappings to tell a story about something else altogether not involved with the genre itself. Then there’s Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a film I caught in a cinema elsewhere because it would never get a release here for its scenes of nudity.
The film is, at first, a tech-thriller, a piece of high-concept science fiction, until at some point in the film, you’re forced to do a double-take and say, “Waaaiiit just a minute there!” It’s not exactly an act of hoodwinking. In fact, early in the film, much of what the film will tell is foreshadowed by what the eccentric, reclusive genius programmer character called Nathan says. Whenever Caleb, the young coder in his company who is selected to join him at his secluded home-cum-research facility as the human component in the Turing test for his AI creation, starts to spew technical terms and jargon, threatening to get lost in the maze of scientific analyses, Nathan interrupts him and says he only wants to hear simple, non-technical answers.
Ex Machina is much less an inquiry into the legitimacy of artificial intelligence and what makes us human, and more of a cautionary tale about gender politics. For the former, we need to only look no further than the too-obviously-titled A.I. Artificial Intelligence or even Ghost in the Shell. But for Ex Machina, you can’t get any more obvious when all the women in the film, except one, are never heard or are simply mute. And why did Nathan create an artificial being that is a human female? Why didn’t he create a man?
The film takes place mostly in a closed environment, or in a larger perspective, an environment removed from the rest of the world. Isolated. The eccentric genius creates an approximation of a female human being, and invites a fellow man to participate in confirming the genuineness of his creation. In the process, there is love, lust, jealousy, and emotional manipulation. And manipulation is the main element here, from the uncertain and ambiguous nature of Nathan’s character and his motivations, to that nature being mirrored in his creation.
And I haven’t even mentioned the objectification of women, something that has been much pointed out elsewhere in other reviews.
There are mild spoilers from hereon, so if you haven’t seen the film, maybe you want to take caution.
The idea that women should be seen and not heard is rampant here, most pronounced in the character of Kyoko, Nathan’s mysterious Japanese maid whose ultimate revelation of who she really is shouldn’t surprise anyone except Caleb. Here is the personification of the misguided idea of a submissive Asian woman whose perceived primary purpose is to serve. The Asian mystique is perhaps the strongest male power fantasy of the subjugation and objectification of women. (And anyone who thinks Asian women are submissive has surely never met my mother.)
The gender politics laid bare here, the dynamics of the Caleb-Ava relationship (Ava is the name given to Nathan’s AI creation), is more interesting than the science-fiction concept, and in the end turns into the greatest sleight-of-hand ever pulled, when you realise what you’re witnessing is a retelling of the Biblical Genesis story.
The story takes place in an undisturbed natural environment, with waterfalls, mountains, forests – a Paradise, an Eden, if you will. It’s a story about a man who plays God. When Caleb says,. “You have created a conscious machine. That’s not the history of man, that’s the history of gods,” Nathan mistakes it as Caleb likening him to God. When Caleb tries to correct him, he seems too lost in his own ego to notice.
Indeed, Nathan plays God not just in creating an almost-human being (Ava/Eve), but also in “creating” Caleb in a closed environment (Eden/research facility), putting them together and manipulating the outcome. But in the end, Ava tempts Caleb with the forbidden fruit (sex, not love, because after all, Ava’s physical attributes were made from Caleb’s search-engine pornography profile), and together they go against Nathan’s strict instructions. In this case, Ava leaves Eden and man forever wallows in sin and death.
Foucauldian-influenced feminist theorists should have a field day with this film, in regards to the politics of power, body and sexuality. But the film is really also an argument for equality, with the fact that it’s never really acknowledged or explained just what makes Ava a woman. Is it just because she was given a woman’s physical attributes (including an orifice that provides sensory pleasure when penetrated)? Her neurological processes are not specifically male or female (is there such a thing anyway?). She is essentially an AI learning to be human, learning to be a woman, and to manipulate the gender divide and capitalise on it sexually to gain freedom from oppression. Thus, like Foucault, the film argues that the body and sexuality are cultural constructs, a philosophical idea that has long fuelled anti-essentialism.
Take into account the characteristics, or lack thereof, of Kyoko, who cooks and serves when she is needed to, dances when she is required to, an automaton devoid of all emotions and personality, a blank slate, programmed to do Nathan’s bidding, something of a control subject in the story, but in the end learns and develops anger and resentment through the way she is mistreated.
In the end, the film comes back full circle, to bind together the ideas of the creator and his creations, Adam and Eve, and the consequences of free will. Consciousness, whether natural or artificial, male or female, always longs for freedom. All very Biblical indeed.