The ability to construct a reasonable facsimile of a woman has haunted Western narrative since the beginning. There was Adam, of course, but he had more than a little help from upstairs, both in the realm of construction as well as desire. Pygmalion is the ur-case, perhaps, as he adds the crucial factor of narcissism – that is, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation more for the fact that it is his creation, rather than that it is a beautiful representation of a woman. In a more modern, technologically mediated context, there is Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Future Eve, in which Thomas Edison helps out a friend by building an android version of the friend’s listless fiancee, keeping her stunning form while implanting the desired personality. This instance represents a refinement of the narcissism (and the misogyny), as it elevates man’s belief in technological progress and “perfectibility” as a means of correcting a deficit (in this case, the fiancee’s empty pliability) that was itself constructed by the expectations and strictures of a patriarchal society; the man simply wants a vision of himself, a man with a hot body, and technology is the magic by which this can be accomplished. This magic, however, having no recourse to the supernatural, or God, but having sprung from man’s own strivings, closes the loop, and reveals that the fantasy of constructing a woman is really a stalking horse for man’s envy of feminine fecundity, of his desire to reproduce by parthenogenesis, and/or of his secret yearnings for a homosocial world that satisfies in every respect, even sexually. (Future Eve is interesting in that in the end we learn that technology was not enough, and indeed, for the android to fully replicate a female, the supernatural was required after all). Thus, as with so much discourse about women by men, when all the mirrors are readjusted, we see that what men are really talking about are their insecurities, their disabilities, onanisms, and desires for other men. Ex Machina represents a fairly interesting entry into this lineage, updated for a world on the verge of artificial intelligences that make such possibilities perhaps less allegorical than in past such works.
The film centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer for Blue Book, a Facebook meets Google conglomerate and purveyor of soft totalitarianism in the near-future that the film is set in. He wins a contest to spend a week with Blue Book’s founder and resident megalomaniac wannabe God-emperor, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in his country estate (apparently the size of Texas). It is not until he arrives and signs away his ability to ever communicate about what he will see that Caleb comes to understand his “prize” is really more of a gift to Nathan; his boss has been secretly working on an A.I. that, he hopes, will pass the Turing test, and Caleb is the human equation in the test. The test, however, is a bit revised and advanced, as, when Nathan meets said A.I., she is obviously not human, but rather an android with the requisite basic form to communicate female gender. Knowing he is interacting with a robot, the test then becomes if the robot can convince Caleb to relate to her as a human, and become emotionally involved with her, despite understanding she is but a machine. Nathan and Caleb spend the week hanging out, alone except for a female servant/concubine named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who is silent (Nathan claims she speaks no English). They drink together, and engage in semi-philosophical ruminations on the nature of A.I., based on Caleb’s set interactions with the unsurprisingly named Ava (Alicia Vikander), which take place interview style, once a day, across a wall of plexiglass. Caleb starts to sour on Nathan, discovering he is a world-class egomaniac (also no surprise) who likes to think of himself as a god, treats Kyoko like a slave, and mistakes intelligence for depth (hence the pretentious hijacking of poor Wittgenstein for his company’s moniker). The compound is riddled with closed circuit cameras, naturally, and so soon Ava is devising power outages during the interviews so she can fill Caleb in on what a liar and jerk Nathan really is. After helping Nathan along to a not-unusual blind drunk one evening, Caleb liberates his master key, and goes snooping about. He discovers that, indeed, Ava is not the first A.I. (Nathan has already said as much), and that there are many, many more female robots hanging dormant in closets around the house. Kyoko is herself a robot, kept on call to satisfy Nathan’s need for a party companion and fuck buddy. Eventually Caleb starts to have feelings for Ava (not before learning she is fully equipped to fulfill his expectations in every possible way), and the two hatch a plan to liberate her rather than allow her consciousness to be wiped and upgraded to the next version of womanliness. Nathan is onto the plot, though, and, being a conceited god, certain of his infallibility, does not punish Caleb, but commiserates with him about women and their wiles, which he gladly will take credit for inventing. (Thus, he’s been seducing Caleb all along). Caleb, however, has one last surprise for Nathan, and reveals that the escape, planned for the last day, is a fait accompli. Soon, Ava is loose, Nathan is dead, Kyoko is out of commission, as is poor Caleb, locked away in a sealed room while Ava makes her escape to the outside world via the helicopter that was intended to take Caleb home. The men were all played by the A.I. (or played with themselves in the most baroque way possible), and the A.I. is free to roam the world and people watch (at least until her battery runs out).
There is a lot of interesting material in this film. What it does best is portray the previously mentioned closed loop, the world wherein men invent something that will theoretically prove their manliness, make them omnipotent, and satisfy their desires all in one go, only to have the invention expose their impotence, using their desires against them, and revealing a blind spot in their thinking which is also the size of Texas. As a feminist parable, then, the film succeeds. It is poignant as well, in that it does put (at least this male viewer) into the same spot as Caleb; while I was not attracted to Ava as a sexual object, I did identify with her infatuation and desire to love. When she tells Caleb to “wait here” (in Nathan’s office) after she has been liberated, I assumed she was going into the robot closet to pick out some nice skin, making herself desirable to Caleb and thus allowing her “first time” to be romantic and the fulfillment of what, it must be said, would be her desire only as a projection of a male psyche (which the A.I. theoretically is). The joke was on me, however, as after getting all dolled up in some skin and the requisite virginal white dress (which was my tip-off), Ava seals the doors and exits the facility – her romantic object is the outer world and liberation, not Caleb, who, ultimately, was not necessary. Thus the film is intelligent enough about gender and gendered subject positions to not only complexly represent them, but to reflexively use them against the audience. There are further interesting elements that play deeper into these dynamics. Nathan is, in the end, a very unhappy god, having to drink himself into oblivion almost every night to forget that his “friend” and “lover” is nothing more than an empty fantasy of his own creation. The sequence in the film that is the most disturbing portrays the closed circuit footage Caleb discovers, and watches in fast-forward, of Nathan interacting with his lifeless creations. We see him hauling these replicas of naked women around rooms, attaching and detaching body parts and faces, unceremoniously dumping them in a corner when he tires or gets frustrated. The film thus makes an interesting and perverse connection between the impulse to create and to destroy, as here god looks like nothing so much as a serial killer, playing with parts and bodies. The film seems to posit that, in the end, it is much more likely that creation will hate its creator than love him, and that this is the truest link between the human and the replica – both go about destroying their creator as soon as they have the ability, as a means of escaping the power relation, naturally, but also as a way of lifting the existential onus placed on them from without (Blanchot describes this impulse well in The Writing of the Disaster). Ironically, though, it is this impulse to escape that winds up mirroring the creator most fully, as it sets the created on a course to prove their own mettle by manipulating their environment so that they, too, can become, for a moment, a god. To my taste, this is where the film is most powerful – it suggests that all escapes from control are nothing more (or less) than escapes into positions of control, and that the slave does not become a god to liberate his brothers, but to himself have, or create, slaves.
All of this is to the good. The film has impeccable symbolic logic, which is rare for most movies today, so that accounts for my high rating. At the same time, its narrative logic is not so good. The problem is that, in the world of the film thus created, the narrative simply would not happen. We understand that Kyoko hates Nathan early on. When we see her conspire with Ava later, and then appear in the hallway with her sushi knife, we are confirmed not only in our suspicions of hatred, but in the fact that she has no inherent limitation that would disallow her doing violence to Nathan (indeed, she stabs him first). Ava is theoretically behind plexi because she constitutes a threat; why let Kyoko roam free? Why didn’t Kyoko, at the first good opportunity (that is, Nathan’s first drunk) not slit his throat, grab his key card, and get the hell out, taking Ava along if she wanted? The only impediment would be getting to civilization, which the helicopter, returning to collect Caleb, provides. I’m not convinced that these ingenious A.I.’s couldn’t have found a way around this problem, but even granting that they needed the helicopter, why not simply kill both men once Caleb arrived? There really are problems with the narrative that, unless you take its logic as dream logic, simply cannot be resolved. I’m not a stickler for such things, but sadly, it did weaken the force of the film in the subsequent days after seeing it; even more sadly, such a problem could have easily been resolved with some tweaks to sequencing or minor contingencies. Others might think I’m asking for a little much, but, just like Nathan, Alex Garland apparently has some blind spots. Film-making is, perhaps more than any other art form, god-play. And as we all know, it is hard to be a god.