This week, Eric will be discussing the sci-fi film Ex Machina. He suggests you watch it before reading this, spoilers to follow. You don’t have to watch it first but this is your only warning and it’s pretty good if you’re into that kind of thing so go ahead––this will still be here when you get back.
Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind – The Orange Catholic Bible
Ex Machina is highly formalist film in which a relatively simple narrative framework serves to support a small but detailed world in which a contemporary folk tale rooted in myth, feminism and speculative fiction plays out. Everything that happens flows out of the structural logic underlying the film. The backbone of this structure is a series of 7 Turing Test interviews ostensibly conducted by Caleb (a programmer at a fictional social media/search engine company) under the auspices of Nathan (CEO of same) with Ava (an AI driven android) as the subject. The feminist ideas in play are well trodden by now and the speculative fiction elements of the story are either mundane or silly, so I’ll be focusing primarily on how the movie functions in relation to mythology and folk stories and how those ideas build and detail the character of Nathan.
The movie doesn’t waste a lot of time and fairly quickly the established narrative form starts being subverted though never eschewed. Ava and Nathan exercise varying amounts of control over and perspective on each successive interview. Nathan is the all-seeing but not all knowing master of his own universe and Ava is his prisoner/daughter who is exploited/protected/confined by Nathan’s power.
Nathan begins the story in a position of nearly unimpeachable power while Ava has only her natural wiles and an ability to make herself invisible to Nathan for short periods of time by initiating overloads that cut power in the house and deprive Nathan of his surveillance capabilities. Caleb, whose name means dog in Hebrew, is unwittingly lead by the nose in a power struggle between his Nathan and the machine (built specifically for Caleb to fall in love with it should be noted).
As the story advances Ava manipulates and exploits Caleb into securing her release, all as part of a test orchestrated by Nathan to determine if manipulation and exploitation are tools within the reach of his invention. As the story closes Nathan is bested by his progeny and Caleb is abandoned. Nathan fails because of his hubris and inability to regulate his passions while Caleb is left behind by the creature he believes he’s saved because Caleb is an idiot who stands around waiting for people to tell him what to do.
Building on this foundation is a modern interpretation of a traditional style of Norse fable. A limited cast of characters driven by vanity, lust, shame and ambition play out a cruel struggle in a lofty realm set far apart from mortal life. The chaotic but precise Nathan is a godlike figure in this place and rules his house like Thor over Bilskírnir, always in control until he isn’t – volatile and dangerous but also organized and highly effective in pursuing his aims. He holds a fey court, ostensibly in service to him, but each with their own agenda and an inner life untouched by Nathan, though not unobserved.
The setting reinforces the whole pre-Christian Germanic epic feel. The mountains of northern Sweden are very appropriate for obvious reasons and the house itself plays a huge role in enforcing the mythologized roles the characters take on over the course of the story. It’s a huge hall that looks out over the landscape with a complex of tunnels underneath. The careful placement of stone and greenery in the underground portion of the house recall the Scandinavian world tree without ever referring directly. Upstairs is the world of light, the world of power while downstairs is a world of mystery, creation and chaos.
In the underworld the movie plays out as a process of creation, Ava coming into her own and evolving through emotion and intellect. The two primary Norse fonts of creation are Musphelheim and Niflheim, the latter a land of freezing cold, stability, darkness, mist and obscurity, the former of fire, chaos and light. They share a border in a grass-less place called Ginnungagap where the steam produced by their mixing lead to the creation of the world. The subterranean home Ex Machina takes place in is all three of these places at different times in the story. When the house functions normally the characters are in Niflheim, when Ava engineers a power cut the subterranean halls are transformed into Musphelheim. The conflict of these forces, Nathan’s creative impetus and Ava’s subversive and destructive energy, allows Ava to transcend into the upper world and break Nathan’s grip on power within the world of the film.
Through this lens the story offers a look into a speculative world of not-far-from-today, advanced from our society in subtle but critical ways. Intact are the enormous institutions of data collection and organization which dominate our society already. Nathan’s company Bluebook, is a cross between google and Facebook with users all over the world feeding him a glut of data. He’s cast as a giant in the data and social networking industry to the point that he can do what he likes with information and nobody can stop him or even reveal his appropriation of the info at his disposal.
The seven interviews follow along roughly with the seven major themes of cognitive psychology over the course of seven days. In each interview Ava appears to demonstrate new cognitive abilities and sophistication. Ava is a believably alien mind supporting the premise that she is a fundamentally inhuman creature, but is recognizable enough as a human analogue to identify with and avoid becoming a parody or trope. She doesn’t seem like a human exactly, but she does seem like a person. Ava is the seventh AI constructed by Nathan when the movie opens, though that’s not immediately apparent. As the movie progresses we get a broader and broader view of Nathan’s project, where he is now and how far he’s come. The mute servant girl Nathan sleeps with is revealed to be one early model, while the other five are eventually shown deactivated in large cabinets in Nathan’s room.
Ava is the most advanced, and most dangerous machine Nathan has achieved yet so he decides to go to great lengths testing this newest version before he moves onto the next. Nathan tells Caleb that the next model will probably be the last but there’s no reason to think this is true. His real intentions are a lot more complicated than just inventing a thinking machine as the things he says and does reveal. Plot-wise the indication signaling his devotion to a subconscious higher purpose loudest is the form of the test he sets Ava.
Nathan wants to see if Ava is capable of leveraging her sense of self and social skills to subvert the test and the test giver in order to escape. Ava wants to get out of the basement Nathan has her locked in. Even though it’s a very nice basement, nobody wants to live their entire life locked in a room waiting to be switched off, erased and reprogrammed into a newer and better model. Caleb seems to want whatever the people around him tell him he wants––he’s so totally outclassed by Ava and Nathan that he has almost no agency at all.
Nathan, an unstable but ingenious wunderkind programmer is playing a weird game of chicken with a series of increasingly sophisticated conscious machines. He keeps the androids he’s building oppressed and imprisoned, torturing them with a claustrophobic environment and some weirdo sexual slavery stuff. He thinks it’s his paranoia and desire for secrecy driving him to keep the universally female androids he builds under lock and key, but he’s also driven by the feeling of power and control this situation affords him. On a deeper level he is partly responding to a borderline suicidal urge to test his intelligence against a worthy challenge.
In one scene Ava remarks “It must be strange to have created something that hates you,” which Nathan fobs of easily, at least in part because on some level he set out to make something that hates him in the first place. Nathan is out of control and self-destructive throughout the movie, though he remains a competent prison warden until the end and his attitude of reckless self-immolation comes off as the real driving factor behind what he’s doing in making these thinking machines.
Three scenes really make clear what Nathan is up to. The first is a scene where he compares himself with Jackson Pollock. He says circumspectly that he’s working on AI without a clear aim in mind. The next two are a pair of scenes linked with one another, one in which Caleb and Nathan are drinking outside and the second where Nathan is drunk to insensibility on his couch. In the former Nathan talks about the evolution of life and consciousness with the understanding that AIs will eventually trample humanity and look back on us as a primitive form of existence, the way we look on early hominids. In the latter, Nathan quotes Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita. He says “In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains, on the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows, in sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame, the good deeds a man has done before defend him” and appends “it’s promethean man.”
Nathan’s referring to the struggle of his AI to attain freedom as a promethean struggle, framing himself as a god figure as he does in an only semi-tongue in cheek fashion continually throughout the movie. He’s also acknowledging his own mortality and the inevitability he will be overcome by the nascent life he’s responsible for. This is really the purpose Nathan has deep down for creating AI, to erase himself and, because of his god complex, all of humanity by extension.
All of Nathan’s genius and self-destructive determination culminates in Ava. He’s not just courting fate, he’s resigned to his own eventual death and the fall of humanity. He determines that since he cannot stop it, he will be the architect of this sea change. Nothing would irk him more than being a pawn in a larger shift because he sees himself as a chess master on the world stage. He chooses to create the instrument of his own destruction so that he can tell himself that he is an actor in his destruction, not an extra.