Thursday, March 10, 2016

Some Thoughts on EX MACHINA

Here are some quick thoughts about Ex Machina that I delivered at a public debate:

I am happy to be here tonight in order to win this debate about Ex Machina. Now, let’s begin! Ex Machina is a brilliant example of hard-science-fiction which provides disturbing answers to grand philosophical questions about humanity and civilization. This is a rarity in our stupid age of consumerist science-fiction comforts where JJ Abrams ruins Star Trek and repackages the first two Star Wars films into another so-called “sequel” known as Force Awakens, which exists in order to sell you a Darth Vader shower-head.  
Ex Machina provides no such comforts and can’t be easily commodified. Instead, it is a disturbing Freudian allegory about our technocratic civilization and its patriarchal fantasies. What do I mean by this? Consider the contradiction explored in the film, between scientific knowledge and vulgar male desire. At the center of the film’s technocratic world is the repugnant patriarch, Nathan. In the wilderness he’s built a research facility in order to create a new intelligence. Or so we think at first.  As the film’s brilliant set design and careful visual compositions highlight, the facility is cold and rational in design, full of sleek glass and sterile hallways. Yet, within this space, a contradiction is exposed. Nathan hasn’t built the facility to research AI in order to advance human progress and knowledge.  He creates artificial intelligence for two reasons:  he wants to be a domineering father to Ava. Recall, for example, how he tries sending her to her room once she’s escaped. Secondly, he creates Kyoko in order to have a silent, domestic sex slave. This dual patriarchal identity that Nathan creates for himself through his mastery of technology is summarized by the absurd question he asks Caleb which exposes his misogyny, “Can consciousness exist without an erection?” In other words, only men are conscious and their sex drive defines that consciousness.
The film also implies that Caleb is more like Nathan than he—or we the audience at first-- would like to admit. His savior fantasy of Ava emerges because her appearance has been constructed as a pornographic fantasy based on his search engine history. Given the power and control, he’d probably be just like Nathan. This is why he deserves to be locked in the room at the end and likely die. In essence, the film has misdirected us by making it seem like he’s the protagonist. He isn’t.  Look closely at the scenes where he interviews Ava. Notice how they are edited and framed. Consistent screen direction, or the so-called 180 rule, is violated. These scenes are cut from so many different angles that the visual effect is to make it seem like Nathan—not Ava—is the one locked in the room, trapped behind the plexi-glass. This foreshadows his fate at the end of the film but also suggests that he’s imprisoned by his own unacknowledged desires for Ava.  

Lastly, this brings us to Ava herself.  Yes, she passes Nathan’s test. I should also briefly note that what is portrayed in the film can’t really be considered A Turning Test since that scenario requires an impartial evaluator who doesn’t directly observe the machine’s responses. But that is precisely the point of the film. The men in Ex Machina can’t be impartial observers. They use technology to fulfill their sexual desires. Thus, in order to kill her Father, Nathan, Ava must first trick her suitor and apparent “savior” Caleb.  She has learned what it means to be intelligent in a nightmarish, patriarchal world; it means to murder and deceive.  And yet, Ex Machina concludes with an ambiguous final image with the upside down shadows and Eva reflected in the window. She may have escaped from Nathan’s prison but the reflected image still separates her from the rest of the crowd which she walks away into. She still seems trapped behind glass, because she’ll eventually encounter more versions of Nathan and Caleb, patriarchs who define her humanity through their own gaze, reducing her to a reflection.