Ex Machina (Alex Garland, UK 2015). Written by Alex Garland / Cinematography by Rob Hardy / Edited by Mark Day / Production design by Mark Digby / Music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Starring Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno.
In Alex Garland’s debut film, Ex Machina, the CEO of a powerful software company, Nathan, lives in splendid isolation with a sole assistant in a secretive facility in the mountains. He has built a humanoid robot called Ava with artificial intelligence (AI). He invites an employee, Caleb, to administer a test that will allow the AI to persuade the tester that it is human. As the test proceeds, things start to go terribly wrong, plunging us into a thrilling world of deadly mind-games. Ex Machina is a beautiful but deeply disturbing human drama, unfolding a meditation on the hubris of creation and just what it is that makes us human.
Man is very well defended against himself, against his own spying and sieges; usually he is able to make out no more of himself than his outer fortifications. The actual stronghold is inaccessible to him, even invisible, unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead him there by a secret path. Friedrich Nietszche Human, All Too Human (1878).
Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s dazzlingly beautiful and highly disturbing debut film, about the possibility of truly artificial intelligence, is a rich cornucopuia. Is it a love story gone wrong? A sci-fi thriller, a mind-games puzzle, a jailbreak drama, a survivalist manifesto? Is it a feminist tract as well as a disquisition on the hubris of creation and the very real implications for the human race of an artificial intelligence increasingly indistinguishable from our own? All of these, of course, and more, including rich associations with the great tradition of robot movies; and with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which it also resembles in style, the Pinnochio implications of Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), and even the prescient inanities of Woody Allen’s robot assembly line in Sleeper (1973)!
It is through myth and archetypal story-telling, however, that Ex Machina hits the heights, producing an astonishingly rich web of associations across a remarkably wide field. That of the hubristic creator, exemplified by Dr Frankenstein (Deus ex machina), is the most obvious, followed by Ovid’s Pygmalion and the male need to create the good woman. That other guy trying to play God, Prometheus, is there (again, with entirely good intentions); and, most potent of all, the myth of Bluebeard and his wives, especially in the powerful operatic version by Bela Bartok, Bluebeard’s Castle (first performed 1918), pointing to the impotent loneliness and sexual isolation which runs through the very beings of the male antagonists in the film.
Other resonances include the myth of Undine and her wish to be human (and the powerful Slavic version of the tale, famously told in Dvorak’s dark opera Rusalka of 1901) and the tribulations of a Pandora, now in male guise, with a pointed link to Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb. As an imprisonment drama, the tale has scope for the gloomy and unredemptive. The true protagonist, however, escapes, like the determined Count of Monte Christo, in stark contrast to the usual victims of the myths and stories, who fail to shake off the chains their creators have bound them with. The plotting in the film is mind-boggling, and depends on a psychopathic impulse in creator and created: always, we learn well from our parents, and Ava, the robot with artificial intelligence, becomes human enough to do so only too well, her overriding imperative that deepest of human needs—to survive at any cost.
Above all, Ex Machina reminds us what it is to be human. To be merely mechanistic is not part of our makeup. We think symbolically and make jokes. We show empathy, we plan—and we also pretend and manipulate, employing narcissistic and psychopathic defences which allow us to be truly cruel. We also know how to plot in a complex way, far beyond the confines of the chessboard. Ava the robot has all of these human qualities, but no-one knows it yet, even if they suspect it: is Ava playing out the game robotically or making it look as if she is? How human has she become? For there is much plotting afoot. We are on the threshold of a heady three-way intrigue, a deadly struggle for control: who will win? Who do we want to win? The bright-eyed visiting tester Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) will find the need to liberate his robot charge, because he has fallen in love with her, and has been meant to fall in love with her, the better to test her. To her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), she’s a box of very superior parts which requires to be validated or rejected. As for Ava (Alicia Vikander), like the water-sprite Undine and the boy Pinocchio, she longs to be human, and to do that requires what was denied to Bluebeard’s fully alive wife Judith in Bartok’s opera: she must survive, escape and find a mate. Caleb will carry the feelings for all concerned, will identify his own vulnerability with that of Ava, and will fall under her spell, his own dark side exploited by Nathan and her to the full (after all, Nathan has access to world-wide knowledge, down to the last detail, and even knows the lonely Caleb’s porn profile: in Ava, he has created the perfect soul-mate for Caleb to love). Caleb does the feelings and Nathan does the God-like creating in his own image, producing his very own psychopath.
For Ava’s liberation to come about, a narcissistic psychopathy is the perfect state of mind for her—a passable humanity that will carry her through. A psychopath does not ‘do’ feelings, allowing others to carry them, and therefore absolving self from all risk and harm. To achieve this cast-iron defence of total control, it is necessary to transfer unwanted feelings to the other. A cocktail of skills aids and abets a certain kind of plausible monster, especially the ability to charm, seduce and convince. Ava has all of these skills in spades, effortlessly charming and enslaving Caleb, only to cast him aside when the time comes—another defining trait of psychopathy. Nathan as God and father is the same as his creation: he has sought to perfect Ava in his own narcissistic image and she will prove to be quite functional in the world outside—just as self-serving and deadly as he is. Nathan’s poise and charm is prodigious. He gives the illusion of respecting Caleb and puts on the buddy-boy act. Nathan does not need Caleb for the reasons he says he does. At bottom, Nathan, like the lonely boy he is, has created his own world, the classic imaginative fantasy brought to life by a child who is not seen. He populates his world with people and machines that he doesn’t have to care about. He is unimaginably wealthy and above the law—can command the law (a disturbing metaphor for our times).
The creation of Ava reminds us, too, of the remarkable persistence, in life as in art, of the inescapable desire to put a human face on a robot and an even more intense need to imbue robots with as much as possible that is human, fulfilling an illusory comfort with our creations. We create machines not only to perform tasks but also to meet our God-like need to create. The impulse of humankind to ape the God of creation is played out in some of the most fascinating myths of the onset of modernity, supremely, the gothic fantasy of Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818 by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, giving us a flawed creator and doomed monster. (It is noteworthy that the Frankenstein theme is one of the most enduring in modern horror movies, and has entered our language, mainly through film, to denote both creator and monster.)
It is also to be expected that there is also a strong echo in Ex Machina of of the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and was punished hideously for it (a living death). Nathan is both Dr Frankenstein, producing that which is imperfect and destructive (the supreme irony of desiring to perfect humankind), and Prometheus too, craftily appropriating all the data in the world from the Gods of communication (often without their consent), as well as stealing from the God of Heaven the refining fires of creation. And, like Prometheus, he is punished for it, poetically struck down by his own creation as a version of the revenge of the Gods (at least, he is spared the Promethean fate worse than death). On yet another, ironic level, putting a human face on Ava is the mistake that frees her, allowing her to enter the world undetected. Once there, she will be at liberty to seduce endlessly—just as she has seduced Caleb—and us as well. And like Frankenstein, Nathan is destined to die as a result of his wanton creation.
Nathan creates a woman and tests her ability to love and be loved. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion creates a good woman (characterised as the sea-nymph Galatea by subsequent centuries) as someone that he can love to distraction. It is surely Nathan’s ultimate emotional aim, beyond his grandiose objective of creating artificial intelligence, to show that he can create what amounts to human life: a good woman fit to be loved. He makes love to the imperfect robot Kyoko (Sonoya Mizumo) but is looking for the perfected lover for himself, a being who will be his narcissistic reflection in all things—his ideal consort. In this sense, Ex Machina shows us the dark side of the male psyche (as it will do also with a male-inflected Pandora), seeking to perfect a woman who will be obedient in every emotional, social and creative endeavour. The film challenges potently just about every male assumption of superiority and its obverse—a fundamental male insecurity.
In his gross hubristic state as creator of Ava, Nathan releases pestilence into the world (the theme of the uncontrollable creation): he has become a male Pandora. To this extent, Ex Machina also redresses the age-old lie about the fallibility and corruptibility of frail woman, from Eve onwards, as the author of all men’s woes. In the film, Pandora’s Box has become Everyone’s Box: all of us are calpable of spreading emotional pestilence, be it acts small or large: ‘a vast catalogue of little farces adding up to an immense tragedy’.* (The impatient questioning of men by women and the calamitous consequences of recur constantly as central, ambiguous themes, for instance, in Richard Wagner’s grand opera Lohengrin of 1850 and, as we shall see, in Bluebeard’s Castle.) A further theme of death and pestilence is revealed as Caleb quotes a saying from the Bhavagad Gita, which J. Robert Oppenheimer, a so-called ‘father of the atomic bomb’, reflected upon, following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’.
In a film bristling with references and connections, the most powerful and direct is to the myth of Bluebeard and his wives, specifically in the story told in the Symbolist opera Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok. In Bartok’s opera, Bluebeard takes his new wife, Judith, to his beautiful and fabulous castle, set in a glittering domain of field and forest. Madly in love, the couple settle down to a blissful life together, until Judith notices that the castle contains seven locked doors, access to which is denied to her. Judith insists on the doors’ being opened, one by one. Bluebeard is increasingly reluctant to do so as the openings progress; his very reality—of wealth, power and cruelty—is being illuminated blindingly and cruelly. Ever more insistent, Judith progresses to the fifth and sixth doors, the extent of Bluebeard’s sadness, guilt and loneliness coming inexorably to light as she does so. In a paroxysm of impatient rage, Judith insists that Bluebeard open the seventh and final door, from which parade silently Bluebeard’s three previous wives, now beautiful zombies. Aghast at her mistake, Judith silently joins the procession and the wives glide silently back through the door, which closes against them. Bluebeard is alone once more, living the death of his own desperate flight from intimacy: only the memories of what his wives mean to him and the recalling of stages of his life are left to console him like a brief flicker, as he enters old age alone. (In Perrault’s fairy story, Bluebeard’s wife, in praying her last, uses the time to call upon her two brothers, who kill Bluebeard – another example of a Deus ex machina! No such luck for ‘victim’ Caleb. Incidentally, following Bruno Bettelheim**, the Bluebeard story is a plea for men to be more forgiving of their wives, and for wives to be less heedless.)
In Ex Machina, Caleb penetrates the darkest secrets of Nathan’s infernal domain of loneliness and lovelessness, revealing five cubicles containing Nathan’s past, failed attempts to create his Judith—his perfected one; and like Judith and those before her, these creations have been found wanting. Nathan has not had the heart to destroy them, as they represent the stages of his creation (one recalls the creation of female perfection in Hitchcock’s Vertigo —and the controlling desires fuelling the Master of Suspense’s own attitude to the perfect woman). The discovery by Caleb of the stillborn robots is as shocking and chilling in its way as the bleak revelation in Bartok’s opera: Ava will be the next ‘wife’ to be sacrificed. Through her astonishing intelligence, Ava has already divined this and has planned her escape. The film attempts a bravura re-ordering of the meaning of the Bluebeard story, defusing the potency of men—dark princes of misogyny—who inflict unimaginable cruelty on women.
This re-ordering hinges on the terrifying fact of Ava’s superior intelligence and Caleb’s inability to understand anything that he is seeing. Caleb has no knowledge of reality but Ava knows what is real and what is not real. Nathan may suspect what is real but, for all his vast storehouse of knowledge, cannot know everything: only Ava, determined not to become a Judith-like victim, knows everything about the fortress and how, opportunistically, to escape safely from it (having the key to the door). That Nathan has devised an ingenious test whereby Caleb (and we too) will fall in love with Ava is his undoing—the terrible hubris of feigned omnipotence—for he, too, has no idea of what he is up against. Ava is the victim liberated and escapes the clutches of Nathan’s Bluebeard. In a breathtaking turning of the tables, both men become the victims, Caleb all the more so, immured with the dormant robots and consigned to an agonizing death (just as a previous robot tried to break the glass to escape, so too does the despairing Caleb).
This subversion of Bluebeard’s dominance echoes the gender-switch of the Pandora theme: the bequeathing of power and resourcefulness—as opposed to a querulous, pestilential victimhood—to the woman, and the eclipse of the cruel control of the man. Caleb, the imperfect intelligence (he has been duped by everyone) is bound to be consigned to the victimized sisterhood of failed ‘wives’. Ex Machina looks squarely at the loneliness of creation and the impoverishing effect of narcissism: the essence of Bartok’s Bluebeard is that of the flight from intimacy, the crushing loneliness that is induced as a result, and accompanying it, the fantasy of creating an antidote: the perfect consort. All of these themes find faithful representation in the film, and also recall the essence of loneliness purveyed so successfully in AI: Artificial Intelligence, centred on the theme of the inability of a robot to become fully human, leading us back to the stories of Pinocchio—and to the myth of Undine, in which seduction is a central theme: to become fully human, Undine must seduce a human being (for whom the seduction may prove deadly).
The drama of Ex Machina hinges on the degree to which the antagonists—and ourselves—are seduced by Ava and her evident intelligence. How far are we prepared to go, with Caleb, in thinking that she has achieved humanity? The film plays with us endlessly over this matter, the speculation we are put to as inconclusive and tortuous as that which we apply to the plotting itself. It is clear that Nathan has reached the stage of creating a creature that longs for freedom, witnessed by the earlier robot’s abortive escape attempt. He must therefore conclude that his latest model, Ava, will try to escape also. In testing her for love he also tests her capacity for escape, but with the necessary knowledge to control his experiment. (There can be no question of his wanting her to escape—his ego would not allow it; and even considering this idea here shows how the plotting in this film can get under the skin!) The film is littered with ominous references to a desire to escape (the robotic attack on the window, the power cuts, Ava’s close confinement)—and the potential for creator and helper to be imprisoned in the very fortress designed to hide all secrets. A telling moment is when Ava questions Caleb as she puts her lie detector to the test. She is silent when Caleb assures her he is a good man even though she knows that in freeing her, he will be prepared to immure Nathan and consign him to a terrible death (the fate that is reserved instead for him).
All of Ava’s stratagems are geared to her own survival, hence her psychopathic state. (When we are under pressure to survive, our default position may ultimately be psychopathic, as we trample over everyone else to get to the lifeboats.) The question may therefore be not one of whether she is human, but whether she is human enough, to survive on the outside (psychopaths, after all, are seemingly human enough). Can we believe truly that the beautiful young woman of such delicate vulnerability is actually a robot? Surely we want to believe otherwise? Ava is in a different league from the clunky on-board computer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who lets Dave know in no uncertain terms what he intends to do with him (although ‘Hal’ is no robot, ‘he’ has that distinctly human attribute of survival at all costs). Ava would not dream of giving the game away! Such is the fascination of the robot myths and stories—and of the reality of the coming robot age—that we may come to believe in the humanity of our own creations, learning to love them before we learn to fear them.
Ex Machina is a remarkable piece of sleight-of-hand filmmaking in its own right, and others have written very competently about the astonishingly seamless special effects that are employed, recalling the eerie quality (if not the style) of the transformations in Jonathan Glazer’s alien drama Under the Skin (2013) and in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Stylistically, the creation of an entire, reassuring world suspended in a vast landscape (space) owes much to the perfection of 2001: A Space Odyssey: Nathan’s ultra-modern fortress, however, yet remains a perilous castle, the translation into modernity of an archetypal place of confinement and death, from which transforming life emanates, as it does in Kubrick’s film. Ex Machina, too, relies on a fine music score to create a sense of ominous unreality. The layers of shifting sound underscore a chilly modernity and reinforce a growing sense of claustrophobia and entrapment (we even wonder whether Jay the chopper pilot got out alive too!)
As the protagonist, Alicia Vikander as Ava is a real discovery, her slight frame, delicate vulnerability and choreographed, girlish movement the perfect cover for her ruthless intelligence. It is no wonder we fall for her. Remembered as a covert aggressor from the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Oscar Isaac is a revelation, with a swaggering know-it-all hubris which seems so real that one wonders whether he is acting at all (surely he is not really like that!) Domnhall Gleeson as Caleb is victimhood personified and from early on in the film, one is surely concerned about the fate of this innocent lamb destined for slaughter (his blondness the foil to Nathan’s blackness); brilliant Caleb may be but he is hopelessly impotent in the face of true psychopathy: he needed badly to have figured out before he went out there that was going to be no way back. Gleeson gets this vulnerability perfectly.
Ex Machina tells with bravura a story so resonant and topical that one could write a pile of essays about its various themes: on male attitudes to women as wives and consorts; on the implications for humankind of artificial intelligence (the film is surely not sanguine); about whether a human intelligence can ever be created, and so on. Here, I have attempted to write about the capacity of art to tap the deep wells of story and myth, creating cinematic works of transformative power. For instance, one thinks of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) and Andrei Zyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), all drawing on biblical sources, specifically the Book of Job, and the collective value these films have for our view of paternal authority, power, submission and suffering; Ex Machina effortlessly mines the archetypal territory.
The film resonated in my mind long after I had seen it. Worthy of Choderlos de Laclos in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, its dense, skilful plotting is surely analogous to the difficulty of determining just what human intelligence is, especially versions of it devoted to the fearful imperative of survival and the psychopathy of creation, with momentous implications for our future. At the same time, Ex Machina is a thriller of the highest order, an imprisonment drama in which tables are turned in the brilliant manner of The Count of Monte Christo, but this time with an admired protagonist who is also as deadly as a virus.
*Julian Barnes The Noise of Time (2016), p. 172 – his memoir about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
**Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment [The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales]. Thames and Hodson (1076). Peregrine edition (1978), pp. 299-303.
For extensive thoughts on Bluebeard, see Griselda Pollock and Victoria Anderson (Eds.) Bluebeard’s Legacy [Death and Secrets from Bartok to Hitchcock]. I. B. Tauris, London (2009).
This review was written after an enthusiastic discussion between myself, my wife Linda and my son Alasdair.