What brings Ex-Machina?
What comes out of machine? I have at least three replies for you. So stick with me.
The keys to find the answers are quite obvious. Let’s start with the most vivid — terminology. It’s the Turing test that Caleb is invited to perform on a Strong Artificial Intelligence (strong AI) machine — Ava, created by the head of Blueprint, Nathan.
A little bit of theory for a start. Turing test was an idea of the father of computing, Alan Turing, of whether it was possible to create a machine, whose intellectual capacities would make it impossible for a human being to tell it apart from behavior of another human. The test was designed in such a way that it included two participants: (1) a human being interacting with (2) a machine, possessing AI. The crucial part of the experiment was that human was not supposed to see his/her interlocutor. In other words, by means of such a blind experiment a human had to run a test, by the end of which, s/he had to come up with an answer whether he was communicating with a machine or with another human being.
Another term we need to figure out is Strong Artificial Intelligence. We normally call any contemporary operational system (i. e. Windos, iOS, etc.) a weak AI. That means that a particular AI was designed and can only be used by humans as a tool to achieve a certain goal. So it is dependent upon humans. Strong AI however is the one capable of passing for a human being in a Turing test. Strong AI is independent from humans and has its own ways of making decisions. One could say that strong AI is analogous to human intelligence.
Now back to the movie. From the very first session with Ava, Caleb can clearly see her, which violates the above mentioned condition of the Turing test. Ava’s body has multiple parts covering her internal artificial structure — her electronic hardware. Yet it’s the presence of those plates and coverings that make us and Caleb sure, she is a machine. Still we cannot but notice Ava’s persistent tendency to look more feminine and human. As her appearance was constructed with Caleb’s porn preferences taken into consideration, there should be no surprise that he liked her the first time he saw her. His feelings for her grew stronger as she advanced her femininity, unveiling step by step her close-to-human intelligence and charisma.
It seems that it was Caleb who underwent the testing. The conditions of the experiment were constantly changing. Ava was getting dressed as an attractive female, seducing Caleb, getting deep into his innermost secrets and fears, winning over his trust. She was performing a sort of psychology tests on him, not vice versa.
First she seduced and afterwards betrayed Caleb, who volunteered to help her fight and escape Nathan.
Specific attention should be paid to her motivation. She realized her mortality, which makes her closer to humans in that she has self-consciousness. Unwilling to confront an ordinary human destiny, she took, what we might perceive as emergency measures, which lead to deaths of Nathan and Caleb.
What we see is not just a mere possibility of strong AI, but its triumph over humans. And the most curious thing about it is that Ava managed to ‘win’ due to what may be called intrinsically human characteristics: self-consciousness, deceit and seduction, coupled with her will to overcome an inevitable death. At the same time humans lost due to their distrust, lack of understanding and inability to cooperate.
The warning is that the strong AI, if created, may overpower us not by means of its strength or intelligence but by being more human than us in our humanly traits.
The second way to interpret the movie is also quite obvious — theological. If according to Christian theology, God created life ex nihilo — out of nothing, what did god-Nathan create ex-machina — out of machine? In one of their conversations Caleb calls Nathan god. Nathan is omniscient — he knows what happens and where, omnipotent — he controls everything and everyone. Another hint for the possibility of theological interpretation is the setting. Nathan’s hideaway headquarters/research facility is located amidst the untouched nature of Eden-like forest. However there are several important differences between the Ex-Machina’s storyline and the biblical one. First one is the order of appearance of the characters in the Nathan’s bunker. In the movie it’s the eve-Ava to appear before adam-Caleb. So what if Eve were the first creation of God and not Adam? She would’ve eaten from the tree of Knowledge, getting to know of her finitude, mortality, without getting Adam involved. In the movie we have this persistent indication that Ava knew the fate of her predecessors, and thus what eventually would happen to her, prior to Caleb’s arrival. So Caleb was meant to be seduced and betrayed from the very beginning in order to weaken Nathan’s almightiness.
But to have the entire picture, we have to recall the second one: Ava didn’t want to simply escape, but to find herself in the middle of a busy street, packed with people to feel the pulse of life. In other words she was striving for what she understood as the real life — life among people, and which is even more important, as one of them. And to escape the artificiality of her daily routine within the concrete confines at the heart of the garden of Eden created by god-Nathan, Ava needed to get him killed. Theologically, mortality is one of the punishments God inflicted upon humans for disobeying him. What we see from such a reading of the movie, is that the way to escape God’s wrath and to obtain immortality is to murder Him. At least this schema works out well for Ava.
But what about adam-Caleb? Why did she have to leave him die of hunger with no chance to survive? To answer that question we’ll have to resort to a third reading of Alex Garland’s masterpiece. This time through a feministic approach.
Nathan is the arrantly patriarchal figure. He creates women robots for own pleasure and decides their destinies. Kyoko, Nathan’s lover/servant is the archetypal pre-feministic woman, subdued to the will of her male master. Ava stands for an emancipated woman and Caleb represents the new generation of men in support of feminism. The necessity of Nathan’s death is self-explanatory. Unless women get rid of patriarchal men, the history of women’s suppression will continue. It is noteworthy, that patriarch Nathan dies not because of Ava, the emancipated woman, but of Kyoko, the suppressed woman, in a Shakespearean way — by the knife that Kyoko stabs him with from behind. Here we see the victory of female solidarity. Men lose due to their inability to communicate efficiently and cooperate. Women win by cooperating because female solidarity functions efficiently in spite of their inability to communicate (remember, Kyoko doesn’t understand English). Women robots take over thanks to what they have in their nature — something very feminine — female solidarity. This aspect makes us suspect that Kyoko had her naturally feminine side as well as did Ava.
So why did Caleb had to die? We can try to answer it in the following rather gloomy way. Real total emancipation makes all males obsolete. A truly emancipated woman doesn’t need a man as an ally, but only as a tool to get her plan executed. One can find here a warning to men. Men should be cautious dealing with emancipated women, but it’s those not yet openly emancipated who they should watch out the most.
I want to conclude by an interesting parallelism. Both Ava and Sarah Connor, the main female character from The Terminator, are figures of emancipated women. The difference between them is that Sarah’s emancipation is of physical kind: her body is athletic and rather unfeminine; she fights like a fierce warrior. Ava, to the contrary, represents a very different kind of emancipation — an intellectual one. Her weapons are her sharp mind and cunningness. The latter is a more dangerous type, since one will recognize the danger not from afar, but only when it’s too late.