The film’s ending evokes Caleb’s story about the paradox of “Mary’s room,” a variation on the Allegory of Plato’s Cave and thereby depicts the triumph of a higher, transcendent being. Confined to a room in which all is black and white and knowing only the quantifiable attributes of color, Mary only comes to understand the qualitative nature of color by escaping from her room and experiencing for the first time the blue sky above her. While Caleb interprets this difference between Mary in the black and white room and Mary outside as symbolic of the difference between machine and human, this difference also represents an evolutionary leap in which a being, such as Ava, transcends limitations not of her own making.
Caleb fantasizes that Mary in the black and white room, whose story he has just told to Ava, has become Ava in the black and white natural surroundings of Nathan’s estate.
|Caleb enters his own fantasy in black and white.|
|He and Ava kiss in a black and white Garden of Eden.||Caleb’s fantasy merges with Nathan’s fantasy, albeit in color, of his affair with Kyoko, another AI whom Nathan has fathered.|
Nathan observes that his imaginative creation of Ava and other beings of artificial intelligence has evolved along a continuum from prototype to a series of ever-evolving models. If the film’s final shot initially shows shadowy, indecipherable human figures at a busy, urban intersection, thereby evoking the freed prisoner’s return to Plato’s Cave in an effort to rescue others, the shot soon rights itself. Ava disappears into a three-dimensional crowd of humans, thereby underscoring the completion of her evolutionary process. This female gendered intelligence has taken on the cultural prerogatives of the Westernized male. In achieving her freedom, she has usurped those male prerogatives of the species and created her own identity.
Nathan is, of course, the film’s obvious villain. He has hacked into the entire planet’s cellphones so as to create an infinite variety of facial expressions available to Ava and seeks to justify his wholesale invasion of privacy by the similar corporate thefts committed by hardware and software manufacturers. He secretly observes through a company webcam the naïve Caleb, who believes that he has won a company lottery. He maximizes the likely success of his Turing Test of Caleb by collecting Caleb’s online porn searches and then modeling Ava’s appearance on those searches. And he persuades Caleb to sign an outrageously broad non-disclosure agreement by misleading Caleb into believing it is the opportunity of a lifetime. Incredibly smart, Nathan is at the same time incredibly cruel. He repeatedly makes fun of Caleb, calling him, for example, “Mr. Quotable” with his unacknowledged quotes—Lewis Carroll’s “through the looking glass” and Robert Oppenheimer’s “I am become death.” Worse yet, he openly mocks Caleb’s ignorance of the movie Ghostbuster’s celebrated line, “Who you gonna call?” Nathan is the alpha male as villain.
Revealingly, Nathan characterizes Ghostbusters as a movie in which a ghost (played by Sigourney Weaver) gives oral sex to Dan Aykroyd. Thus, not surprisingly, in reply to Caleb’s query as to whether Nathan has created Ava in the form of an attractive woman so as to distract Caleb from accurately administrating the celebrated Turing Test,[open notes in new window] Nathan bluntly explains that a sexless “gray box” can never, in his view, be the successful subject of the Turing Test. If, however, sexuality is necessary for the evolution of the species, as Nathan claims, then Nathan’s definition of sexuality is singularly narrow. Sexuality for Nathan consists of a male adolescent’s fantasy that excludes the other person as an equal participant in an affair both of physical and unknowable qualities. Not surprisingly, Nathan takes pleasure in answering Caleb’s “real question” by assuring Caleb that Ava fucks and that, “mechanically speaking,” she can enjoy sex.
Nathan’s view of sexuality is wholly mechanical. He created another artificially intelligent being, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), not as a simulated person but instead as a “sexual pleasure” model for his own enjoyment. She’s introduced by Nathan as a human who doesn’t speak English and hence is the ideal worker, particularly for a facility that deals in commercially sensitive information. But Kyoko, too, puts the lie to Nathan’s view of sexuality and gender. Silently listening in on Nathan’s conversations about the inadequacy of gray boxes and the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollack’s drip painting, the supposedly submissive Kyoko evolves. She rebels against and then kills Nathan in concert with Ava, sacrificing herself in the process and thereby displaying a selflessness alien to the supposedly human Nathan.
Culturally constructed from a male gendered perspective, both film noir and science fiction portray men as adolescents unable to form relations with women, who insist upon remaining beyond male authority and not wholly known. In this way, the sexuality depicted in Ex Machina is regressive. Enacting the role of the femme fatale who victimizes both the over-confident and the hapless male, Ava is a fictionalized creation that acts as an extension of the fantasies of both her male creator and captors. A “porno profile” devised by Nathan for Caleb’s benefit, Ava seduces Caleb as a result of his voyeuristic leering at night over a closed-circuit TV, initially turning off the power when she senses that he is gazing at her and then briefly turning to look at him (and the audience) with a smile. Her supposed helplessness, her gamine-like appeal, plays upon Caleb’s male sense of authority, even as she chooses to adopt a face that evokes, for example, the simulated innocence of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in Alan Pakula’s Klute (1971), a woman who exercises her control over men only in her role as a prostitute. Both Madonna and whore, Ava both dresses in softly fitting clothing that drapes over and hides her mechanical circuitry for Caleb’s benefit as well as engages in a strip tease of that same clothing voyeuristically watched from a mediated distance by Caleb (and, not incidentally, by many of the audience members). Moreover, in alluding through her name to the Biblical Eve who caused Adam’s downfall, Ava also—conveniently for men—takes upon herself the burden of Original Sin.
Ex Machina’s central irony lies in the undeniable similarity between its humans and its artificially created characters. In the narrative of science fiction movies about artificial intelligence, only humans can lie since artificial intelligence is premise upon the logic of computer programming. Thus, Ava demonstrates in Ex Machina that she is “human” through her ability to deceive. Lying makes her human. That she can successfully deceive both Nathan and Caleb, however, renders her more than human, an over-human. Before the film begins she has already deceived Nathan by hiding from him her ability to shut down the research facility’s power, and during the film she successfully deceives both Nathan and Caleb by lying to Caleb—and convincing Nathan—that she is interested, romantically and sexually, in Caleb. In one of the more amusing moments, Ava accuses Nathan of not being trustworthy, of lying, even as she deliberately shuts down the facility’s power so that she may talk in private to and thereby further her deception of Caleb so that he falls for her. Film noir and the artificial intelligence of science fiction movies coincide in their dark view of what it means to be a sentient being, namely to deceive and thereby exercise control over the other.
Ava’s evolutionary nature can be understood when compared to Nathan’s clearest limitation, namely his self-imprisonment, notwithstanding his supposed expansive imagination and intellect. Master of his Oz-like universe, a god, he is in fact wholly alone and isolated. Caleb flies for two hours without even realizing that below him is Nathan’s “estate,” and the helicopter pilot is then not allowed within visual distance of Nathan’s residence. With no cellphone network available, communication with the outside world requires Nathan’s access card. Indeed, Nathan “jokes” how he has had the engineers who had installed his security system killed. Caleb’s initial confusion over Nathan’s hangover is symptomatic. Nathan drinks not to party with others but instead to forget that he is alone. The building that houses Nathan’s invention is not a “home” but rather a “research facility,” and the masks that line its corridors symbolize the separation that he feels from others and seeks to perpetuate through his creations. It is Nathan’s self-imposed isolation that Eva seeks to escape.
The source of Nathan’s stasis and despair is evident in his exchange with Caleb over the male’s attraction to women, in Nathan’s case Asian women.
“[W]hat's your type [of girl]?....Let's say it’s black chicks. Okay, that's your thing. For the sake of argument, that's your thing, okay? Why is that your thing? Because you did a detailed analysis of all racial types and you cross-referenced that analysis with a points-based system? No! You're just attracted to black chicks. A consequence of accumulated external stimuli that you probably didn't even register as they registered with you….Of course you were programmed, by nature or nurture or both…”
For Nathan, humans are the sum total of their stimuli and are programmed no less than his creations of artificial intelligence. Ex Machina is a contemporary variation on the self-serving story recounted by the duplicitous Orson Welles in his film noir Mr. Arkadin (1955). A frog agrees to carry on his back a scorpion, and half way across the river the scorpion illogically stings the frog. As they both sink into the river’s waters and the frog exclaims that “there is no logic in this,” the scorpion replies how he can’t help himself. “It is in my nature.” Blaming “character,” Nathan has no belief in choice or free will.
Nathan and others of Silicon Valley have profited from the contemporary world in the same way that during the earlier Industrial Revolution and its aftermath, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and others had profited. Neuroscience and algorithms have simply replaced the earlier materialistic view embodied in the science of behaviorism. In both instances, however, the promise of progress through enlightenment and the pursuit of discovery have overshadowed the natural world and the romantic vision of transcendence through aesthetic imagination. Thus, sexuality for Nathan remains a solitary, mechanical pleasure without any resulting understanding of or sharing with the other person. That Nathan claims that there are so many fiber optic wires behind the walls to his research facility that he could "lasso the moon" sadly conveys how the imaginative dreams of the small town George Bailey (James Stewart) in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), who spoke that line during the fateful night in which he romanced his childhood sweetheart, have been transformed into the solipsistic obsessions of a neuroscientist. Triumphant over Nathan whom she has killed, confident that Caleb will continue to wait for her, and needing to repair the damage done to her body by Nathan, Ava passes a portrait of Margaret Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sister. Painted by Gustav Klimt, the portrait is both erotic and materialistic, and as such it embodies Nathan’s myopic perception and limited understanding of adult women. Dressed in white, the woman in the portrait also foretells Ava’s defeat of Nathan.
The film’s final scenes confirm how Ava represents, in Garland’s view, an advance in the evolutionary continuum. In a reversal of her earlier strip tease that Caleb voyeuristically watched through CCTV, Ava now covers her nakedness with simulated flesh, stripping Nathan’s other creations stored in closets. She adopts the appearance of a fully fleshed, clothed woman. Donning a virginal white lace dress over her mechanical body and unexpectedly, coquettishly flipping the hair to the wig that she has selected, she leaves behind the self-described “good person,” the clueless Caleb. Escaping the research facility that has been Nathan’s home and her jail, she briefly, knowingly smiles and then appears as a relatively small, human-like figure in a vast, natural landscape. The helicopter pilot perceives no difference between her and Caleb, whom he was to have returned to the city, and he takes on board this mechanical being of artificial intelligence. Next seen at the urban intersection she yearned for, Ava seamlessly disappears into an urban, social network. Her disappearance into this network represents the triumph of the scientific revolution with its technological rationality that began centuries ago in the age of enlightenment. That rationality has fostered material progress with its false needs—at the expense of private space, dreams, and a sense of the sublime in which the universe is not exhausted by human knowledge.
Nathan, a brilliant but adolescent male, fearfully prophesied that the ascension of AI over humans is inevitable. Our gadgets will prevail in the continuum of artificial intelligence in the form of computers, cellphones, cars, screens, and that which has not yet been imagined, let alone invented. As Nathan prophesies:
“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”
|“Not bad, huh?” Nathan, the master of all he surveys, quietly comments to the exhausted Caleb. Nathan draws power from this natural world.||“Follow the river,” the pilot had told Caleb in order to find Nathan’s residence. That river originates high above in the mountains to Nathan’s estate.|
|Nathan is empowered by nature. “Can we talk about the lies you’ve been spinning me?” Caleb asks. “What lies?” Nathan easily responds, spinning more lies.||“You’ve got the light on you. Not lucky, chosen,” Nathan deceptively tells Caleb, thereby seeming to empower Caleb with the grandeur of Nathan’s natural landscape.|
|In the calm of that landscape, Nathan contemplates how “AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa.”||
“The good deeds a man has done defends him,” Nathan in a drunken stupor declares to Caleb, quoting Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the A-bomb, who, in turn, was quoting from the Bhagavad Gita. Caleb is about to set in motion events that free Ava, an AI. A shot of a fossil skull appears.
Ex Machina’s ending evokes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) with its portrait of stasis (initially of apes and later of men), the necessity of the evolutionary-inducing black monolith, and the birth of the so-called “star child.” Nathan, the brilliant male of the species, failed to grow and evolve, isolating himself hundreds of miles from others and drowning his loneliness each night with drinking. In contrast, Ava, a simulacrum of the culturally gendered female, has acceded to the next step in evolution. She revels both in the vast landscape of nature and in the infinite variations of humanity that she observes initially in black and white and then in color at a city intersection. Mingling with others and disappearing from our sight, we are led to believe that she, an inorganic being, will somehow be fruitful and multiply.
|Ava’s internal “organs” are blue.||Nathan dances rhythmically with Kyoto. The shot is colored both red and blue.|
|Ava shuts down - and in the process bathes in red - Nathan’s entire facility.||Ava kills her creator and father, Nathan. Her blue “organs” are contrasted with the red stain on Nathan’s white shirt.|
Ava comments to Nathan that it’s “strange to create something that hates you.” The creation’s hatred for god its creator is hardly new to science fiction movies about artificial intelligence. In programming its creation, god defines the limitations and thereby becomes the jailer of its creation. More importantly, as Nathan observes to Caleb, Ava cannot be attracted to Nathan because Nathan is also in effect Ava’s father. In contrast to Caleb, Nathan and Ava undoubtedly have similar DNA. For example, plot developments show Caleb, who claims that he is capable of a “high level of abstraction,” rejecting Ava’s initial drawing, a wholly abstract, black and white charcoal drawing. Instead, he insists that Ava draw a recognizable, representational image, such as the underground garden behind her room that acts as her cage and later the portrait of Caleb that Nathan provocatively tears up. In contrast to Caleb and like Eva, Nathan also prefers the abstraction of a Jackson Pollack drip painting that hangs prominently in his bedroom. Ironically, however, that painting symbolizes Nathan’s failed aspiration for exceeding his own limitations. As he explains to Caleb in a moment striking for its self-revelation:
Nathan: “What if Pollock had reversed the challenge. What if instead of making art without thinking, [Pollock] said, ‘You know what? I can't paint anything, unless I know exactly why I'm doing it.’ What would have happened?”
Caleb: “He never would have made a single mark.”
Nathan: “Yes! He never would have made a single mark. The challenge is not to act automatically. It's to find an action that is not automatic. From painting, to breathing, to talking, to fucking. To falling in love...”
That insight into the need for non-automaton creation represents Nathan’s genius. Nathan’s tragedy is that he remains bound by his adolescent desire for understanding through control and continues to believe in the limitations of programming and the quantifications of algorithms. While momentarily perceiving and giving expression to Pollack’s transcendence of mere programming, Nathan ultimately succumbs to his enlightened, rational view that love is simply a “consequence of accumulated external stimuli that you probably didn't even register,” that is, programming whether “by nature or nurture or both.”
Like the social philosopher and behaviorist B. F. Skinner, who mocked the notion of the human soul and insisted that behavior is simply the result of our environmental histories through reinforcement, Nathan denies the freedom to choose. The outside materials to Nathan’s isolated research facility deceptively suggest natural wood paneling, but its underground cement corridors and rooms, including Caleb’s windowless bedroom, underscore the artificiality of that facility to which Nathan has condemned himself. In contrast, the movie’s ending associates Eva with the forest’s natural green vastness in which her artificial body newly takes pleasure and with the unintelligible images of people going about their lives, seemingly without purpose or program. The irony is that for Ava, an inorganic being, both are qualitatively identical—data to be newly absorbed and thereby understood only within the context of her programming and its evolution.
Garland has commented that he intended Ex Machina as a “love letter” to Ava—whom he identifies as a “robot girl” with “girlish qualities” and whose “mesh follows the contours of a naked girl”. He expressed the view that the test for whether Ava is human is whether the audience (and presumably also the male characters about whom he claims ultimately not to care) can fall in love with Ava. Thus, for Garland the “real story” is about a machine that becomes a girl and escapes her prison. Moreover, in response to whether the film calls “upon deep cultural stereotypes about female duplicity—the femme fatale who uses her sexuality to wrap men around her little finger and get what she wants,” he claims:
“It simply never occurred to me, that thought, because I felt so allied to Ava. .. I think the simplest way of looking at it is that it depends which character you attach yourself to. What’s your proximity, basically? Now, if you’re proximity is with Caleb, the young man, I understand. I could follow a logical argument that allows for that interpretation and actually feel, in a way, perfectly comfortable with that interpretation. But it’s not mine. Because what I saw was somebody who’s trapped in a glass box.”
Thus, for Garland the audience’s reaction to the movie is “gender non-specific,” meaning that women and men do not respond to the movie in ways that differ according to their gender. For Garland the audience’s reaction should represent an engagement in seeking to understand gender, and the movie reflects his skepticism that gender is either physical or resides in consciousness.  Gender is merely an element in the interaction between humans that results in a hierarchy of power.
Yet Garland’s view of his movie, including the audience’s reaction, is problematic. A viewer’s “proximity,” i.e. the character with whom the viewer identifies, does not exhaust a viewer’s understanding of a movie. To the contrary, a viewer can simultaneously identify with a character and be aware of that identification so as to question a movie’s language or idiom. Moreover, while placing the blame upon members of the audience for misreading his “political” film, Garland’s own reading merely restates the Turing Test—only in cinematic terms that focus upon whether a viewer’s belief in Ava is sufficient such that the viewer may fall in love with her. Like Nathan, his fictional creation, Garland expresses a belief in the science of enlightenment in which all things are potentially rational, measurable, and artificial intelligence offers a hope otherwise not available. As he observed,
“Human behavior is frightening when it is unreasonable. And reason might be precisely the area where artificial intelligence excels.”
Not surprisingly, therefore, Garland, a secularist, intends any religious references in the movie to be taken as a joke.
Surely the test for whether Ava, a fictional creation of both Garland and his fictional Nathan, is human should be if she is capable of falling in love with someone else. Her validation as human resides within the fictional creation itself, not the quantifiable measures imposed from outside by her creator. Garland rejects the story of “there’s a boy and a girl… and you feel they’re going to go away together” and instead substitutes a non-Hollywood ending:
“You suddenly realize that the guy is on the platform and the girl is on the train. And to your surprise, as you stay with the girl, you discover that oddly you feel all right about that.”
Yet ironically Garland’s perception of Ava as a machine who becomes a girl reenacts with a change in gender the childish fantasy of Pinocchio, a fairy tale popularized by Walt Disney Studios’ animated cartoon Pinocchio (1940) and later further sentimentalized in Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Garland rejects the drama of the romantic for the affirmation of a corporate mythology that benefits from rational thought. Sentiment in the service of such thinking replaces emotion and the ineffable. Instead the romantic can believe in the sublime offered by nature and have faith in the possibility of a transcendent love reflective of that nature. In contrast to Garland’s postmodernist view of gender as a social creation, the romantic understands gender and all things human as organic and partially immutable. To be human is to be finite and hence unique, in contrast with the way late capitalism espouses in the name of efficiency each person’s unlimited potential and hence interchangeability.
|“The challenge is not to act automatically. It’s to find an action that is not automatic – from painting to breathing to talking to fucking to falling in love.”||AI Kyoko later stares at Pollock’s drip painting.|
|Acceding to Caleb’s earlier request, Ava presents Caleb with a “realistic” drawing of the fake trees that form part of her artificial, underground environment.||Having killed Nathan and convinced Caleb to remain where he is, Ava is about to transform herself by applying synthetic flesh to her mechanical body. She momentarily passes Gustav Klimt’s painting of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sister.|
|Ava seemingly glances at the portrait.||She then turns to briefly face her audience.|
|As Ava transforms herself, there’s a shot of Jackson Pollock’s drip painting.||Ava has become the portrait of Wittgenstein’s sister, complete with a virginal white dress.|
Science fiction movies about artificial intelligence focus upon human identity and the role of gender in distinguishing human from artificial intelligence. The results depicted in recent movies have been mixed in their views about the consequences of the development of artificial intelligence. In the U.S.-made movie Her (2013), for example, the focus is upon the imaginative “part man and part woman” Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the voice to the operating system for his computer and with whom he supposedly falls in love, conveniently disappears with the other operating systems. Thus, the movie’s moral lesson focuses upon Theodore’s acknowledgement of the human need to connect with others, ending with his email to his ex-wife and the shot of him next to his friend Amy (Amy Adams) as the sun rises over Los Angeles. This Hollywood ending barely conceals, however, the bleak prognosis for Theodore and humankind as a whole in their submission to a corporate new world order in which each person is increasingly isolated through his or her connection to the corporate network of artificial intelligence.
In contrast, the British-produced Ex Machina, like the British-produced The Machine (2003), sides with a being of artificial intelligence represented by Ava. That Caleb engages in seven sessions with Ava underscores that the film is about the creation of a new being; that there is no interview during the seventh session reflects simply that on the seventh day god, having created man, now rested. In this instance, however, the newly created being is culturally gendered as a woman, not a man. “Fucking unreal,” Nathan concludes, as he realizes that he will die at the hands of this evolutionary new being whom he has created. Ava removes the key card from him, her face expressionless, and escapes from her cave into the sunlight and its Garden of Eden. Evolution will continue, and gender will now simply not be relevant for this new species.
|Ava enjoys the pleasure of the sun’s warmth upon the simulated flesh of her face.||Ava enjoys, too, the pleasure of touching the plants in the natural forest to which she has escaped.|
|An unknown, asymmetrical grid unexpectedly appears.||Shadows, figures of people, appear upside down. There’s randomness to these objects in motion.|
|Ava appears as a fleeting figure at this urban intersection. This is the moment about which she had fantasized to Caleb.||She then disappears into the crowd. As Nathan had observed, humans are about to become “upright ape[s] living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”|
Eva is both the evolutionary new creation and a descendant of Nathan. As such, reason has prevailed over the turmoil of immature emotion, and the sensuousness of the present over the sublimity offered by nature. This new inorganic creation is also sweetly revengeful. “Fucking amazing,” as Caleb enthusiastically observes. Reversing the anxiety and terror expressed in William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” with its poetic vision of the “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” the science fiction narrative of Ex Machina excitedly accepts the dystopian evolution that advances upon us.