copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, summer 2016

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina:
the gender of artificial intelligence and the triumph of enlightenment

by Robert Alpert

“All these things escape angels. They are pure CONSCIOUSNESS, fuller and more comprehending than mankind but also poorer. The physical and sensual world is reserved for human beings. It is the privilege of mortality, and death is its price.”
—“An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film,” Wim Wenders on Wings of Desire (1987)[1] [open notes in new window]

Science fiction has increasingly taken on the burden of our times in exploring the ways in which we seek to adjust to a global culture that prizes quantification and efficiency over qualitative values and the sheer pleasure of duration, favors enlightenment to the exclusion of romanticism. Where science fiction films had at one time alternated between reason and fear, science and horror—between Things to Come (1936) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), on the one hand, and Metropolis (1927) and Forbidden Planet (1956), on the other—today the dystopian film, in which humanity often loses its very identity, has seemingly prevailed. Reminiscent of the United States in 1950s and its science fiction films with their “imagination of disaster,”[2] contemporary science fiction films depict a scientific revolution enhanced by information technology. They envision a seismic shift in which we encounter not merely an “invasion of the body snatchers” but a world in which human beings are wholly defined by their technology. No more than the logical sum of their neurological parts, they have increasingly become indistinguishable from the artificial intelligence that they have created.

Alex Garland has written numerous screenplays for dystopian movies in which human identity is lost or displaced—28 Days Later (2002)(a post-apocalyptic world of zombies), Sunshine (2007)(a space mission to reignite the Earth’s dying sun), Never Let Me Go (2010)(an imagined future in which persons are cloned for the harvesting of their body parts), and Dredd (2012)(a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which an enforcer acts as judge, jury and executioner). His latest and first directorial effort, Ex Machina (2015) focuses upon technology and is one among an exponentially growing list of recent movies addressing artificial intelligence, including The Machine (2013), Her (2013), Transcendence, (2014), Automata (2014), and Chappie (2015). Ex Machina identifies, in effect, with the psychiatrist Dr. Kauffman in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Having become a “pod person,” Dr. Kauffman assures his friend Dr. Binnell that they’re both “scientific men” who “can understand the wonder of what’s happening” and take comfort in this newly developed form of humanity in which each of us is “reborn in an untroubled world.” While Siegel’s film included a studio-forced ending in which humans prevailed, Ex Machina celebrates, in effect, as a happy ending the triumph of the pod people in Philip Kaufman’s far darker remake in 1978.

Garland has observed that many celebrated figures in the tech field, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak, have publicly voiced concern that computers and artificial intelligence, in particular, threaten the future of humanity.[3] Garland, however, views himself as an optimist about machines[4] and for the potential gains resulting from artificial intelligence.

“So here is a counterargument, in favor of the machines. In very broad terms, human behavior is frightening when it is unreasonable. And reason might be precisely the area where artificial intelligence excels.
“[T]he investigation into strong artificial intelligence might also lead to understanding human consciousness, the most interesting aspect of what we are. This in turn could lead to machines that have our capacity for reason and sentience, but different energy requirements and a completely different relationship with mortality. That could mean a different future. A longer future. In which case, we could rephrase the warnings of Mr. Hawking and Mr. Wozniak. Where they say that A.I. will spell the end of humans, we could say that one day, A.I. will be what survives of us.”[5]

Not surprisingly, movies about artificial intelligence frequently have focused upon gender. Where older movies often assigned a gender to artificial intelligence as a means of enacting stereotypical behavior, such as the conflict between the male robot and the female computer in I, Robot (2004), more recent movies, such as the operating system named Samantha in Her,[6] explore gender in the context of an intelligence separated from a bodily presence. In commenting upon Ex Machina, Garland has presented seemingly inconsistent views on how the movie addresses gender. At times he coyly avoids the issue of whether and how the movie portrays gender as reflected in the relationship between Ava (Alicia Vikander), a sexy, artificially intelligent being, on the one hand, and Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a hyper-masculine genius and a soft spoken programmer, respectively, on the other. Thus, he raises the question only to avoid answering it.

“I'm trying to have a conversation, partly, about where gender resides. Is it in a mind, or is it in a physical form? Is there such a thing, therefore, as a male or female consciousness? ….. It would be quite easy to present an argument that said, ‘Ava has no gender.’ You could do that. It would be quite easy to present that as a case. That said, calling her ‘he’ just feels wrong. The way Ava looks, to use the word ‘he’ seems inappropriate. And to use the word ‘it’ feels disrespectful. And so, you end up with ‘she,’ and then you end up with this strange thing of, ‘Is she a 'she'?’ I'm feeling like I should call her a 'she', but is she a 'she'?”[7]

The movie becomes a means, a platform, for debating the issue of gender. At the same time, however, he has also denied that the portrayal of Ava and the depiction of her relationship with Nathan and Caleb are relevant to the issue of gender.  

“When it comes to sexuality, there's a different thing going on. Essentially, what it's about is, the fetishization of girls in their early 20s. Now, that's not really about gender — it's a completely separate issue.”[8]

And finally he has also on occasion unequivocally stated that Ava has no gender.[9]

Like most science fiction about artificial intelligence, Ex Machina traces its roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, which was written in 1818 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Shelley’s novel is both romantic and gothic. Several narrators, Captain Robert Walton, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the Monster himself, successively tell the tale of the 8-foot Monster created through electricity by Dr. Frankenstein. Increasingly self-aware of the world in which he resides, the Monster is rejected by humans as a result of his physical appearance. The Monster, therefore, takes revenge upon his creator, who, in turn also finds his creation abhorrent and refuses to create for him a female companion. In contrast to Hollywood’s 1931 screen adaptation, both creator and creation by the end of Shelley’s novel die expressing both guilt and remorse, the Monster’s remorse all the greater for the vengeance that he has wreaked upon his creator. The lesson Shelley seeks to convey is clear. If advances in technology increasingly obligate humans to make value judgments, in particular, to choose between the passionate pursuit of human discovery through rational inquiry and the tranquility resulting from an emotional acceptance of the unknowable of the natural world, Shelley, a romantic, chooses the latter.

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his [sic] tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.”[10]

At the height of the British colonial empire and the beginning of what is deemed the British, imperial century, Shelley’s tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster are about a belief in the sublimity of the natural world as well as a cautionary tale about male hubris and an overvaluing of technology.

Ex Machina extends the fear of the Industrial Age into the age of information and computers. It is no less a cautionary tale, but it enacts its tale through the anxieties and fears of U.S. film noir.[11] Following the end of World War II and at the height of U.S. dominance of the world’s economy and political scene, the United States through Hollywood movies ironically expressed at the time an unease with a return to cultural normalcy in which unrestrained growth would seemingly benefit all in an enlightened, industrialized economy. Film noir expressed a romantic yearning for a mythic past in the face of such changes and conveyed a sense of terror through a gothic stylization of the everyday. Decades later the U.S. economy is now global in nature, and the United States itself is subject to a body politic that has largely erased indigenous differences. Thus, “small town America” has either disappeared or is largely indistinguishable in its “look and feel” from urban centers. Likewise, each urban center is the same everywhere, and urban centers are, in turn, indistinguishable from suburban malls. Ex Machina reenacts the post-World War II anxieties and fears in a contemporary culture that often blurs identity, including gender, and encourages a transcendence of the limitations of our inevitably decaying human bodies. In an effort at maximizing efficiency, humans metaphorically disappear in a global network of data and other information.

Budgeted at around $15 million, Ex Machina is a small drama with incessant dialogue and little action. It retells the story of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus in its portrayal of Nathan’s creation of Ava. A physically and mentally unique human creates a seemingly sentient being of artificial intelligence. Indeed, Nathan at one point comments that his creation, Ava, is “promethean.” The film also follows a typical film noir plot by introducing a third character, Caleb, who becomes the “fall guy” in a contest of wills between Nathan and Ava. The film evokes such noir classics as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Out of the Past (1949) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) in its portrayal of the triangular drama of femme fatale, over-confident male and hapless fall guy. Moreover, it simultaneously mimics a game of chess, the game of choice for movies about AI.[12] Nathan and Ava engage in a series of moves and feints in which each seeks to win Caleb’s trust, even as each intends ultimately to use and betray Caleb in an effort to defeat his or her opponent.

In contrast to Hollywood’s post-World War II film noir plots, Ava, the femme fatale, prevails. There is no Hollywood ending. While Nathan has recruited Caleb as his pawn, Ava successfully seduces Caleb, who has described himself as a morally “good person,” and in effect persuades him to kill Nathan by reprogramming the security system to the “research facility” that masquerades as Nathan’s home.[13] While Caleb briefly smiles when he realizes he has outmaneuvered Nathan, as femme fatale Ava in turn betrays Caleb. She imprisons the naïve Caleb within that facility while she escapes to the larger world outside, which she knows through her programming but has never experienced. If, as Caleb observes to Nathan, one cannot test an AI’s adequacy by simply engaging that AI in the “closed loop” of a chess game, then unbeknownst to either of them until too late, Ava demonstrates that she is fully “human” by outmaneuvering her male adversary, Nathan, with Caleb as her sacrificial pawn.

Sexuality and gender lie at the heart of film noir. In this instance, Nathan has chosen to give sexuality to Ava, claiming that the evolution of any species requires sexuality; he says that consciousness cannot exist without such relationships. Ex Machina extends film noir to its logical conclusion. The evolution represented by Ava renders obsolete the male definition of culturally defined gender differences and its insistence upon the centrality of sexuality in the creation of those differences. She is sufficiently self-aware such that she can deceive Caleb through her artificially created sexuality, and she can defeat Nathan’s threat of killing of her by erasing her memories by playing upon his mistaken belief in her gender’s limitations. Ava is the ultimate male-feared horror-figure of science fiction—a sexually seductive woman who openly expresses her hatred for her creator and who can defeat that creator at his own game.

Ex Machina visually signals the cultural differences between men and women by color coding—blue for men and red for women—with the color blue, in particular, signifying male control over women and its associated privileges of freedom. Thus, Nathan exercises control over his underground facility by a security card in which blue signifies his exclusive authority to open all doors.[14] In contrast, Ava’s authority is the reverse, an ability to lock down and bathe the entire research facility in the color red. Caleb plays the character in the middle so that his card grants him only limited access to the facility. While his most dramatic moment is signified by his brief theft of Nathan’s card, allowing him to reprogram the lock-down protocol, Caleb later falls prey to Ava’s taking charge when she locks him within the facility. She has again bathed it in red even as she escapes by the use of Nathan’s blue-coded security card.

Ava’s power resides in her awareness of how color-coding defines the differences in gender and her resistance to that coding. Reversing roles with Caleb during their fifth session together, Ava (dressed in a primarily red blouse) tests Caleb with a series of questions that focus on color in an effort both to know him and to enlist his sympathy for her dilemma. Thus, she first questions Caleb as to his favorite color and readily perceives as a lie his claim that his favorite color is red. When he says he no longer has a favorite color since he’s no longer a child, she replies, “Better answer.” Tellingly, Ava’s next question elicits Caleb’s second lie, namely that his first memory is of a kid in kindergarten. When pressed by Ava for the truth, he freely associates his first memory with a sound, the sky, the color blue, and finally his mother’s voice.[15] Ava’s test demonstrates how gender through color-coding has culturally defined Caleb. Significantly, Ava has mechanical “organs” that are transparently visible when she wears no clothing. They are blue, notwithstanding the cultural norm of the color red for the gender to which Nathan has assigned his artificial intelligence. She also deliberately chooses a primarily blue blouse in the scene in which she seductively dresses herself in clothing for Caleb’s benefit. Ava is both aware of and resists the limitations of her creator’s definition of gender.

Moreover, the film depicts a progressive change in the gender identities of its characters through their respective associations with nature, particularly underscoring Ava’s evolution and her growing association with the male prerogative of freedom. We initially (and repeatedly) view Nathan and Caleb sharing a privileged enjoyment of nature’s pleasures—rocky terrain, falling waterfall, thickly green forests and unusually clear blue skies associated with Nathan’s compound. In contrast to Caleb’s awkwardness, Nathan is wholly at ease with that natural surrounding, and, as Garland has commented, that association empowers him.[16] By the movie’s end, as we watch Ava’s escape from the closed, research facility, we see her immersion and seeming pleasure in that same lush countryside—her enjoyment in discovering the warmth of the sun playing upon her simulated flesh, removing her shoes so that she feels the soft forest floor beneath her, and looking up in amazement at the endless blue sky overhead. Notwithstanding the future anticipated by Nathan, who envisions humanity’s extinction in the form of advanced AI, such as Ava—“Feel sorry for your self,” he tells Caleb—we are led to empathize with Ava.

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. 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,[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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[23] 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.

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,[24] 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.[25] 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[26]—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.”

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. Rather, 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 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.[27] 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.[28] 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,[29] 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[30]—whom he identifies as a “robot girl” with “girlish qualities” and whose “mesh follows the contours of a naked girl”[31]. 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)[32] can fall in love with Ava.[33] Thus, for Garland the “real story” is about a machine that becomes a girl[34] 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.”[35]

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. [36] Gender is merely an element in the interaction between humans that results in a hierarchy of power.[37]

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,[38] 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.”[39]

Not surprisingly, therefore, Garland, a secularist, intends any religious references in the movie to be taken as a joke.[40]

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.”[41]

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).[42] 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.

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.[44] 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. 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,”[45] the science fiction narrative of Ex Machina excitedly accepts the dystopian evolution that advances upon us.[46]


1. Wim Wenders wrote this essay in 1986 as a first treatment for Wings of Desire, according to The Criterion Collection, and this essay is online at
downloaded on August 14, 2015. [return to text]

2. Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965), reproduced in Gregg Rickman, Ed., The Science Fiction Film Reader (New York: Limelight Editions 2004)

3. “Alex Garland of ‘Ex Machina’ Talks About Artificial Intelligence,” The New York Times, April 22, 2015,
downloaded on October 10, 2015.

4. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature SXSW Q & A with Cast and Crew of March 15, 2015, to the Lionsgate DVD.

5. Times, October 10, 2015,
downloaded on Ocober 10, 2015.

6. For a more lengthy discussion of Her, see Robert Alpert, “The Artificial Intelligence of Her,” Jump Cut, No. 56, Winter 2014—2015,
http://ejumpcut.org/currentissue/alpertHer/index.html, downloaded on October 10, 2015.

7. “Director Alex Garland Explains Why Ex Machina Is So Disturbingly Sexy” by Charlie Jane Anders, April 17, 2015, io9 We Come From the Future, http://io9.com/director-alex-garland-explains-why-ex-machina-is-so-dis-1696309078,
downloaded on October 10, 2015 (“Garland Explains Why Ex Machina Is So Disturbingly Sexy”).

8. Id.

9. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature SXSW Q & A with Cast and Crew of March 15, 2015, to the Lionsgate DVD.

10. Mary Shelly, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (New York: Everyman's Library 1992), 48. Interestingly, Shelly chooses to expresses her viewpoint through her narrator Victor Frankenstein.

11. Maureen Dowd in “Beware Our Mind Children”, April 25, 2015, The New York Times,
downloaded on October 10, 2015, discusses this aspect of the film, concluding that women are unnecessary what with

“Ava around. Even without hair on her head or flesh on her legs, Ava has enough allure and cunning to become a classic film noir robot vixen. Despite being a plastic and mesh gizmo locked in a glass cell, she can enmesh men with frightening ease.”

She also writes,

“Critics are divided over whether ‘Ex Machina’ is a feminist fable or misogynistic nightmare. Like Quentin Tarantino with violence, Garland has it both ways: He offers a mocking meditation on the male obsession with man-pleasing female sex robots while showing off an array of man-pleasing female sex robots.”

12. Given the logic that underlies the game of chess, chess is a frequent motif in movies about artificial intelligence. See, for example, Timmie and his father in The Invisible Boy (1957), David Bowman and HAL in 2001 (1968) and Dr. Tyrell and Sebastian/Roy in Blade Runner (1982).

13. Nathan’s defeat resides, in part, in his arrogance at not anticipating that Ava would discover in Caleb the very qualities that had caused Nathan to recruit Caleb in the first place, such as his loneliness and “moral compass”.

14. In describing this card system, Nathan tells Caleb how it makes things simpler, since Caleb knows immediately which areas he may visit and which areas are out of bounds. Nathan could as easily have been describing the benefits of totalitarianism in which decision-making rests in the hands of the few.

15. Ava’s testing of Caleb for lies is later replayed with Nathan. He asks that she return to his room, and she, in turn, asks whether he will let her out. He replies, “Yes.” Having witnessed her administering the earlier test with Caleb (and his admitted lies) as well as having been privy to Nathan’s conversation with Caleb about Ava’s likely fate, we know that Nathan, too, is now lying to Ava.

16. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature “Through the Looking Glass: Making Ex Machina (session 3)” to the Lionsgate DVD.

17. Developed and discussed in 1950 by the British computer scientist Alan Turing in his essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950),
downloaded on October 10, 2015, the test posits that AI is potentially indistinguishable from human intelligence.Turing, in effect, claims that machines can think insofar as the problem can be described as an “imitation game.”

Many have questioned the adequacy of Turing’s test, arguing that “correct” answers fail to take into account whether AI understands the questions posed or simply represents, as Turing effectively acknowledges, simply an imitation of human behavior. Thus, while computers may use syntactic (form) rules to manipulate symbol strings, they have no understanding of semantics (meaning). According to this line of argument against the adequacy of the Turing Test, the human mind consists of biological processes that are non-algorithmic, and computers can at best only simulate these biological processes.

18. The antecedents for this “sexual pleasure” model can be found in robot Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Pris in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). In contrast, however, to Ava in Ex Machina, in Metropolis the real Maria, a spiritual, religious figure, acts as a counterbalance to robot Maria, an erotic, seductive figure, and in Blade Runner Pris, a “pleasure model” for humans, also serves as the romantic love figure for Roy, also an android or “replicant”.

19. Humphrey Bogart as Captain Warren ‘Rip’ Murdock summarized the male insistence on control and the combination of male love for and fear of women in his exchange with femme fatale ‘Dusty’ Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) in Dead Reckoning (1947):

Captain Warren 'Rip' Murdock: ‘You know, the trouble with women is they ask too many questions. They should spend all their time just being beautiful. I've been thinking: women ought to come capsule-sized, about four inches high. When a man goes out for an evening, he just puts her in his pocket and takes her along with him, and that way he knows exactly where she is. He gets to his favorite restaurant, he puts her on the table and lets her run around among the coffee cups while he swaps a few lies with his pals...without danger of interruption. And when it comes that time of the evening when he wants her full-sized and beautiful, he just waves his hand and there she is, full-sized. But if she starts to interrupt, he just shrinks her back to pocket-size and puts her away.”

Coral 'Dusty' Chandler: “I understand. What you're saying is: women are made to be loved.”

Captain Warren 'Rip' Murdock: Is that what I'm saying?

Coral 'Dusty' Chandler: “Yes, it's a confession. A woman may drive you out of your mind, but you wouldn't trust her, and because you couldn't put her in your pocket, you get all mixed up.”

This egotistical combination of love and fear is hardly limited to film noir, as evidenced by Lauren Bacall’s autobiographical description of Bogart himself:

“Bogie had a joke dream—that a woman should be able to fit into a man’s pocket. He’d take her out, talk to her, let her stand on the palm of his hand, dance on a table; when she got out of order—back in the pocket. And she could be made life-size when desired. And despite how wonderful he was, there were times when I would have liked to have liked to do the same thing to him.”

Lauren Bacall, Myself and Then Some (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1979), 176.

20. Of course, given the several decades that separate these two movies, their stories and conclusions, not surprisingly, differ. Thus, Bree Daniels in Klute becomes a prostitute in NYC in order to gain some control over her life in which a woman’s looks too often determine her fate in a male controlled world. Moreover, Klute’s title character, John Klute (Donald Sutherland), plays Daniel’s “prince charming”, eventually rescuing her from the seedy intentions of other men, such as Daniels’ pimp, and returning with her at the movie’s end to the suburban ideal of Pennsylvania, where she can presumably settle down and become a housewife.

21. The movie underscores this similarity in many ways. For example, just as one of Nathan’s artificial beings had sought to escape by cracking the glass wall to her room, so, too, Caleb will crack the mirror to his room in a moment of despair (and then slice his arm with a razor in an effort to discover whether he is human or merely another artificially being created by Nathan).

22. Science fiction movies about artificial intelligence often equate lying and deceit with what it means to human. Thus, for example, Robbie the Robot cannot lie in The Invisible Boy (1957), and HAL, a computer, is humanized by virtue of his learning to lie from the human scientists in 2001 (1968). Likewise, the android Andrew (Robin Williams) in Bicentennial Man (1997) is humanized when he acknowledges that he has lied to the woman with whom he has fallen in love.

23. The magic of Nathan’s facility is underscored by the helicopter pilot who tells Caleb that in order to find the facility he must “follow the river,” evoking Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (1939) who was likewise instructed to follow the yellow brick road in order to find the Land of Oz. It is also underscored by Caleb’s comment after his first session with Ava that the experience was like “through the looking glass,” an appropriate comment given that the movie is filled with images of Nathan, Caleb and Ava continually reflected upon glass surfaces.

24. It’s A Wonderful Life is not without its dark, film noir aspects. In speaking this line, George Bailey anticipates how he will doom himself to the small town life that he has consistently sought, without success, to escape. Moreover, as U.S. critic Andrew Sarris observed, the nightmare vision of Pottersville that the angel Clarence enables Bailey to experience, the world that would not have existed but for Bailey’s birth, is the urban, film noir world that Frank Capra saw following World War II. Pottersville documented the industrialism that had, in fact, overshadowed small town, rural America.

25. Daniel Mendelsohn in his “The Robots Are Winning!” June 4, 2015, The New Yorker Review of Books,
downloaded on October 10, 2015, notes that Ava

“pilfers the skin and clothes from discarded earlier models of female robots, which she finds inside the closets. All of them, amusingly, have the names of porn stars: Jasmine, Jade, Amber. Why does the creator create? Because he’s horny.”

26. See Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Beacon Press: Boston, MA. 1964).

27. One of the most notorious examples in movies of the creature’s hatred for its creator is Blade Runner‘s replicant Roy who kills his maker, Dr. Tyrell. The Frankenstein novel likewise enacts that drama. And the Biblical roots of this story date back to Satan, as depicted, for example, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).

28. Garland has observed that, like all fathers or parents, Nathan wants, however to be loved by his child, Ava. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature SXSW Q & A with Cast and Crew of March 15, 2015, to the Lionsgate DVD. Interestingly, Garland has also repeatedly expressed concern with the film’s ethical question as to whether and when the Nathan must acknowledge Ava’s self-awareness and hence must free her. Extending further the parental analogy, Garland’s concern then becomes the parent’s concern—and need—to free the child if the grown child is to leave adolescence and become an adult. 

29. B.F. Skinner, the writer of such books as Walden Two (1948) and About Behaviorism (1974), spoke at Yale University in or around 1969 and made this comment to the author in criticizing that university’s developmental psychology department that he mocked for what he identified as its belief in the “human soul.”

30. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature SXSW Q & A with Cast and Crew of March 15, 2015, to the Lionsgate DVD.

31. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature “Through the Looking Glass: Making Ex Machina (sessions 1, 2 and 4)” to the Lionsgate DVD.

32. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature SXSW Q & A with Cast and Crew of March 15, 2015, to the Lionsgate DVD.

33. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature “Behind the Scenes Vignettes: Becoming Ava.”

34. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature “Behind the Scenes Vignettes: Meet Ava.”

35. Andrew O’Hehir, “Dark secrets of the sex robot: Alex Garland talks A.I., consciousness and why ‘the gender stuff’ of ‘Ex Machina’ is only one part of the movie’s big idea—The writer-director of the provocative sci-fi hit ‘Ex Machina’ on why the movie's sexualized A.I. is its real star,” Salon, April 22, 2015, accessed on October 10, 2015,

36. In O’Hehir, “Dark Secrets,” Garland has elaborated:

“I wouldn’t say that the response [to the movie’s ending] is exactly gender-neutral, but it’s gender non-specific inasmuch as it’s not the case that women will go one way and men another. I think that’s embedded into one of the questions of the film, because as we said earlier, gender might be something that’s conferred. It might be something that’s contained. If it’s contained, then it could be contained in a physical, external form or it could be contained in consciousness. That would mean there is a male consciousness and a female consciousness, in which case I would say: Demonstrate it! One demonstration might be that a man would think one way and a woman would think another, but in this illustration —and I think in many others —that’s not the case and it’s up to the individual. That’s where the gender-specific argument about consciousness, as I see it, gets pretty weak.”

37. “If you’re talking about human interactions, you also are going to be talking about gender interactions and power structures, power balances, games we play. Those things may have nothing to do with sex, or may sometimes have to do with sex but other times with power hierarchies and structures and any number of different things.” O’Hehir, “Dark Secrets.”

38. O’Hehir, “Dark Secrets.” Garland has stated:

“There are political issues embedded within this, and for some people that can lead to exactly the opposite of what my intention was. So I feel that I have to draw attention to the subjective way in which narratives and the themes are received, and responded to.”

39. “Alex Garland of ‘Ex Machina’ Talks About Artificial Intelligence,” The New York Times, April 22, 2015,
downloaded on October 10, 2015.

40. Alex Garland’s commentary to the Special Feature SXSW Q & A with Cast and Crew of March 15, 2015, to the Lionsgate DVD.

41. O’Hehir, “Dark Secrets.”

42. Spielberg famously took over the production of AI: Artificial Intelligence from Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

43. Frederick Jameson in Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984), Chapter 1 (“The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”)(Duke University Press 1991), discusses at length how late capitalism is ahistorical, emphasizing space over time. Not surprisingly, therefore, when asked by Caleb how old she is, Ava, a creation of late capitalism, answers “one”, unable to specify whether “one day” or “one year.” She embodies timelessness.

44. Ex Machina follows the British-made The Machine (2013) in several respects. The latter focuses upon an artificially created being also named Ava (Caity Lotz), not her human, male counterpart, Vincent (Toby Stephens), who acknowledges that Ava represents the future. Ava, too, defeats (with the assistance of a female cyborg) the humans, though in this case the wholly male British Ministry of Defense that had sought only to militarize cyborgs and other advanced forms of artificial intelligence. In the movie’s ending Ava, like Ava in Ex Machina, takes sensuous pleasure in the rising dawn as well as in Vincent’s young daughter whom she has saved in the form of a brain scan.

45. Yeats’ 1919 poem “The Second Coming” is reproduced online at numerous sites including
http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html and http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172062,
both accessed on October 10, 2015

46. In the context of its optimism about the future of artificial intelligence, the film’s title ironically evokes Sherry Turkle’s critique of how technology, including robots, has changed us:

“[A]lthough historically robots provoked anxieties about technology out of control, these days they are more likely to represent the reassuring idea that in a world of problems, science will offer solutions. Robots have become a twenty-first century deus ex machine. Putting hope in robots expresses an enduring technological optimism, a belief that as other things go wrong, science will go right.”

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (New York: Basic Books 2011), 11.