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.

Ex Machina’s Caleb is its hapless male. Introduced as a randomly selected employee, he sits before a computer in an office maze. In fact, Caleb is already being monitored by Nathan, who has selected him as the subject of his Turing Test. Caleb has no privacy.
Nathan is the dominant male in the film noir’s triangle. His image doubled, Caleb meets Nathan.   A relentless boxer, Nathan exudes power – in contrast to the physical awkwardness of Caleb.

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 also posits that consciousness cannot exist without such sexual relationships. Ex Machina, however, extends film noir to its logical conclusion and thereby reverses audience expectations. 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.

Her image also doubled, Ava walks with child-like grace.  An artificial garden, a simulated Garden of Eden, appears behind her.

Ava momentarily turns to look at Caleb - as well as at the audience.