Subtitled EX MACHINA, Alex Garland’s new movie, “R.U.R. (IF YOU THINK YOU ARE”). Forgive the play on words combining the title of Karel Capek’s 1920 play (see below) and the title of a play by Luigi Pirandello. In all these cases, how we define what is human is at issue. In the latter instance, the results are highly ironic.
EX MACHINA tells the story of a computer coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who spends a week at the mountain home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant scientist who is seeking the “next step” in artificial intelligence. Caleb will observe Nathan’s newest “experiment,” a sleek, beautiful, and wholly lifelike android/robot called “Ava” (Alicia Vikander) and determine if “she” represents a breakthrough in the creation of a truly “human” creature. If Ava “fails” her test, Nathan will deprogram her and begin anew with a more advanced prototype. Indeed, we eventually learn that he has already created—and discarded—a closetful of female prototypes. Will Ava be next?
During the course of the week, Caleb and Ava both confess an erotic attraction for each other. Ava, moreover, reveals her desire to break out of her hermetically sealed chamber and venture into the “real” world. Caleb contrives to help her escape. But Ava, who apparently has been devising a survival plan of her own, kills her creator, locks Caleb in the lab, and escapes into the outer world. She is last seen, reveling in the chaotic interplay of a crowded street.
EX MACHINA is a intelligent, albeit dizzying collection of gothic tropes, including the experiments in artificial/enhanced life by Mad Scientists Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau, the fatal hubris of the Sorceror’s Apprentice, the erotic terrors of Bluebeard’s Cabinet, the duality of human nature, and many, many more. Here, unlike the Capek play, in which a robotic Adam and Eve start a new life in a world now wholly devoid of humans, it is the female, Ava, acting alone, who will presumably replace humankind with new robotic life forms.
A whole new meaning to Girl Power?
Ironically—and dare I suggest there is a sexist twinge to this—the movie demonstrates that it is in Ava’s devious exploitation of her “feminine” wiles that she is finally able to prove she is truly human.
What was more interesting for me were EX MACHINA’s wittily subtle contrasts and interfaces of human and mechanical intelligence: For example, the lyric murmurs of Schubert’s B-flat Piano Sonata are piped through the empty, sterile confines of Nathan’s home. Outside those neutral-gray rooms gushes a spectacular waterfall and granitic cliffs. And on Nathan’s otherwise empty wall space is a large canvas by Jackson Pollock. “Pollock could not have painted that,” says Nathan, “if he had calculated in advance each brush strike and dribble of paint.” In other words, the “human element” resides not so much in calculation but in randomness, accidents, and unpredictability.
Maybe, inadvertently, Nathan has unleashed his own version of a Pollock painting. His calculated experimentation notwithstanding, Ava will prove to be truly human only when she betrays and kills those around her. Survival is everything.
To be human is pretty risky business.