Ex Machina (2015)


The Blood of a Programmer

— During the first half of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, I fell in love with its startling imagery. The plot concerns Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a mediocre computer programmer who wins a contest to live for a week at his famous boss’ remote retreat. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a genius who, at age 13, wrote Blue Book, the world’s most successful Internet search engine. Nathan has summoned Caleb to run a Turing Test on Nathan’s new artificial intelligence experiment, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to check whether his beautiful female robot possesses human intelligence. The film is visually stunning, invoking the mirrors from Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947) as much as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), even though the science-fiction plot seems to demand only the latter.

However, during its second half, I began to loathe Ex Machina because its dystopian technologism seemed so banal. There are a few excellent shots where Nathan’s sex slave robot, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) stands in the foreground, listening to Nathan and Caleb in the background. It dawned on me that the film was using the trite clichés of the cyborg movie in order to reveal itself as the true Turing Test, where the spectator is supposed to figure out that Kyoko is the real human scientist and identify Nathan’s roboticism.

But none of my ideas to redeem the second half of the film turned out to be the film’s project: instead, the plot devolves into murder and mayhem, exactly according to the melodramatic Hollywood Luddite playbook. I left the film enraged, and didn’t give it much more thought. Now out on DVD, I have obsessively been studying the film for a week, and now see that the film was indeed playing a slight of hand trick, but at one level deeper than I was able to appreciate on first viewing.

In the middle of the film, Caleb accuses Nathan of being a stage magician, using Ava the sexy assistant to distract him from correctly administering the Turing Test. I now again believe this is the allegorical key to the film, except it is Garland who is the stage magician, using the science-fiction plot to distract us from its more central operation, a meditation on the relationship between the human and the art she creates. Let’s call this Garland’s “Turning Test,” where genre substitution allows us to shift interpretive tracks, worrying less about the technological and more about the artistic.

In a number of scenes, the characters stand in front of Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist masterpiece, “Number 5” (1948), one of the most expensive pieces of contemporary art in the world, presumably because Nathan is rich enough to buy anything he wants. Nathan explains to Caleb that he has reversed Pollock’s action painting procedure, not simulating in Ava the normative procedures of the human, but instead finding that which is not automatic. The plot encourages us to see this as a scene about computer programming, but the film’s visual references lead us elsewhere, into the world of art history.

In Act I, as Caleb explores Nathan’s house, he walks down a hallway on which faces are mounted on the wall. Late in the film, as Ava discovers she is not the first female robot Nathan has built, she touches these faces on the wall, a tactile encounter with her cyborg sisters. In this second encounter, the film catches us in its trap, making us forget that the first time we see these faces on the wall, we did not care about them as science experiments. Instead, when Caleb walks down this hallway early in the film, he is re-enacting a famous moment from Jean Cocteau’s Surrealist French masterpiece, La Belle et La Bete (1948). Early in that film, Belle’s father encounters a magical castle where mounted candelabras held by moving human arms beckon him into the foyer. Shortly thereafter, the father encounters the Beast, who demands his daughter in payment for having stolen a rose from his garden.

The visual quotation from La Belle et La Bete is evidence of Garland’s magic trick. Only the science-fiction surface of Ex Machina leads us toward the historical infrastructure of robot representation. So, for example, the film has a very similar plot to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1817 German short story, “Der Sandmann,” in which a professor places his robotic daughter, Olympia in front of his student, Nathaniel, to see if he can trick the young man into falling in love with his creation. But oddly, Caleb in Ex Machina is not named after Hoffmann’s character, Nathanial; instead, Garland’s computer genius, Nathan is! Indeed, the foreshortened title of the film itself indicates more of the magic trick. The manifest content of the film is about what comes “from the machine.” However, the full phrase, “deus ex machina” is an aesthetic term from ancient Greek theater, about a giant wooden stick on a stage that allows Euripides to whisk his characters off of the plane of the human world into the terrain of the Gods.

By invoking La Belle et La Bete, Garland whisks his science fiction film from the world of George Lucas to that of George Lukacs. Or, more appropriately, Garland’s film stakes its position with the modernists whom Lukacs critiqued for their fantastical rejection of Marxist realism. Almost a decade ago, my colleague Rob Spahr convinced me that modernist Marcel Duchamp is the key to understanding the twentieth century, as his artwork spans the gap between aesthetics and computation, as in his famous chess game with modernist composer John Cage in which the moves produced the music via the electrical wiring of the board.

By invoking Cocteau, Garland continues an understanding of modernity in which art and computation have merged. And thus, the key intertext for Ex Machina is not the plot-based “Der Sandmann,” but the image-based Blood of a Poet (1930), Cocteau’s first Surrealist film. Nathan is not Steve Jobs; he is Pygmalion, bringer to life of the female mechanical, be she named Galatea or Ava. It is the mythology of Pygmalion and Galatea that Cocteau interrogates in Blood of a Poet. Like Nathan, Cocteau’s poet (Enrique Rivero) brings his statue (Lee Miller) to life. Like the cyborg faces mounted on the wall of Nathan’s hallway, Blood of a Poet animates wire-frame faces created by the poet, images in which art, not computer science, extends the animated human into the world of representation. In both films, the consequence of this male usurpation of maternal creativity is madness and death. Cocteau’s poet travels into a mirror world in which he encounters torture, suffering, and suicide.

The final image of Blood of a Poet is that of industrial modernity collapsing, in the form of the destruction of a chimney. Allowing its images to trump its dystopian plot dynamics, Ex Machina ends conversely, with Ava killing Nathan and locking Caleb inside the castle, leaving him to die, and herself escaping into the vibrant world of human civilization. Garland’s magic trick ends with science fiction abandoned, and the values of art—freedom and creative expression—triumphant.

– Walter Metz