The great science fiction writer-philosopher Stanislaw Lem wrote, “We do not want other worlds, we want mirrors.” And to that extent, writer-director Alex Garland’s ominous take on A.I., Ex Machina is just that. It is far less about the potential birth of a new form of intelligence and far more an allegory about how men fear and control women. It demonstrates this both with Oscar Isaac’s recluse inventor, Nathan (and his billion dollar bachelor pad) to Domhnall Gleeson’s sensitive young programmer, Caleb. The latter is clearly in over his head talking to Ava, the artificial woman, or rather woman void of agency, played by Alicia Vikander and some impressive CGI, in her glass cage. But really, in different ways, for all their philosophizing, both men are in over their heads because they operate under the illusion that their heads are so darn big.
Despite all the dialogue about Prometheus and Turing, and a score by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow which echoes the notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film is best exemplified by how Nathan remembers Ghostbusters – as that movie where the ghost gives Dan Aykroyd a blow-job. Other remarkable scenes include a bit of spectacular discotheque dancing of Nathan with his mute Japanese assistant-servant-slave girl to establish dominance and intimidate Caleb. Later, a secretive whisper between Ava and the very same assistant at the key moment of weakness for both of the men, crystallized my reading of the film. To paraphrase Princess Leia, “the more you tighten your grip (in this case, the wrestle of egos between Nathan and Caleb) the more control systems will slip through the fingers.”
Ex Machina styles itself as a chess match between two men of different ideologies, but really it’s a sex match of dominance for the right to decide the fate of Ava. What makes it good science fiction, is the demonstration just how much our impulses and biology bring out the worst in us, no matter how much technology, concrete or glass we put in between.
As an act of design and the distance between design and emotion, Ex Machina would make a very good double bill with Spike Jonze’s Her, albeit, Jonze’s film is more optimistic and warm, certainly less grim and grisly (and cool) than Garland’s take. Blade Runner, along with Soderbergh’s Solaris remain, remain, for me, the master-class entries on capturing the ‘feeling’ of it’s subjects consciousness, but Ex Machina more prosaically examines consciousness with a session-debrief narrative structure, and in-text nods to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, along with discussion of several iconic thought experiments on consciousness. It is a both a great film and an exceptional primer — on the eventuality of something other than men inheriting the earth.