Recently, I was able to screen Ex Machina. The film was wonderful.
I’ve made it no secret that I’m a fan of zombie fiction. The best zombie work is one in which zombies are only the setting or a plot device, not the entirety of the plot. A movie or a TV show that puts zombies at the forefront will likely get nothing more than a yawn from me. Ex Machina is about AI, but not really. It’s not the entirety of the plot. A good artificial intelligence story doesn’t revolve around AI itself, but instead revolves around what precisely does it mean to be human, and all other ideas grow from that center.
Ex Machina forces a minimalism of characters and their relationships by way of putting the setting of the film in a remote laboratory. There are four characters, and only three of them are speaking roles. The viewer by virtue of sitting on this side of the Proscenium arch knows that there is something wrong coming, and the movie hints that it’s coming, but doesn’t put it right on the nose. Is the AI evil? Is it’s creator evil? Who will be the victim? What mysteries and dangers lie so close, but so far from help?
From previous postings, I’ve made it clear that I really appreciate a movie that understands that leaving elements of the plot ambiguous for the audience to think about or make decisions on their own is dangerous, but if well done make a movie go from good to great. This is one of them.
Watching the film, I found modern elements of the stories of Daedalus from Greek mythology. Daedalus who built the inescapable labyrinth for the king’s wife’s monstrous son. Daedalus who was then imprisoned to keep the secret of labyrinth from becoming public, then after liberating himself and his young student (his son) with his technology, his son is killed by misunderstanding and misusing it.
So, the premise of the film is that a young programer is invited to an accomplished inventor’s remote (inescapable) home on a pretense. Up until the last moment of the film, it is unclear of what the true reason of the invitation to that home actually had been. Because two of the four characters are exposed as liars during the film, it is difficult to know what is said that is truth, what is a lie, and what became a truth or a lie during the progression of the story. The lack of absolute closure on the foundations of the plot adds to the plot versus undermining it.
Aside from the questions that are brought up about what elements of these characters really put a magnifying glass to the aspects of a thing that makes it human and the execution of the movie that saves itself from the crutch of a spoon feeding the audience it’s own plot, the final item is: gender.
The machines that are made in the movie are fashioned to appear and, in a very literal way, function as a female. The machine is made, defined, and trapped by its/her male creator, which may be a statement of patriarchy in the world, but I found a specific conversation in the movie to be one of the most thought provoking of all: why make the machine female?
The young programmer asks the experienced inventor, why was the AI created to appear and behave female? The answer given, be it legitimate or not is, gender is fun and makes life interesting, if the AI has been created as a black box, why would it have any interest in interacting with another black box?
I had previously written about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which I had spent quite a bit of time considering the nearly perfect omission of gender from the entire book. I had imagined the liberty of a society that had been escaped the social imperative rooted in aged biology for binary understandings of sex, then I watched the aforementioned conversation in Ex Machina. Should our species outgrow outdated ideas of gender, scraping away gendered pronouns and socially expected mandates for sexual roles, would that make things as a whole better? worse? or just different?
Leckie’s intentional forceful use of the feminine pronoun and her protagonist’s inability to understand or perceive gender side stepped the question entirely. If intentional, it only raises an anxiety for the reader lending to introspection about gender in the real world, not the fictional. I had left my own introspection with the idea that gender causes more harm than good, and, after all, this is America, why does anything personal to an individual matter? Particularly in this regard?
Ex Machina answers that question. A world full of androgynous, pansexual people would certainly be boring. Certainly, it would bring a liberty with it, but at the cost of all flavor.
So, Ex Machina does, very intentionally, highlight inequalities in gender in the modern world (and if the previously linked article at the Vulture is to be understood correctly, specifically in media), however with a smaller voice the movie celebrates gender at the same time.