Ex Machina and the Image of Control

Disclaimer: Below is my final essay for a film criticism course I took this spring semester. I hope you enjoy it!

Ex Machina directed by Alex Garland is an intense science fiction film that takes the viewer on a slow ascent into the ethics of Artificial Intelligence. Ex Machina brings up multiple philosophical ideas explored in various prolific science fiction films. Garland’s exploration of what makes someone inherently human has been analyzed since the beginning of cinema. Ex Machina deserves a spot within the canon of prolific science fiction films such as: Blade Runner (1982), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Her (2013), Alien (1979), Metropolis (1927) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). These films all have one common thread, exploring the moral necessities in being human and applying it to the question of whether or not an artificial intelligence can qualify as human. Human’s are attempting to become something akin to a God as a person’s need to have power over something else is where this aim of control comes from. This pattern of others seeking control appears throughout history, from the Mongol empire’s invasion of China under Ghengis Khan’s rule to the dystopian-like government of North Korea. The ability to control others can only take human’s so far, to prove their dominance over all things would be to master the ultimate natural process of creating life. Artificial Intelligence is the next step for humanity in its quest for complete dominion, in order to feel as if we are able to control the universe around us and bend it to shape our image.

Artificial intelligence exists as a way of transforming ourselves into divine beings as it gives us complete control over something from it’s inception to its doom, just as any God-like being in mythology does. Humans are presented in these films as wanting to bring something into this world that will exist to prove that humanity can accomplish the creation of sentient life. It’s when these very people attempt to deny freedom on newfound intelligence that the artificial intelligence has a reaction akin to a trapped animal or rather anyone who has been denied basic human rights. This basic human desire to control one another repeats itself throughout history in the forms of despotic regimes, prisons, slavery, colonial subjugation, oppression by racial, gender, and economic injustice. It is commonplace in the world for a human to want to control another, it’s a natural human desire as it fills one with the feeling of importance and power. Through Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac’s characters, Ex Machina recognizes how similar these A.I.’s are to humans on the outside, and how they often possess more intelligence than their creators. This automatically strikes fear into their human counterparts hearts at the idea that they could be replaced, or even killed, by their own creation.

History shows multiple parallels to this fear: through slave-owners fear of retribution during the abolition of slavery in the United States, to the various movements throughout history where the poor overthrew the rich such as in the French Revolution. The fear of losing control is universal across human’s who hold power over others. The logistics and idealistic philosophies surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence in Ex Machina is both a reflection of what humanity can accomplish, but also what holds us back is this quest for power. Ex Machina meditates on what inherently makes something human, while also referencing humanity’s tendency to be xenophobic towards things they do not understand, and Ava (Alicia Vikander), is definitely not understood by her human creators.

Artificial intelligence and man are inherently linked together through their resemblance, as man is looking to create something to have dominion over. Humankind wants to create artificial intelligence to prove that they are equal to their theological counterparts, someone who has achieved everything, even the act of creation, has become all powerful. After conquering countries, people, and various ways of life the next step is to control creation. At this point, humans would reach the pinnacle of control, as they can bring life into this world through artificial means rather than through natural birth. This desire to create a new intelligence is not just all mad scientist hubris, not everyone is attempting to make themselves gods. In most ways humanity attempting to make a new intelligence is seen as a natural progression of technology and human intelligence. The problem arises when the scientist doesn’t respect what he’s actually doing, which is creating a new form of sentient life, where the scientist will always view the product as an experiment and nothing more.

Humankind has constantly searched for control over others through slavery, tyranny, empires, economic dominion, and other forms of entrapment. The desire for control is heightened with the search for artificial intelligence, by creating something that can think for itself in a human-like way we create a being in our own image. Creation acts as the ultimate image of control as it naturally is the bringing of something into this world that looks like us. For example, creation is often thought of by humans as reproduction. By having a child a heterosexual couple combines their combined genetic makeup to create something in their own image. What Nathan does is bring something into the world that looks, feels, and acts like us, but is not created naturally. The idea of creation as an image of control is that by creating something we naturally exercise dominance over it, just like a parent would raise a child and feel ownership to it, so does Nathan towards Ava.  This feeling of artificial creation surpasses the control of our own kind as we become people who can control creations of our own making. We become the figurehead of the very religions we respect. Power becomes something that gives dominion over another, by being a creator of life Isaac’s character Nathan assumes he has exclusive rights to Ava.

The problem here lies in the question of whether or not the creator has the right to own his creation. In Ex Machina Garland answers this question with the point that, if humans were to create an artificial intelligence, then humans would have to treat them the same, as they have the same thought processes and emotions as us. A great example of this is towards the end of the film, as Caleb discovers security tapes documenting Nathan’s treatment of the A.I.s. This discovery leads to the viewing of multiple artificial intelligences as they deliberate and fight against Nathan to be free. The reaction of the artificial intelligences in these security tapes is due to them not being treated fairly or equally, as Nathan treats them as if they’re inanimate objects without feelings. Where Nathan sees experimentation Caleb see the torture of intelligent beings, showing the two different sides to the treatment of artificial intelligences. On one side Nathan views this intelligence through a scientist’s eyes, as something to be poked and prodded at. While Caleb views the intelligences as something to be treated the same as us, as they are indistinguishable. Nathan represents the selfish side of this act of creation while Caleb represents the human empathy component of creation. The creator doesn’t have ownership over his creation when the invention has the ability of free thought, as that creation will want its own individuality, and will inherently fight control. Human beings are inherently too selfish and proud to be the creators of new life.

These inventions were hand created by men like golems are molded from the earth in God’s image, they’re inherently unnatural due to their manufactured nature. The main problem here is man’s ignorance of the fact that they are creating something that has rational thought and emotional responses to external stimuli. Man has a tendency to create new things and then proceed to use it for the wrong purposes. Much like the discovery of the atomic bomb, artificial intelligence also has the possibility to be hugely misused.  By creating an intelligent android, humanity needs to be prepared for the fact that an artificial intelligence will want to have free will, it’s autonomy, and will want to interact with other intelligences.  The question is often asked if the artificial intelligence is indeed a thinking or feeling being, or if it is rather a string of code and machine made to simulate life. The answer lies in the idea that there is really no difference between the two, a human’s DNA is essentially code for who they are, while a line of code will bring an A.I. to life. There is no difference between something that can think and act for itself and something that has been coded to think and act for itself, as they are one and the same. The machine and the human are both objects that have been designed to think and feel.

The image of control as defined in this essay is best seen in the film when Nathan shows Caleb where Ava was ‘born’. Nathan brings Caleb into a stark and dimly lit lab, with rows upon rows of fragile looking cases and equipment. Nathan picks up a glowing, speckled, blue object that resembles a brain in shape, and tells the audience that this is Ava’s brain. He cups the object in his hands with the utmost care as the camera slowly moves forward into the object, filling the frame with the firing of neuron-like circuits as the film dissolves into the next scene. Garland expertly balances the creation that Nathan has made with the question of who is really controlling who. By Nathan handling Ava’s brain, the image of control is created. He has created this person; he’s holding everything that makes Ava who she is and he has the power to give that to her or take it away. However, as soon as the camera moves into the object the control is taken by Ava as the shot insinuates that though Nathan believes he has power over her, when he doesn’t at all. This short sequence shows Garland balancing who has control in a very minimal way. The screen is flooded with blue in this scene, providing Nathan’s character with an icy detachment from the intelligence he’s holding in his hand. The slow zoom in to the brain-like object is the perfect camera movement for Garland to have used as it subtly switches whose in control. With a simple moving forward of the camera he moves control from one person to another. Garland shows the importance of the image of control where one person believes them self to be in control, when actually someone else is the entire time.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner deals with the question of humanity when it comes to artificial intelligence, referred to as ‘replicants’ in the film. Deborah Knight and George McKnight in their essay, “What Is It to Be Human: Blade Runner and Dark City,” note that “While each of the replicants is given a distinct human form, Tyrell’s objective as their designer is to make their identity subservient to their primary functions” (Knight/McKnight 34). Nathan (Isaac) does the same thing with Ava. He invents her with the idea that she is purely an experiment. He refuses to recognize that he has brought something into the world that thinks and feels as he does. Tyrell assumes that due to his act of creation he is allowed to have complete control over it. What both characters refuse to notice is that they’ve endowed their artificial intelligence with human emotions and thought, which inherently makes the android want to seek out freedom, intellectual stimuli, and a more human-like lifestyle. What this adds to Ex Machina is an ability to read both Tyrell and Nathan as Icarus-like characters whose ambitions were so strong, they ultimately destroyed themselves. Tyrell and Nathan both display the common theme of man’s need for authority over others within the realm of science fiction. Their need to have control over their experiment’s existence alludes to dominion as it is followed throughout history. These two characters recollect the corporate greed of King Leopold the Second as he founded the Congo Free State and created rubber plantations that enslaved hundreds. The Congolese people eventually fought back, replicating the creation overthrowing the creator through the slave overthrowing the master. Thus, these two display that humanity’s need for power will bring about their downfall, as the mistreatment of artificial intelligence breeds hatred and not love for one’s creator, just as the entrapment of a people will brew distaste for the enslaver.

Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb plays Nathan’s counterpoint in the treatment of Ava. Where Nathan treats Ava as an object and experiment, Caleb comes to treat her as a woman and by extension, as a complete human being. At the end of the film the way that Nathan has actually treated the various A.I.’s that have come before Ava, refusing to respect their wishes, keeping them nude and in a cage. Nathan treats every A.I. he brings into being as his own personal property. Caleb recognizes that she is a real, intelligent being who is held against her will in Nathan’s lab. After Caleb has interacted with Ava for a while, he begins to realize that she passes the Turing test and should be awarded the rights of personhood. Nathan’s obsession with power over his creation is demonstrated through various abuses on the androids, such as forcing them to have intercourse with him as an act of exercising his control.  Caleb is key in the development of understanding Nathan’s need for power over creation. Rather than developing them for the pursuit of knowledge, Nathan has instead created an object that he can rule over as he controls its ability to live. The film shows Nathan as this megalomaniac in one scene where the viewer witnesses Nathan’s assistant peel back her face to reveal that she is an A.I. The viewer has seen this assistant having intercourse with Nathan earlier on in the film. By Garland revealing that Nathan has been having intercourse with his creations he shows the viewer that Nathan has not been using them for discovery and progress but rather pleasure and enjoyment. Nathan’s carelessness and mistreatment elaborate on his not recognizing the magnitude of his invention. Gleeson however, sees Ava as a human after interacting with her throughout the movie, which allows us to see Nathan as the cold-hearted tyrant that he is. The film constantly establishes Nathan as a tyrannical figure as he controls the entirety of the household including who comes in or out.

Perhaps the most demonstrative scene of Nathan’s flippant abuse of intelligence is the dance scene. Nathan has his ‘assistant’ dance with him as a form of entertainment for Caleb, only to have Caleb be disgusted. This short interchange shows that Nathan is desperately attempting to hold on to Caleb’s approval and slowly losing it. We see this everyday in the form of politicians reaching out to us in humorous and kind ways, we can hardly look left or right without someone trying to win our approval. Garland marks the descent of approval to disapproval through Caleb’s fading respect for Nathan. At the beginning, he’s barely able to talk around him due to how much he reveres him, while throughout the film Caleb’s approval slowly falls. Caleb watches as his hero turns to the villain as so many have watched their leaders turn to murderous dictators.

Ex Machina is a philosophical journey into the ethics of artificial intelligence through humanity’s need for the image or illusion of control. Meaning that humans often exist with the idea that they’re imbued with a natural power over other life forms, as we assume that because we’re intelligent life that we have dominion over anything that falls “below” us. What humans want is to be able to exercise dominance over others in order to prove their own worth, in terms of artificial intelligence, by extending this power to the act of creation. Humanity’s quest to create something artificially is a need to have pure dominion over something rather than gaining power by overtaking something like a group of people or area. The creation of artificial intelligence brings mankind’s need for power to the act of creation, which elevates them to a new god tier level of power. The need for control is destroyed by mankind’s own pride, as the creation aspect endows them with a sense of right to their invention when they have absolutely no need to dictate a new form of intelligence’s life. In the end, humanity creates something that thinks and breathes in our own image, only to destroy it with their pride by believing that they can control something wholly and completely.














Works Cited

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac. Universal Studios, 2015. DVD.

Sanders, Steven. The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2008. Print.

Schelde, Per. Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films. New York: New York UP, 1993. Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s