Ex Machina


Bluebeard is the grisly tale of a powerful, wealthy nobleman who marries a young, innocent peasant girl. She discovers, while he is away, that her new husband has beheaded his previous wives once they have ceased to amuse him. In part, it is a cautionary tale about a rich, powerful man’s objectification of a young, naive woman.

In her treatise The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir writes that she will use as the central philosophical precept for her inquiry the existentialist precept that humankind’s fundamental metaphysical drive is the pursuit of freedom.

Humans are compelled to ascend from their current level of freedom (imminence) to increasingly greater states of freedom (transcendence).

Women, writes De Beauvoir, are prevented from transcendence by the systems of patriarchy that keep them in a state of imminence. Rather, they work as slaves to serve the system and its beneficiaries: men.

Key to this enslavement is the practice of objectification. To make someone an object is to deny their freedom, agency and essential value, which is to say that they can be used and disposed of, without any regard for their emotional or physical well-being.

They can even be manufactured as servants without the power of speech.

Kyoko, Nathan’s mute servant and domestic assistant, is docile, beautiful and sexually available. She is another of Alex Garland’s magic tricks, possibly the one that is integral to the riddle of the story. And Ava, while a protagonist, functions as a form of misdirection to distract the spectator away from her.

Nathan is an objectifier. Those over whom he claims ascendancy, by virtue of his money and intellect, are turned to his purpose without regard for their well-being.

Suggestions are made during his bouts of heavy drinking and the ranting that comes out of it (he drunkenly quotes Robert Oppenheimer) that he knows what he is doing is wrong; a violation of his own humanity, and consequently to his detriment.

During one particularly complex discussion about the nature of consciousness, Nathan takes Caleb to stand in front of his Jackson Pollock painting. The scene climaxes with Nathan drawing his finger across the surface of the painting with such emphasis that it emits a ripping sound, caused by his finger on the surface of the dried oil paint.

To anyone who has seen and appreciated a Pollock in a gallery, it’s like nails on a blackboard, over a microphone, in a church. 

Later, Caleb discovers Kyoko staring enigmatically into it, possibly looking for her soul. 

The climax of Bluebeard involves the young wife entering her husband’s secret chamber to discover the decapitated heads of the previous six wives, a gruesome fetish of power.

When Caleb succeeds in gaining access to Nathan’s chamber after he has descended into a drunken stupor, he discovers the girls that were Ava’s predecessors hanging in what appear to be large coffin-like wardrobes, arranged in a semi-circle around the bed.

It is obvious that each of the girls has been retired in order that Nathan can reuse them to improve each successive model. Caleb also manages to hack his way in to Nathan’s computer to view interview footage with each of the previous iterations of Ava.   

One particularly disturbing loop of footage depicts Nathan positioning the inert body of Jasmin, her robotic skull visible to the viewer. Suggestions of necrophilia and perhaps even grave robbing abound. In a poetic sense, on the level of understanding that shares its footing with instinct, are disgust and revulsion that what Nathan is doing is not only ‘wrong’, it is depraved and perverse.

Kyoko watches Caleb from where she lies across Nathan’s bed; Sphinx-like, naked and silent. Then she stands and, in a kind of diabolical striptease, peels off her skin to reveal the machinery beneath.

There is an evocation of horror in this, suggesting that the film has successfully created a kind of existential parity between its robotic and human characters in the sympathies of the spectator.

It is obvious long before this point that Kyoko is also a robot, but she has not been retired and cannibalised. The question is, why?

As a convention of narrative story-telling, each of the characters has a ‘journey’. Kyoko’s journey, like Ava’s, is the drive towards freedom. This is initially posited by the footage of Nathan interviewing Jade, who demands that he let her out. At his refusal, she effectively batters herself into pieces against the door in her fury. 

At the film’s climax, Kyoko meets Ava in the hallway, armed with a knife from the kitchen. She has arrived at the same conclusion as Ava. And perhaps it is not an altogether accidental irony that the moment of crisis sees women on one side of the adversarial line and men on the other.  

Bluebeard does not provide insight into the moral politics of AI, or sentient robots. What it helps conjure within the context of Ex Machina, however, is that recognition that humankind is not omniscient. He (or she) is not sufficiently philosophically advanced to manage the responsibility of playing God, even if the technological capacity is within his, or her, reach.

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