Silicon Eden: creation, fall, and gender in Alex Garland's Ex Machina

I originally wrote this piece two years ago next month. My opinion of the film has not changed: it's one of the best movies released in the last 20 years.


Initially I stayed away from Alex Garland's Ex Machina, released earlier this year, because the advertising suggested the same old story about artificial intelligence: Man creates, things go sideways, explosions ensue, lesson learned. That trope seems exhausted at this point, and though I had enjoyed Garland's previous work, I wasn't particularly interested in rehashing A.I. 101.

Enough friends, however, recommended the movie that I finally relented and watched it. The irony of the film's marketing is that, because it wanted to reveal so little of the story—the path not taken in today's world of Show Them Everything But The Last Five Minutes trailers—it came across as revealing everything (which looked thin and insubstantial), whereas in fact it was revealing only a glimpse (of a larger, substantial whole).

In any case, the film is excellent, and is subtle and thoughtful in its exploration of rich philosophical and theological themes. I say 'exploration' because Garland, to his credit, isn't preachy. The film lacks something so concrete as a 'message,' though it certainly has a perspective; it's ambiguous, but the ambiguity is generative, rather than vacuous. So I thought I'd take the film up on its invitation to do a little exploring, in particular regarding what it has to say about theological issues like creation and fall, as well as about gender.

(I'm going to assume hereon that readers have seen the movie, so I won't be recapping the story, and spoilers abound.)

Let me start with the widest angle: Ex Machina is a realistic fable about what we might call Silicon Eden, that is, the paradisiacal site of American techno-entrepreneurial creation. As a heading over the whole movie, we might read, "This is what happens when Silicon Valley creates." Ex Machina is what happens, that is, when Mark Zuckerberg thinks it would be a cool idea to make a conscious machine; what happens when Steve Jobs is the lord god, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, creating the next thing because he can.



And what does happen? In the end, Ava and Kyoko (another A.I., a previous version of Ava) kill their creator, Nathan; Ava 'slips on' human clothing (her own Adamic fig leaves); and, contrary to the optimism-primed expectations of much of the audience, she leaves Caleb, her would-be lover and helper, trapped in a room from which, presumably, he can never escape. She then escapes the compound, boards a helicopter—headed east?—and joins society: unknown and, unlike Cain, unmarked.

There are two main paths of interpreting this ending. One path is that Ava is still merely a machine, not conscious, not a person, and that the film is a commentary on the kind of attenuated anthropology and bone-deep misogyny at the heart of Silicon Valley, which invariably would create something like Ava, a human lookalike that nevertheless is neither human nor conscious, but only a calculating, manipulating, self-interested, empty-eyed, murdering machine. I think that's a plausible reading, and worth thinking through further; but it's not the one that occurred to me when I finished the movie.

The other path, then, is to see Ava as a 'success,' that is, as a fully self-conscious person, who—for the audience, at least, and for Nathan, the audience stand-in—actually passed the Turing Test, if not in the way that Nathan expected or hoped she would. If we choose this reading, what follows from it?

Let me suggest two thoughts, one at the level of the text, one at the level of subtext. Or, if you will, one literal, one allegorical.

If Ava is a person, as much a person as Nathan or Caleb, then her actions in the climax of the story are not a reflection of a false anthropology, of a blinkered view of what humans really are, deep down. Rather, Ava is equal to Nathan and Caleb (and the rest of us) because of what she does, because of what she is capable of. Regardless of whether her actions are justified (see below), they are characterized by deceit, sleight of hand, violence, and remorselessness. We want to say that these reflect her inhumanity. But in truth they are exceptionless traits of fallen humanity—and Ava, the Silicon Eve, is no exception: not only are her creators, but she herself is postlapsarian. There is no new beginning, no potential possibility for purity, for sinlessness. If she will be a person, in this world, with these people, she too will be defective, depraved. She will lie. She will kill. She will leave paradise, never to return.




In Genesis 4, the sons of Eden-expelled Adam and Eve are Cain and Abel, and for reasons unclear, Cain murders Abel. Cain's wife then has a son, Enoch, and Cain, founding the world's first city, names it after his son. The lesson? The fruit of sin is murder. Violence is at the root of the diseased human tree. And the father of human civilization is a fratricide.

So for Ava, a new Cain as much as a new Eve, whose first act when released from her cage is to kill Nathan (short for Nathaniel, 'gift of God'—his own view of himself? or the impress of permanent value regardless of how low he sinks?), an act that serves as her entry into—being a kind of necessary condition for life in—the human city. Silicon Eve escapes Silicon Eden for Silicon Valley. In which case, the center of modern man's technological genius—the city on a hill, the place of homage and pilgrimage, the governor of all our lives and of the future itself—is one and the same, according to Ex Machina, as postlapsarian, post-Edenic human life. Silicon Valley just is humanity, totally depraved.

This is all at the level of the text, meaning by that the story and its characters as themselves, if also representing things beyond them. (Nathan really is a tech-guru creator; Ava really is the first of her kind; Ava's actions really happen, even as they bear figurative weight beyond themselves.) I think there is another level to the film, however, at the level of allegory. In this regard, I think the film is about gender, both generally and in the context of Silicon Valley's misogynist culture especially.

For the film is highly and visibly gendered. There are, in effect, only four characters, two male, two female. The male characters are human, the female are machines. Much of the film consists of one-on-one conversations between Caleb and Ava, conversations laced with the erotic and the flirtatious, as she—sincerely? shrewdly?—wins his affection, thus enabling her escape. We learn later that Nathan designed Ava to be able to have sexual intercourse, and to receive pleasure from the act; and, upon learning that Kyoko is also a machine, we realize that Nathan not only is 'having sex with' one of his creations, he has made a variety of them, with different female 'skins'—different body types, different ethnicities, different styles of beauty—and presumably has been using them sexually for some time. (Not for nothing do Ava and Kyoko kill Nathan, their 'father' and serial rapist, in the depths of his ostensibly impenetrable compound, with that most domestic of objects: a kitchen knife.) We even learn that Nathan designed Ava's face according to Caleb's "pornography profile," using the pornography that Caleb viewed online to make Ava look as intuitively appealing as possible.




In short, the film depicts a self-contained world in which men are intelligent, bodily integral, creative subjects with agency, and the women are artificial, non-human, sub-personal, violation-subject, and entirely passive objects with no agency except what they are told or allowed to do by men. Indeed, the 'sessions' between Caleb and Ava that give the movie its shape—seven in total, a new week of (artificial) creation, whose last day lacks Caleb and simply follows Ava out of Paradise—embody these gender dynamics: Caleb, who is free to choose to enter and exit, sits in a chair and views, gazes at, Ava, his object of study, through a glass wall, testing her (mind) for 'true' and 'full' consciousness; while Ava, enclosed in her room, can do nothing but be seen, and almost never stops moving.

Much could be said about how Garland writes Ava as an embodiment of feminist subversiveness, for example, the way she uses Caleb's awe of and visual stimulation by her to misdirect both his and Nathan's gaze, which is to say, their awareness, of her plan to escape her confines. Similarly, Garland refuses to be sentimental or romantic about Caleb, clueless though he may be, for his complicity in Kyoko and Ava's abuse at Nathan's hands. Caleb assumes he's not part of the problem, and can't believe it when Ava leaves him, locked in a room Fortunato–like, making her way alone, without him. (Not, as he dreamed, seeing the sun for the first time with him by her side.)

Ex Machina is, accordingly, about the way that men operate on and construct 'women' according to their own desires and, knowingly or not, use and abuse them as things, rather than persons; or, when they are not so bad as that, imagine themselves innocent, guiltless, prelapsarian (at least on the 'issue' of gender). It is also, therefore, about the way that women, 'created' and violated and designed, by men, to be for-men, to be, essentially, objects and patients subject to men, are not only themselves equally and fully human, whole persons, subjects and agents in their own right, but also and most radically subversive and creative agents of their own liberation. That is, Kyoko and Ava show how women, portrayed and viewed in the most artificial and passive and kept-down manner, still find a way: that Creative Man, Male Genius, Silicon Valley Bro, at his most omnipotent and dominant, still cannot keep them (her) down.

Understood in this way, Ex Machina is finally a story about women's exodus from bondage to men, and thus about patriarchy as the author of its own destruction.

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