There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’m going to try to keep most of it coiled up and focus on the film itself.
The thing that impresses me most about the film is its tone. It could end up a rehash of Blade Runner or Frankenstein (or even Star Trek), but it creates its own immediacy. The director, Alex Garland mentioned that “When someone would ask me, ‘When is this taking place,’ I’d say it’s 10 minutes in the future.” and he accomplishes this quite well. It’s a clever strategy to keep from becoming dated — deliberately rooting the film to the near present — and my guess is that in the future the film will be less about predicting the future than about anxieties rooted to a particular time and place. This film evokes a feeling similar to what Mary Shelley’s circle must have felt, haunted by the thought of Galvani’s battery powering frogs’ legs.
The pacing and setting of the film are also impressive. A story about artificial nature in an overwhelming setting of unpolluted Norwegian fjords and forests is an effective understated contrast. The (sometimes painfully) slow pacing is effective for building suspense, and allows the fim’s crises to have their full effect. The pacing of the last twenty minutes felt sort of odd, though, but this may be due more to my expectations of what end-of-movie pacing should be rather than any defect in the slow unraveling of the plot.
But I keep using the word effective. Effective at what?
The plot doesn’t have a lot of meaning in itself and it’s not really a film about people, nor is it meant to be. It’s a guarded exploration of myth in a technological setting and the underlying archetypes are subconsciously familiar, even if the myth that powers the film is really Jupiter v. Saturn rather than the (possibly intentionally?) misguided Promethean myth that the movie references. This is a dramatization of philosophy, wound around archetypes, and it’s an exercise in (exorcism of?) modern anxiety. The vehicle and tone of the film are effective at allowing this all to play out slowly and quietly. They’re effective at provoking thought.
Speaking of which, two thoughts:
1) This film is an interesting juxtaposition to a book review I just read in the New England Journal of Medicine for a book title Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. The book is basically a rational atheist’s view of biotechnology in a still religious world and the author considers divisions between human and nonhuman, natural and unnatural, a relic of a religious past. According to the reviewer the book is a “defense of biotechnology against those who seek to limit the intentional control of nature and ourselves. [The author] attacks the prohibition against ‘playing God,’ advocating instead that humanitarian use of biotechnology in medicine, nutrition, ecologic sustainability, and reproductive choices.”
An excerpt from the review:
“[The author] surveys the variety of beliefs in the soul and the sanctity of nature and their tenacious roots in human biology and culture. He observes that scientists have no need for such notions, which set the stage for a clash of worldviews — one empiric and naturalistic, the other mystical and vitalist. As science progresses in its understanding, especially of consciousness and behavior, the concepts of soul and human essence have come under increasing pressure because they are no longer needed to explain ourselves to ourselves. Hence, there arises the backlash against science and technology, expressed as the injunction that we should leave some mysteries unplumbed.”
Now this is a big topic, which I don’t intend to do explore in a few sentences, but the contrast with Ex Machina is obvious. What Ex Machina does do for this sort of analysis is recast the problem not as a reactionary ape’s mystical distrust of technology, but as apes’ thoroughly justified distrust of other apes with excessive power. I’ll leave it with that.
2) To me, the film also highlights the problem of flesh. The problem in these experiments is always one of mind, developing an artificial consciousness, being indistinguishable from a human. The actual flesh and blood of the body are a trivial concern in Blade Runner and Ex Machina types of movies, just a matter of some wires, fancy rubber, and gears. But to pass as a human to another human, physicality is crucial and creating an artificial human body would not be a trivial task, particularly human bodies that would be ageless and immortal, which seems to always be the assumption. All the supremely powerful minds in these scenarios would still be housed in tattered coats on sticks. Weakness and fallibility would presumably lead to some kind of android ethics… let’s not go there.
Two alternatives come to mind. One is artificial intelligence/consciousness (I use the terms interchangeably although they are quite different) in “bodies” that are clearly nonhuman… Data-like beings. That’s an interesting direction to go, but a mild violation on the android premise in the thought experiments we’re talking about, which is to be more human than human. The other alternative is growing natural human bodies as houses for artificial intelligence… let’s not go there, either.
So does the movie work? Yes. The suspenseful playing out of the plot effectively plays out the thought experiment. The movie is well put together, the right length with the right tone, and well cast. If you like thinking about what makes humans human, then it’s right up your alley. If not, then it may lead you into pondering it a little. Would I see it again? Maybe in twenty years to look back at both how prescient and misguided we were in 2015.
The film posits that artificial intelligence is like an expert in color who has lived forever in a black and white room and then goes outside and sees color. That is to say, there is knowing something and then there is knowing that you know it. Logically speaking, computers only know what we tell them to know, much like the screen “knows” these letters I have typed onto it.
In the same way, the film knows the plot of Frankenstein just as it knows ideas about artificial intelligence, but it needs the additional reflection on that knowledge.
When I worked at MIT (which is slowly becoming a proprietary research wing of Google) the intense drive for robotics and artificial intelligence was a living breathing reality. In that community the hope for the singularity is as real and vivid a subtext as the hope for a resurrection is in any Christian community. In light of that experience, I am very interested in any work of art that explores the themes of artificial intelligence. But my question is not, how do we accomplish it, or what would it look like? My question is: Where does our drive for this come from?
- Do we want slaves? The plot ponders this through the character of Nathan, who does simply sees his robots as convenient servants and sex slaves.
- Do we want a new species of friends and lovers? The plot ponders this through the character of Caleb who is looking to trust and protect a new family member.
There are only two characters, but there should be a third one because there’s a third answer, and yes, it’s at least as old as humanity itself. It’s the tired old cliché from the very first Frankenstein.
We want to be gods, literally and figuratively. We have stopped believing that anyone created us, and yet we have an inescapable drive to create something after our own image and in our own likeness. Of course, in this movie as in Frankenstein, this choice will bring about our own destruction. (Yes, even the title itself cleverly takes God out of the old phrase, just as the plot takes God out of its meditations of the creation of new consciousness.) But this is nothing new. As Genesis describes it, Adam first, and humanity second, has always desired to kill and replace God, and then lord it over someone.
Perhaps our theoretical AI creations cannot help but mirror our deepest selves. Perhaps Frankenstein has been hardwired into the tapestry of the world ever since humanity’s first attempt at deicide. So too in this plot, Ava (the Eve parallel is a bit unnecessary) kills the bodies and the illusions of both the slave-driver and the idealist. Boring.
Again, the more interesting question is why. Why does humanity want to be god? Remember, this is not just sci-fi, this attempt is being played out right now on the every technologically advanced campus in the world. But what is it inside us that so wants to be god? That would be a great movie.
This is only a decent enough thriller.