Deus Ex Machina–nothing new under the sun


Alex Garland wrote and directed Ex Machina, a well-received 2015 techno-thriller. A spare cast is isolated in a remote mansion in the wilderness and engaged in a cerebral game, the Turing Test.  Alan Turing (1912-1954), the subject of the 2014 film The Imitation Game, devised a method for determining if an artificial intelligence (an AI) can convince a human of its humanity.

Ava, a stunning realized “robot,” is subjected to conversations with a certifiable human, the naïve Caleb.  Ava’s creator is a new-age solitary genius, Nathan.  He is portrayed as a misanthropic, binge-drinking body builder. Nathan is in the mold of a Steve Jobs figure, a cultural icon of genius and innovation. The film is engrossing.  The conversations between Caleb and Ava and between Caleb and Nathan encapsulate the philosophical and practical problems of the existence of an artificial intelligence.

But this visual and intellectual tour de force left me frustrated and annoyed.  Unwrapping the cultural references embodied in the film convinced me that the eye-candy of the computer enhanced Ava presented little that was new.

The sculptor Pygmalion, in classical Greek legend, created an ivory statue of Galatea of such surpassing beauty that he fell in love with his creation.  The deus ex machina, the goddess who solves Pygmalion’s dilemma, was none other than Aphrodite. Aphrodite gave the statue life. Clearly Galatea was then able to pass the Turing test. She had become a human being.

Aphrodite was the goddess of love, among other attributes. The trope of the perfect female, the female fashioned by the male gaze, is the female as the perfect sexual partner.  In the film Ex Machina, the naïve Caleb, already enamored of Ava, discovers that the computer genius Nathan has gone Pygmalion better by several female constructs.  Nathan has re-created Bluebeard’s castle.

In Bela Bartok’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, the count has hidden his former wives behind closed doors.  Judith, Bluebeard’s newest consort, discovers them.  Caleb opens doors to reveal four failed Avas. They are Nathan’s creations, lissome nudes who malfunctioned in various manners.  One of the Ava prototypes had exploded in rage and was hidden away, damaged.  It is one thing to speculate about artificial intelligence, but it is quite another to objectify females as interchangeable sex objects designed for titillation and exploitation.

What are we to make of the female rage which explodes and destroys Nathan?  He is murdered by his machines.  Ava not only frees herself from Nathan, but also emasculates the naïve Caleb in her bid for freedom.  He is left trapped in the mansion.  I found it depressing to conclude that intelligent, thinking women are manipulative, controlling bitches who have to be jailed by men in order to control them.

Other transgressive geniuses had troubles with their construct.  Dr. Frankenstein was characterized as the “Modern Prometheus” in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel.  Rather than the beauteous Ava, Frankenstein created a monster.  No Turing Test was needed since the monster received the real deal: a human brain.  The Monster reveals that he, like Ava, is mindful of the separate existence of others, a theory of mind. That certifies his humanity.  But Frankenstein’s monster was a construct of sweetness and sentimentality. Little of this exists in the Ava monster.

The 1958 romantic comedy/musical “Gigi” is now in a revival on Broadway. As I read about the delicate restructuring of this story needed to suit modern audiences, I was forcibly reminded of the Ava character.  “Gigi” is the story of a girl being raised by an old man to become a prostitute or, more genteelly, a courtesan   A younger man, a buyer, falls in love with her and “rescues” her by marriage.  This is Nathan as creator, Ava as whore-construct, and Caleb as consumer model all over again.

The sophisticated version of the tension between the biological human and artificial intelligences was made into a film some thirty years ago:  Ridley Scott’s incomparable 1982 Blade Runner. It too, had a version of the AI sex-model. She was Priss, the “basic pleasure model.”  But in Blade Runner both the humans and the artificial constructs exists in a complex society, struggling for justice and hoping for a future.

I hope that the next time I see a film confronting the issues of artificial intelligence that the AI construct looks more R2D2 and 3CPIO.



About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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