X Marks the Spot: A Review of Ex Machina

by Alvin G. Burstein

As a fan of RoboCop flicks, I looked forward to this film. Ex Machina explores the same question as RoboCop: the difference between man and machine. That exploration puts it in an established genre, one occupied not only by its predecessor, but by Collodi’s Pinocchio, who hungers to be a real boy, and by Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data, who struggles to feel emotion and to understand jokes.

This movie explores the question with considerably less violence than RoboCop, but with an ending that is more suspenseful, and raises questions that, if not more profound, are more complex.

A young programmer, Caleb at the mega data firm Blue Book is recruited to spend a week at the mountain retreat of Blue Book’s genius owner, Nathan. There he learns that he has the assignment of applying Turing’s test to an embodied computer, Ava. The issue is to determine whether Nathan has successfully created artificial human intelligence. The wrinkle is that in Turing’s original test, the judge sits at a computer and makes a judgment based on what appears on the screen in response to his input. The question is whether he can tell whether the responses are machine generated or from another human being.

Caleb is presented, not with a monitor, but what is clearly a robot, one with an attractive female face and feminine shape, Ava. He and Ava are separated by a barrier that permits them to see each other and to talk, but cannot communicate in any other way.

Ava’s sexualization has enormous consequences. It is the basis of Caleb’s falling in love with her. To him and to Nathan that implies that she has passed Turing’s test, that Nathan has acquired the god-like capacity to create a human. The unfolding plot intentionally raises intriguing questions about that conclusion. Ava pleads with Caleb to save her from being replaced by more elaborate updates, in hoary plot terms, “to take her away from all this”, and to find a way for them to be together, in equally hoary terms, a “happily ever after conclusion”.

The movie rejects the romantic cliché. Ava is manipulating Caleb. When Caleb reprograms the security system, Ava is freed. She kills Nathan, and abandons her rescuer, who remains trapped in the isolated mountain top retreat. And Ava? She finds her way to a busy big city intersection where she can acquire more data on human behavior.

The audience is left to assign Ava a grade on Turing’s test. Does her ability to manipulate Caleb, her desire for freedom and her curiosity demonstrate human intelligence?

The film hints at an answer. Early on, Caleb asks Nathan why he has embodied Ava, why he has given her an attractive face and feminine shape. Nathan responds by reminding Caleb that we encounter human intelligence in the context of gendered people, and he assures Caleb that he has endowed Ava with the capacity for genital pleasure.

This element of the film has generated a feminist critique arguing that it reinforces a view of femininity centered on male sexual desire. That critique is reinforced by Caleb’s expressed belief that Nathan chose Ava’s face by gaining access to Caleb’s visits to online pornography sites. It is also reinforced by some of the raunchier elements of the film centered on Kyoto, another “feminine” robot created by Nathan to serve and to service him.

As a psychoanalyst, I would broaden the feminist critique. Ava gives no evidence of having physical pleasure centers other than genital. She shows no awareness of the pleasures of eating. She knows nothing of the experiences of being mothered, the delights of being fed, the frustrations of deprivation. She lacks the experiences of expelling things from her body, spitting out, excreting in other ways. She is unaware of the social implications of dealing with such matters. In brief, she is a stranger to ambivalence, to the experience of conflict, to seeing others as simultaneously necessary to well-being and a risk to that.

The lack of ambivalence is what permits her to kill her maker, Nathan, without regret and to walk away from Caleb, her lover, without feeling after he has sacrificed himself for her. Whatever her problem solving capacities, she is not human.

Is that an “F” on Turing’s test?

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