By Christopher Sharrett.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (some radio announcers have said “ex masheena”—one wonders if anyone knows Athenian drama, and the particular reasons behind theater’s use of the god from the machine) seems to be the must-see sci-fi film of the season, based on comments by newspaper and Internet reviewers. Manohla Dargis says the film is “powerfully sovereign—and posthuman” (one would expect an exclamation point at the end of the phrase). Kenneth Turan says it is “erotically charged.” Claudia Puig of USA Today says it has a “Hitchcock-like sense of dread.” Once again, evoking Hitchcock makes sense—minimally—since this film, like Vertigo (1958), is about the sexual fantasies of the male, the manipulation of the female by a villain and his shmuck toady, and a predictable tragedy, but there is little that is this predictable in Vertigo, which has a sense of tragedy infinitely more profound than Ex Machina.
A hyper-wealthy, super-cyberscientist called Nathan (Oscar Isaac) brings a younger but very savvy computer whiz, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his mammoth, postmodern underground lab/resort buried somewhere in a snowy mountain range. Caleb is asked to test the artificial intelligence of his robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), a moving machine endoskeleton except for a translucent brain and a human face made of some synthetic material. There is much chatter about sentience, self-awareness, and Ava’s ability to subvert. Perhaps younger people with interests in cell phones and laptops will find issues of interest here. As in Vertigo, the dupe becomes easily ensnared; he is erotically fixated on Ava. There aren’t many questions as the characters and dramatic moments fall predictably into place. Will Ava rebel? Is Nathan also a robot? Is Caleb? Will Ava kill all the men? There are only so many ideas one can mentally tick off as the thing unfolds. There are biblical (the men’s names) and other mythological allusions that tend to make one merely angry at the vacuity here.
Nathan has sex with his robots—he has a small army of them, beginning with a young Asian at first introduced (to the gullible who accept the silly ruse) as a human being. We are treated to an array of naked female bodies as cabinets open, Caligari-like, to reveal the women-robots, all of fashion-model proportions. It is nothing more than a display for the male audience—why do robots have to be gendered? Except for a remark by Nathan that sex is important, there is no reason and never has been, yet they continue to proliferate in pop fiction.
[Spoiler Alert] Ava teams up with the Asian robot-woman. Together they stab Nathan to death. Ava applies synthetic flesh and high fashions to her body and leaves the compound, a terrified Caleb pounding on a glass door (she has mental control now over the whole facility). Ava ascends to land, and calls down by cybernetic telepathy a helicopter and its pilot; she flies off to an urban cross-street she has told Caleb has appeared in her imagination. Will she destroy the world? The narrative is far less about female empowerment than restoring the female simultaneously as spider woman, castrator, and alien (and therefore alluring) doll, approximately the project of last year’s Under the Skin. It remains impossible at this time for genre artists working in this kind of fare to conceive of the female as anything other than sexual exotica, not that other genres do much better of late.
The film is composed of static set-pieces, showing off the sleek postmodern set design of the underground compound and the blank gazes of nude women. The effect is icy-chic, the design style that has been with us for some thirty years, suggesting that alienation is not only inevitable but preferred. One has the sense of paging through the priciest fashion magazines, or catalogs from gallery exhibitions by Gregory Crewdson, Eric Fischl, and other postmodernists whose sensibilities, although infinitely more cultivated, have some kinship with Ex Machina.
Hollywood still hasn’t been informed that the postmodern, deindustrialized moment is less about being “bored but hyper” (Warhol), than suffering miserably in rusted-out cities as capital migrates, manufacturing exported for the benefit of the internal operations of corporations. African-Americans and other minorities, already suffering from decades of ghettoization and Northern Jim Crow, face still more hopelessness with the migration of capital and loss even of unskilled jobs, not to mention increased police violence. Barack Obama is yet another politician in favor of “free trade agreements” (as Noam Chomsky has remarked, not one word of that phrase has meaning corresponding to the current reality). He favors the Trans-Pacific Partnership, expanding US corporate strategies favoring manufacturing export to more countries of Latin America and the Pacific Rim, all offering subsistence wages to their own working-class citizens.
Postmodernity/deindustrialization also spells the end of culture, as bookstores are shut, book publication shrunk by “e-commerce” megacompanies. Films of quality are junked in favor of juvenile blockbusters, all of which return people to “traditional” gender roles, if with gestures here and there to things like climate change and organic foods. Stores, once places where one made a living (true, by renting oneself to another), shopped, and met other people, are now referred to as “brick-and-mortar” something or other, and are mostly empty now of people, even the big-box stores designed to put small merchants out of business.
At the turn of the century, there was much scary talk of “Y2K,” the science-fiction fear that when the clocks struck 2000 all the computers would go haywire and shut the world down. But much more real and very predictable things occurred. The US endured a coup in the election of 2001, putting the murderous Bush regime in place. Using “9/11” as pretext, the regime invaded two nations, causing untold devastation that at this writing is ongoing. International laws and treaties were cast aside as the US embarked on programs of torture and state-legitimized assassinations—chiefly to control the flow of Middle Eastern petroleum, a plan that may have backfired.
A number of films of the past decade, including works of the fantastic, thoughtfully comment on or allegorize our current world, but others, like Ex Machina, are dreadfully off-key, offering titillation, enjoyment of the current order of things, and social observation unworthy even of the drunken down-moments of the idle rich.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.