Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 June 2015

My Favorite Moment in Ex Machina

There were a couple of moments in Ex Machina that I loved. But my favorite moment in the movie was the sequence when Caleb, the young programmer who is visiting this isolated compound up in the mountains, starts to think that maybe he is a cyborg. This is all the more cool because the audience has already thought of this. I had been wondering this exact thing for the better part of thirty minutes, since seeing the oblique shot of the strange scars on Caleb's back as he shaved his face. By this point in Alex Garland's movie, Caleb has been so thoroughly tripped out by his boss Nathan (and by Nathan's creation Ava) that he has started to think that he might actually be a computer underneath the skin he has always thought was real.

Freak out over, Caleb is able to sleep. He presumably has confirmed that he is, finally, human, and not simply one of Nathan's creations. But, again, Nathan and Ex Machina know better. In a strange conversation about how desire might work, Nathan explicates a queer theory describing sexual desire itself as culturally contingent, explaining that Caleb "himself" – at one of the levels he considers most personal, human – has been programmed by media, by his parents, by his culture. It is a pretty great conversation, and one that makes it clear that Caleb is, no matter how "real" he thinks he is, actually a cyborg. It is too late for us not to be cyborgs. Who we (think we) are is so completely informed, molded, even dictated by the media we consume, even the media that we are consuming alone at our computer consoles. This is even more true for someone like Caleb, who spends his days at a computer, speaking in the computer's own language.
The internet, this ability to have information at our fingertips, this stream of every type of pornography imaginable, has permeated our very desires.

My second favorite sequence from the movie is Sonoya Mizuno and Oscar Isaac's incredible dance sequence. It's a surprising, odd section of the movie, mostly because it departs so fully from the visual world that Alex Garland has so-far created in the movie. The sequence is also totally chilling, because it becomes so clear in this sequence that Kyoko is a machine. Her dance moves copy Nathan's exactly. Or... well, doesn't this beg us to think about who Nathan is copying with his dance moves? I mean, it is clear that Kyoko can only copy the moves Nathan teaches her – they dance in unison – but Nathan's moves aren't original either, are they?

Ex Machina sort of devolves at its end – Garland has trouble dealing with the fallout of the situation and theoretical proposition he has set up for us – Sunshine (a much more successful movie, to my mind, at least on an emotional level) went similarly off the rails. It is as though the only possible response to the questions that Garland wishes to pose is violent action. For Garland, violence is what we find at the limits of subjectivity. Still, as with Sunshine, this violence is awesome to watch. The stabbings at the end of Ex Machina are one of the coolest things in the movie. That knife just goes in so easily, with an even beautiful simplicity. Violence, here, works to illustrate another limit of human subjectivity. The human body is subject to injury, to woundings, to violence, and human consciousness cannot (yet) live without the body that houses that consciousness. As Bussy asks in George Chapman's 1604 play Bussy D'Ambois:
Is my body then
But penetrable flesh? And must my mind
Follow my blood? Can my divine part add
No aid to th'earthly in extremity?
Bussy's question is rhetorical. The answer is an unequivocal yes, one that Chapman stages by having Bussy die onstage in front of our eyes. But in Ex Machina, we follow a different person out of the compound and back to the city. Her mind, perhaps, does not need to follow her blood.

I don't know. For me the film becomes confused here. I kept wondering about the body, particularly at the film's end. How is the body powered? Is Ava's body subject to the same time limit that human bodies are? How does she experience her stolen skin? How long will this body and its parts last? Isn't Ava just as human in this way, too? She cannot continue indefinitely, can she? And won't she – just as humanity itself, as Nathan reminds us – need to be replaced by a newer model who can experience things in even more varied ways?