The Nature of Robots

By  · Published on March 16th, 2017

How the robots of ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Ex Machina’ chart our changing perspectives towards artificial intelligence.

Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015).

The title of Alex Garland’s 2015 thoughtful psychological thriller Ex Machina derives its name from the ancient Greek phrase deus ex machina, meaning ‘god from the machine.’ By omitting the deus from the film’s title, it’s clear Garland wants his audience to question both the roles of God and man. There’s the godly referencing and positioning of Oscar Isaacs’s secluded genius, Nathan, the creator of Ava, a robot with consciousness played by Alicia Vikander. And Ava’s emotional existence itself goes against the idea of the natural in God, since she is a manmade creation. Meanwhile, the natural world of Ex Machina – the trees that blend Nathan’s perfectly rectangular home into the forest – acts as a direct juxtaposition to the technological imagery that fills the rest of the film.

The film’s concern with the inner workings of its human and non-human characters and clever seduction of the audience earns it the title of “a classic film.” This (rightful) praise allows Ex Machina to be placed with the great films of the science fiction genre, like Blade Runner (1982) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). And with these classic films comes the comparison with and influence of the first feature-length science fiction film, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). To compare Metropolis with Garland’s debut feature can seem contrived; Metropolis’ longevity has been proven with the test of time, while Ex Machina was only released two years ago. Moreover, both films are trying to do different things, with Lang’s film presenting a conflicted utopia (one where the very world some call a utopia is seen as a dystopia by others) and fear-of-the-other through a robot. Meanwhile, Garland ensures he subverts the typical representation of the robot as a source of evil by establishing a contrast between Ava’s lack of knowledge against Nathan’s constant surveillance.

However, the central themes of both films (the idea of utopia and how the robotic is an inevitable part of the utopian world, for good or bad) remain the same. Exploring the differences between both Metropolis and Ex Machina through these themes allows audiences to view the shifts in representations of robots, utopia, and nature.

“Utopia” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “ a real place which is perceived or imagined as perfect,” and it’s clear from Metropolis’ two central locations – the underground of the workers and the aboveground of the established people – that the film’s utopia lies solely on perception rather than a fair society. With its symmetrical Expressionistic buildings and emphasis on height over width, the city Metropolis is not afraid of its ability to be seen; instead, it wants to be seen from the highest point beyond the clouds. Unlike Ex Machina, Lang omits nature from the city of Metropolis until the dénouement of the film. When the threat of the robotic Maria, a clone of the protagonist’s (Freder, played by Gustav Fröhlich) love interest, is at its height yet nearing its conclusion, Lang reintroduces the natural elements of fire and water. Nature works against the robotic Maria (played by Brigitte Helm, who also plays the human Maria) rather than working as an intrinsic part of her world.

The robotic Maria being burned alive, from Metropolis (Lang, 1927).

However, when viewing the subversions of various science fiction tropes Garland creates in Ex Machina, Metropolis’ lack of nature can be seen as more of a reflection on mankind than on the other-ness of the robot.

The brief opening of Ex Machina – that can be seen as more of a prelude rather than an introduction – shows the protagonist (Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb) texting his friends the news that he has been accepted onto Nathan’s program. Audiences first meet Caleb through the computer screen, his face recognized by the computer’s sensors while his friends remain invisible through their mobile phone-only existence. Whilst we aren’t provided with much scenery, with the minimalist background emphasizing the strive for perfection through technology, what is provided tells us that Caleb’s world is far removed from the natural and instead in the middle of a quest for artificial perfection.

By contrasting this opening void of minimalism to the forestry of the natural world where Nathan’s hidden experiment resides, it becomes clear that Ex Machina is not necessarily an exploration of nature, utopias, or A.I., but instead an exploration of ideas that are explored through these science-fiction conceits. Garland questions the role of society and inclusion vs. seclusion through Nathan’s home, with the role of the observer complicated by the three main characters; there’s Nathan’s omniscient, god-like stance enabled by his technology, and Caleb’s observations of Ava in order to see whether she can pass the Turing Test are complicated further by Ava’s subtle but deductive observation of everything that surrounds her.

Importantly, however, Garland does not create a film that is paranoid about A.I. In an interview for the Guardian, Garland describes the sense of possibility in Ex Machina, saying “whereas most AI movies come from a position of fear, this one comes from a position of hope and admiration.” As one lecturer states, the machines, the robots, “are projections of us. They’re dreams or metaphors for our own anxieties” – ideas externalized in controllable and malleable forms.

However, the controllability of Ex Machina’s Ava results in a different conclusion to Metropolis. Where the former concludes with the A.I., the New Human, finding her place in the world, Metropolis assures its audience that “the status quo is going to be preserved.” In terms of utopia, this means the world and people of the underground and aboveground have the chance to become one, with the biblical imagery of the flood and the heart mediating the head and hands cementing this. The threat of the Other represented through the robotic Maria, whether that’s femininity or leadership itself, has gone; its characters come to be relocated in a new, semi-utopian, world.

Meanwhile, Ex Machina uses Caleb’s character to seduce the audience. According to Garland, “if the film functions, something is happening to the audience which is equatable with what is happening to the protagonist… So as he’s being seduced, we’re being seduced. And as we’re being confused, he’s being confused.” The film has no concern with providing answers or relieving anxieties, instead unsettling its audience by unravelling the carefully constructed world as each “session” with Ava moves the film along. Ex Machina’s construction can be seen as both manipulation as well as another series of ideas. For example, the wide windows in the opening of Nathan’s home suggests a sense of freedom and connection to the natural. But, of course, the windows are merely more transparent barriers between the technological worlds, linking with the transparency of the mesh that makes up Ava’s body.

What’s more, when audiences are first introduced to Ava, Garland places her within a one-dimensional triptych of layers of nature. There’s the first triptych in the far background of the forest and stream of water, the second holds the possibilities of new technology, of Ava, and the third the disconnectedness of humankind. Ava’s curiosity also plays into the sense of nature that surrounds her, with her understanding that she is alive, and therefore impermanent, allowing her to explore questions about art and the outer world.

Ex Machina is a film that asks questions rather than providing answers to them, and its questions and curiosities are extracted from its robot rather than the human characters. In a masterclass at the National Film and Television School, Garland described how the noises of Ava were purposefully made to sound like the heartbeat, stating that these noises “make you feel she is alive.” And it’s Ava who often feels more alive than the two humans that fill most of the film. Even after seeing another A.I., Kyoto, tearing the skin from her torso and face, the blood that pours from Caleb’s arm or the red stain that spreads across Nathan’s plain white shirt feels more alien than the magnetic body of Ava.

Metropolis concludes with nature ridding its city of the robotic, which comes both in the form of Maria’s robot as well as the workers of the underground, who are often stuck in a repetitive trance-like routine. Importantly, the robotic Maria is never referred to as a woman, with characters instead using the pronouns “he” and referring to the robot as “The Machine Man.” By ignoring the gender off of which the robot Maria is based, this “machine man” does not speak to the anxieties of what the robot can do, but instead the anxieties of what man can do, since it is was Rotwang who created this invention.

Freder also has a journey with nature, with his beginnings in the pleasure garden – a juxtaposition of the natural and unnatural – journeying him down into the “looking glass,” to quote Caleb’s character in Ex Machina, of the machine world. Where Freder travels from the natural to the dark or unnatural, or from his constructed utopia to a nightmarish hell for the people beneath him, Caleb journeys from his hollow world to the contrasts of Nathan and nature’s creations. The nature of the semi-utopia in the end of Metropolis exists for its people, while the natural world of Ex Machina, and more specifically the forestry that conceals Nathan’s home, concludes by existing for Ava; the natural (the nature of the world) and the unnatural (a manmade “machine”) work together in these final moments.

However, it’s clear once Ex Machina reaches its dénouement that these contrasts aren’t as juxtaposing as once thought. Like Ava, Caleb and Nathan use their ability to lie and manipulate to gain what they want, and Nathan constantly refers to the programming of humans by nature or God in comparison to his programming of Ava. While Nathan does this to further cement himself in his egotistical self-view that he is a god, the programming of humans and A.I. creates similarities between the two.

The conclusion of Ex Machina furthers this search for the similarities between humans and A.I. rather than the differences. Ava’s body is seen in a reflection of a window, mirroring the opening shot of the reflection of Caleb’s coworkers. The comparison immediately relates the human and the non-human, while the moving bodies that walk through Ava’s still reflection make her seem like a ghost or a specter. No answers are provided as to whether Ava is free, but the important part of this ending is that Garland ensures the concentration and the questions created are on Ava’s feelings, on how she feels, and that should be answer enough.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.