What can we make of the film Ex Machina via a Lenormand lens?
A young employee wins a trip to the isolated home of the genius founder of the largest internet search company. He is asked to test if a new AI (artificial intelligence) robot truly simulates human intelligence and emotion, in what becomes a radical kind of Turing test meant to determine the difference between human and machine.
Spoiler Alert . . .
As usual, I drew the cards before seeing the movie:
The basic meaning of this spread is: With the arrival of a guest (Rider) comes a theft (Mice) of success [joy, life, energy] (Sun) and an obstacle (Mountain) to something new or young (Child).
First, this is a well-written, intellectually compelling mystery-thriller-horror film in the sci-fi genre. But a friend who saw it hated it and wanted to discuss my impressions after seeing it. So, at the end of the film I asked myself what the writer might have picked as a “What if . . .” scenario for the basis of the movie:
“What if a modern Dr. Frankenstein creates an AI that, instead of having emotions, is, instead, a pure psychopath?” This immediately had me thinking of the Frankenstein story in relation to this one. In Ex Machina, the young employee, Caleb, flies over a wasteland of snow to arrive at a mountain retreat where the house’s electricity is going hay-wire. At one point he and his boss, Nathan, climb to the base of a glacier. The parallels to Frankenstein’s monster who is created in a isolated lab, via electricity and ends up on an ice flow in Antartica are notable. Unlike Mary Shelley’s imagined creature, this one only mimics feelings—perfectly. [Added: the Showtime TV show Penny Dreadful also deals with this theme, especially during the later Season 2 episodes – a theme for our time, obviously.]
“And, what if . . . this AI runs amok?” Now we have a parallel to man versus machine in Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only this AI is female. The horror here lies in the mimicking of emotions.
“So, what if . . . this robot AI is an adolescent male’s greatest fantasy – a blow-up doll, sex toy?” Shades of Season 5 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, where Warren creates the BuffyBot sex toy for Spike!
“Or, what if . . . it is about scientists eskewing consequences in light of the possibility of invention?” And, indeed, Caleb quotes Oppenheimer: “I am become death, destroyer of the worlds,” making note of the potentially horrible consequences of curiosity and invention.
My friend was deeply disturbed by the hatred she felt was expressed by the two AIs. My sense was that it was, rather, the expediency of a pure psychopath (to put it in human terms) seeking to freely perpetuate itself—as would a meme, versus a gene. Interestingly the AI is named Ava—Eve, suggesting that she will be the ‘mother’ of a new species.
I’m not going to get into the mind-games involved in the tests, which ultimately attempt to determine if the “feelings” expressed by the AI could be real. Please, see the film.
What the Lenormand spread—Mice-Sun-Rider-Mountain-Child—points to is the arrival of a young man at the isolated mountan retreat (of genius inventor, Nathan). Caleb, who is presented as hardly more than a boy, must overcome all obstacles (Mountain) to steal (Mice) a new being, Ava/Eve. Between Caleb (Rider) and Ava (Child) is an insurmountable barrier (Mountain)—both a physical wall and the barrier of not being able to see into the other’s ‘mind’. The theft will block/stop Nathan’s new project and Ava will escape her imprisonment by flying over the mountain at the dawn of a new day (Sun). I shouldn’t overlook the role that the ‘theft’ of electricity (a modern meaning of the Sun card) plays in the story. There’s also the play on the title of the film: “ex machina”: “deus ex machina” is a term from Greek/Roman drama for when an improbable answer to a dilemma appears as if out of the sky, originally a crisis solved when a “god” descends out of a machine onto the stage. In the spread, the mountain represents the dilemma, and a helicopter literally appears out of the sky to first bring the visitor, Caleb, and then to take away the new being, who is herself a machina.
I also drew three Tarot cards for something else I should be aware of in the film and received:
Lovers – High Priestess – Knight of Swords
These cards point to another side of the story – the love story between Ava and Caleb (who we think will be her knight in shining armour), which turns out to be a set-up by Nathan, playing off of Caleb’s internet pornographic fantasies. Ava, in her temple imprisonment, isolated purity, and deep insight (she can tell when Nathan is lying), is very much a High Priestess, who will become a cold-as-steel warrior, wielding a blade.
The contrast between the Lovers, Priestess and Knight of Swords also makes clear a disturbingly misogynistic layer to this film that plays on priviledged white male sexual fantasy, nubile sexual enslavement and racial/sexual stereotyping. The question remains as to how conscious or unconscious all the layers of this were. Were they meant to make us question these things or were were they below the consciousness of the film’s creators?
Added: A central question implied by this film is: What happens when you take the “Deus” out of “Deus-ex-machina”? If for a moment we consider Deus to be wisdom, then the Machina (machine) feeds on information but, we might assume, lacks wisdom. What does this suggest?