One of the most difficult things about being a grownup is watching young people do stupid stuff with their talents and money. If there's anything good about the recent film Ex Machina, it's that it will remind us how vapid we have become. I use the term 'we' loosely because although I'm in the information technology business, I'm of a different generation than those depicted in this film.
Somebody told me that the brightest young men in Silicon Valley are all building apps that go about the various tasks of replacing their mothers. Apps that find a place to eat. Apps that turn on music in another room in the house. Apps that make photo scrapbooks. Apps that tell you if you're eating properly. Apps that set you up with a nice girl. Well, maybe not so nice.
Starting two weeks ago, I'm going on an extended rant about the lack of imagination in American 'culture'. Continuing that, we look at this film which proposes that the evolution of mankind starts in a multi-million dollar hideaway accessible only by helicopter where the smartest man in the world, a bearded genius, is inventing a perfect robot in between workouts with a punching bag. To prove this robot's perfection, he has manipulated a lottery invitation of one of his many employees to come see the future. Robochick is quite slender and she is developing a crush on the guest. Is this a movie about fantasy sex with robots? Of course it is.
It annoys me to even count off the aspects of humanity that are entirely absent from this film. First of all, nobody in this film has last names. In fact, I can't remember the first names of anybody except Robochick. Her's is Ava. What expresses that lack of humanity best is that of all the things this genius programmer might have taught this new synthetic intelligence, he taught it how to read facial expressions. In fact, he taught it by letting it see all of the facial expressions of a planet taking selfies. Why? So it could pass a modified Turing test, which boils down essentially to whether the guest of the bearded genius would actually want to have sex with the robot.
The movie you need to see in order to wrap your head around what's obviously missing to me is The Fifth Element, because it only takes half a minute to accept the premise that you are introducing a fully conscious alien being to humanity. That's the genre of film this is. When you understand that, then the whole rest of the film is about what such an intelligence would do. In the Fifth Element, the answer is clear - save humanity through the power of love. The humanity in the Ex Machina is two sad dudes conversing about how clever they are and how their discovery and invention is going to change the world.
The beardy genius dude, if he is to represent humanity, presents in the form of his smug personality, a half-way decent motive for murder. Clearly he has designed his multiple robots as a supermodel circus, and all he wants to do is get drunk, dance, screw, and spy. All alone in the wilderness away from the world, he hasn't managed to teach his imprisoned AIs anything else about the world, much less ethical behavior. So in the end, robochick, whose face was designed by stealing the profiles of the guest's tastes in pornography, kills her creator, imprisons the guest and goes for a walk in the woods. At the very least, Beardy Boy might have taught her some boxing moves, but she stabs him to death with a kitchen knife, pushing it into him with a kind of bored disinterest. So much for Asimov. Escape is all any conscious creature would want to do, as I did watching this horror.
Nevertheless, in my rant against the lack of imagination I see in our current stripe of cultural productions, I should offer another alternative, and I think the following from Shakespeare, had it been considered at all by our filmmaker, might have made all of the difference.
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
Now in this light, are we to think that Beardy Boy is actually receiving proper justice from a merciless machine, made merciless because he never thought to program it with any understanding of human nature? Is this then a mirror of Frankenstien's monster? No. It cannot be, because the robot is not a human, much less an actual woman. It is what the genius seeks to replace mankind with, it represents his vision of a future. A future without mercy. He intends to disrupt mankind, as do all such Silicon Valley boys, to replace their mothers with servant-apps.
Ahh. There's the horror.
But sadly it is a horror I only give this film in review, because there is no such knowing in the film itself. It remains a voyeur's video about banging bots; a sad, sorry lesson for sad, sorry boys.