“Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything except his own nature.” -Henry Miller, Writer
There is little in city life that is acquainted with skin and bone. Aside from the trees that rise out like a protest, narrow patches of grass and the rare squirrel that briefly assails, nature is often more of a dream; a green space that has very decisive limits. In the traffic lights and tall glass buildings, the swift movement and endless action, there is a sort of eternal deathlessness that runs counter to nature, a sense of progress with little relation to fundamental human realities.
In the 2015 film Ex Machina, the inherent difference that exists between nature and the city is utilized to positive effect. The movie tells the story of Caleb, a programmer at a tech company, who wins a retreat to the secluded home of his company’s wealthy owner, Nathan. The contrast of the idyllic, untouched natural setting of Nathan’s home against the artificiality of the robots he builds – and the copious amount of alcohol he drinks – is striking. In him, we see both self-discipline and self-indulgence at play.
Caleb soon learns that he is there to take part in a Turing test to determine the Artificial Intelligence (AI) of a robot Nathan has built named Ava. It doesn’t take long before Ava begins to show an interest in Caleb, and when he discovers a veritable army of robots that have been created, tested and deprogrammed by Nathan, he decides he must save her. While Ava is Nathan’s creation, nowhere is his self-indulgence more evident than in the deprogramming of his robots that – in the form of Ava – seem more human than he does.
Without giving the ending away, many interesting ethical questions are raised by Ex Machina. The film makes it easy to wonder how just it really is for Nathan to be toying with these robots the way he does when they seem human, more or less. The AI observed in Ava has been created through man’s evolution and sense of progress, but once a robot has the same sense of self-preservation as us, does it remain in our control? And what does it mean that, in the creation of robots, our progress goes beyond the scope of what our fundamental nature entails?
Watching Nathan, it becomes perilously clear that we are not dealing with a man – nor are we dealing with a world – that wants to question the familiar notion of what progress is. Certainly, Nathan’s robot is leaps and bounds beyond what we have previously known, but progress, as viewed through the lens of technology, runs in one direction. It does not dig for a deeper recognition of our humanity, but a leap outside of it, as if human nature were such a burden that we must run from it as soon as technology offers up an alternative.
Beyond the bright lights of the city, when the lit windows full of mannequins glow surreally and the streets are soundless but still burn with life, there is a deathlessness present that is akin to Nathan’s robot. If it is the eternal we seek, in robots and post-modern life, perhaps it is only a projection of the fact that we do not have the ability to be reprogrammed.