Sunday, June 7, 2015

Welcome to the Machine

Christopher Nolan's dark horse not-quite masterpiece The Prestige is a movie about magicians. But the magic that The Prestige explores most profoundly is the alchemy inherent to our experience of cinema: the way the eye can transform flickering light into an illusion of reality; the way we are enticed into investing our bodies and our emotions into blatant artifice. Not coincidentally, The Prestige describes a turn-of-the-century cultural moment in which science began to replace the supernatural and the religious as the site of our magical imagination. Fossils become light. Humans walk on the moon. Machines speak. Says Hugh Jackman's voiceover: "We be fooled."

But science's greatest magical aspiration might also be nature's most impossible feat of alchemy: the creation of consciousness out of nothing more than matter and energy. These overlapping phenomena--the magic of human consciousness and the messianic desire to synthesize it--are the subjects of Alex Garland's Ex-Machina. Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac with the perfect blend of charm and menace, is the reclusive founder of a Google-like technology company called BlueBook. He invites a young, low-level BlueBook programmer named Caleb to his home, a hyper-modern enclave nestled to the point of invisibility within a vast, mountainous wilderness. It's a beautiful, but distinctly unwelcoming place. Much of the house is underground and windowless. There are key cards that restrict access to certain mysterious rooms. There are random, late-night power outages that automatically lock all the doors. Setting a place this enclosed and suffocating within a location of such openness, produces a strange claustrophobia. (Extremely remote places can, of course, produce a claustrophobia all their own. No one can here you scream, etc.)

We soon learn that Nathan has secretly been building an AI robot; it is Caleb's role to test the machine, named Ava, for consciousness. The test, known as "The Turing Test," is this: Can a computer fool a human into believing he or she is talking to another human? Nathan, ever the provocateur, ups the ante. Can Caleb be fooled into believing he is talking to a human--or at least a perfect simulation of a human consciousness--when he already knows he is talking to a computer? This is the magic trick that Nathan performs for Caleb and that Ex-Machina performs for its audience. Nathan's house is a kind of black-box theater in which the trick plays out in plain sight. Will Caleb come to believe that Ava is human? Will we?

Every magic trick has its distractions, the filagrees and gestures that divert us from the real sleight-of-hand. In this particular trick--and this comparison is directly raised in the film by Nathan himself--the diversion is what you might call "the magician's assistant." Simply put, these robots are all beautiful young women. The revelation late in the film--and this is is a spoiler, as is probably everything hereafter--that Ava's particular beauty and demure personality have been specifically designed to fit Caleb's deepest desires (not to mention, I'm guessing, that of a significant portion of the film's audience) is, upon reflection, not really a revelation at all. It is one of Hollywood's oldest tricks. Put a beautiful woman on screen and you will hold our (assumed to be male, hetero) gazes. In fact, we will be hard pressed to notice anything else.

Ava is the robot we get to know and the only one with anything like a fully formed personality. But there are plenty of other women in this movie. We discover late in the film that Ava is merely the latest generation of AI babes; the rest have been deactivated. Their eerily inert unclothed bodies are stored in a cabinet in Nathan's inner quarters. One shudders to think of the young actress reading the casting descriptions. Yet another role calling for a "astonishingly beautiful" young woman to stand around naked and silent; a piece of erotic visual furniture. Indeed the real test here might be the one performed on the audience by the character known as Kyoko. She is Nathan's, yup, astonishingly beautiful Japanese servant, sexual and otherwise. She caters to Nathan's every whim; she sits around half-dressed; she unflinchingly absorbs Nathan's temper tantrums. And she never speaks. "Don't bother trying to talk to her," Nathan says, "she doesn't speak a word of English."

Here's the thing. The viewer--this particular viewer anyway--doesn't know until late in the film whether she is a human or an AI.  Has she simply been programmed for mute, Geisha-like subservience? Or has she been programmed in the larger sense that Nathan describes in the film, programmed by biology and culture, or maybe by a sadistic male captor? It is revealing of our expectations for female representation in cinema that this character could plausibly be taken for a human being.

Ava is trapped in the same house, in the same hermetically sealed world as Kyoko. But (at least as far as we can see), she has a far greater intellectual, social and verbal capacity. She puts these tools to great use. Alicia Vikander's performance as Ava is totally captivating. Her movements and expressions are somehow both robotic and also recognizably human. She performs all the appropriate social signals and facial inflections, but they are subtly stilted; we can sense the synthetic processing behind each expression. And yet, she charms Caleb and she charms us. The tension between her desire--for freedom, for companionship--and the severe limitations of her world produces a tangible, human frisson. Ava feels real. We see her wires and circuits but when she puts on a wig and a dress, there she is: a real girl.

But this is, of course, a magic trick, though not the one we were expecting. Like Gone Girl, Ex-Machina resurrects a type as old as Western lit: the scheming, beautiful woman who flirts and seduces, who makes use of the entire array of feminine wiles to achieve an ambition. Both films explore the idea of femininity--most specifically, female heterosexual desirability--as a kind of manipulative performance, a stand-in for "authentic" expression. (In my opinion, Ex-Machina does this much more intelligently and thoroughly.) Given the emotional deception and cold violence performed by both female leads, this performance comes off as almost a form of sociopathy.

But this is a normed sociopathy. In both films, classically feminine seduction and deception are the women's only means of escape from terrifying, claustrophobic, male-orchestrated worlds.  Indeed, this is precisely Nathan's real test of Ava's assimilation of human consciousness: Could she make use of her desirability, the only avenue to power granted her by her "culture," to achieve her liberation? (Ava's culture being the massive database of search engine analytics that Nathan uses as her software, plus the heavily circumscribed world that he has created for her.) Nathan's hermetically sealed science experiment is a simulacrum-in-miniature of how feminine performance is produced. So the question of Ava's affective authenticity is something of a red herring. The visible circuitry and the robotic gestures that signal her artificiality are a slight-of-hand. The real question is: How authentic, how "natural," is any gendered performance?

Ex-Machina's final reversal--it's prestige, in the parlance--is a pretty fascinating trick indeed. For most of the film, we are allowed to adopt Caleb's perspective as our own without a second thought, to fall under the cinematic spell of straight male desire. It is a familiar way of viewing and we succumb to it easily. It is fairly amazing, then, when our sympathies, and even our embodied perspective, begin to shift from Caleb to Ava. She stands in front of Nathan's cabinet of horrors, staring at the inert, battered bodies of her predecessors. She peels their synthetic skin and layers it over her exposed robotic innards. She literally wears the skin of other women, absorbing their bodies into her own. There is something eminently familiar about this, the cobbling together of a wearable skin, a skin fit to be gazed upon---the fabrication of visible self that could pass as human.

The longer we spend in Nathan's house--a place of almost messianic technological ambition hidden within a sublime wilderness--and the more we get to know Ava, the more we can feel the slippage between what we know about what is human and what is not, what is nature and what is technology, what is organic and what is synthetic. This slippage is surely a major element of the disquiet that pervades the entire film. But the final act's sudden reversal of fortunes upsets our confidence in even those compromised binaries.  Hidden within our working conception of nature is the idea that the way things are is the way they have been ordained to be--ordained by physical laws or by some transcendent creator. "Nature" is often merely an excuse to follow the cognitive path of least resistence, to fall into automatic habits of seeing. It's easy to believe in Ava's pliability and sexual availability. We're used to seeing women, on-screen and elsewhere, as barely more than objects of male desire. Nathan believes he has hacked human consciousness or nudged it, God-like, to its next evolutionary stage. But all he has ultimately done is reproduced some of our our culture's most ingrained assumptions. The "nature" that Ex-Machina undermines is the assumption that these beliefs are based in some organic reality, that they are, well, natural.