“Ex Machina” and our artificial intelligence

It’s 3:30pm on a Friday afternoon and the walls of your cubicle are closing in. A recent (or not so recent) loss in your life has made the thought of even looking at another human being, let alone relating to one, an introvert’s nightmare. You find yourself walking around taking in the sights and sounds of creation but your thoughts are consumed with how many notifications are lying in wait on your Facebook.

Isolation can take many forms. Our lives can be inhibited in so many different ways by metaphoric walls or obstacles that are intentionally and unintentionally instituted across the spectrum of our relationships. “Ex Machina,” writer-director Alex Garland’s science fiction drift into artificial intelligence, explores these walls in visually captivating ways.

Many will look to Ex Machina as the next crest along the wave of recent dives into the topic of A.I. perhaps started by the excellent “Her” (i.e. Transcendence, Chappie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and AMC’s new show Humans). Anytime we depict A.I. it is often seen as a test of our human intelligence asking questions of whether or not the human brain is programmable or replicable. It leaves us asking how special or valuable we really are and, of course, the ethical and philosophical implications of how authentic our experiences are? Do we actually feel things or are our feelings products of chemical or environmental programming?

Ex Machina asks these questions, but I found that the film was not so much asking what is involved in A.I. as much as it asks why A.I.? Human isolation, in its many manifestations might be the answer.

So much of the movie in its narrative, its visuals, its themes revolves around being closed in, separated. Each character is trapped and cut off in various ways. Caleb, our bumbling protagonist, has not only experienced real trauma and grief in his life that was isolating, but also lives out the millennial stereotype of failing to be unplugged. When we meet him he is locked into a computer, head phones lodged into his ears, with all of his communication coming and going through the screens inhabited in his cubicle.

Nathan, our eccentric, wealthy tech genius, is locked away in the middle of an expansive estate plagued by paranoia, elitism, and possible alcoholism. Then there is our machine itself, Ava, who is only interacted with through the glassy, confining walls of Nathan’s abode. Garland even depicts society as a series of glass walls and structures keeping us all in. Is that how we like it, though?

How often does our low self-esteem push us away from community up into trees of isolation like Zacchaeus (Luke 19)? How often do our unhealthy or unwise relationships send us alone to the well like the woman who encounters Jesus (John 4)? By all accounts isolation seems to be a consistent product of being human. The problem is isolation is painful and a hard valley to ascend out of.

The illusion of A.I. may not just be in its intelligence but could be in the idea that we can create a relational being that is real and under our control. In this way, A.I. can be a method in which we make the imaginary friends of our youth less than imaginary. Who wouldn’t want to be able to create a person that can be everything you would ever need out of community?

He never says this, but it is obvious that Nathan wants to create A.I. to escape isolation. I think we all want that. We want the perfect friend, mate, spouse that will have complete autonomy and use it to choose to love us. This level of relational perfection is an illusion.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the film comes when Ava looks at Nathan and says, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” Nathan, who very much wants to be like God, really does get to see what it is like to take his throne. God created us because of an overflowing love and gave us the ability to choose him and his good creation. But when we take that good creation and pervert it we often end up isolated, turning our backs on our good creator.

Ex Machina may expose the many forms of isolation in your life, but it also invites you to start that climb out of the valley. By the end of this terrifying, thrilling, at times explicit film, there is nothing sweeter to return to than beautiful, imperfect, God-given, human community. Fortunately, unlike Nathan who sends his failed experiments to the trash heap, God pulls us back into community with his unfailing love and grace. It is when we hated him the most that he sent his son to die for us.

If you are interested in these ideas of what it means to be human and what it is we are looking for in our community, Ex Machina could be an interesting, fun film to do that with. I will warn, however, that there is mature content that some may find disturbing.

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