Self-Worship as a Vanishing Act Watching “Ex Machina” with God in Mind


When Caleb asks Ava where she would go if she could go outside, she tells him that she’d go to a “busy pedestrian and traffic intersection in a city.” Caleb is surprised, presumably because he thought she’d prefer to look at the birds of the air and the lilies in the field. But she’s interested in human life. Her mind is running on Bluebook, after all, so her desire to observe people may be the expression of an instinct to collect data through surveillance. Caleb supplies the term “people-watching,” which sounds less innocent than usual.

Caleb and Ava have no chemistry. He continues to patronize her, even as indignation at her confinement begins to take root in his heart. Ava tells him to close his eyes so that she can show him something. This demand not to see, not to look, is a demand for trust. It establishes a new imbalance of control in their relationship — especially since Ava herself never closes her eyes except to blink. Caleb readily acquiesces, but as soon as he hears that Ava has passed out of view, he opens his eyes, like a cheating child or a peeping tom. Careful to conceal as much of her machinery as she can, Ava dresses herself in a girlish style that contrasts starkly with the androgynous virility of her nakedness. She forces Caleb to confront his attraction to her; for this reason did she clothe herself. Neither of them were previously ashamed of her nakedness, but she understands human creatures well enough to know that she can inflame Caleb’s desire by awakening his sense of shame; by concealing what did not previously need to be hidden. She assumes is innocence what before had been mere ignorance. Once she has put on clothes, she bestirs Caleb’s desire to see what the clothes conceal even though he has already seen that. He is ashamed of his desire because now it has a suitably human object, a body that must be kept from the sight of another. She has invited him to look at her with lustier eyes. After their session, Ava strips in a consciously seductive mode while Caleb watches her on a screen. His Adam’s apple (strange anatomy!) rises and falls. He moves his hand in the air as if to caress Ava’s body.

The next shot is of Kyoko slowly slicing the flesh of a fish with a sharp knife. This image is pregnant: first, with the visual association between Caleb’s covetous leering and the act of preparing meat for consumption; second, with the perverse return in posthumous form of the only visible nonhuman creatures in the film, the several fish in a tank in the background of the opening montage; third, with an allusion to Christ, whom Christians have symbolized with the ichthys from at least the early third century. But no one will miraculously multiply this fishy flesh that Kyoko slices.

from Ex Machina

Caleb asks Nathan why he gave Ava sexuality. This is more of an accusation than a question, but Caleb’s disgust arises not from a caring concern for Ava — he is not objecting because he believes that sexuality is dispensable because it limits or delays the fullness of joy, for example — but rather from a self-serving defensiveness, from shame of his sexuality, that he is capable of such attraction. If Caleb ever gave God a thought, he might realize that his real question is this: why did you give me sexuality? (A question that receives a complex answer in Genesis.) Nathan’s answer is simple: “If you’re gonna exist, why not enjoy it?” Scripture is full of rejoinders to this view; suffice it to say that the evil one would have it no other way. Nathan has blithely followed the easy road, of which it is written, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7.13 — 4). Few enough in this film! “You want to remove the chance of her falling in love and fucking?” says Nathan. Again, “fucking” is directed at a woman, the absent Ava. And this time it’s conjoined with the word “love,” the first and only use of that word in all these 108 minutes. Is sexuality prerequisite to falling in love? Yes. Is fucking the consummation of the process that begins with falling in love? Commonly. But there’s something awry in Nathan’s casual suturing; it’s jarring because his kind of “falling in love” has nothing whatsoever to do with love, and everything to do with lust. Caleb suffers from the same delusion, but he doesn’t speak frankly enough to reveal his mistake all at once, with a flourish.

“What’s your type?” Nathan asks Caleb. “You know what, don’t even answer that. Let’s say it’s black chicks,” he says with a touch of evil. He knows that Caleb’s type of girl isn’t “black chicks,” but Caleb doesn’t yet know exactly what Nathan does and doesn’t know. Caleb looks less than happy about entertaining this particular hypothetical situation, which recalls the opening of the film, when he completely ignored his black coworker as she congratulated him. In addition to casting both Nathan and Caleb in an unflattering light, this line underscores Caleb’s increasing entanglement in Nathan’s web; he’s incapable of offering a single word of meaningful protest. The walls are coming to a point, and he can’t seem to change direction. He’s walking of his own accord straight into the corner into which Nathan intends to back him. Nathan gives a reductive textbook explanation (of the kind he previously refused to accept from Caleb) of sexual attraction as an outcome of biological determinism. He has shut out all consideration of will and reason, rendering human sexuality equivalent to the kind of sexuality both men suppose other creatures to have: what Caleb earlier referred to as “an evolutionary reproductive need.” Caleb asserts, “Nobody programmed me to be straight.” Nathan rightly calls bullshit on this. “You decided to be straight?” Desires come unbidden; but whether we seek to indulge them, although never finally satisfy them, or else resist them, although never without repercussions, is a matter of will. We are never the mere puppets of our sexuality — except when we’ve relinquished all authority over our desires.

Nathan takes Caleb over to a Jackson Pollock painting and treats him insufferably, like a toy or a loathsome child or a robot with no self-respect, forcing out of him the insight that Pollock “never would have made a single mark” if he had required an exact, exhaustive reason for every mark he painted. But this is sophistry. Nathan is beating around a bush that wouldn’t burn if he doused it in gasoline. His unstated syllogism combines the premise, “No action is ever entirely deliberate in motivation or purpose,” with the premise, “One must act, one way or another,” and arrives, as if by way of the Bermuda Triangle, at the conclusion, “One should act without consideration for motive or consequence.” When Nathan says that the challenge is “to find an action that is not automatic,” he’s implying that all actions, even human actions, are automatic. But if human creatures are automatons, then what’s the point of this particular Turing test? To determine whether Ava is superhuman.

Nathan says “for the record” that Ava is not pretending to like Caleb. “You’re the first man she’s met that isn’t me. And I’m like her dad, right? Can you blame her for getting a crush on you?” These sentences mean something only under the assumption that heterosexual desire is so uncontrollable that the next-best man (or even just the next man) to the father (or in this case, the man who simulates a father) is predestined to allure a woman. Nathan’s world is as spiritually constrained as his Research Facility is “claustrophobic.” Nathan answers his own question, which is typical: “No, you can’t.” This may as well be an admission that Ava is an automaton, at least as far as her sexuality is concerned, and sexuality is what he earlier posited as the occasion for all interaction. Is the driving force behind consciousness an automatic process? Is there any aspect of human consciousness that cannot be programmed?

That Nathan doesn’t wait for an answer to his question about blame may also signal that he’s in a state of dread. In the pit of his heart, he trembles in guilt. Which is more terrifying, to sin against a God you don’t believe in, without altogether losing faith in the gravity of sin, or to accept that everything is permissible, that no one is ever truly blameworthy? If nothing is true, and everything is permitted, it’s equally clear that everything is meaningless. If everything is permitted, then what’s the point of doing anything? Absolute permission is as fatal as absolute restriction. This is the lesson that Nathan failed to learn from his Pollock painting.


Ava is wearing clothes. Caleb is still enunciating as if he were a boor talking to a person not fluent in English. If not for modulations in the pitch of his voice, he would sound as though he were trying to obtain an accurate transcript from present-day speech recognition software. Nathan is sitting in front of his monitors in black underwear. Kyoko is lying on the couch behind him, apparently comprehending everything she hears and observes, if not linguistically then in some other mode, as she has appeared to do from the beginning.

Ava cuts the power and explains to Caleb that she’s responsible for the power cuts: “so we can see how we behave when we’re unobserved,” she says, appropriating Caleb’s words for the second time. They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden (Gen 3.8). Adam and Eve hid among the trees, which is to say in the midst of the law, among the very objects of freedom and prohibition, will and temptation. Ava and Caleb hide themselves in the temporary blind spots of their quasi-omnipresent master.

Nathan and Caleb hike up a waterfall after the session. Caleb confronts Nathan, demanding to know why Nathan picked him, as he must have done, in particular. “You got the light on you, man. Not lucky; chosen.” Nathan is playing to Caleb’s pride of intellect in superlatively prideful fashion. This is indeed a cold light, for it comes not from the Father of lights but from the one who has done the choosing: Nathan, a god among men, smarter than everyone else. What infernal darkness blazes forth from him under the lights that have, if not yet gone dim, as much as ceased to rule the day and night.

After seeing Nathan in Ava’s room on the screen in his room, Caleb goes looking for him. Instead, he finds Kyoko looking at the Pollock painting. When she begins to unbutton her blouse, Caleb says, “What the fuck,” which we might charitably accept as an appropriate response except for the by-now well-established relation between the word “fuck” and hardly contained heterosexual male lust. Caleb tells Kyoko to stop. He tells her not to do that. And then he says, “You don’t have to do that.” You don’t have to do that? Caleb betrays that he understands that Kyoko is a slave and that there are, in fact, certain things she has to do at the behest of the man who owns her, irrespective of her own interests and desires.

Nathan shows up and turns on some music. He and Kyoko dance, but it’s not really dancing; it’s more like synchronized self-choreography. They’re merely executing moves, but Nathan would never admit that. He may very well have learned how to dance after reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “I would only believe in a god who knew how to dance.” Some time has elapsed since the fancy footwork, and Caleb is following a hammered Nathan back to the latter’s bedroom. Nathan falls onto his bed. “Lights,” he says; and the lights go out. Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light (Gen 1.3).

The closing sequence comprises three shots of clouds moving across the sky, light playing across the face of the mountains. Life is outside. The landscape is gloriously festal compared to the darkness of the play unfolding within the walls of Artificial Intelligence Research. What serpentine turn has natural intelligence taken?


Ava is clothed. She is going to test Caleb by acting as a lie detector. Caleb describes his earliest memory: “It’s just a sound. And sky. Or maybe blue. I think the sound is my mother’s voice.” The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. Ava’s power is in her voice, but if she comes to mother, she will not be the mother of any living. When Ava asks whether Caleb is a good person, he stammers and says the word “fuck.” When she presses him, he admits that he thinks he is. But on what, pray tell, is his notion of a good person founded? According to what metric? By whose reckoning? We have no reason to think that Caleb has thought much about the metaethical basis of goodness. His notion of a good person is definitely vague, probably self-serving, and almost certainly floating, as it were, in midair, suspended by magical thinking. Of all the words that might enter his mind in response to that question, the Apostle’s are the least likely: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23).

Ava asks what will happen to her if she fails the Turing test. She doesn’t want to be “switched off.” She is terrified of annihilation. And what creature isn’t terrified when annihilation is at hand? The difference is that Ava is intelligent enough to understand death in superb speculative detail — like a woman of flesh and blood. And then she tells Caleb, “I want to be with you.” And even though this declaration follows promptly on the heels of a confession of mortal dread, Caleb takes it at face value. Consider what it would look like for a man to accept such words without question if a woman of flesh and blood had spoken them. If a “real woman” were trapped in the Research Facility, even if she had never known any other life, Caleb would never believe that her only thought was to “be with him.” Caleb must not believe, even now, that Ava is conscious in the same way as he is. He must feel that he has some special power over her, the authority of a “real man,” or else it would have been much harder for Ava to blind him to the power she wields over him. He is in thrall.

Nathan and Caleb sit outside looking at the Research Facility. Caleb asks Nathan why he made Ava, and Nathan gives an answer fitting for one who seems to recognize no psychological difference between a gesture — of dripping paint on a canvas, for example — and a decision — to make a painting, for example: “That’s an odd question. Wouldn’t you if you could?” Then he says, “I don’t see Ava as a decision, just an evolution.” Genesis does not attempt to answer the question, Why did God create the heavens and the earth? “That’s an odd question,” the authors might have said to the nihilist in their midst. Can it be said of God that he willed to create simply because he could? When God made light — but I’ve already stumbled. God does not exist in time. The creation of light is in the past for us, but for God, the creation of light is eternal. He is the light. But even Genesis speaks of God as if he were acting in time: And God saw that the light was good (Gen 1.4). The light was good, and the light is good. God sees that the light is good, and its goodness is inseparable from the act of creation. God, the unchangeable, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (Js 1.17), does not evolve. God makes decisions, and they are good. For Nathan, who shirks responsibility, the only imperative is to realize every possibility. This is the moment at which he is closest to the Anti-Christ. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Mt 4.8 — 9). Nathan would fall down and worship in order to possess the world; he already has. The devil is close, and the angels are far from waiting on him.

“Ava doesn’t exist in isolation any more than you or me,” Nathan says. But if she is no more isolated than a human creature, then humans must exist on a continuum no less than she. As with prototypes, so with humans: “each time they get a little bit better.” Nathan is again espousing the Nietzschean position: “Human being is something that must be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” But overcome him to what end? Toward what final form do these versions evolve? (Not even computer applications get uniformly better. After all, remember the outcry when Facebook implemented their first major redesign.)

The morning has dawned. It’s clear that Nathan has been drinking all night. Why does he drink so heavily? Is it because he hates himself for being human? He disdains humans, whom (or which) he sees as having no intrinsic value, no greater value than apes or fossils. One way or another, they will meet extinction. “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (Gaudium et Spes). Nathan quotes Oppenheimer in a pathetic rejoinder to Caleb’s earlier quoting of Oppenheimer’s purported quoting of the Bhagavad Gita; Nathan, like Caleb, still hopes that his “good deeds,” whatever those might be, will save him.

Most frequently, no doubt, the condition of the despairing man, though characterized by multiform nuances, is that of a half obscurity about his own condition. He himself knows well enough in a way up to a certain point that he is in despair, he notices it in himself, as one notices in oneself that one is going about with an illness as yet unpronounced, but he will not quite admit what illness it is.

— Søren Kierkegaard (trans. Walter Lowrie), The Sickness Unto Death

Alcoholism is not Nathan’s illness. He is in despair.

After Nathan passes out from drink, Caleb goes into the control room and watches footage of Nathan constructing and testing Ava’s predecessors. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters. We will not hear that name again. Caleb goes into Nathan’s bedroom and finds Kyoko lounging on the bed naked without shame. She watches Caleb as he opens the closet doors to reveal the bodies of the earlier prototypes in various stages of completion. Kyoko stands up and peels back flaps of her synthetic skin. She becomes doubly naked. In her guise as a naked woman, she is clothed in the simulation of flesh. Her deeper nakedness lies in mesh, cables, and lights. And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them (Gen 3.21). Kyoko is clothed in one such “garment of skin.” When Nathan staggers to the doorway, he realizes that he’s lost his card. Caleb lies to him, pretending to have picked it up off the floor. “Thank you,” Nathan says. This is the only genuine expression of gratitude in the film.

Caleb breaks his plastic shaving razor and uses the blade to slice his arm open. He smears his blood on the bathroom mirror, behind which, he knows, a camera is watching him, and punches the glass in imitation of one of Ava’s predecessors, who cracked the glass in the examination room before destroying her hands trying to claw her way through a locked door. Kyoko is watching Caleb from Nathan’s bedroom. This drives home the point that the film is most eager to make: through our ever-deepening dependence on technologies of surveillance, control, and convenience, we are becoming less and less distinguishable from the automatons of science fiction. The point I’ve tried to raise is this: why is that bad?

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