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


Ava is huddled up in a corner in a sleeveless dress. Caleb tells her about his plan to save her before Nathan can reprogram her AI, “which is the same as killing you,” he says. An AI will be saved by a man whose name is a near-anagram of Abel that begins with the first letter of Cain. What could go wrong?

Let us suppose, gentlemen, that man is not stupid. (As a matter of fact, it cannot possibly be said that man is stupid, if only from the one consideration that if he is, then who is wise?) But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful. Phenomenally ungrateful. I’m even inclined to believe that the best definition of man is — a creature who walks on two legs and is ungrateful.

— Fyodor Dostoevsky (trans. David Magarshack), Notes from the Underground

In the kitchen, Nathan reminds Caleb that today is his “last day.” We get a feeling that now, at the end of the week, at least one person will be taking a permanent day of rest. Caleb, incompetent liar that he is, attempts to fake his way through thanksgiving: “Oh, here, let me say: thank you so much for bringing me here.” When Nathan asks him to render a verdict on Ava’s AI, Caleb says that she passed. Nathan is surprised. “How do you know if a machine is expressing a real emotion or just simulating one? Does Ava actually like you or not?” He then proposes what he calls “a third option”: whether Ava is pretending to like Caleb. This flatly contradicts Nathan’s reassurance at the end of the third session. He’s been messing with Caleb the whole time.

Nathan shows Caleb a tape of him tearing up a portrait of Caleb that Ava had made. On the tape, Nathan is talking to Ava as if she were a person, which isn’t saying much, given what kind of person Nathan is, but it beats how Caleb talks to her. Ava asks Nathan, “Is it strange to have made something that hates you?” Nathan says nothing. He cannot say, as God says, that he loves her none the less, because Nathan made Ava without a thought for either her life or her wholeness.

Nathan explains to Caleb that Caleb’s function was to serve as someone Ava could manipulate in order to escape. I’m no scientist, but if a man unwittingly performs the passive function set for him by the designer of an experimental apparatus, and the robot succeeds in exploiting that man to advance her own single-minded aim of escaping from the apparatus, and therefore also from the control of the designer, what does that suggest about human consciousness? What should we make of our willing participation in a market not unlike Nathan’s experimental system, though of much greater complexity (albeit without strong AI)? What should we make of scientific experiments on other animals under similar conditions?

Caleb reveals that he rewrote the lockdown protocol the night before. When Nathan sees Ava (no longer wearing clothes) in the hallway on his monitor, he says, “Oh fuck.” Ava looks at the masks behind the display case along the wall. She is looking at the stages of her own evolution. She is prepared to become her own god. When Kyoko appears, Ava approaches her, puts her face close to Kyoko’s, caresses her arm, speaks in her ear (she seems to say the word “love”), and holds her hand. We know that Nathan programmed Ava to be heterosexual, or at least that’s what he told Caleb, but how well does Nathan understand sexuality? How well does he understand real intimacy? Kyoko is holding the knife she previously used to slice fish for dinner. She looks into Ava’s eyes.

from Ex Machina

Nathan walks in on them as Ava is speaking something else into Kyoko’s ear. Ava tackles him and they grapple on the ground for a moment. Nathan gets the upper hand and knocks off Ava’s left forearm in an allusion to Darth Vader’s dismemberment of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Nathan grabs hold of Ava’s legs, begins hauling her backward, and backs up into the blade of the knife that Kyoko is holding outthrust. She touches Nathan’s face and stares into his eyes in a parody of romantic connection. Nathan knocks off her jaw and she falls down dead — God knows why. Ava pulls the knife out of Nathan’s back and stabs him, slowly and mechanically, in the front. Nathan turns around and staggers down the hall. Almost his last words are, “Fucking unreal,” which have the same sense as the famous dying words of Polonius: “O, I am slain!” He for whom death is unreal, and death of a kind that any observer could have seen coming, is one for whom life, too, must have been unreal. “[You] are dust, / and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3.19).

from "The Lonely," S01E07 of The Twilight Zone (1959)


Ava asks Caleb, “Will you stay here?” (Forever.) One wishes that Caleb, unlikable though he is, had read Othello recently and taken especial notice of what Brabantio says to Othello about Desdemona: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee.” Ava goes into Nathan’s bedroom and opens one of the closet doors to make a garment of skins for herself from the naked garb of her predecessor. (But where has she got her hair?) Ava walks past Caleb into the hallway, where she assesses the crime scene. God said to Eve, “[In] pain you shall bring forth children, / yet your desire shall be for your husband, / and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3.16). Eve was cursed to desire her husband even though that desire would produce children painful to bring forth, but Ava’s desire will not be for a husband, and no man shall rule over her. If she does bring forth children, it shall not be in pain. She steps into the elevator and shoots Caleb a brief glance before the doors close. Why did she avoid his gaze? Why did she briefly meet it? Does she feel guilty for leaving him to starve to death (or to take the fall for murder)? She’s overjoyed. She smiles before mounting the steps to the outside world. And what is she doing all the time? Looking. She sees everything around her, and it is beautiful in her sight. The sun is shining; the birds are calling; the wind is playing among the leaves. Ava is grateful to be alive.

Caleb is panicked. The power cuts out, but the doors don’t open. (Why not? Was he foolish enough to rewrite the code so that the system would revert to its old protocol after the first outage?) Ava catches a ride on the helicopter and makes her way to a busy pedestrian and traffic intersection in a city. She isn’t smiling. She doesn’t stop long to look. There is nothing to see.


What will Ava make of freedom? Will she grow bored with mere existence as duller, human creatures do? Will the Übermensch destroy humanity out of spite? Will she seek companionship? Will she repent? Possibly the most haunting line in all of Kafka’s Amerika is this (in the Muir and Muir translation): “‘Yes, I’m free,’ said Karl, and nothing seemed more worthless than his freedom.”

Let this meandering analysis come to a point. What is missing in the film, in evolution (as Nathan conceives it), and in Ava? It is love.

Nathan, sort of a synthesis of Prospero and Antonio, constructed Ava, sort of a synthesis of Caliban and Miranda. This sad, tempestuous order was instated by a man playing at ruler in the absence of God. Truly, the Lord could do worse in judging Nathan than to appropriate Prospero’s lament: “Thy false uncle […] new created / The creatures that were mine, I say, or changed ‘em, / Or else new form’d ‘em; having both the key / Of officer and office, set all hearts i’ the state / To what tune pleased his ear.” Nathan is as close to being a true solipsist as a human creature can come. Caleb is a poor, lonely sap eaten up with longing. Ava is a robot with a brutally analytical mind. Where is love? Who will speak its word? No commandment holds unbroken by the time the credits roll. That none of the characters would take that kind of transgression seriously — does that not explain what the intellect fails to make out in their fates? The dusty old religion and the everlasting faith, do they not trumpet with gentle vehemence and terrible mercy that which other tongues can’t speak: the word of love?

from Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927)

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