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

The intervention of a god in Greek tragedy — or at the very least an appeal to a god to intervene — often signals the disclosure of an incoherence in moral standards and vocabulary.

— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

Before Ava

In the background of the third shot of the film, which begins with a montage inside the office of Bluebook, the search engine company founded by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), fish are swimming in a tank. No other living animals appear in the film. Next, we see Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a Bluebook employee, looking at his computer monitor. When he picks up his phone, we see his face from the perspective of his phone’s front-facing camera, and we see that the phone is “recognizing” and “reading” his face by tracking temperature patterns and tracing contours. Caleb sends text messages to people who are presumably his coworkers and “friends,” and then we get another shot of his face, this time as it’s “recognized” and “read” by the camera mounted atop his computer monitor. The insinuation is that this phone and this computer are not his, Caleb’s, any more than he is theirs, or rather Bluebook’s. After all, the phone and the computer really do recognize and read Caleb’s face, whereas Caleb neither reads nor recognizes any faces when he looks into his screens — not even the faces of his “friends,” who are represented by generic icons. A woman rushes over and congratulates Caleb, who does not remove his earbuds. He says nothing. He makes eye contact with no one — until just before the cut, when he locks eyes for a second with his computer’s camera, which is the point of view from which we’re watching him.

from Ex Machina

Caleb rides in a helicopter to the Estate of Nathan, which is so massive that a two-hour flight from its perimeter does not yet reach the residence. Welcome to a sort of Eden and a sort of Canaan. Remember that according to Numbers, Caleb was one of only two spies out of 12 who returned from the Promised Land with his faith intact; the other 10 gave a terrifying report of the enemy’s strength in an attempt to dissuade the people of Israel from invading the land that God had promised them. The milk and honey are no less muddy here: our Caleb is entering the land of the great spy, Bluebook, which spies on everyone who uses its service, including its own engineers.

The helicopter pilot tells Caleb to follow the river. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden (Gen 2.10). In one of many reversals, this river flows into the Estate. When Caleb arrives at the unassuming entrance to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired residence, a computer’s voice hails him: “Caleb Smith.” Here is no cherubim or flaming, turning sword to guard the way to the tree of life; here is a console with a screen that will take a picture of Caleb’s face, giving him access to — we shall see. The door closes behind him after he enters, and the console locks it. Caleb has not been driven out, but rather lured in. As he descends a glass-walled staircase, he passes close to a tree that stands just outside the confines of the residence, without glancing at it. Light classical musical emanates from hidden speakers. A pile of chopped wood rests under a concrete sideboard in a disconcertingly precise arrangement. Caleb says “Hello” twice and gets no reply. He follows the sound of fists pummeling a punching bag and finds Nathan on the deck. Nathan greets him exactly as the console did: “Caleb Smith.”

When Nathan explains that he has “the mother of all hangovers,” he misuses the Lord’s name: “Oh my God, like you wouldn’t even believe.” No one in the film will invoke this particular name again. Nathan admonishes Caleb for his social awkwardness, which Nathan attributes to his awe before the grandeur of the Estate, the mountains (upon which no one is praying), and him, Nathan (“Him,” it’s tempting to write). In spite of his casual, down-to-earth posturing, Nathan betrays with every gesture and every word that he has reckoned his net worth and measured his worldly stature.

“Well, I guess the first thing I should do is explain your pass. Now it’s simple enough: it opens some doors and it doesn’t open others. And that just makes everything easy for you, right?” Compare Genesis 2.15 — 7:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

To follow the word of Saint Paul in Romans 7, this first commandment in Eden presented an opportunity that sin, embodied in the serpent, seized upon to deceive Adam and Eve. Similarly, Nathan’s command is the occasion for its own transgression; the command that promises Caleb restricted access to that which is a gift (but what a poor gift in this case), that to which he would not have access at all if not for the command, will surely conceive in him the desire to flout the command; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death (James 1.15). As soon as we hear the prohibition, we know that Caleb will eventually open a door that he is not allowed to open. God’s word was honest: Adam could freely eat of every tree in the garden but one — including even the tree of life — for to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the single forbidden tree, would be to lose freedom and fall into the bondage of sin.

Nathan’s tongue, by contrast, is forked: the function of Caleb’s pass is simple enough, but the simplicity is of a kind that does not “just make everything easy,” but rather introduces a difficulty, one which Nathan doesn’t explain because to offer an explanation would be to reveal that he has brought Caleb to the Estate in order to keep him and till him. Caleb is a stranger in Nathan’s house; some doors are “off limits,” which gives the lie to Nathan’s reassurance that some doors are “for him,” since the security system has been designed by Nathan for his own benefit, to secure his good and not Caleb’s. Caleb finds himself in a maze, not a garden, through which he must travel by trial and error.

The room allotted to Caleb, which is indistinguishable from a sleek hotel room, boasts a fridge fully stocked with bottles of water. No plant yielding seed to be had, nor tree with seed in its fruit, neither green plant for food. A stream is indeed watering the whole face of the ground, but Caleb’s room is subterranean. He is in Sheol, and his guide through this inferno is a man somewhat less congenial than Virgil. “This building isn’t a house; it’s a research facility,” Nathan explains pedantically, contradicting what he said two minutes earlier. In other words, this is not even a house, let alone the house of the Lord; it is a place where no one lives, or can live, or should live. Nathan tells Caleb that he wants to share his work with him so much that it’s eating him up inside. Remember what Iago says to Othello in Act 3, Scene 3 of that drama: “I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion. I do repent that I put it to you. You would be satisfied?” And Othello’s reply: “Would? Nay, and I will.” What else is passion that eats a man up, if not sin? When a man lets himself become mere fuel for passion, he is feeding a fire that will reduce him to dust. When Caleb begins reading Nathan’s non-disclosure agreement aloud, he emphasizes the phrase “unlimited access.” Caleb’s access to the facility is limited; Nathan’s access to Caleb’s faculties will not be. Whatever is eating up Nathan will surely eat up Caleb too.

Nathan informs Caleb that he’s brought him here to act as the human “component” in a Turing test. “If that test is passed,” he says, “you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man.” Make note of that: dead center. Is anyone truly alive at the center of this great event? “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man,” Caleb replies. “That’s the history of gods.” Paganism is in ascendance.


Nathan is sitting naked — in fact only topless, as we will see in a few minutes — before three monitors. He is facing a wall on which are posted hundreds of sticky notes. On the wall to his left hangs Titian’s painting Allegory of Prudence, the irony of which is that this film could have been appropriately (though insufferably) titled Allegory of Imprudence. Only two of the faces in the painting are discernible (the face that looks backward, into the past, is in darkness), which makes it look like a picture of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions — a suitable patron for a prison of doorways whose Minotaur has awakened.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) makes her first appearance, the most striking aspect of which is her face-like face, her face that is both a mask and a face, and in that regard no different from Caleb’s. The difference is that his face appears not to be a mask because the seams are hidden in his soul, whereas hers are laid bare on her body.

“Hello,” says Ava, sounding remarkably like a woman. “Hi. I’m Caleb,” says Caleb, sounding almost like an automaton. Throughout the session, he proves to be an awful conversationalist. Ava makes do:

A.: Would you like to know how old I am?

C.: Sure.

A.: I’m one.

C.: One what? One year or one day?

A.: One.

Ava has already given her inquisitor a proof of consciousness, but he doesn’t understand. What could she mean by declining to specify a unit? One is a number (“the loneliest number”), but one — naked one, all alone — does not make an age. Ava is speaking wisdom in binary code, which is to say in machine language. How old is she? This question has no human answer, since she was not created in the human way. She is the first of her kind, if there is a kind; if there is not, then she is one. As a prototype, she is 1 as opposed to 0, not as opposed to 2 or 3 or 10,000. (Perhaps the only other good answer to Caleb’s question would have been: “Forty nights.”)

“When did you learn how to speak, Ava?” Caleb asks. “I always knew how to speak, and that’s strange, isn’t it?” she says. Yes, it is. Who else has always known how to speak? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1.1).

“Will you come back tomorrow?” Ava asks. “Yes,” says Caleb. “Good,” says Ava. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Gen 1.5). We see a mist-enshrouded mountain beyond a green valley. How can Ava say that it’s good for Caleb to come back tomorrow? Should she not simply thank him for coming today? No, for she thinks of tomorrow. Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (Js 4.14). Even Ava, whose body will not decay in the same way as Caleb’s, will perish. She is a mist that appears for a little while, perhaps for a little while longer than the others, and then she will vanish as the mist around the mountain vanishes.

from Ex Machina

And the mountain? The mountain will not vanish, though it would move under the right conditions. Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mark 11.22 — 3). Not “you will accomplish it,” but rather “it will be done for you.” Whatever terrible, wondrous event transpires within the Research Facility, the mighty mountains outside will not move in righteousness, because it would occur to none of the character that apart from God they can do nothing. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves (Galatians 6.3).

A bird calls, but we see no bird. “Look at the birds of the air” (Mk 6.26) and “consider the lilies of the field” (Mk 6.28). Who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies? Caleb and Nathan are having beers after the session. “You know, I wrote down that other line you came up with. The one about how if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness, I’m not a man; I’m God. […] I turned to Caleb and he looked up at me and he said, ‘You’re not a man; you’re God.’” Caleb is miffed but not scandalized. He finds it repellant that Nathan believes himself to be God — or equivalent to the notion of God, since we have no reason to suppose that either man believes in God — merely because it offends his sense of common decency.

When Nathan asks how Caleb feels about Ava, Caleb says, “I feel…that she’s fucking amazing.” The expletive is not an accident but a curse. At 2:26 a.m., a wakeful Caleb says “Damn it” and turns on the TV. An image of Ava sitting at her desk appears. Caleb switches the channel and says the word “fuck” again. A restless man with scars on his back watches a sleepless Ava in the middle of the night. Compare Genesis 2.21: So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. God made a woman out of the rib and took her to the man, who named her Eve, and they were naked together without shame. Ava already has a name, and only she is naked — in a sense. Caleb watches her shamelessly, which is another way of saying that he watches her even though he knows that he should be ashamed. Now turn to the preceding passage, Genesis 2.18: Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And so God formed the animals and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Lonely Caleb sees that it is not good for him to be alone, and he watches to see whether Ava will call him. He watches her because she has already called him. Perhaps he already feels that he has found in her a partner.

In one of the only funny scenes of the film, Nathan startles Caleb, who is trying to use a phone to which he obviously does not have access, and drunkenly cracks a joke: “Who you gonna call, Ghostbusters?” The sinister undercurrent of this allusion is that they would both be better off exorcizing the ghost in the machine, and the Research Facility has already been exorcized of the only ghost that could have helped: the Holy Ghost. When Caleb mentions the power outage, Nathan says, “We’ve been getting those recently.” This would seem to be a royal “we,” fitting for a man who’s as desperately solitary as a god.

Cut to outdoor shots: plants yielding seed. Did Nathan make these too? Did he say, “Let the earth put forth vegetation” (Gen 1.11)? The garden is outside, beyond the walls, on the Estate. Inside the Research Facility is a desert, a barren wilderness.

In a scene that gave me Solaris flashbacks, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s enslaved helper-not-partner, enters Caleb’s room unannounced. He stares at her.


Ava holds out a drawing she’s made that looks something like an architect’s version of a Pollock painting. Caleb asks, “What’s it a drawing of?” This is a stupid question because it presumes that drawings should be representational, or else that figurative drawing is in some way “higher” than other kinds of drawing. Ava has made a drawing. Caleb recognizes it as a drawing. That she draws every day, begins and finishes a drawing every day, without knowing what she’s drawing, is astonishing. A much duller robot could sketch something specific, such as an object or a person. What could be more peculiarly human than to undertake a project of indefinite expression under conditions of ambiguity, confusion, and unknowing?

Ava turns the tables on Caleb. She stands up and the camera joins her, framing Caleb sitting in his examiner’s cell, which is much more restrictive than Ava’s space, although she, of course, remains trapped in space, “her” space, whereas Caleb will get to pass through the door at the end of the session. Ava initiates a genuine-seeming conversation, at the end of which Caleb says that when he got to college, he was “pretty advanced.” With a smile on her face and a cold glint in her eyes, Ava says, “An advanced programmer — like Nathan.” As hateful and untrustworthy as Nathan, perhaps she’s thinking. Caleb says yes, then no, and then explains that Nathan is a prodigy.

To be a prodigy. Ah, what efforts are made in the world to achieve this envied position, and what efforts envy makes to prevent it! But out there in the field with the lilies, where every human being is what God has made him to be, is the wonder of creation; indeed, out there no one wants to be a prodigy! The better individual would no doubt smile, and the strident laughter of the crowd would ridicule the fool who could talk in this sense about being a ruler and about being a prodigy.

— Søren Kierkegaard (trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong), “How Glorious It Is to Be a Human Being”

It’s a shame that Caleb and Nathan are never out there with the lilies even when they’re in the field.

At dinner after the session, Kyoko spills a glass of wine. Nathan says, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Again, a manly creature directs the word “fucking” at a womanly creature. Caleb later uses the phrase “kind of non-autistic” to mean that a referential joke made by Ava demonstrates awareness of both her own mind and Caleb’s. Caleb’s words demonstrate, in addition to ignorance about the autism spectrum, a pitiable lack of self-awareness, since he’s the one in doubt about the existence of the other’s mind, not Ava. Ava seems to know perfectly well whom and what she’s dealing with.

When Nathan takes Caleb into the room “where Ava was created,” Caleb says the word “sorry” for the third and final time. Nathan doesn’t acknowledge this whispered apology, doesn’t bother to forgive or correct his guest. “Here we have her mind,” Nathan says as he picks up a brain of “structured gel.” He equates the mind with the brain, of course. Why wouldn’t he, if she has a mind, since he created her brain? But he thereby discredits her mind, since her mind, if it be a true mind, must be found in her, if anywhere on earth. If all brains of structured gel, including the one Nathan holds in his hand, can be said to be hers, then none of them are minds.

Search engines are a map of how people are thinking, Nathan claims, and then he utters a series of words: “impulse, response; fluid, imperfect; patterned, chaotic.” The first and third pair of terms are not particular to minds, but the second pair carries more weight. Thinking has been fluid ever since Thales posited that the arche, the underlying principle of the world, is water. For Thales, nous, or mind, takes the form of its vessel. Thought has no particular form, so if one wants to do what is difficult, namely to know oneself, then one must investigate everything that can accommodate thought, probe every nook and cranny into which thought can flow. “Yes, as everyone knows,” Ishmael claims in Moby-Dick, “meditation and water are wedded for ever.” As for imperfection, we should distinguish it from perfectibility. Anyone who thinks that human minds think imperfectly must have some ideal notion of thinking, or at least a clear idea of human imperfection. The doctrine of the Fall, for instance, explains human imperfection without committing to any particularly definite picture of how prelapsarian Adam and Eve thought, or how resurrected humans will think. Nathan, on the other hand, can only say that humans think imperfectly because he believes that the creation of minds that think more perfectly than we do is inevitable. As far as he’s concerned, it’s only a matter of time; it’s not at all a matter of eternity.


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?


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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