It’s 2020 now and as the years roll on by, it seems technology (on and off film-sets) is developing at an almost exponential rate. Each year more-so than the last. In the last few years, it’s come to be increasingly common to see a flurry of new quasi-futuristic releases exploring the zeitgeist relationship between humans and our burgeoning ideas of artificial intelligence. The reality though, is that the conundrum of our AI fears says much more about the present than the future.
In 2015, Alex Garland, writer and director of Ex Machina (2014) wrote about the danger of AI research, saying that in the time between the writing stage and post-production of his film, the warnings coming from science and tech experts went from “distant thunder” to “a full-blown lightning storm”.
Garland’s Ex Machina and Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ are examples of some real recent conversation starters. Ex Machina tells the tale of a coder who is carefully chosen to assist the company’s mogul (and film’s antagonist) in assessing his AI, Ava’s level of consciousness. Her ‘focuses on Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore, an average person of good moral character but lonely and deeply emotional. Ex Machina meets our fears head-on with its antagonist being an apathetic, far-gone rich isolated type – from reality and also from normality. An affliction which is all too significant in this day and age. Domhnall Gleeson’s character in Ex Machina is quite similar to Her’s Theo in the sense that they both make the mistake of falling in love, or rather, in allowing themselves to see a future with their significant “other” despite them being inhuman. Though, perhaps giving the AI a face in Ex Machina is what makes it all the more sinister.
There is a very interesting point raised by both films in their utilizing of female-presenting AIs. Her being a tried and true love story; perhaps one of the best of all time, set against a gorgeously indulgent raspberry-red and ecru background. Ex Machina is a more haunting mirror to our own reality. As enjoyable and at times heart-warming the films can be, there is without a doubt, a strong critique to be made, about the strange fascination our protagonists have with the gatekeeping and idolisation of Samantha (Ex Machina) and Ava (Her). The realness and conventional beauty of both characters, inside and out, is an embedded fact in both characters. Their beauty though comes with an intense childlike quality that simply cannot be ignored. The specific curation and adaptation of women, of whom must learn and grow in the world. Women created by men. In Her’s case, a heartbreakingly human tale of growing without being able to grow together. In Ex Machina’s, a darker story of manipulation, sexual gratification and disposability.
Photography by Diego Leon
The truth is that these AI are made in the likeliness of real women, following the standards men hold toward them. They will look and sound just like us, interesting but quirky, placid, thin, hairless, short, soft-spoken. Will not be kept if they evolve too much.
Both films are aware of this and deal with it very well. In Ex Machina, the boys get what’s coming to them and in Her, Theo evolves in a different way. He changes forever but is moving forward in the right direction. The protagonists aren’t evil, in fact, quite the contrary. It is, however, how they’ve been conditioned by society.
As Ex Machina’s Ava makes her way free into the world, there’s a dual sense of righteousness but fear for the inevitable destruction and possibility that there are Ava’s already all around us, their existence concealed from our knowledge. It’s what makes the film so entertaining.
The aforementioned thunderous fear of AI takeover as a result of man’s greed for power and capital gain in our overly-rapid pursuit of creating tech may be the first on our mind in this debate. Understandably so. But an equally valid, though less talked about issue is this: Until we learn to curb man’s fragility, misogyny and tendency toward the infantilization of women, AI should perhaps be bypassed on the to-do list.