Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine
Allison de Fren
Citation: de Fren, Allison. “Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine .” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 19, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/019.s0110
Abstract: The British science-fiction thriller Ex Machina (2015) has inspired mixed reactions from both critics and audiences. This video essay examines why some walk away from the film thinking about the Turing test (a gauge for determining whether a machine exhibits intelligence equivalent to that of a human) and others the Bechdel test (a touchstone for determining male bias in a film).
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“Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine” (2016) was originally commissioned by Kevin B. Lee when he was Chief Video Essayist and Editor at Fandor. Because the project was for a popular film site (albeit one that, at the time, focused on indie films), I began by reading reviews, and a dichotomy in the public reception of the film quickly became apparent, which became the foundation of the video essay. While many praised the film’s tautly-rendered exploration of artificial intelligence, others critiqued its stereotypical representations of fembots. Both groups seemed to be speaking past each other, which made me think that the film was, above all, a kind of Rorshach test for our times. In an essay for Wired Magazine, Angela Watercutter summed up the field particularly well: “The Turing test detects if a machine can truly think like a human. The Bechdel Test detects gender bias in fiction. If you were to mash the two together to create a particularly messy Venn diagram, the overlap shall henceforth be known as the Ex Machina Zone.”
My goal in the video essay was to survey the Ex Machina Zone without taking sides. The audiovisual essay lends itself particularly well to this kind of exploratory pursuit. As many have noted, the essay form (in whatever medium it occurs) tends to be more processual than didactic. It relishes in-betweeness and attempts to capture the act of rumination, rather than presenting pre-digested conclusions. By working with and through the film material, I was able to appreciate anew how beautifully constructed it is. Alex Garland both wrote and directed Ex Machina (it was his directorial debut), and one can sense in its chess-like narrative structure, his anticipation and attempt to address the feminist analysis necessarily invited by a sexualized female robot. This was corroborated two days after Fandor published the video essay, when I received a personal email from the scientist and broadcaster Dr. Adam Rutherford, who served as one of the science advisors on the film. He stated that the script team “spent a lot of time during production discussing every single one of the issues you raise,” and he underscored Garland’s attentiveness to detail in the film’s construction. (The possibility of bringing into dialogue academics and non-academics, thinkers and makers and thinker-makers, is yet another benefit of the on-line audiovisual essay.)
Like the mad scientist in Ex Machina, however, Garland constructs a thing of beauty and intelligence that is confined to a rather small box. In this case, the box is a triadic plot structure – mad scientist, fembot, sensitive male who falls in love with fembot – with outdated gender dynamics. The narrative set-up in Ex Machina is remarkably similar to the short story “The Sandman,” by German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, in which a young artist falls in love with a mechanical woman through the manipulation of a scientist-sorcerer. “The Sandman,” which was published in 1816 – two years before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – was arguably the blueprint for the first science fiction blockbuster and fembot film, Metropolis (1927, directed by Fritz Lang), which – like Ex Machina – has inspired both mixed reactions and conflicting readings of its feminist potential. The question thus remains: how progressive can the representation of a female robot be when it repurposes tropes that are decidedly retrograde, even if it does so self-reflexively?
Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Hoffmann, E.T.A. “The Sandman.” The Best Tales of Hoffmann. Ed. E.F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1967.
Rascolli, Laura. “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments.” Framework 49.2 (2008): 24–47.
Watercutter, Angela. “Ex Machina Has a Serious Fembot Problem.” Wired. April 9, 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/04/ex-machina-turing-bechdel-test/.