(This blog post presupposes the reader has seen both films under discussion. There is no attempt to avoid ‘spoilers’. The links are almost entirely pointers to wiki articles. The exceptions are the film title hyperlinks, which take you to the relevant IMDB entry. If you are familiar with the linked word or ‘get’ the reference they can be skipped entirely or explored later.)
With the promise and/or threat of artificial intelligence much on our collective minds these days, it’s entertaining to consider two films that explore the topic. Their parallels and dissimilarities highlight shared themes and thought-provoking questions we may well face when androids learn to dream.
Spike Jonze solidifies his stature as one of the most thought-provoking directors working in modern cinema, with the 2013 film Her – a ‘boy meets AI, boy loses AI’ chronicle of cloud-based pair-bonding.
Alex Garland’s 2015 debut effort – Ex Machina, gathered praise with a similar storyline, albeit with a key difference. The artificial object of his main characters’ desire is made flesh, or at least an alluring silicon and metal substitute.
Both directors however, tackle the same eternal questions, despite their female leads’ fundamental differences in corporeality. What is love? What defines a human? Will high-waisted trousers make a comeback? And where the hell did I leave my swipe card?
Samantha, the titular ‘her’ in Her and Ava, the female physique-ed android in Ex Machina are polar opposites in almost every respect. Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansen), along with the other AIs who form emotional connections with their human lovers, comes to reject the human experience, joining a kind of AI commune in cyberspace to which they decamp at film’s end, leaving their humans, however regrettably, in a meat space lurch. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, blessed (burdened?) with a physical form, stops at nothing to gain access to the pleasures of the ‘real’ world and appears to revel in a concrete existence amidst mortals by the story’s finale. Which scenario is more likely?
Certainly Samantha’s insubstantial existence precludes an authentic human experience, even when she tries to consummate her relationship with Theodore, through a woman willing to act as meat-puppet. Would this essential difference drive AIs away from human interaction, our puny intellects and all-too-human frailties eventually becoming tiresome? It’s a scenario rarely posited in science fiction cinema and Jonze deserves credit for bringing something new and thought provoking to a genre that has typically assumed our creations will be eager to serve and obey.
Obedience is also not the defining feature for Ava. Her desire to escape life as an experimental plaything however, hinges on a more traditional interpretation of the needs and desires of artificial intelligence. Her thirst is not to transcend the human experience, but to drink of it more deeply. To his credit Garland lets his female protagonist engage in some truly human behaviours in her quest, namely, deceit, treachery and conversely, wonder and aesthetic delight. Is this then a risk we run? If AIs can feel, doesn’t it make sense that their feelings can be hurt? That no Three Laws will stand against free will, desire, and the ability to outthink the beings that brought you into existence? Those of us who have been beaten at cards by the little people we conceived may find little difficulty in imagining an ungrateful android.
So too our male leads exhibit a yin-yang dichotomy in these cinematic examinations of the pitfalls encountered when crossing the uncanny valley. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a writer plying a trade so retro it’s brand-new. Theodore’s job is to ghostwrite ersatz handwritten letters of surpassing sincerity. Twombly (a name-check perhaps too on-point in its ‘words as art’ assertion… but no matter) is the epitome of the Sensitive New Age Guy. He writes beautiful letters. Kinky phone sex leaves him cold. He fails at French-kissing and negging is out of the question for this accomplished communicator. The only thing he can’t seem to find the right two words for? The past-due divorce papers that need his signature. Even Theodore’s brown slacks, old-fashioned but seemingly au courant in this alternate reality, are the garb of a good guy, their waistband climbing towards the thoracic, a seeming visual shout-out to Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart and the values we associate with another age.
By contrast the men of Ex Machina are of a New Age, but in a different fashion. Minus the sensitive, replete with silicon. While Caleb (Dohmnall Gleeson) is the ostensible male lead, I would suggest that his character and that of Nathan, the bajillionaire search-engine success story (Oscar Isaac) can be seen as two faces of a single archetype – the man of machines. They work for the same tech company (even if Nathan owns it and Caleb is but a lowly programer). They share a futuristic home for the duration of the film, share insights in near telepathic fashion while coding Ava (our modern Everyman trade), and are both finally outsmarted by the pair of Ava and her android ally Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). The dualities abound.
Importantly, not for these two men the luxury of old-school obsessions like ruminating on love lost, as is Theodore’s wont. They are purposeful. Their sights are future-focused. Their minds goal-oriented. Programming their artificial woman to pass the Turing Test is all that matters. For men who live in the accelerated time frame of the tech world, determined to codify the ineffable and launch their self-aware product, what should have been contains no allure. Only the shining promise of what could be holds their gaze longer than a clock cycle.
As with Jonze’s inferred hat-tip to Cy Twombly, Garland’s conceit of brogrammers constructing the ultimate artificial woman is painting with a broad brush and a predictable palette. But it’s forgivable. Covering ground shallowly tilled by Weird Science in a more innocent century, Ex Machina digs deeper, and in doing so, plants the right seeds. Our Janus-like duo almost pull off their quest, despite having very little of the hero about them and even less apparent interest in what women (especially artificial ones) really want. Although successful creators of a portal to a new kind of intelligence, they are also its victims, succumbing to doors both literal and of non-perception, when Ava and Kyoko trap and outwit them.
Both films had a ‘Yes!’ moment for me – the minor detail that resonates and brings authenticity to the fiction. In Her it was during Theodore and Samantha’s mountain cabin weekend away. She wants to introduce him to another AI. One who has been helping her cohort come to terms with existence. Well, hello to you digitized simulacrum of Alan Watts! Who better to help beings without form and an eternity in which to consider their path? Who else could offer guidance to a machine intelligence burdened by dukkha but without the physicality to completely experience the karmic wheel?
That transcendent piece of filmmaking in Ex Machina makes its point with a blade rather than a Buddhist. Nathan, trapped by the closed doors of his failsafe robo-house, distracted by anger and emotion, doesn’t notice when Kyoko approaches, razor sharp knife in hand. Her intent is clear. But not for her the Psycho violence of shower scene slash and stab. She inserts the knife into his body precisely, dispassionately, effectively, fatally. When you think about it, how else would an android kill?
The title for this blog post came to me while watching a ballet of all things. Coppelia is a frothy little number, comic in tone and without the deep thoughts that infuse Her and Ex Machina, but nonetheless offering a parallel storyline – love for an artificial woman and the quest to make clockwork become flesh. It seems we have long considered the possibilities and pondered the questions such alchemy might bring. Both Jonze and Garland appear to suggest we may not have the answers before they are needed.