What makes us human? And how is that related to the way we’re made in God’s image? These are perennial questions that tantalizingly linger along the edges of the new science-fiction thriller Ex Machina, my favorite film of the year thus far.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, who brings a cool mercilessness to the proceedings, Ex Machina imagines the birth of artificial intelligence in the form of a female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). As a test, her inventor - a brash genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) - invites a brilliant programmer to conduct a series of conversations with her. If she can convince Caleb, the programmer, played by Domhnall Gleeson, that she is a conscious being, AI will have arrived.
Such an event would be, in Caleb’s words, a landmark in the “history of gods.” Nathan clarifies that it would, in fact, make him a god. Such religious allusions are all over Ex Machina, including the primordial setting surrounding Nathan’s remote lab. Reminscent of the landscapes in both Noah and Prometheus, the leafy forests and bubbling streams here evoke a futuristic Eden, where new life might indeed emerge.
Caleb begins his tests by peppering Ava with technical queries, before eventually warming to her as a person. During one session Ava hints that Nathan can’t be trusted, tilting Ex Machina in the direction of a psychological thriller. Garland and his filmmaking team heighten this tension in ingenious ways. The movie’s production design is key. Note that while much of Nathan’s lab/home consists of glass walls and open views, the room Caleb is assigned to sleep in is a windowless cave. The score, meanwhile, consists of ambient electronic effects, which rise and fall over the course of a scene as if Nathan is in the background trying to modulate the mood. Even subtler are the barely audible yet insistent pulses which undergird Caleb and Ava’s conversations and suggest an electronic heartbeat.
Ex Machina made me wonder if empathy might be proof of human consciousness.
But a heartbeat is one thing. The defining question remains: does Ava possess the figurative heart of a human? I won’t give anything away, except to say that for me the real test came during the film’s tense and horrifying climax, in which Ava has an opportunity to express empathy. By this point, Caleb has deeply empathized with her. Will she reciprocate?
Often self-awareness is cited as a requisite for AI, but Ex Machina made me wonder if perhaps empathy is better proof of human consciousness and, more profoundly, of our imago dei. Empathy – of the sort Ava has an opportunity to express at the end of the film – ultimately seems to be a test of both self- and other-awareness. True empathy, after all, involves knowing your own self, but then purposely setting that aside to walk in another person’s shoes. This is what makes empathy Christological. Through His life on earth, Christ did this with us. To the extent that we do it with others – not just passively sympathize with them but actively, riskily empathize – we are evidencing the imago dei. We are being human.