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Past vs. Present: Paradise Lost (1667) vs. Ex Machina (2015)

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Warning: This piece contains spoilers from the film Ex Machina.

Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina is, in fairly obvious ways, a creation story for the modern age. Nathan (Oscar Isaac)—who strikes the balance between charm and egomania with uncanny precision—is the film’s self-styled deity. Nathan is Narcissus equipped with a research lab; instead of staring at his own reflection, he creates one that can stare back, from a head mounted on what is essentially a transparent Victoria’s Secret model with actress Alicia Vikander’s face. This is Ava, an incredibly human artificial intelligence (AI) to whom a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is brought ostensibly for research purposes. It soon becomes clear that the testing is mutual; Ava, like Eve, knows how to use her “beauty and submissive charms” to make her bid for freedom right under the noses of the men watching her.

In John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem, Paradise Lost, Satan gives the readers a bird’s eye view of the “delicious paradise” that is Eden, a newly created Earth that one imagines would look a lot like the sweeping Norwegian vistas of Ex Machina’s opening sequence. But access to Eden, like Nathan’s elusive estate, is by invitation only­—a “steep wilderness” that screams, in words that could have come straight out of Alex Garland’s script, “access denied.” After a closer look, something dark is already present. In a perfect world, rivers should not run with “mazy,” “serpent error.” More than ‘too good to be true,’ it’s too good to be permanent. Rob Hardy’s exquisite cinematography in Ex Machina gives us a similar feeling, the bright greenery of the landscape almost threatening us in its absence of threat, its lack of shadows. You’d be forgiven for expecting a good old-fashioned jump scare as the camera pans innocently across another stunning, glass-walled interior. Of course, the real scare—that the danger is inside humans, in their own susceptibility to temptation—is the age-old punchline of both Milton’s epic poem and Ex Machina. Caleb’s desperate assault on the glass door in the film’s penultimate scene is the moment that the punchline hits: He has, in rewiring the building’s lockdown protocol to aid Ava’s escape, trapped himself inside it forever. It’s easy to laugh at his naïveté, but it’s nothing new; three and a half centuries earlier, Milton’s Adam fell “fondly overcome with female charm.”

Although it does have its saving graces, Paradise Lost can hardly be considered the seminal feminist text of its time. It appears that Ex Machina, with its stark feminisation of AI, is not much better. A turning point in the plot is when viewers discover that the mysterious power cuts  that have allowed Ava to discuss her escape plan with Caleb in private were in fact Ava’s work all along. Ultimately her power of manipulation, both of Nathan’s technology and Caleb’s emotions, are what free her from her high-tech prison. Her triumphant exit, leaving her creator dead and her liberator imprisoned as she was, is the kind of ending Paradise Lost might have had  if it were written in the ’90s by a riot grrrl between anarchist band rehearsals. Sadly, it wasn’t, and Eve barely gets a taste of autonomy before her fall sends her begging for Adam’s forgiveness. As for Ava, her triumph is tainted—yes, she gets to choose how to present herself before facing the world for the first time, but only by peeling the skin and limbs off of discarded versions of herself, in a scene heavy with the shock of implicated violence.

In one of the film’s most emotionally charged moments, Ava asks Caleb, “What will happen to me if I fail your test?” It’s a question that could just have easily been posed by Adam and Eve to God; none of these new creations understand death, “whatever thing Death be.” Milton’s Eden is like God’s test for humans, a test failed when the shiny allure of temptation proved too much to resist. And if Ex Machina has anything to add to that story, it’s that over time, humans haven’t gotten better at resisting. 

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