Denver, Colo., Aug 7, 2015 / 02:37 am
Much has already been said about director Alex Garland's slick transhumanist thriller "Ex Machina." It's been heralded as everything from a stellar work of speculative fiction to a complex take on gender roles.
But perhaps a lesser known take on the film is its rampant Old Testament allusions that come together to portray a high-tech garden of Eden.
For Denver-based priest Father Nathan Goebel, "the whole movie is a new Genesis."
"It's a new beginning: we're returning back to the garden," he told CNA. "What is the temptation of the garden? You will be like gods."
For all of its cold, tech-savvy glamor, he says, "Ex Machina" could be seen as a simple retelling of the Biblical account of Adam and Eve – but with a twist.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the movie's plotline involves Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer at a Google-esq corporation who wins a trip to visit Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company's reclusive, eccentric founder. There, he finds an android with artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander), whom he is challenged to interact with, in order to determine how human she is.
What follows is a riveting, mind-spinning web of love, lies, betrayal, manipulation and murder.
While it is not a perfect Old Testament analogy, there are several striking similarities. The names are all Biblical – Ava is a derivation of Eve, the first woman. Caleb, who is chosen to explore the brave new world of artificial intelligence, shares a name with the Israelite sent as a scout for the Promised Land. Nathan, the brilliant but nihilistic inventor, shares a name with the prophet who offers warnings to King David, both after he committed adultery and when there was a plot to take over his throne.
The setting also evokes Genesis imagery. A pristine paradise-like garden, removed from the outside world, houses the facility in which Nathan gives his creation life. The seven sessions he arranges for Caleb and Ava to interact are reminiscent of the seven days of creation.
But there's a critical difference between God creating in the Genesis story and man creating in the film. "We cannot create 'ex nihilo'," Fr. Goebel stressed. "God is the only one who can create out of nothing."
When God creates man in his own image, he makes a being who participates in his own infinite goodness. In "Ex Machina,", though, Nathan is creating in his own image; he makes a being who reflects his own flawed nature.
And Nathan's relationship to his creation is also flawed. Far from the Biblical God, who loves his creation to the point of sacrificing himself for them, Nathan in the movie is more like a Greek god, Fr. Goebel reflected.
"He's playing with creation. Trying to satisfy his need for control over the creatures he's made. He's not a hero – he's tragic. You don't like him," the priest said, adding that while Nathan interacts with his creation – he creates, destroys, talks to and apparently sleeps with the machines he has made – he does not actually have a human relationship with them.
This is illustrated in one jarring scene, when Nathan spontaneously dances with one of the androids. But the interaction is cold and empty: they are not dancing together, but rather, the machine mimics each of his moves.
Some reviewers have seen the movie as reducing man to the same level as machine, both responding to stimuli that amount to programming of one sort or another.
Yet, Fr. Goebel rejected this interpretation. "Love can't be programmed. Love is necessarily transcendent," he said, pointing to the disparity between machine and human. "The fulfilment of creation is to love and be loved, and machines cannot do this."
In the end, Ava does not love. She has been created to "prove" that she is human by manipulating and abandoning those around her. The inhumanity with which she carries out her final acts of betrayal is ironically striking in its contrast with the humanity she has supposedly achieved.
"She's become fallen," Fr. Goebel said. In her final acts, Ava reflects the flaws of her human creator. "Human nature wants to dominate the other. It wants control. She becomes a beast again."
This desire for control is also seen throughout the film as Nathan attempts to maintain control over a world that is ultimately larger than he is. At different times, he turns to the idols of alcohol, sex and an obsession with working out, while at the same time grappling with a stark loneliness.
"Ex Machina" also offers a sharp commentary on the cultural dependency on technology.
"We think that through tech we extend our reach, our control," Fr. Goebel said. "But we're actually quite helpless without our gadgets."
The film's writer and director, Alex Garland, has talked about the film in the context of a warning about humanity's increasing dependence on and fascination with technology.
The machines in question "are weak. They have no motivation, no intention; they're neutral," he said. "The thing with an agenda is us: consumers, who want to buy the machines, and manufacturers, who want to sell them."
"And looming over both, giant tech companies, whose growth only ever seems to be exponential, whose practices are opaque, and whose power is both massive and without true oversight. Combine all this with government surveillance and lotus-eating public acquiescence, and it's not the machine component that scares me. It's the human component."
The film includes disturbing content and several scenes of female robot nudity. But mature Catholic viewers can see this movie as a challenge to themselves, Fr. Goebel said. It can cause them to pause and ask themselves, "For me as a Catholic, where is God? Where is God in relation to man? Am I made in the image of God and am I satisfied with that, or do I want to be like God?"
Ultimately, he reflected, "Ex Machina" is making "an anthropological statement – What is man? What is the purpose of man? What is the nature of man in the world?"