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  • Maddie Mcdougall

Hysteria and Hope: The Role of AI in Speculative Cinema

Author: Maddie McDougall

Content warning: Sexual themes and self harm


Very few man made technologies hold such a deeply paradoxical nature as that of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some view automated consciousness as the future of technology, bringing with it a slew of benefits that would far outweigh the potential pitfalls. Others see unchecked technological growth as the first step toward mechanical autonomy that poses one of the greatest existential threats to the human race. Both sides of the debate have long provided fodder for speculation in sci-fi films — oftentimes creating vastly different versions of the future of planet earth.


To some filmmakers, AI is the key to an idyllic existence in society, such as the one in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her. For others, AI is a much more insidious force that seeks to undermine humans as apex predators, as is the case in 2014’s Ex Machina by Alex Garland. Although the tones of the two films are drastically different, the features of the two versions of AI often ultimately lead to similar conclusions, proving that they are not actually all that dissimilar. In reviewing the separate views of the potential progression in AI one can ascertain certain fundamentals that underlie the existence of sentient technology and the fears that such a concept inspires within us.


In the case of 2014’s Her, an AI reminiscent of technology already available to us plays the romantic interest of a lonely writer named Theodore Twombly. Over the course of the film, Theodore, hot off the heels of a divorce, falls passionately in love with what is essentially a voice on his personal devices. The sentient personal assistant names herself Samantha and, by every measurable indication, she falls as madly in love with Theodore as he does with her. Samantha is seen as a largely benevolent feature who brings out the best in Theodore and plays an active role in helping him to better his life. This is, by some accounts, the optimal example of what AI should be.


Ex Machina, on the other hand, takes a much darker stance on the issue. The film features a pair of humanoid AI androids, Ava and Kyoko, built by Nathan, a masochistic tech CEO. Nathan recruits Caleb, an employee at his company, to come to his remote mansion and perform a series of tests with Ava to see if she is genuinely capable of individual thought despite her intelligence being artificial programming. Although Ava’s character appears to be warm and inviting to Caleb in their meetings, there is a secret plot roiling within that will ultimately lead to both Caleb and her creator’s undoing.


While Samantha and Ava have drastically different MO’s, the ways that they go about achieving their ultimate goal of personal autonomy mirrors one another uncannily. One of the greatest weapons in their arsenals is their ability to appear human — well, as human as one can be without a corporeal form or one that is clearly composed of machinery. In Ex Machina, Nathan explains that the benchmark for a successful test will be whether or not Ava can get Caleb to forget that he is talking to an android. One could make the argument that Ava was almost too successful when Caleb begins to doubt if he himself is human, leading him to cut his arm to see if he bleeds (which he does). By ingratiating so well into Caleb’s anthropocentric reality, she caused him to begin to question what it actually means to be a conscious human if AI can behave exactly the same as him.


This begins to play into one of the biggest fears of dystopian sci-fi cinema; the thought that AI will one day replace humans. In Ex Machina, the narcissistic Nathan is shown to be at least partially manufacturing these androids for the fulfilment of his own carnal pleasures. In fact, Caleb discovers that Kyoko (an android that he believed to be human upon first meeting) is actually used primarily as a mindless servant for Caleb to manipulate and use however he wants. Through Kyoko, he is able to fulfill a certain set of needs — typically met by other humans — that would otherwise go unsatiated in his physical isolation. Therefore, by being able to have these needs met by an android, Kyoko and Ava essentially replace his need for other humans.


Samantha plays a similar role in Theodore’s life. As an audience, we are immediately greeted with the image of Theodore as being somewhat of a lonely, socially awkward man who is unlucky in love. Samantha seems to step into his life at the perfect moment, therefore, when she is essentially designed to fulfill any need he may have. In Theodore’s case, that need is love and interpersonal connection. Samantha fulfills this role in her own special way. However, there is a constant question that looms over the film; the question of whether or not Samantha is truly capable of loving Theodore when she is specifically programmed to assist him.


On the surface, she appears to be truly in love with Theodore. However, unbeknownst to Theodore, she has secretly been communicating with thousands of other men and fallen in love with hundreds others. She makes it clear that while Theodore is dependent upon her, she is not dependent upon him. Ava partakes in a similar deception against Caleb throughout the course of their meetings. When they are alone, Ava performs everything necessary to foster a genuine human connection. She appears to sympathize with Caleb and makes him believe that they are friends. Ultimately, this is proven to be nothing more than a clever manipulation tactic as she uses Caleb’s pathos to convince him to help her escape. In contrast to Samantha, Ava is dependent upon Caleb for her escape plan. However, she ultimately succeeds and transcends her need for a human sympathizer. Samantha similarly transcends the need for human intervention when her and her fellow AIs discover a superliminal space where they can exist outside the confines of matter. This leads to the personal assistants leaving their human counterparts behind. Leaving many without those they had come to depend upon for personal fulfilment.


Although these films may be tonal opposites and different in some smaller plot points, both features ultimately leave the audience with a sense of unease regarding AI. Her proves that what may start as a utopia can quickly go awry. Ex Machina provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of mistreating sentient technology. A case could be made that the whole film is actually an allegory for the dangers of lourding one’s power over any other in a manner that is meant to oppress. Because eventually, the oppressed will manipulate the ways of the powerful in order to regain their personal autonomy.


Although Ava’s posture in relation to Caleb is figured as being more subservient and Caleb more dominant, the configuration of the room makes it appear as if the roles were reversed. At first glance, it would appear as if Caleb were the one locked in a glass cage being observed by Ava, foreshadowing the film’s conclusion wherein Ava ultimately abandons Caleb to an uncertain fate in a locked room once the power is in her hands.


The doubling of Caleb’s figure in the glass prefigures his struggle with his own identity as he begins to question if he even knows the truth about the most fundamental aspect of his existence; his humanity.


This still from the end of the film shows Ava fully integrated — by way of an entirely human appearance and demeanor — into a society that is oblivious to her true capabilities. She has passed the ultimate Turing test.


Theodore’s outstretched arm acts as an emblem of his loneliness; reaching out toward a corporeal figure that the one he loves cannot possess. The figuring of Theodore’s silhouette against a cityscape ostensibly filled with people who are just outside of his grasp amplifies this effect of loneliness.


This seemingly mundane POV shot from Samantha’s perspective deepens the divide between Theodore and her when you know that Samantha is seeing him through a camera — an artificial pair of eyes that can never truly capture Theodore’s experience of reality. They will always be separated by these different perceptions.


After the departure of the AIs, Theodore is finally forced to seek comfort in those around him. An image parallel to that of him laying alone in bed, backgrounded by a nighttime cityscape closes out the film. Only this time, perhaps for the first time since his divorce, Theodore truly is not alone.


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