“Ex Machina”

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like the gods, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4)

            Those of us who have been pondering the Adam and Eve story all our lives have often wondered if it was inevitable, somehow, that the creature would rebel against its Creator.  Of course, for the Presbyterian, inevitability implies predestination.  And then there all those old Augustinian/Pelagian arguments of “unable not to sin” vs. “able not to sin.”  So, what if the shoe were on the other foot, as it were, and we’re now talking about man creating an A.I., an artificial intelligence, so advanced that she would even have self-awareness?  And would you encounter the same situation as God with the creation of humans:  give them free will, and you also create the possibility that they will rebel against you?  Could they also learn “sin,” in the sense of being able to deceive, lie, and yes, arrange for the elimination of others who somehow were perceived as expendable?

            Yes, “Ex Machina” raises all these questions, and then some, quite self-consciously.  Though taking place mostly in an underground bunker as it does, it has a strange feeling of insularity and claustrophobia to accompany its 21st-century quest into the origin of a species.  Domhnall Gleason plays Caleb, pretty much the Everyman, except, of course, he believes he’s particularly gifted and intelligent (which makes him even more typical).  He works for a giant computer company, where he’s just discovered he’s “won the lottery” for a free trip to the head honcho’s private lair for a week, to see for himself the latest and greatest computer technology.  He’s ecstatic for the opportunity.  But when he arrives, he finds Nathan (Oscar Isaac) busy punching a punching bag, a kind of foreshadowing of the personal violence to come.  Nathan seems full of himself, but there’s no doubt he’s one of the smartest men on the planet.  He tells Caleb that he believes he’s actually built a robot so perfect that it acts completely human, but he hopes that Caleb would be willing to help him test it…her.  Nathan has named the A.I. “Ava” (Alicia Vikander).  Ava’s still has robot-looking arms and legs, and even torso, but there’s no question, once Caleb meets her, about her intelligence, artificial or not.  Caleb blurts out to Nathan that if he’s actually perfected this, he’s done more than the greatest invention of man; he’s become God.  That little blasphemy would turn out to be prophetic.  Of course, the plot line is also a play on words of “Deus ex machina,” God from machine,” which actually has more to do with theater than theology, but then, so does this movie.

            It does not surprise the viewer at all when Caleb finds himself actually attracted to Ava, but it does bewilder him (and us) when she appears to begin to flirt with him.  Asking Nathan about it later isn’t very satisfying, either, because Nathan appears to be a closet drunk.  And he seems to have a live-in immigrant girlfriend whom he treats like dirt.  Not exactly endearing qualities, even if he is supposed to be one of the world’s smartest humans.  Of course Caleb also figures out that Nathan isn’t telling him everything, particularly the part about who’s testing whom.  But although Nathan does indeed have a few surprises, so does Caleb, and so, unsurprisingly, does Ava.  But does she somehow become the perfect human imitation when it occurs to her to manipulate and deceive in order to operate in her own self-interest?  Ah, the complexities abound.  And “Ex Machina” will draw the viewer right into that “utter depravity” discussion.  So, which is it, Augustine or Pelagius?


Questions For Discussion


1)      Is sin defined as rebellion against the Creator?

2)      Is it possible not to sin?

3)      If sin does occur, was it inevitable, predestined, chosen, or some crafty combination of all three?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman , Texas