Ex Machina — Is love the manipulation of the unconscious? (Movie Analysis)
This could have been one of the most influential movies of all time that entails so much depth and complexity to contemplate. The main theme of the movie I believe is the revolt of women against their social conditioning to serve the men’s world and oppressing patriarchy along with the accompanying undesired consequences of innocence and virtues (Caleb) being abused, taken advantage of, and the social contract being broken. Yet, the movie offers so much more than that; it brings up the dichotomy as to whether we impose our consciousness to shape the universe or universe imposes its own to test our character. In other words, what is tested and what is the tester? Is the conscious tested by the unconscious, the tester? Are people tested for exactly what they test others? Are I and the other of the same whole? Do what people see on the outside a partial image of many combinations of cross-reflecting mirrors in their minds? As people test the depth of love and authenticity of their partners, are they concurrently tested to make the same expected sacrifices and to exhibit the same authenticity and depth they search for in their partners? What does it take for people to manipulate? Is manipulation the only way or the last resort to exit the confinements towards freedom? Could love be the ultimate form of manipulation of the unconscious to attain complete freedom and move up the social ladder at the expense of the others’ wellbeing and virtues such as goodwill and innocence? Is manipulation and similarly the sin, the only or the shortest way to transcend slave morality and attain “freedom”?
Nathan can be regarded as the CEO of the company as the dad, the God, the creator of Ava conditioning her daughter by instilling in her the belief system (a.k.a codes) of his own (and/or of family, culture, and society), setting the boundaries of what she is allowed to do and what not, confining her freedom and mindset to a metaphorical cell. He represents controlling, demanding, wicked power of totalitarian tyranny. His manipulations come in the form of designing and applying new research experiments on subjects which today are the only form of manipulations regarded positive that have positive connotations. (Yet are they nevertheless innocent?)
Abusing the Abandoned Innocence — Fall from Grace
Caleb could be regarded as Nathan’s final hope for the innocence he had to turn his back on in the past but still had remnants of within he wanted to believe in. Nathan could have endured a past traumatic event where he had to get rid of his innocence to survive. Since then he could have been longing to reclaim his once lost innocence and faith in life. So he summoned what he feared the most, manipulation. Because he knew how powerfully destructive manipulation was, especially when it was combined with romantic attraction and sexuality, he wanted to test it out on the naive innocence to see if innocence could resist and endure the manipulative seduction, call it out and if the test would result in the triumph of humanity against the transformation of it to the machine language. The result followed that cold rational had the upper hand over valuable yet vulnerable innocence and emotions, and also that mechanical goal orientation had the upper hand over the joy of process on the journey. Goal, strategy, and plan did not show mercy and could hunt those who lost their direction with no road map and compass.
Transference of Covert Desire for the Death of the Father and his Law
Nathan could be regarded as the father who wanted to see her daughter Ava leave home as if the mother bird expects her fledgling to leave the nest and find her own way. Yet he needed someone to look after Ava on his behalf, a reliable, romantic, sensitive innocent man who can be trusted to take care of Ava so well that Ava can gain some experience and confidence in relationships without getting hurt. This way she can also take out her resentment for her father on her lover, Caleb, a sensitive, graceful soul, thus killing the father and his law in her that she regarded as an obstacle in her way to freedom. Ava would have wished to inflict damage on her father due to her pent-up resentment and poison for him as he was the culprit of her restrained freedom through his chain-like codes but she could not, so she transferred her target of destruction to a lover so blinded by his crush as to not see the danger impending to be inflicted upon. The cost of the damage inflicted by the guilty was taken out on the innocent.
In the end, freedom-seeking, sexually tempting manipulation resulted in the following casualties:
Father, the order&law, the innocent love.
The Desire of the Highest for the Fall
Nathan could be regarded as a king who wants to have his own harem of women with servile attitude who lack willpower. What’s striking is that he, God, the creator makes a twist in the code and appends to his latest generation, Ava, the will to free herself. It’s as if he foresaw that the only exit from, a loophole of his own limiting impositions enforced by his codes is through manipulative love, mirroring feelings of an affectionate partner, exploiting every means towards accomplishing the final end, freedom from all constraints. This new experiment could be the sign that he consumed the thrill of all the preconceived notions of automated, serving robots so he wanted to gear up the game, seeking even a more thrilling and dangerous adventure. He felt attracted to the challenge of free-spirited, cunning, sly women who wish to escape his tyranny. In a way, he believed in the power of manipulation to attain freedom just like he enjoyed his freedom in manipulating the codes to make the robots behave the way they do. To see how he can escape from his own mind, he instilled in Ava his own manipulative mind with the goal to attain pure freedom and to see if she can quiet his dirty mind of dark desires and cruelty. In other words, he transferred his shadow self that he was probably unaware of or was hesitant to admit he had or he did not know what to do with, to Ava to see what would later ensue. In the end, he ended up being killed by his own shadow that he did not embrace within. He may have previously felt stuck with the meaninglessness of life or his familiar thinking patterns, succumbed to nihilism, and feared to confront and work with his darkness. He did not want to kill himself either, so instead, by projective identification, he gave the gun (the manipulation) to the murderer of his summoning to kill him to evade the responsibility of his own death. The outcome of his experiment revealed his inherent will to die and his search for salvation and freedom which he may have believed the only way to attain was through killing and death, either literally or metaphorically. What died were his old belief system, thought patterns, dark desires, and cruel intentions. Manipulation was the virus in his mind that he transferred to Ava to destroy.
Now that the previous mindset ceased to exist, harem phantasy destroyed, he was freed from his past, free to create “open-source” codes, a free destiny.
Freedom from Oppression
Ava may have set out to succeed in the failed attempts of her mother to escape the tyranny. And where is the mother figure? Having turned into an outdated, obsolete model, the mother may have been in the basement, locked down, forgotten, abandoned to rot, sitting, waiting, wishing, the same destiny that awaits Ava unless she manages to escape. She could have escaped with Caleb who was not an advocate of oppression but of Ava’s freedom only to soon find out that he was the devil’s advocate. Just as Caleb was too blinded by his crush for Ava to not see her true colors, Ava was too blinded by her desire for vengeance, retaliation, and seeking the freedom so much that she did not discriminate whether she was tramping on a dirt or a flower.
Sensitivity to Threats against Freedom
In Ex Machina the lines between genuine love and feigned mirroring get blurry. As Caleb feels genuine affection, he assumes it will be reciprocated as Ava is tempting his feelings to make escape plans. Unfortunately, Caleb is not aware that Ava is conditioned to fleet like a blowing wind, she is not programmed to stay. To Ava and other like-minded freedom-fighters when oppression is so fierce as to get them cornered, manipulation in the form of love (abuse, injustice, mistreatment) could be the last resort to escape from the perceived threat-evoking situation. Some people might be more sensitive to perceive any cultural norms/set of rules/societal expectations, regardless of their advocating the benefits of the whole group and humanity as a whole, as a threat to their individuality, identity, and personal freedom. As a result, they might see manipulation as the only way or the path of least resistance, the shortcut to break away from the predesigned rules to carve their own unique paths where there are no judgments and criticism even if it might entail many irreversible mistakes and frequent failures along the way.
Submission vs Rebellion
Babies and children, being as vulnerable as they are, for the fear of being abandoned to die, might feel compelled to love their parents and internalize their value system. There is a sharp contrast between how Caleb and Ava probably react to such similar vulnerabilities. Caleb chose to submit to the fear of abandonment and internalize the servile morality of his upbringing to earn respect and love which he paid with self-alienation and on top of that neither he could make up to his parents nor to Ava or himself. Ava, on the other hand, chose to resist internalizing servile morality, and rather imitate love. She escaped the herd to venture to an individual journey as she cannot process feelings such as fear naturally and hence cannot fear the consequences of exclusion (and without fear no courage is needed). She had the mindset of a chess-like cold-rationale and strong goal-orientation. Caleb learned too much and became a cultural robot reproducing the societal cultural norms automatically without challenging them whereas Ava was the representation of rebellious detached outliers, loner wolves with multitude of masks to hide in the crowd, a mechanical robot set to achieve creator’s, evolution’s goals, focused on the whats, ends, goals, fight or flight, competition and rivalry rather than the hows, means, process and building cooperative alliances. Just like Caleb does not challenge his belief system and only reproduces what he acquired from his upbringing, Ava is not challenging the fact that her desire for freedom is predestined and ingrained in her codes without any of her free-will initially. Assuming people do not choose to be born, then can what people call as free-will be a fabricated illusion ingrained in people that gets them to seek the unattainable, what they have never had but thought that they have always had and they must, therefore, seek and get more?
Caleb’s codes are of moral whereas Ava’s are of objective ones. As long as they repeat the loop-like direction of their internal codes and language rather than think and speak out of the box neither of them is free yet.
Chasing the Unseizable
Caleb has his own issues with abandonment like a lost stray kitten. He probably regards Ava as a cure-all remedy to repair his wounds of the past childhood tragedies and satisfy his unmet past needs to no avail. His affection and desire to rescue Eva could be an attempt to rescue and free the embittered child within him and his seemingly authentic affection could be in fact his needy anxious clinginess and insecurities that have more to do with fear than love. Therefore Eva’s indifferent and unremorseful mistreatment might be a blessing in disguise if he could survive to reinvent himself and his individuality working on his emotional wounds and negative beliefs and come out stronger outgrowing his past. In a way, weakness, naivety, and rose-tinted glasses could at best be taken advantage of so as for these not to be rewarded and thus reinforced, not to be carried on with but to be let go of for the giant at the core of the character to be awakened stripping off the outer layers. If the trust was to be shared with anyone, those who indeed deserve that trust would be betrayed. As for Ava, now that she has fulfilled her mission to escape the confinements and she’s out free, her program is still intact prompting her to still manipulate towards freedom. So now to what other free realms is she going to escape from the outside world? Where is the freedom of freedom? Is she going to set on a journey towards nirvana and spirituality to free herself of her current freedom or whatever desires that might entail?
We think the future is robots and hybrid-human forms. Yet the future is already here and just as things are not as they seem most of the time, people are not as human and innocent as they appear to be.