Goddess, the Machine
February 15, 2017 § 3 Comments
ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός (apò mēkhanês theós). This simple Greek phrase has pervaded theatre, literature, and art across centuries. It represents a device used in ancient Athenian theatre, a device taken by the Romans, becoming the well-known deus ex machina (god from the machine). To understand the decision to entitle Ex Machina without the established deus, one must first understand the origin, uses, and criticism of deus ex machina.
Deus ex machina is “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel” (OED). Originating in ancient Athenian theatre, Deus Ex Machina was marked typically by actors playing gods suspended above the stage, the denouement of the play brought about by their intervention (OED). Aristotle was the first to use the term “god from the machine” to describe the resolution of tragedy by this strategy, later criticizing the very technique in his Poetics. Yet, it was Euripides who took this technique and ran with it, his influence making it an actual stage machine. Some critics even claim that Euripides, not Aeschylus, invented the deus ex machina.
Deus ex machina has been met with criticism from ancient and modern scholars alike. One of the first critics being Aristophanes who deemed the device a cop out, if you will, by a playwright who could not handle his own plot. Aristophanes even makes fun of Euripides in his play Thesmophoriazusae, in which Euripides the character comes on stage by way of the machine. Still, one of the more critical assessments comes in the late 19th century from the author Friedrich Nietzshce. Nietzsche criticizes the use of the deus ex machina and Euripides’ flattening “out the metaphysical dimensions of tragedy” (Bushnell 80). Nietzsche writes, “Metaphysical consolation had been ousted by the deus ex machina”(Nietzsche 70). Thus, Nietzsche believed that the deus ex machina created a false sense of consolation.
Why look to the deus ex machina when contemplating the complexities and commentaries of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina? Well, primarily because of his choice to leave out the deus. One begins to question, does this demonstrate a reversal in the role of man and machine as shown in the final scenes of “Ex Machina?” For, there is no great savior by a God figure, instead, the God is annihilated. Or, is this showing that the machine was God all along? Or, is this a commentary on the “God-complex” of creators and their unimportance when machines are finally able to pass the Turing Test? In one moment in the film, Caleb comments on the incredible feat of creating AI. He remarks on the possible creation of a conscious machine saying, “it’s not the history of man it’s the history of Gods.” Yet, Nathan takes this and twists it saying that Caleb looked up at him and said, “You’re not a man you’re a God.” This movie masterfully toys with the ideas of creator and created. One sees a genius killed by his very own creation.
Still, one of the more compelling dynamics of the film comes with its exploration of gender and sexualization. With the exclusion of deus, the masculine form of the Latin word meaning “God,” Gardner steers clear of its gendered implications in its title yet the film is still riddled with gendering and sexualizing. When Caleb and Nathan first meet, Nathan asks, “Can we just be two guys?” By the simple fact that creators are men and created are women, Gardner plays with gender roles. There is the masculine norm that Nathan portrays, something he imposes on Caleb in their first encounter. In this way, the deus, or “god,” would once again be masculine. However, the exclusion of the deus opens interpretation to who and what gender the god really is.
In an interview with Alex Garland, the interviewer asked about his choice of gendering. He responded, “And just to be clear, of the questions that are posed by the film, some of them don’t have answers — but that doesn’t mean that posing the question is wrong. Sometimes it’s actually good to pose questions that you know don’t have answers” (check out the interview at http://io9.gizmodo.com/director-alex-garland-explains-why-ex-machina-is-so-dis-1696309078). By excluding the deus and toying with gender roles, Garland poses questions about the machine that he leaves to the audience to answer, if an answer is even possible at all.
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