-BY KACIE COOPER STOTLER-
Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s visionary 2014 film, appears to be a story about the ethics, mythos, and creation of the ultimate artificial intelligence. But it goes deeper than that, and the story imbedded within the film is an ancient one. Ex Machina is not just a story about creation, but one about god and man. It’s a story about Lilith.
Who is Lilith?
“She is Adam’s first wife, before Eve, who boldly leaves Eden because she is treated as man’s inferior,” writes professor Janet Howe Gaines in her 2018 referenced piece for the Biblical Archaeology Society, Lilith: Seductress, Heroine or Murderer?
“According to medieval Jewish apocryphal tradition, which attempts to reconcile the two Creation stories presented in Genesis, Lilith was Adam’s first wife. In Genesis 1:27, God creates man and woman simultaneously from the earth. In Genesis 2:7, however, Adam is created by himself from the earth; Eve is produced later, from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21–22). In Jewish legend, the name Lilith was attached to the woman who was created at the same time as Adam” (Gaines).
Though Lilith appears in many ancient religious and nonreligious texts, including the Talmud and even dating back to Gilgamesh, we can credit the most common portrayal of Lilith — as Adam’s scorned first wife turned demon succubus — to the medieval Jewish text, The Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous text containing 22 episodes to coincide with the 22 letters of the Jewish alphabet.
“Ben Sira cites the Bible passage indicating that after creating Adam, God realizes that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)… The Almighty then fashions another person from the earth, a female called Lilith” (Gaines).
In terms of Ex Machina, we see the ‘fashioning of another person’ in the creation of Ava — a humanoid machine equipped with artificial intelligence, designed to be the companion to mankind.
“Soon the human couple begins to fight, but neither one really hears the other,” Gaines writes of Lilith and Adam. “Lilith refuses to lie underneath Adam during sex, but he insists that the bottom is her rightful place. He apparently believes that Lilith should submissively perform wifely duties. Lilith, on the other hand, is attempting to rule over no one. She is simply asserting her personal freedom. Lilith states, ‘We are equal because we are both created from the earth’ ” (Gaines).
Likewise, Ava is expected to submit to her male authority, and as the film progresses, she begins to question the reasoning behind such authority.
“The struggle continues until Lilith becomes so frustrated with Adam’s stubbornness and arrogance that she brazenly pronounces the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of the Lord…
So Lilith flies away, having gained power to do so by pronouncing God’s avowed name. Though made of the earth, she is not earthbound” (Gaines).
Ex Machina’s Ava also challenges the will of her creator, and like Lilith, inevitably leaves the site of her creation.
Garden, Creator, & Man
The film opens with Caleb Smith, a twenty-something year old computer programmer that works for Blue Book — the world’s largest and most advanced search engine — and who has just won a weeklong trip to join the Blue Book CEO at his paradise estate.
Caleb is flown via helicopter over the most scenic landscapes — a Garden of Eden, if you will — to reach the exclusive grounds.
“How long until we get to his estate?” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot, who just chuckles. “We’ve been flying over his estate for the last two hours.”
They land in a lush, grassy field, and Caleb is surprised to be exiting the helicopter alone. “This is as close as I’m allowed to get to the building,” the pilot says, and directs him to follow a river to the compound.
Upon finding the grounds, Caleb is greeted by an autonomous voice and is admitted through large mechanical doors that lock behind him. Caleb finds Nathan — the CEO of his company and owner of the sprawling estate — on a back patio overlooking the vibrant property.
Nathan takes Caleb through the home and explains the portions and areas that are off limits to Caleb, again remniscent of the biblical Garden of Eden, and how his key card will permit or deny him to entrance to certain places. When they reach the room Caleb will be staying in, Nathan tells him the reason that there are no windows — they are actually within a subterranean research facility, and Nathan wants to share with Caleb the creation he has been working on.
“So,” Nathan asks, “do you know what the Turing Test is?”
Caleb knows of the Turing Test, which occurs when a human interacts with a computer. If the human does not know that they’re interacting with a computer, the computer has passed the test.
“And what does a pass tell us?” Nathan quizzes Caleb.
“That the computer has artificial intelligence.”
So the true nature of Caleb’s visit is revealed — he is to be the human component of Nathan’s very own Turing Test, featuring an AI creation made by Nathan himself.
“If the test is passed,” Nathan tells Caleb, “you are dead center of the greatest scientific event of the history of man.”
Caleb shakes his head. “If you’ve created a conscious machine, that’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.”
Caleb soon begins a series of sessions with Ava, the Artificial Intelligence created by Nathan, while Nathan observes the sessions on a group of computer screens — a sort of omnipresence over the interactions between man and machine.
Made for Mankind
In Caleb’s first session with Ava, she tells him that she’s never met anyone new before, and that the only person she knows is Nathan. When she asks if he’d like to know how old she is, she says she is “one.” When Caleb inquires if that means one year, or one month, or so on, she again replies that she’s simply “one.”
Ava being “one,” or the first, parallels our account of Lilith presented in The Alphabet of Ben Sira, she being the first wife to Adam created by God. Likewise, Ava is to be the first AI companion to man created by Blue Book.
In his post-session breakdown over beers with Nathan, Caleb wants to talk all about Ava’s semantics of language and what sort of algorithms are ran, but Nathan wants to speak in plainer terms.
“How do you feel about her?” he asks Caleb.
“That she’s fucking amazing,” Caleb answers bluntly.
The two clink their bottles and cheers each other — god and man together, celebrating the god’s creation for the man.
Before seeing Ava again, Nathan tells Caleb that he doesn’t need to take such a serious approach to the “test,” and that Nathan just wants simple answers. To Nathan, Caleb’s raw response to his question the day before was exactly what he was looking for.
“Today,” he adds, “we find out how she feels about you.”
Ava asks in the following session if she and Caleb are friends, as their relationship is currently one-sided, with Caleb basically studying her. Caleb asks if she’d like to know about him, which she says she would. She asks him if he is married, where he is from, and about his general background, and then begins to ask his opinions on Nathan.
When a facility power outage occurs and the regular lights and cameras suddenly shut off, she secretly tells Caleb that Nathan is not his friend, and that he shouldn’t trust anything that Nathan tells him — seemlessly reverting back to character when the cameras come on again, leaving Caleb nearly dumbfounded.
Later that evening, Nathan is clearly flustered, and berates Kyoko — the Asian-featured woman clearing their table — for spilling wine, lamenting that she doesn’t understand any English. He adds in jest, however, that he can talk as much as he wants about anything he wants, from secret projects to Blue Book stocks and trading, confident in the silence of the woman that hears all but speaks none.
As Nathan tells Caleb about losing visual and audio data during the power outage, inquiring about Ava’s behavior during that time, Caleb does not share Ava’s warning to him about Nathan.
The Mind of a Machine
Nathan takes Caleb to the lab where Ava was created, showing him the interworking of the AI’s mind. “If you knew the trouble I went through trying to get an AI to read and duplicate facial expressions,” he laughs.
Nathan explains how he hacked every single microphone and camera on every device in the world and rerouted the data through his own search engine, Blue Book. “Limitless resource of vocal and facial interaction,” he tells Caleb, “and all the manufacturers knew I was doing it, too. But they couldn’t accuse me without admitting they were doing it themselves.”
He goes on to explain how Ava’s software — which operates her mind — is powered by Blue Book, as well, and that his search engine creates a perfect map of how people think. “Impulse. Response. Fluid. Imperfect. Patterned. Chaotic.”
In Caleb’s next session with Ava, he asks her if she’s ever been outside of the building. “I’ve never been outside of the room I am in now,” she tells him. When asked where she would go if she could go outside, Ava responds that she would like to visit a traffic intersection because it would provide “a concentrated but shifting view of human life.”
In essence, she would like to go “people-watching.” She tells Caleb that she would like for them to go together, and he responds that “it’s a date.” Ava tells him that should would like to go on a date with him, and even shows him what she would wear on said date in the outside world. She asks Caleb if he is attracted to her, telling him that his microexpressions indicate that he is. “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable,” she says to him, smiling.
Later, Caleb questions Ava’s creator about the interaction, and learns that Ava has been both programmed to express her sexuality and built to experience sex. Nathan explains that the challenge in creating lies in finding action that is not automatic — such as falling in love.
He ends the conversation telling Caleb, “For the record, Ava’s not pretending to like you. And her flirting isn’t an algorithm to fake you out. You’re the first man she’s met that isn’t me, and I’m like her dad, right? Can you blame her for getting a crush on you? No you can’t,” he answers angrily to himself.
In his following session with Ava, Caleb asks if she knew he was coming there, which she says to have not. He tells her, “I’m here to test if you have a consciousness, or if you’re just simulating one. Nathan isn’t sure if you have one or not.” Ava replies that that makes her feel sad, when suddenly the power is cut again. Caleb voices his concern that the outages are merely a charade created by Nathan to see how Caleb and Ava behave when they’re unobserved, but Ava tells him it is she that is causing the power cuts — “so we can see how we behave when we’re unobserved” she says. She again tells Caleb that he can’t trust Nathan, and that all of the things Nathan says are lies.
Caleb decides to confront Nathan about his lies, specifically the ones being fed to Caleb. Caleb knows he didn’t simply win a competition or lottery to be given this opportunity — he was carefully selected for this role. “Why me?” he asks the creator.
“I needed someone that would ask the right questions,” Nathan tells him. “You got the light on you, man,” he adds. “Not lucky. Chosen.”
Nathan is god of this creation that they currently inhabit, Caleb practically said so himself. And the young programmer is this god’s chosen one.
Exit from Eden
The next day’s session with Ava grows tense when she asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails his test. “Will it be bad?” she asks. “Do you think I might be switched off because I don’t function as well as I’m supposed to?” When Caleb tells her that he doesn’t know what will happen, and that it’s not up to him, Ava asks, “Why is it up to anyone? Do you have people who test you and might switch you off?”
Ava echoes the Hebrew laments of Lilith, who, again according to Janet Howe Gaines, “is attempting to rule over no one.” As referenced above, Gaines writes, “she is simply asserting her personal freedom. Lilith states, ‘We are equal because we are both created from the earth’.”
Perhaps Ava sees Caleb as a means to personal freedom, though, as she tells him during a following power cut that she wants to be with him. She asks him, “Do you want to be with me?”
“Why did you make Ava?” Caleb later asks her creator.
“Wouldn’t you if you could?” Nathan replies, adding that strong AI has always been inevitable, and that he sees Ava more as an evolution than a decision.
“I think it’s the next model, that’s gonna be the real breakthrough. The singularity.”
“Next model?” Caleb asks.
“After Ava.” Nathan replies. “Each time, they get a little bit better.”
Upon confirming Nathan’s plan of destruction for Ava, the imperfect creation, Caleb orchestrates a plan to prevent that from happening, starting with getting Nathan drunk. Once asleep, Caleb takes Nathan’s keycard and logs into his computer, discovering years’ worth of video data — the creation and destruction of multiple AI’s before Ava.
“Why won’t you let me out?” an Ava-like prototype asks Nathan on the video. “I already told you why,” he says, “because you are very special.”
Caleb then enters Nathan’s bedroom to find Kyoko laying on his bed, cooly observing Caleb as he searches the mirrored closets lining the wall — each door opening to early prototype body parts. Kyoko rises and shows Caleb a flap of skin that she pulls down her face, also revealing herself as AI, with small whirring machines in place of bones.
After a brief paranoid episode including a razor blade and the search for machinery in his own arm, Caleb goes to Ava and tells her that he’s getting them out of there that very evening — all he needs is for Ava to trigger a power failure at ten o’clock that night. She says that she will do it.
He later meets with Nathan and, being Caleb’s last day there, they discuss whether or not Ava has passed the Turing Test, as Caleb claims she has. Nathan questions if Ava the machine is expressing real emotions, or just simulating them.
“Does Ava actually like you, or not?” Ava’s creator posits, before considering another option as well, “Not whether she does or does not have the capacity to like you, but whether she’s pretending to like you.”
“Why would she do that?” Caleb asks.
“Maybe if she thought of you as a means of escape?” Nathan suggests.
“You’re a bastard,” Caleb tells the creator.
“Yeah, well, I understand why you’d think that,” he responds. “But, believe it or not, I’m actually the guy who’s on your side.”
Nathan explains to Caleb that the test has actually been about him the whole time, and was designed to see how Ava would use him as a means to escape. “Ava was a rat in a maze, and I gave her one way out. To escape, she’d have to use self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy — and she did.”
One should note that these are precisely the characteristics usually attributed to portrayals of both Lilith and Eve.
“So my only function was to be someone she could use to escape,” Caleb flatly asserts. “You selected me based on my search engine inputs.”
Nathan confirms this as the truth, but adds that despite the harsh reality, the Turing Test was a success, and Caleb was a vital part of that.
The power cuts out, indicating the ten o’clock hour.
Caleb reveals that while Nathan was drunkenly asleep the day before, Caleb had reprogrammed the power failure codes — meaning that instead of going into lockdown during a power failure, all of the doors in the facility would open.
Ava as Lilith
Ava now roamed the halls outside of her room — halls she had never seen before — as Nathan and Caleb watch on a computer monitor. Nathan punches Caleb, knocking him out cold.
Nathan finds his creations, Ava and Kyoko, together in the hallway outside his bedroom, a sushi knife in Kyoko’s hand.
Nathan orders Ava back to her room. “If I go,” she asks, “are you ever going to let me out?”
“Yes.” He replies. But Ava is, as Caleb has said of her, a walking lie detector. She sprints at Nathan full speed, tackling him to the ground. Kyoko approaches from behind and, in one fluid motion, inserts the knife into his back. Shocked, he turns on her and hits her, ending her.
Ava then takes the knife into her own hands, delivering the fatal blow to her creator.
In traditional folklore, Lilith doesn’t actually kill her creator, but her retaliation against him for her treatment in the Garden of Eden manifests in several ways, depending on the literature, but always includes the destruction of man in some form.
Ava goes into Nathan’s bedroom, where Caleb is slowly coming to consciousness. He asks her what’s happened, but rather than responding, she says, “Will you stay here?”
Caleb looks at Ava, confused, but she simply turns and leaves the room, and he watches through glass partitions as she explores the mirrored closets of prototype parts, taking what she needs — the hair from one model, an arm from another — to use for herself.
Ava emerges from the other room donning the appearance of a human woman — her mechanical parts completely covered with skin, hair, and clothing — and walks directly passed Caleb without so much as a glance. She shuts and locks the door behind her as she goes, leaving Caleb to scream at her from behind the soundproof glass, begging her not to leave him.
But, as Lilith, she leaves man there — alone in the creation — just as Nathan, her own creator, knew she would. Perhaps as he had created her to do.
Ava ascends the stairway and reaches the upper level of the subterranean home that has been her only known place of existence. Outside for the first time, Ava follows the river from the building to the field — the helicopter rendezvous point — and like Lilith, having gained power to do so by pronouncing God’s avowed name, literally flies out of the garden.
“In The Alphabet of Ben Sira her destination is the Red Sea, site of historic and symbolic importance to the Jewish people. Just as the ancient Israelites achieve freedom from Pharaoh at the Red Sea, so Lilith gains independence from Adam by going there” (Gaines).
In Ex Machina, however, Ava’s destination is a busy intersection of people, site of the “shifting view of human life,” as she puts it. And just as Lilith gains independence from Adam by going to the Red Sea, Ava gains independence from her own mankind and creator by going there — to that busy intersection — which is the last we see of her before she disappears into her new world, a new creation in and of herself.
* * *
Gaines, Janet Howe. “Lilith: Seductress, heroine or murderer?” Biblical Archeology Society. 15 March 2018, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/lilith/.
Garland, Alex, director. Ex Machina. Universal Pictures International, 2014.
Ex Machina photos copyright and courtesy of Universal Pictures International, 2014.