A 21st-century Pygmalion in Ex Machina

This post is a part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Christina Wehner

The plot of the 2015 film Ex Machina is set in motion when Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to spend a week at the estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac, aka Poe Dameron), the inventor of Bluebook (the largest search engine in the world). I was originally going to place Nathan in the “mad scientist” category, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized he really belongs in the “lonely” category (though he is crazy regardless).

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Caleb and Nathan

As soon as you see Nathan, you know there is something…off… about him (his estate is set in the midst of hundreds of miles of pristine wilderness, for example). His personality is so blunt it borders on the abrasive, and his wit is razor sharp. He quickly reveals to Caleb that he has been working on something exciting: Artificial Intelligence. He isn’t just working on it, he’s already made one: Ava (Alicia Vikander), a gynoid with a human face and hands, but exposed metal mesh for limbs and a torso.

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Ava

Nathan, to put it bluntly, has a God complex. Everything in this house is ordered to his exact specifications. This is his empire, his word is absolute law (and once Caleb arrives he is subject to this law). Caleb mentions a line of “If you’ve created artificial intelligence, that’s not the work of a man, that’s the work of gods.” And Nathan happily turns this around and suggests that Caleb is calling him a god, when Caleb meant no such thing.

Nathan makes it seem like Ava is the first prototype, but Caleb eventually discovers that this is not true. There were at least FIVE predecessors to Ava (we see the names of Lily, Jade and Jasmine), and they were all female. Clearly, Nathan is attempting to build the “perfect” woman, and that is why I dub him a 21st-century Pygmalion.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a sculptor who created a statue of a woman out of ivory. Over time, he fell in love with his creation and Aphrodite brought the statue to life so they could be together. Today, some scholars interpret this story as a very early example of artificial life, and therefore a precursor to robot stories.

So back to Nathan. He’s tried several times to create the “perfect” woman, just as Pygmalion did. This implies that deep down under all of his insane bravado, he is a very lonely man, maybe he feels that the only woman fit for him is one he creates. Only, unlike Galatea (who happily lived with her creator) none of these robots are meeting Nathan’s insanely high standards, not to mention they have all tried to escape (one even put cracks in a glass wall). (Based on his behavior, Nathan expects and wants a woman that is totally submissive to HIS needs, I think that’s why Kyoko (who is, spoiler alert, also a robot) cannot talk (Nathan says that she can’t understand English, but I believe that she can, she just can’t say anything). So thus far, as each one fails the tests, Nathan destroys that model, downloads the information, and tries again. He implies to Caleb that he’s about to do the same thing to Ava. But Nathan does not realize that introducing Caleb into the equation will lead to his permanent downfall. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you haven’t seen Ex Machina, I highly recommend getting a copy and checking it out.

On a side note, besides being a 21st-century Pygmalion, Nathan is also a modern-day Bluebeard. For those unfamiliar with the fairy tale, Bluebeard was a wealthy man who had married multiple times. His latest wife is given all of the keys to the house but is told to not enter the last room at the end of the hall. Eventually, curiosity wins out and the wife goes in…only to discover the dead bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives (Bluebeard’s secret is that he is a serial murderer). In Nathan’s bedroom, Caleb discovers a series of closets containing the broken down bodies of Ava’s predecessors a la Bluebeard. Nathan also tells Caleb that “not all of these rooms are for you.”

I hope you enjoyed this look at Nathan from Ex Machina- Bex

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7 thoughts on “A 21st-century Pygmalion in Ex Machina

  1. Silver Screenings

    Whoa! That is one crazy scientist! (I still haven’t seen this film, despite all the rave reviews.)

    It says a lot about Nathan how he lives in isolation and wants to create someone in *his* image, to conform to *his* wishes. Personally, I don’t see the fun in that, but it certainly makes a statement about his mental stability, no?

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon, and for treating us to a double header with Metropolis and Ex Machina!

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  2. christinawehner

    What an interesting idea about Pygmalion and Galatea being the first story of artificial life and robots! A Bluebeard/Pygmalion blend with a twist – the film sounds very rich with its hearkening to myths and legends, too.

    Frankenstein clearly has something to learn about god-complexes from this guy, but like your thought that deep inside, he must be feeling pretty empty. Thanks so much for your wonderful posts this weekend and joining in the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Pingback: #MovieScientist Blogathon Day 3 Recap – The Lonely – Silver Screenings

  4. Paragraph Film Reviews

    This is one of the few movies I’ve seen lately where the soundtrack feels critical to the movie. You must have had a field day with this given how well you know Metropolis!

    Liked by 1 person

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