Ex Machina’s Meretricious Transparencies

*SPOILERS*
The brilliant sci-fi Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) received numerous awards as well as two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to assist him in the evaluation of his latest invention, a humanoid A.I. he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan,[1] the megalomaniac genius with disconcerting misogynist tendencies,[2] wants Caleb to Turing-test Ava. The exchange is set up with Ava behind transparent glass and Caleb seemingly leading the conversation. But this is where it gets complicated. Why is Ava behind this boundary? Who is interviewing whom? And who is watching whom?
     Nathan lives in a remote location that is only accessible via privately hired helicopter. Shot on location at the Juvet Landscape Hotel, Valldal, Norway, Nathan’s house is a marvel of modern design. At its origin, modern architecture symbolized progress and, above all, transparency in its purest concept of accountability and clarity. Glass, along with steel and concrete, were the materials of choice to express these sentiments. In Nathan’s house, however, glass deprives individuals of privacy and imprisons them. Here, glass serves as a boundary while allowing observation. Ava is presented to Caleb like a toy in a display window. Nathan monitors Ava and Caleb via multiple security cameras. Caleb watches Ava on his flat screen TV. Transparency, ostensibly good, is here transformed into a tool for surveillance.
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     The tables turn when Ava is finished with her strategic observations of Caleb, and indeed Nathan. She passes the Turing test with flying colours. It was her who had been gathering information and watching her apparent superiors. While glass limits her space and screens monitor her movements, for her, these boundaries become membranes rather than barriers. She uses the cameras to her advantage and breaks through the glass to escape her prison. She traps both Nathan and Caleb in her former enclosure without a moment’s hesitation, and skillfully hitches a ride with the private helicopter.
At one point during a conversation with Caleb he had asked her were she would go if she could leave. Her wish is to go to a busy junction and watch people. Blending in perfectly, synthetic skin covers her transparent body parts, she can now observe individuals to her heart’s content. Where will she go from here?
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[1] In Hebrew culture, the name means “God will give,” which is a nod toward Nathan’s God-complex and creative genius.

[2] One wonders if his endeavours to create artificial intelligence stop short of his wish to manufacture the perfect sex toy as exemplified by Kyoko: mute (because which sexist creator would want “his” woman to talk?), obedient (great cook and cleaner!), and beautiful. Did he get bored with her? What about all the other divine specimens of female anatomy hidden in his closet?

Person of Interest: Site-Seeing 2.0

The establishing shot is a device of the filmic language to situate the viewer in cinematic space. Here, I briefly trace the history of this practice of filmic mapping and discuss its use in the American television show Person of Interest. Currently in its fourth season, Person of Interest is a science fiction crime drama revolving around secret agents, a billionaire tech genius and the prevention of violent crimes in New York City with the help of an A.I. mass-surveillance system.
From its inception, film sought to take its spectators to new, and exciting locations on far-reaching journeys. Giuliana Bruno, in her seminal book Atlas of Emotion, contends that film transports the spectator to these locations, turning them from voyeurs into voyageurs. She argues that the visualization of filmic travel, through the simulated cinematic movement in space, turned sightseeing into site-seeing.[1]
Traditionally mainly used at the beginning of a film, the establishing shot, just like a map used by the traveler, introduces an unknown location thus making it familiar. To further inform about and position the viewer in the filmic space, actual maps or street signs were used.

Person of Interest is a show that reframes the mapping of space while challenging attitudes towards the question of who is looking. Throughout each episode, the viewer is presented with an abundance of establishing shots, almost obsessively tracking every move of the characters while illustrating the possibilities of modern mass-surveillance techniques. Its two A.I. characters, the Machine and Samaritan, do not simply offer the viewer reassuring security by informing them about their current location. These images make it very clear that the spectator is being situated within the cinematic space as well as being watched. These two differing A.I. characters, one ostensibly imbued with ethical values, the other obviously weaponized, further problematize the importance of who is watching and with what agenda.
In its treatment of terrorist threats, the show also re-appropriates the practice of sightseeing. In “Control-Alt-Delete” (S4E12), various historical landmarks in downtown Detroit become merely endangered sites flagged by Samaritan’s all-seeing gaze. This representation of the mapping of space is Person of Interest’s dystopian vision of site-seeing 2.0.

 

[1] Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.