Defining Humanity in Alex Garland’s Films

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” — Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species (1859)

The Turing Test was developed by Alan Turing in 1950, as a way to test for any hypothetical instances of artificial intelligence. In its most basic form, it consists of a series of questions and answers delivered by a human, to a human and a computer (all three of whom are kept separate from each other). Should the human interrogator fail to distinguish between the human and computer responses, then the computer will have achieved some level of artificial intelligence—it would have won the imitation game.

This test and its weaknesses are directly discussed in Ex Machina. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is recruited ostensibly as a participant in a variation on the test, as designed by Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He is supposed to be interrogating Alicia Vikander’s Ava, to determine whether she “counts” as a “true” artificial intelligence. However, there’s a problem with this: the Turing Test is reliant upon the ignorance of the interrogator regarding whether the participants are human or machine. That’s the whole point. But Caleb is aware of Ava from the start. Indeed, her inhumanity is emphasised by her very appearance. She has the face of a young woman, but her body is distinctly mechanical, despite the fact that her creator gave her breasts. She can be situated within the so-called ‘uncanny valley’—an appearance-based test to determine whether something that is decidedly not human can ‘pass’ for human to us on an instinctual level. The theory is that you eventually reach a point of resemblance to a human where the brain, in extremely scientific terms, freaks out and sees what is in front of it as a potential danger (as uncanny). Your brain might not even be able to pinpoint what it is that is so wrong about the android, but it’s just not right. In reality, your brain is pinpointing an inability on the part of the machine to authentically replicate human emotions on its face. We don’t trust that which doesn’t feel in the way that we do.

Nathan specifically designed Ava to look almost-but-not-quite human, specifically to unsettle Caleb’s conception of her. If he cannot prevent Caleb from knowing that Ava is a machine, then his variation of the Turing Test becomes whether Caleb can fall for Ava even in spite of that knowledge (which he does, because Nathan also designed her to be specifically sexually and romantically appealing to him). As I watched this film for the first time, it made me think of Alexa, Siri, and Sophia (our world’s first robot ‘citizen’). Objects designed for consumption, to help out with mundane household tasks, all of which are given feminine names and voices. That, in turn, resembles the way we use ‘she’ and ‘her’ to describe a boat—another object, made for boarding. Ava, after all, may be a Frankensteinian mash-up of component parts, but her face is still that of Alicia Vikander, which is to say, Ava is a total babe. It’s misogynistic and uncomfortable on the deepest level that, as soon as we apply human ingenuity to create a new servant, we immediately refer to it as a woman, and we transform it into a fuckable object. That’s essentially Nathan’s variation on the Turing Test—do you still want to fuck this robot, despite knowing that she’s a robot? As far as Caleb’s concerned, the answer is a resounding yes.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina
Ava (Alicia Vikander) encounters a previous attempt at AI

The Turing Test was designed as a way to distinguish between that which counts as human, and what is ‘Other’. Alan Turing had the foresight to know that we’d need such a thing in the future, but what he couldn’t possibly foresee was our continued inability to decide what, and who, counts as human in the first place.

Alex Garland’s characters push at the edges of humanity. Often, they are cold and unable to relate to each other as their core problem remains their own self-imposed isolation. Major West (Christopher Eccleston) in 28 Days Later makes the point that nothing much has changed since Britain fell to the ‘rage’ virus, it is still “People killing people”, just as it was before the virus was unleashed. He and his men just use it as an excuse to do so without any guilt. If Garland’s films are about how humans react to sudden and irreversible change, then it stands to reason that these individual narratives are engaged on a wider level with the question of defining humanity. This is why the team in Sunshine, and that of Annihilation, gradually devolve as people over the course of their respective films. Both casts begin with banter, acting like people. They have a dangerous mission, to be sure, but there’s a shared camaraderie. The point of both films, however, is how to scratch that surface-level affability, showing what lies beneath. In the case of Sunshine, it’s a group of insecure, deeply unhappy people who are forced to come to terms with the inevitability of their own deaths, isolated from the rest of the world. In Annihilation, the women’s initial banter rapidly gives way to paranoia and terror in the face of change. Both films remain about “people killing people”, but also about finding a line between the human and the Other, the monstrous thing that haunts the characters.

Garland is at his most explicit in this regard in Never Let Me Go, as Tommy, Kathy and Ruth are decidedly Othered by the rest of humanity. In this film, the perspective is from the outside looking in, as they long for the recognition, respect, and dignity afforded to regular people. The way that the dystopian organ donation system works in the film can only function if there is a consensus that people like Tommy, Kathy and Ruth aren’t actually people if they don’t “count”. Hailsham existed to prove that these students have souls, and are therefore worthy of humanity. This was Garland’s first attempt at grappling with the Turing Test. In this variation, the result of the test is, quite simply, irrelevant. The public of the film had decided that they don’t care about the state of our protagonists’ souls, they needed a service only clones could provide. As in 28 Days Later, this could be viewed as Garland suggesting that we are the real monsters, the real inhumans, in the most clichéd sense possible. And maybe that’s true. But then you can see the more nuanced approach taken in Annihilation, where even at their most unlikeable, the team remains distinctly human in all their flaws. The scientist interrogating Lena in the flashforwards tells her that Area X sounds monstrous, terrifying, to which she replies “Sometimes. But it was also beautiful”. Cruelty and kindness, ugliness and beauty are, of course, all part of human experience, so why should Area X contain anything less?

When you deal with metaphors, you are asking your brain to make an imaginative leap, to understand something indirectly, rather than facing it head-on. This is how I view genre fiction. Readers of this site are well aware that horror, science fiction and their related sub-genres are, and always have been, ways to think about ideas that might be otherwise too difficult to process. Instead of grief, we talk of ghosts; instead of love, we save the world. This is the reason why these genres work. Talking around a subject isn’t always a bad thing—it can inspire creativity, and new perspectives. It allows for evolution, change, and interpretation. Alex Garland’s films are designed to appeal to that. Their charm is in their very slipperiness. Perhaps the object of science fiction, from genre codifiers like Frankenstein to today, is to explore boundaries of humanity. To write at the edge of the human, and the not. By attempting to find that edge, which is less of a cliff-edge and far closer to Annihilation’s translucent, ethereal Shimmer, Garland is probing the limits of humans, and asking us to consider our own in turn. He understands that science fiction is not about Them, but about Us.

If Nathan is human, then we are ingenious but cruel. If Anya is human, then we are friendly but paranoid. If Kathy has a soul then we are monstrous, and if Ava does, then we’re her victims. Darwin was referring to the whole planet and its ecosystem when he wrote of “endless forms most beautiful”, just as Lena was referring to the whole of Area X when she called it “also beautiful”. The idea behind Garland’s work isn’t that we can be transformed into something alien, something other, but rather that we contain the capacity for endless change and expansion within ourselves. An idea that is, indeed, as terrifying as it is beautiful.


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