Sound is a vitally important tool for the filmmaker.Have you ever wondered how sound influences your experience of a film? Beyond dialog, loud sound effects, or prominent music, people often don’t pay much attention to sound when watching a film. Instead, they tend to focus on the visual dimension of film: acting, set design, lighting, photography, and so on. But sound is a vitally important tool for the filmmaker.
In Ex Machina, as in many movies, sound plays a subtle, but important role in helping enrich the story. There’s one particular moment in the movie that I found fascinating, as it exemplifies how sound can help tell a story. I thought I’d share it, and see if you noticed it too.
Ex Machina tells the story of a programmer, Caleb, who is invited to test a breakthrough female A.I. designed and built by Nathan, his company’s CEO. The movie takes place in Nathan’s retreat — a modern, austere building tucked away in the middle of thousands of acres of private estate. Slick, futuristic technology contrasts with a zen-like monastic feel in the space Nathan has created.
Early on in the story, Caleb is shaving in his bathroom, while in the background a radio is playing OMD’s Enola Gay. For anyone paying attention, this seems like a bizarre choice for the director to make. Within the sonic palette that he has carefully sought to create — a shifting, moody, synthetic soundscape of ambient textures — an 80’s synth-pop song is quite jarring. Which is why I knew it had to mean something; it’s a conscious choice on the part of the filmmaker to use sound as a key to unlock a deeper meaning to the story.
The Enola Gay was an American World War II B-29 bomber. On August 6, 1945, it dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the world entered the atomic age. The atomic bomb represented a staggering leap in explosive power. Extrapolating its explosive yield from previous weapons was impossible; it was simply off the charts. Consequently, the destruction wrought by this single weapon was unlike anything the world had ever seen before. The moment Enola Gay unleashed its payload, the human race passed a point of no return, and from that day forward we have lived under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
Later in the movie, Nathan tells Caleb that Robert Oppenheimer, who led the scientific effort to develop the atomic bomb, remarked that his experience of witnessing the first explosion of the bomb brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Several renowned scientists and technologists, including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak, warn of a similar point of no return with computer intelligence. Over the past few decades, computers have steadily grown more powerful; in recent years, they’ve become powerful enough to support the widespread deployment of machine learning algorithms. As these machines learn, they gain insight into how to rewrite their learning algorithms so that they can learn more efficiently. It’s not difficult to see that this positive feedback loop — machines learning how to learn faster — will lead to an intelligence explosion beyond which machines will become the smartest intelligence on the planet.
In Ex Machina, I believe that the director is drawing a parallel between the unprecedented power of strong A.I. and atomic weapons.In Ex Machina, I believe that the director is drawing a parallel between the unprecedented power of strong A.I. and atomic weapons. Specifically, he’s suggesting that A.I., as depicted in the film, represents a point of no return. Like Enola Gay releasing its payload over Hiroshima, once this type of machine intelligence is released into our society, the human race will forever live with the threat of annihilation by the machines.
Through the subtle use of sound in suggesting this idea to the audience, the director has chosen an elegant solution that lends subtextual weight to the story without distracting us from the main storyline. It’s a great example of how sound can shape and enrich the narrative in film.
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