Consider 1973’s cult classic, Soylent Green, in which right and wrong become distinctly blurred when corporate interests are at stake. In one of the film’s early scenes, William Simonson, a member of the Soylent Corporation’s board of directors is about to be killed by a hired hand because, the assassin says, his knowledge has become a “risk” to the company’s interests. After delivering the explanation to Simonson, the befuddled killer asks, “Then this is right?” “No,” Simonson responds, “necessary.” It’s the same response that the Soylent Corporation would give. A threat to the success of its newest product, Simonson must be eliminated.
However extreme, Soylent Green’s suggestion that corporations conspire against the broader public good was undoubtedly motivated by real concerns over the effects of unregulated corporate power. Released only three years after the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, Soylent Green depicts a dystopian future (it’s set in 2022) in which industrial capitalism has left Earth overpopulated, overheated, and underfed. Meanwhile, the Soylent Corporation profits from its access to the resources the rest of the population is denied.
The Soylent Corporation acts as a benevolent supporter of both life and death, providing large portions of the world’s food supply as well as a modern euthanasia clinic for those too tired with the world to go on living in it. An oasis of cleanliness and air conditioning, the clinic promises a few painless, beautiful final moments to give its patients glimpses of the world it has robbed from them.
But as Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates Simonson’s murder with his assistant Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson, in his final role), the two find that such compassionate gestures will inevitably reveal themselves to be hollow, as long as profit-maximization is involved. As Thorn learns, Soylent takes away the bodies from its clinics and processes them into food for the starving masses. With so little regard for its social responsibility, Soylent has no qualms about turning its consumers literally into its products, and in one of the film’s most moving scenes, Roth elects to euthanize himself after learning Soylent’s secret. Soylent Green’s then-shocking revelation has since become more widely known than the rest of the film itself. (So too has it become a truism that people are products, but Heston shouting, “Facebook is people!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)
Ex Machina’s most pressing question is not just about whether corporations are evil agents conspiring against the individual (although it certainly asks this too), but also about the individual’s complicity in that evil. The problem of the 20th-century corporate dystopia was one in which people can become products, but its 21st-century counterpart asks what happens when products become people, when the non-sentient become sentient, and when CEOs, shareholders, and customers alike allow corporations to take on a life of their own.