Both Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) depict future worlds that are not designed to look futuristic in a conventional science fiction way. More interestingly, in both films free will and freedom play crucial roles. Design is used in to reinforce these themes, whilst simultaneously presenting the realities created by Kubrick and Garland. When looking at free will and freedom, one can easily be tempted to imagine them as interchangeable. The most simplified definition of free will is one’s ability to make a choice, while freedom is the sociopolitical power to act, speak, or think as one wants. In this regard, freedom is the condition needed to actualise free will.
A Clockwork Orange
Based on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name, A Clockwork Orange pictures a hypothetical future society obsessed with social order and the material world. The iconic imagery of the film continues to survive in popular culture to this day, for example, the gang’s fashion style, the Milk Bar, the erotic art, and the writer who gets beaten up in his house to the melody of Singin’ in the Rain. These icons project the plot into an untraceable future where the surroundings become daringly uncomfortable, by exploring the contrast between the extravagant and the ruined, the constrained and the freed, or the erotic and the religious. As the camera carefully focuses on different environments, design invites the viewer to construct the social order at hand, apart from that not described in any way by the plot other than visually. Design has an edifying role in A Clockwork Orange. As its elements contribute to the absurd, design becomes the contextual feature of society.
The gang leader – and protagonist of the film – Alex DeLarge comes in contact with different environments through his nightly searches for ‘ultra-violence’. Through his encounter with the homeless, it becomes clear that in his world poverty has not been eradicated. Evidence of wealth is shown through locations such as the writer’s house. The latter – a ’70s décor de rigueur present in magazines like L’Oeil or Domus – constructs the character of the writer and his wife as sophisticated, yet contained personalities. The house is large and multifunctional; the rooms smoothly melt into each other creating open zones. When the A Clockwork Orange was made, this type of interior would seem unbelievable for a residence. Up until now the large, open, and multifunctional remain features associated with wealth. Apart from his home, the film doesn’t give any detail of the writer’s wealth, yet his portrayal, as a wealthy individual is evident by his physical surroundings. By contrast, Alex lives with his parents in a small apartment. Decorated in a postmodern kitsch style, the interior puts together tacky ’70s high-tech with abundant use of vivid colours. One is shown a glimpse into proletarian life through Alex’ home. Alex however, is the teenager who tries to escape this banal existence. The protagonist’s personality is reinforced by his private space where the erotic and the profane are focused on through, among other things, the works of the Makkink brothers.
The general context builds up to self-contained spaces that tend to neglect the outdoors – perhaps a justified choice when the streets are ruled by the young and violent. The presence of brutalist architecture, a style that flourished between the ’50s and ’70s, contributes to this alienating atmosphere. Life happens inside, in sealed blocks that serve all daily functions: work, leisure, residential space etc. This architectural perspective happens to coincide with the contemporary multi-purpose building, a development that slowly formed its way through the rise of economic efficiency and the industrialisation of architecture. However, the originally Swedish brutalist style remains in the common memory for its associations with the Communist bloc. The image of rigid, heavy blocks leaves the viewer with the sensation of oppression and disconnection, both literally (by the lack of public space) and subjectively.
So why does such an environment of social fear have to surround the exploration of free will as part of the human condition? Is Alex’ pursuit of violence just a phase or a desperate reaction against an imprisoning environment?
His actions don’t remain unpunished. Alex is incarcerated, and later put through aversion therapy, resulting in him becoming nauseous when experiencing violence. Even though he no longer is a wrongdoer, the film questions the removal of Alex’s ability to exercise free will. On a political level, society is not interested in the ethical implications of this loss as it is only interested in creating a sense of security. In this context, design becomes the symbol of the conflict between the individual and the greater good.
Seen as a tool that completes the untold, design not only helps to construct opinion and classification, but it also questions the extent to which freedom can be experienced through the material. The writer could be seen as an individual freed by wealth, safely sealed behind the closed doors of his microcosmos. Yet violence finds a way to defy him. Alex, in turn, could be seen as the free minded youth expressing his lusts and urges through his private space and his social behaviour, yet society finds a way to repress that.
Whilst A Clockwork Orange questions if humanity is liberated in this hypothetical future, design becomes the expression of the multi-faceted debate upon freedom. For some, it fulfils the functional role society fails at, for others it is repressing and alienating from oneself.
In Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, Nathan Bateman, the antagonist (for lack of a better term), is a billionaire genius who has created a fictional equivalent of Google or Facebook. He is the embodiment of the ideal capitalist success story. Beyond societal restrictions, the film projects ultimate human freedom through this character. Liberated by his own material wealth, Nathan may follow his intellectual pursuits without any form of distraction.
While design takes an informative social role upon freedom in A Clockwork Orange, here it serves the purpose of informing about the personal. Design is a metaphor for Nathan’s exemplary achievements, as well as it is the symbol of human success in a competitive society.
The entirety of the film takes place in one location, Nathan’s isolated mansion. This backdrop is a combination of multiple sites. The Juvet Landscape Hotel together with the cliff-off view (which is another building designed by the same architects) in the north-west of Norway forms the upper level of the residence whilst the underground suite is built at the Pinewood Studios in England. Together they form a remote unitary place. This modern minimalist house is strongly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture, pointing at the essence of being by the removal of all unnecessary distractions. The space is in itself a work of art rather than a home, both refined and sterile at the same time. Nature seems to reclaim the building through the walls and mixes smoothly with high- tech systems. Minimalist philosophy is combined in symbiosis with design. The interior is moved into the register of flat, seemingly undetailed surfaces, in cold and edgy materials such as glass, metal, or stone. Technology is present in subject rather than in object. The doors’ finishes, the furniture, the clean surfaces, all suggest the latest cutting edge dematerialised technology. One can recognise interpretations of already existing digital outlets such as interactive mirrors or automated stabilising systems. Yet, in Ex Machina, it becomes difficult to point out whether such technologies already exist or if they inhabit the realm of science fiction.
The outdoors of Nathan’s home, with wild nature strongly present in the background through the big window openings, builds up to the contrast between the manufactured and the organic. In this regard, Nathan’s mansion shows similarities to the writer’s home in A Clockwork Orange as both homes are self-contained environments meant to isolate its inhabitants from the outside world. However, the natural landscape in Ex Machina not only functions as a physical barrier that hides the residence, but also as a spiritual apparatus. Its presence stresses the contrast between the hyper-technological and life itself. Nathan’s focus in solitude, freed from society, pushes seemingly the last limit of humanity: re-inventing life itself. He pursues the creation of an artificial sentience in an almost spiritual manner, as shown in the scene where he talks about spontaneous gesture as a creative process, referencing to the Jackson Pollock artwork he keeps on the wall.
Nathan starts from the belief that through material resources, in this case, advanced technology, he can re-invent human nature. As the plot evolves towards artificial intelligence overshadowing human endeavour, Nathan’s ultimate wealth becomes useless. One cannot help but wonder if his desire to create artificial life – thus becoming akin to a god – is but a symptom of him being trapped by his own success.
Just as A Clockwork Orange, Garland’s film plays with the question on how one can define humanity in the context of free will and freedom. Whilst A Clockwork Orange uses design to showcase the disconnection between the state and the individual, Ex Machina goes one step further and looks into what it means to pursue free will to the point of extreme. Design is, in this context, the ideal embodiment of the material world. While providing all necessary background comfort in order to facilitate the future, the intentional choice for a state-of-the-art setup reinforces humanity’s limitations. The material world as depicted in Ex Machina fits the bill of the contemporary order of things. While giving the illusion of absolute freedom through ownership, it reveals its own futility and thus its limitations.