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Ex Machina (2015)
Written & Directed by Alex Garland
Caleb Smith is a computer programmer for the search engine Blue Book whose life is changed when he is announced the winner of a week-long retreat with the company’s founder Nathan Bateman. The journey takes Caleb to a remote estate on a vast swath of property. Here Nathan introduces the programmer to Ava, an artificial being he has created. Nathan wants Caleb to run the Turing Test, a thought experiment where you seek to determine if an artificial consciousness is indistinguishable from an organic one. Strange power outages allow Caleb and Ava to communicate briefly without Nathan’s watchful eye. What Ava tells Caleb causes him to question the true nature of why he was brought here and his reality.
Ex Machina is one of those films that have been touted as a triumph for A24, and it is. Earlier this year I reviewed Annihilation, his follow up film, and it just isn’t as tightly written and executed as Ex Machina. The key with this film is that the cast is limited to three characters, with a few supporting faces popping up but never taking away from the story. There’s also some smart play on audience expectations with the assumption that Caleb is our protagonist. While he may be the character through whose Point of View the story is told, I would argue that Ava is the main character. She is the one who goes through a very defined character arc, not to say the other characters don’t. Her arc is the one the movie is about.
Aside from the extraordinary visual effects used to make Ava appear like a robot, the weight of the film indeed rests on the performances. Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, Oscar Isaac is Nathan, and Alicia Vikander is Ava. Each of these performances in layered in the overt and subvert. They are all talking to each other, but they are not honestly communicating with each other until the finale. But even then, Nathan in all his arrogance feigns superiority over Caleb when in fact he has deep insecurity about the bond Caleb and Ava have formed. From the minute Caleb arrives, Nathan puts on a transparently phony “bro” attitude, wanting Caleb to see him as a peer. But it’s clear that Nathan considers no one to be his peer, and the only thing he is afraid of is what he has created.
Ex Machina is a film that uses its inspirations cleverly. It’s very obviously a play on the classic Frankenstein with the struggle between creator and creation. I was struck by the nods to the fairy tale Bluebeard. If you are not familiar, in that story a wealthy man named Bluebeard brings his new bride to his palatial estate. He tells her she can go in all room except for one. In Ex Machina, Caleb is given a specially coded passcard that allows him access to only those rooms Nathan deems acceptable. In the fairy tale, the bride eventually enters the room and finds the mutilated corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. Ava has a similar experience when she stumbles upon her the earlier versions of Nathan’s A.I. experiments
Going more in-depth than the ideas being spoken on screen is an examination of heterosexual relationships. The tech industry is no stranger to controversy about the treatment of women, and it is natural to think about the way in which female presented a.i. would be treated in a misogynistic environment. Caleb represented a very stereotypical “nerd” type without being a caricature. He is focused on his intellect and shows some minor social awkwardness, though the ogre of Nathan exacerbates that. Eventually, Caleb comes to expect that he and Ava are going to run away together, but any audience member has to know this is not the way the story ends.
Some moments grate on me though, scenes where Garland seems to get a little too pretentious and important in his dialogue. Some declarations by Caleb appear way too on the nose, but Nathan does seem to mock them lightly. So not sure if this is meant to feel trite or not. Nathan makes one statement early on in the film that I did in enjoy in that it preemptively addresses certain audience members need to boil science fiction down to technical specifications. Ex Machina is one of the films I knew would help cut through the painfulness of many other A24 pictures in these early days. The next movie is going to be a rough one though.