Time to add Alex Garland to the list of must-see directors.
Ok, that’s not entirely breaking news. Sure, Ex Machina is the first feature he’s directed, but Garland wrote 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd, all films that were pretty well received, especially among people with an affinity for genre fiction. Ex Machina ought to continue that trend.
Science fiction usually goes one of two ways: either you get the big and flashy, like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy, or you go small and contemplative. There are certainly examples of stories that have done both, but if that’s the spectrum, most sci-fi tales tend towards one end or the other. Ex Machina is an exemplar of the small and contemplative approach.
Absent a brief introductory scene, the entire film takes place in the remote compound/house/laboratory of the reclusive owner of a near-future Google equivalent. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer at said company who wins a raffle for a week vacation with the owner, Nathan (a thickly bearded Oscar Isaac), at his house, but Caleb quickly finds that there’s more to the trip than a little R&R. Nathan introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot whom Nathan has programmed with a prototype artificial intelligence. Caleb’s job for the week will be to give Ava a sort of face-to-face Turing test to determine if she is truly sentient.
Let’s start with some basic mechanics – namely that Ex Machina chooses to ignore the fact that Ava is comprised not only of a complex mind, but also a complex body. The robotics on display here are as futuristic as the programming, but the movie never makes mention of how advanced they are. I thought it was odd at first, sort of like no one commenting on Iron Man’s suit, but by the end of the movie I realized there was a calculated purpose. More on that in a bit.
The bulk of the movie is psychological maneuvering between Caleb and either Nathan or Ava. Nathan is plenty affable on the surface, but Isaac gives a clinic here in smiling with his mouth, not his eyes. Some overt touches push towards our uneasiness with Nathan, but a lot comes simply from the chemistry between Gleeson and Isaac, as well as the setup of their characters. When Caleb first arrives at Nathan’s compound, he finds Nathan working out on a punching bag, and multiple scenes return to Nathan’s extensive workout regimen. Caleb’s also given a key card when he arrives which controls which portions of the compound he’s able to move through. We’re chronically aware of Nathan’s utter physical control over Caleb, even as he promises he just wants for them to be buddies.
Caleb’s sessions with Ava are no less intriguing. Ava’s “life” is one confined to a single room. When Caleb goes to talk to her, he sits in an antechamber separated by a thick glass barrier. The physical setup here alone is utterly fascinating. Caleb sits in on a chair in the small room, almost like he’s been called to testify, while Ava is free to roam around, but separate from, him. Yet she is the one locked up, an animal in a cage. It’s something I didn’t even fully register until after the film, however, because their conversations are just so rich, particularly when colored by Nathan’s commentary in other scenes.
Caleb at first approaches his task with the scientific and technical rigor you’d expect from a programmer testing an A.I., but Ava quickly diverts him. From her perspective, he’s acting strangely, interacting with her from the perspective of a detached observer. She seeks to draw him in and connect on a personal, possibly even sexual level. The questions of sentience are rarely overt in their conversations, but always implicit. As Caleb puts it in a conversation with Nathan, a machine can be taught to play chess, but does it know it’s playing chess? The difference between simulation and true intelligence emerges, and the movie shines by using Ava as the catalyst, then asking what parts of their lives might the flesh-and-blood people be merely simulating? Like any good work of science fiction, the technology is essentially a thought experiment for exploring the human condition.
And this is where Ex Machina really steps to the next level, because it doesn’t stop at exploring the nature of intelligence and human sentience. The question of what it means to be sentient is integral to the film, but taken as a whole, it’s impossible to say the movie is about anything but manipulation, and even more specifically, the sexual exploitation women and its effect on the perception of a woman’s humanity.
Talking about this is necessarily going to send us into a little bit of spoiler-y territory, but it’s absolutely worth talking about. I won’t be giving away anything plot critical, but I would recommend going into the movie as fresh as possible, so if you haven’t seen it, skip on down to The Verdict and come back to the next section after you’ve had a chance to see the film.
The question of Ava’s sexuality is raised more than once. Caleb even asks why Nathan made her female as opposed to some sort of box. Ava is shown to have dresses and wigs, which she apparently enjoys wearing, and at first it all seems perfectly benign, minor characteristics, even.
That’s where the film gets you.
When Caleb first meets Ava, she appears “naked.” But rather than a sexual experience, this is when she’s her most robotic, glowing innards showing and only her face appearing human. It is only after she makes herself more human in Caleb’s eyes, wearing clothes and engaging him on an emotional level, that he begins to question his own responses to her.
There’s a careful tension here. It’s not that Ava’s body or clothes are revealing or sexually suggestive. You might even say that, for Caleb, the trappings of humanity make Ava less of an object to him. At the same time, it’s inescapable that his interest in her is objectifying. She is an object for him to study, and she even calls him out on it during one of their conversations.
Far beyond this is Nathan’s relationship to Ava and her predecessors. He describes himself at one point as her father, but Nathan’s character is built upon the idea of control. As I’ve already talked about, even his house is an embodiment of his need to control everything around him. Yet he is creating something that is, by its very nature, uncontrollable. Caleb at one point remarks that if Nathan has truly created A.I., he is not merely a man, but a god, an idea Nathan is rather taken with.
There are even more layers of nuance from there, but this review is getting a bit lengthy, so I’ll refer you to the sentence that began this review. Top marks for both writing and directing.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
There are moments, though few, which lag a bit in pace, or are a bit on-the-nose symbolically, but those are more than made up for in excellence elsewhere. Domhnall Gleeson is solid, Oscar Isaac is very good, and Alicia Vikander somehow manages to be a robot and a woman all at the same time (i.e. she’s great). But moreover, what Alex Garland has done with Ex Machina is create an intimate sci-fi story of the highest order of quality. The thematic material is dense and poignant, and inextricably woven into the characters and plot at every turn. Scripts he’s written before have been good; with Ex Machina, he’s made himself the next director everyone should be getting excited about.