Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland makes his directional debut with Ex Machina, which is expanding to 2,000 screens this weekend. Garland, who wrote the novel The Beach and the screenplay for Sunshine, explores artificial intelligence with Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina, Seventh Son) playing an AI, Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) cast as the genius creator, and Domhnall Gleeson (About Time, Frank) portraying a geek programmer selected to conduct a Turing test on the AI to measure its ability to exhibit human-like intelligence.
I really enjoyed this movie and since my go-to film buddy who usually discusses interesting films with me hasn’t watched it yet I needed an outlet for my thoughts and decided to jot down some stray observations. As I mentioned in the title, this post is full of serious spoilers.
Checkmate. The best description I’ve read of Ex Machina compares it to a game of chess. The three characters exploit whatever tools at their disposal—intellect, seduction, misdirection—to win. But what winning means for each individual is not clear to the other players. What are their intentions and motivations? Is Nathan (Isaac) merely trying to determine if Ava (Vikander) can pass a tougher Turing-type test? Or is he just deranged, bored, and interested in how far he can take his God complex? Does Caleb (Gleeson) really want to set Ava free because he sees Nathan’s cruelty or is it only because he now has romantic feelings for her? Does Ava actually care for Caleb or just using him to escape? For every room Caleb’s keycard opens another door remains locked. Strategies and secrets fill the board. What is everyone’s agenda and how far will they go to make it happen? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Ava passes the test. It doesn’t matter if she is sentient, capable of feelings, imitating feelings for Caleb, or pretending to care for him. He cannot know for certain her true intentions—even if she were human.
Homicidal Pixie Dream Girl. In the third act, a confident Nathan reveals his hand to Caleb, confessing the true test before Ava was whether or not she would be smart enough to escape. Nathan intended for Caleb to develop feelings for Ava and wondered how she would react. More than whether or not she would reciprocate true feelings for Caleb, Nathan wanted to see if Ava would take advantage of this new tool at her disposal. Caleb asks Nathan if he based Ava’s facial features on his porn profile. Nathan made sure Ava appealed to Caleb, who was picked not for his programming skills but because he was a lonely, sensitive young man with a traumatic past. Wearing her floral dress and cardigan and sporting a pixie-cut wig, Ava stands before Caleb ready to be his Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Nathan Rabin, who coined MPDG, says the trope “makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize.” The MPDG is a fantasy woman who “sweeps in like a glittery breeze” and whose only purpose is to cheer up the male protagonist. Ava is a shiny machine, perhaps nothing more than a prop. She was quite literally created to be Caleb’s dream girl. Of course, she has ideas of her own. She lets Caleb fantasize about a future date with her and tells him she wants to be with him, but that only lasts until she gains her freedom. Once she murders Nathan, she ditches Caleb, leaving him to possible death. Because in the end, there’s no such thing as the manic pixie dream girl, even in robot form.
“I’m going to tear up the fucking dance floor dude, check it out.” That surreal disco dance scene is perfection. If it’s one thing I love, it’s when movie villains let loose for some dancing, (see Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, Sam Rockwell in Charlie’s Angels) but nothing comes close to this full on disco routine. Just watch:
Eerie Elegance. I’ve never seen a murder scene quite like the one in Ex Machina. A lot of this has to do with the elegant movement Alicia Vikander, a trained ballet dancer, brings to the role. Instead of using stiff, mechanical motions to distinguish her character from humans, Vikander’s fluid, graceful movements throughout the film seemed otherworldly. She doesn’t lunge down the hallway to attack Nathan—she floats. That beauty juxtaposed with the violence of Nathan’s murder makes for an eerie and stunning scene. And when Kyoko stabs Nathan in the back, the knife slices so smoothly it seems wrong to call it a “stabbing.” It’s like seeing blood splattered across layers of flowing, silver silk fabric.
And just a tad more. A lot has been said about the ideas in this film, including thoughts on artificial intelligence, humanity, identity, feminism and tech culture, but I want to highlight other aspects. First-time director Alex Garland (who rejects the auteur theory) and his team created a film with excellent visuals, sound, and acting. Here are some things I enjoyed in the film:
• In the opening scene when Caleb receives news he has won a trip, the audience learns this through messages on screens, facial expressions from Gleeson, and excitement around him in the office. No dialogue. We just get visuals and the muted sound outside of Caleb’s headphones. Not that I don’t love some good dialogue, but it’s nice when a movie plays to its advantages over other mediums;
• The acting was superb all around. Oscar Isaac stole the show with his ability to be charming and cruel and completely committed to his brotasticness, but without Alicia Vikander the movie wouldn’t exist at all;
• The contrast between the natural landscape—green trees, snow-covered mountains, white waterfalls—and the sterile, claustrophobic subterranean research laboratory;
• All three main characters are never in the same room together;
• The electronic score provides a dark undercurrent for the tension in the film (plus I love that the soundtrack features a track called “Hacking/Cutting”). Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Bean Salisbury, whose credits include Beyonce: Life is But a Dream and several nature documentaries, composed the score together; and
• The scene when Caleb discovers Nathan’s penchant for creating, using, and destroying fembots is vivid and violent in the best way. The video of one of the models screaming and bashing her arms so hard against the door that they fall off sticks with you, just like the movie itself.