Ex Machina is a handsome, meticulously crafted film that if nothing else evidences Alex Garland as a filmmaker of talent. As a screenwriter, however, the jury is still out. I’m a little surprised by the levels of discussion the picture has provoked, in fact. Anyone would think Garland was reinventing the AI wheel, or breaking profound new ground in the study of gender identification. He has directed an engaging picture, a chamber piece populated by fine actors giving fine performances, but one that treads familiar ground and allows its plot twists to lead it by the nose. It might be slightly unfair to suggest Ex Machina merely pays lip service to its thematic content, but plot is undoubtedly dominant, so theme ultimately gets short shrift.
As such, the picture probably offers up for more effective analysis its debut director’s (leaving aside whatever uncredited involvement he did or didn’t have helming Dredd) continuing obsessions than any overt ideas he attempts to explore. Unfortunately, by this point we have more than enough insight into his quirks. He’s all about the hook, and there’s a point with his work, usually during the third act, where the edifice crumbles and the viewer is left with not very much at all. Ex Machina is more polished than earlier efforts in this respect, and more controlled; the mayhem of The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine is avoided, yet perversely the emphasis on talk rather than action exposes even more unflatteringly that any notions of intellect Ex Machina has are veneer; it’s the flesh and viscera Garland is interested in.
The set-up is straightforward enough; coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) “wins a competition” to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of Bluebook, the company he works for. He’s delivered by helicopter to Nathan’s remote mountain hideaway, where his boss reveals he wants Caleb to probe the AI credentials (using the Turing Test, naturally) of the machine mind (and body) he has created, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nothing is as straightforward as it seems, of course, and Ava warns Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted. Caleb in turn develops increasing strong feelings towards the intelligence he is probing.
By structuring the picture as a grey box for Caleb to unlock, Garland makes Ex Machina about the revelations, rather than grappling with the carrot on the stick; the mind of the AI. He squeezes his players to fit his resolution rather than allowing the material to develop organically. So Nathan’s deeper motivation is rather suspect; he’s doing this to see how convincing Ava can be at manipulating others? Really?
Sure, we can attach irrationally egotistical foibles and failings to Nathan, but they fail to really satisfy in terms of his grand scheme. This is a guy (a bulked-up bully, an alpha nerd who cannot form a meaningful relationship with an actual woman, but even more than that locks himself away and can’t form a meaningful relationship with an actual human being) with a first-rate mind who carefully devises a plan to utilise hoodwinked doorstop beta nerd Caleb in his test. He is able to account for numerous variables yet lacks the crucial foresight to only pretend to get pissed when it comes to the week of his test.
Nathan’s behaviour is an act, except when Garland needs it to be otherwise in order to oil the wheels of the plot. He has the wherewithal to install a battery-operated camera in Ava’s cell, but why did he not have one there all along? It beggars belief that one with his genius couldn’t have added two and two and made Ava as the source of the power cuts; indeed, it reads as if he must have known for it to make any sense that Caleb and Ava could hatch a plan together. He’s also someone well aware of the danger of his creations yet he fails to programme any protocols or overrides in order to prevent just the kind of fate that befalls him (“Is it strange to have made someone that hates you?”)
Conveniences of plot aside, there are other more pressing problems with Garland’s tale. Much of the conversation regarding Ex Machina has focussed on the final scene in relation to its play with gender politics; that we (the male viewer, presumably) ought to be less concerned about the abandonment of Caleb and should rather empathise more with the mind-set of the imprisoned and subjugated Ava. This reading wasn’t foremost in my mind since I saw the picture predominately as a (not necessarily insightful) take on AI fare; Ava is not a woman, so it doesn’t follow to see her imprisonment of Caleb in Nathan’s fortress as the act of a woman betraying her heroic male saviour. Indeed, the rest of the picture makes a point that Ava is not the chassis Nathan has designed for her/it.
In seeing the picture as a simple metaphor for men’s objectification of women, Nathan is the overt transgressor. His entire motive for creating AIs is as a glorified sex toy; one might see this as an extension of how, with all the possible uses of IT and the Internet, the number one favourite is pornography. If so, that’s also what makes Garland’s a kind of rote choice. What else have you got for us here, Alex? Apart from immodestly congratulating yourself for being able to take apart your own gender’s motivations in a manner that really isn’t so profound (i.e. conveyed through a plot twist)? One might also see both Caleb and Nathan as avatars of the new phase of remote interaction of the human race, where “a beer and a conversation” are foreign tools of communication. If that’s the case, the analysis is a disappointment, and one rather opines Garland’s decision that the film is “not a seminar”; it might have been more satisfying if it was.
As such, the choice to make Nathan a monstrous pervert is perhaps the least interesting one Garland could have chosen. It’s the same unrefined impulse that fosters Colonel Kurtz clones in each of his pictures (if Caleb isn’t Captain Willard, the man sent to kill Nathan, the genius demi-god gone rogue who makes his own rules, he is responsible for his death). At one point, there are the makings of an interesting conversation about the sexualisation of his AIs, where Nathan attempts to justify his choices (“Can consciousness exist without interaction?”), but it is quickly dropped for the question of Caleb’s desire for Ava (“You bet she can fuck”) versus his intellectual interest.
Oscar Isaac is a powerhouse as Nathan, but the character itself isn’t very interesting. The same with Gleeson’s Caleb. Even though they have far more screen time than Ava, they are still rudimentarily fashioned facilitators of the plot. Alpha and beta, nerd king and hero worshipper who turns. Not that readily recognisable types can’t work –there are only so many under the sun – but Garland has nothing new for them to do.
Gleeson playing the affably sensitive weakling already seems like the most typecast role for him. Caleb is more interesting when he is allowed to exhibit clinical interest, rather than proving Nathan’s kinky automata fetish (“She’s fucking amazing!”) and what a bad role model he is. Gleeson seems to be playing against a sexual response to Ava, and not just because his character thinks that’s the “good person” thing to do, but the character gets muddied in the third act dramatics. Ultimately it seems as if Garland is playing out a fairly basic polar scenario of his own battle with vying forces of masculinity; his objectifying gaze versus more empathic impulses (notably, for all his sensitivity, Caleb has a porn profile that informs Ava’s features).
In theory, we are seeing the film through Caleb’s eyes, yet Garland isn’t a writer who can keep authorial distance. His eyes and impulses take over. If he doesn’t allow Caleb to become Willard, the character nevertheless embarks on the familiar descent into blood and madness, exemplified by the scene in which Caleb cuts his wrist open to see if he is also an AI. It ought to be delirious and disturbing, but it’s obvious; Garland foreshadows the idea in the first scene of the picture with electronica reflections on Caleb’s face.
The main problem with the gender-based interpretation of the ending, however, is that it derives from a cake-and-eat-it approach on the part of the filmmaker. It relies on the female character(s) being objectified through the male gaze throughout, the complete lack of effort to fashion a character for Ava being justified by the “Fooled ya!” of her not requiring the man to be her everything. The same is also true of the picture’s treatment of AI (the Turing Test is quickly dispensed with in any kind of meaningful way, and the engaged part of the sessions comes from the reveals about Caleb when Ava is characterised as a walking lie detector). We know Ava wants to stand at a busy intersection (to interact) but that’s about it.
I’m not going to suggest this is an elaborate ploy by Garland to circumvent an inability to write female characters (by making them impenetrable, or, in the case of Sonoya Mizuno’s Kyoto, mute), but it’s very easier to look at the picture and see self-awareness and “legitimate” intent as justification for a series of less worthy indulgences. Such as the predilection for lingering on naked female bodies. If the great insight is that men don’t see women as people, well, it’s a perverse position coming from a filmmaker’s gaze that doesn’t see women as people. And the response is really rather “No shit”; this is a very familiar trope by this point.
Hinging the picture on Ava incarcerating Caleb creates a perverse situation where, by drawing attention to the expected dehumanising male gaze, Garland denies Ava the basic trait of empathy. She leaves someone to die and so shows her essential inhumanity (one would hope empathy for was seen as a universally cherishable emotion, rather than sacrificial for purpose of making a point about locking women in boxes).
Which is partly why the gender associative reading of the ending ought really to be seen as only a layer, rather than a point. Ava isn’t human. She isn’t a woman. Sure, Garland is addressing the male gaze in his rather cack-handed way (one wonders if his mute Asian sex slave is also intended as rather cack-handed commentary), but he’s really illustrating the earlier conversation between Nathan and Caleb, in which AI is the next stage of development and we are no more important to them than Neanderthal man was to us (see also the recent Automata – Ava’s escape into humanity here is suggestive of that picture’s conclusion, where only the machines are destined to survive and breed – and many others); one day AIs will see us this way.
There are many ideas worth exploring in the premise (should more advanced consciousness inherently carry with it more advanced concepts of “humanity” and value of all life?) but Garland opts not to go there. Ava is removed and unknowable – we understand HAL’s “grey box” better, which should be no surprise as 2001 was an influence (the design, with its hermetic, womblike interiors and ambient sound also acknowledges an overt debt).
Garland has dropped the most interest aspect of the picture for a “clever” twist and, particularly in a piece that designs itself around talk rather than action, that’s such a missed opportunity. Has Ava learnt her disregard for life from her impassive creator, who cares for no one? Does Ava even have no regard for her AI kin? It appears not, suggesting she operates from a basic survival instinct (not really that higher minded, then, but very sub-HAL). Vikander’s performance (and movements) are tremendously poised and modulated, but she’s in service of a blank canvas.
If the ending is the point, and you are questioning your response to Caleb’s imprisonment, then Ex Machina may be as rewarding and resonant as it would like to be. But if you don’t think it’s such a big deal, because you’re familiar with the odd slice of AI fare, then the sacrifice of character or insight into Ava isn’t worthwhile as this side is neither challenging nor provocative. Garland inserts some powerful moments, because – as noted – he has it as a director. In particular, the failed former experiments, with one razing its arms to points trying to escape its confines, have a stark horror. He also stages the occasional bizarre interlude; the impromptu Isaac dance routine is about the only moment of levity the picture offers. But he also makes heavy weather of his metaphors, what with Nathan explaining the Jackson Pollock on his wall (“The challenge is not to act automatically”) and the cardinal cliché of quoting Oppenheimer (see also season one of The 100).
So Ex Machina is pretty much what I would expect of Garland trying his hand at the cerebral. You know how the last act of Sunshine disappointed because it went all Kurtz? Imagine if it hadn’t and there was no excuse for it failing to wholly satisfy. That’s close to where this lands, cutting back on Garland’s obsessions but only enough to show his field is parched. He favours baser desires and voyeuristic impulses over stimulating conversation, but he has little to say about either. He creates ambivalence about characters’ fates but without the presiding godlike gaze of a Kubrick to render it meaningful. Ex Machina is diverting and occasionally intriguing, but it lacks the food for the brain its cool, clear polish and elegant compositions suggest. It’s a triumph of design and performance, but it’s more interesting for what it isn’t than for what it is.