If you’ve seen “Ex Machina”, the main themes of the movie are quite obvious. The brilliant new sci-fi thriller about a robot being tested for its humanity enjoyed the year’s top specialty debut at the box office two weeks ago, and continued its ‘indie’ reign when it went wider last week. Buoyed by that, distributor Universal pushed the A24 production to 1,255 screens this weekend and the film came in with a better than expected $5.44 million. There is an audience for terrific science fiction, and this tense, cerebral character study has been proving it for almost a month.
And while the film’s commentary on artificial intelligence and humans playing God are clear, such themes are delivered with complexity and nuance. Even subtler are some of the big ideas that the movie also is trafficking in. All science fiction, even though it takes place in the future, tends to comment strongly on our world today, and “Ex Machina” is no exception. In fact, some of its more clever themes are not only its most entertaining tropes, but they are searingly editorial as well. Here are five that writer/director Alex Garland has infused his movie with that you may not have fully realized. (If you haven’t seen the movie yet, there will be spoilers following.)
For starters, “Ex Machina” is a clever, new riff on the “Frankenstein” horror story. As you’ll recall, the monster in “Frankenstein” isn’t the creature but rather the doctor who invented him, betrayed him and ruined any chance his ‘invention’ had for normalcy. Much of that is going on in “Ex Machina” as well. Only Garland goes Shelly one more here by having not one, but two humans who exhibit the rather monstrous behavior.
“Ex Machina” stars Oscar Isaac as Nathan, an Internet billionaire who has created an artificial-intelligence robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He flies a top coder from his company named Caleb (Domhnhall Gleeson) down to his remote estate to conduct a Turing Test on Ava to determine the her level of “humanity”. (You’ll remember that the Turing Test recently received a lot of talk and attention as it was at the center of 2014’s Oscar-winning “The Imitation Game”. It’s the test that Alan Turing created to determine if a computer could pass for a human.)
Clearly, Nathan is like Dr. Victor Frankenstein here as he is playing God and trying to create life. And like Frankenstein, Nathan’s ego is monstrously out of whack. Not only does he play mind games with his guest Caleb by constantly reminding him who’s the boss and who’s the genius, but he belittles the slight and timid young man into feeling the need to demonstrate his masculinity. Nathan’s bullying leads Caleb to side with the AI. And when he becomes attracted to her sexually, as well as develops an urge to help her escape her confines, he strays from the mission and soon, all bets will be off.
This predicament leads to another of Garland’s clever conceits in the film – the idea of false gods. The billionaire clearly thinks he is closer to God than most humans because of his brilliant invention, and he positively basks in Caleb’s praise when he says so. But he also lords his superior intellect and power over everyone at all times. He controls the comings and goings of Caleb, which rooms he can enter, when they’ll venture outside, etc. And Nathan bosses around and controls his ‘girl Friday’/lover Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) as well, though much more cruelly. His treatment of her is misogynist and psychopathic.
Nathan clearly fancies himself a deity in his domain, but the other false god at play is Caleb. Early on in the story, Ava confides to him that Nathan is a liar and warns him against taking anything the scientist says to heart. Caleb decides not to share that conversation with his boss and in trying to rig and effect the test’s outcome, Caleb too exhibits a need to control that borders on a God complex too. And it gets worse because it develops into a savior complex.
Caleb naively believes that he is the one to save Ava from Nathan’s cruelty. And his hubris is similar to that of many who thought they too could make a difference and demonstrate that they were bigger than the gods. He may be outwardly less masculine than the brutish, hirsute Nathan, but inside Caleb clearly has too much testosterone for his own good.
If you need any more proof that Garland is indicting man’s vanity, check out the cutaways and transitional elements he employs in “Ex Machina”. They’re all nature shots: big, beautiful examples of God’s green earth. There’s a lot of world outside Nathan’s house but the men inside it are too self-absorbed to give the mighty fortress that is God much due. With those images, Garland is shrewdly reminding us how small a world Nathan has created versus the ginormous one outside.
Another theme at play in “Ex Machina” is its indictment of the Internet. In a way, the entire story condemns what the web has wrought. Not only has his success as a search engine guru enabled Nathan to become an untouchable and reclusive rich man, but everything in his house acts as an extension of those rituals we’ve all developed in the online habitat.
Everything is filmed. Everything is watched. Everything is made public. It’s all part of some data somewhere. Every single move made is methodically chronicled, logged, and stored away. There is no privacy. Nathan’s world is like its own version of everything we experience online. Heck, even Caleb’s watching of Ava takes on a voyeuristic ogling as if she’s an unattainable object being viewed on a webcam feed.
Not once, during the entire movie, does Caleb touch Ava. She is always behind glass, boxed in a world that he cannot penetrate, literally or figuratively. Is that much different than our friends and followers we connect with on social media? Are we not being conditioned to think those are real relationships as well, even though we never actually step inside the same room with those ‘friends’ either?
Nathan has placed cameras in every corner of his home, which also is a searing indictment of the paranoid world we now accept and live in courtesy of the NSA, homeland security, and our post-9-11 politics.
And Garland doesn’t have kind things to say about search engines either. In the movie, Nathan used his search engine’s tracking data of people’s most intimate behaviors online to create Ava’s complex and expansive brain. It’s also allowed him to pick the perfect guinea pig in Caleb because he was able to study the poor schlub’s surfing profile, distressing family history, and even his porn preferences. Nathan has learned just how to manipulate Caleb, not much different from the way that Amazon and Google anticipate our needs and suggest consumer opportunities. Computers are starting to know us better than we know ourselves, and Garland is wondering if we know or care to change that disturbing trend.
One of the visual themes that Garland threads throughout his film is the idea of duplication. Everything here tends to be a mirror image of something else in the movie. Some of them are more obvious than others. Caleb watches Ava through a ‘glass screen’ as he interviews her while Nathan watches them on the glass screen of his computer. Ava’s caged in a very confined area, just as Nathan confines Caleb too. (The place often resembles a prison with card keys, forbidden rooms, and windowless corridors.) And when Ava dresses in human clothing to make herself more human to Caleb, her true intentions seem to become covered as well.
Garland slyly parallels the band on Ava’s mesh attire to echo the piping on Caleb’s casual shirt. The failed prototypes before Ava are hung in a closet like last year’s outdated wardrobe. And the destruction of one character mirrors the fact that she was singularly mute while she was alive.
Perhaps the best and savviest of the visual doppelgängers is Oscar Isaac’s hairline. He shaved his head for the role and it not only underline’s Nathan’s intellect, but it is pretty much the exact shape of Ava’s face line on her metallic skeleton.
Finally, many have missed the movie’s feminist theme, instead believing that Garland is being sexist by objectifying the female characters in this film because they’re subservient and often nude in the last third. That couldn’t be further from the truth. “Ex Machina” indicts men, not women, throughout its story.
And Garland clearly is siding with Ava from the get-go. Thus, so is the audience. We are originally drawn to Caleb as well, but as soon as he betrays both Nathan and Ava’s trust, he forfeits our affections. Meanwhile, our feelings for Ava grow. She truly seems to become more of a person throughout, and emerges as the most soulful character on screen. She’s an AI all right, but her humanity could teach the men here a lot.
As for the nudity, it’s there to show how sexist Nathan is when he was creating companions. The first AI that we see that Nathan attempted was a black female, and that could be because of his sexual peccadilloes or a snide commentary on the virtual slave he was trying to create. How chilling too that the first prototype’s remains are left without a head. It’s as if Nathan just wanted her body to fetch, have sex with, and do his bidding, but with no questions, no voice, no thoughts. That’s a putdown of machismo, certainly not women.
And Ava’s escape is meant to be a triumph for her and the audience. We invest in her, and the victory she achieves at the end is one that parallels the struggle of women throughout the world to achieve their freedoms as well – the quest for their voice to be heard, for their lives to be their own, for their paycheck to be equal. It’s a struggle for equality. It’s a struggle for basic human value.
The truth is this film is a million miles away from being sexist. Nathan’s caveman tendencies are the ones under fire here. His bullying, his sexual domineering, his binge drinking – these are all ugly sides of men who feel entitled to wreak havoc with little consequence. Nathan casually spits on the floor in his pristine hallway after a workout and you know he won’t clean it up. The movie savages men, and if some critics missed that point, well, they weren’t paying attention.
“Ex Machina” is one of the year’s best movies, and easily one of the best science fiction or horror movies in ages as well. And while this film may illustrate the limits of man, it should expand the possibilities for Garland’s future as a filmmaker. His film is one great and thoroughly thoughtful entertainment. It passes both the Turing Test, as well as the popcorn one.