Alicia Vikander Domhnall Gleeson

Ex Machina Review: The Controlled (and Controlling) Fears of Modern Life

Friday, May 01, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Ex Machina

All robots say, "Beep boop, beep boop." Just ask Chappie.


Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Rating: Four and a Half Stars out of Five
Availability: In theaters now.

Ex Machina simultaneously works three primary levels of social anxiety into every frame. Its brilliance lies in how those anxieties are often at odds with each other in moral rooting interest. While some films would be crushed under the weight of narrative and thematic confusion, Alex Garland's (the screenwriter of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Sunshine) directorial debut takes a simple, though by no means easy, step toward transcendence by embracing the messiness of human interaction and endeavor.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer for the world's largest search engine and obvious Google stand-in, Bluebook. He learns of his winning an intracompany “prize” that involves a helicopter ride and a weeklong stay at company founder Nathan's (Oscar Isaac) estate in someplace that looks like the wilds of Iceland, somewhere James Bond might go for an adventure. But it's more of a mysterious working vacation for Caleb, as Nathan requires him to sign extensive and unprecedented non-disclosure agreements about what he may or may not witness at this estate, which he admits is actually a research facility.

Nathan, having moved on from child prodigy search engine building, is now more concerned with deeper understandings of where humanity is and where it could go. He is developing artificially intelligent androids in his mountain-forest hideaway, growing a stressed-out hermit beard in between boozy benders and health food detoxes. Isaac plays him as charming and duplicitous, the ultimate Silicon Valley inspiration machine that can turn ruthless at the drop of a hat and hint of a shift in power dynamic.

He has built something beyond even the brainy Caleb's imagination: a seemingly working A.I. That is why Caleb is there, to perform a Turing test on the android, named Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine whether the machine can reasonably pass as an intellectual human. She's something to behold, with Vikander's natural face plastered on a synthetic, movie magic body, with a partially see-through midsection and obvious whirring noises that kick in with every slightly-less-than-human movement she makes. The subtlety of the design and filmmaking on display here blends into the background to the point where it isn't remotely obvious and allows the audience to focus instead on the Vikander's body control.

The way Ava moves – and intellectually – is part of the first level of social anxiety Garland explores. She moves slowly, impossibly smooth, every motion calculated for optimal performance, never taking into account the idiosyncratic ways individual people move. The effect is like what you get by replacing a band's drummer with Garage Band – it hits the notes, but something is off. Her eyes remain fixed on Caleb during their sit-down question and answer sessions that feel more like interrogations. It's unnerving and taps into our society's amazement at the advancement of technology and fear of the same. Caleb is too far along the path toward advancement partisanship, too enthralled by this new feat, to stay as cool and detached as necessary during these interactions. If he could keep his calm, he would notice Ava perpetually getting more advanced in her conversational abilities, more emotionally intelligent and able to flatter him. Vikander plays this perfectly, her eyes growing from nearly dead to filling with life as the movie goes on, collecting human-looking body parts along the way to visually explain her growing consciousness.

Is this growth to semi-humanity genuine and are these feelings for Caleb the real deal? Or is he being manipulated by this advanced thinking machine? Is her purpose to test him? Is he secretly the creation? These questions begin to weigh on him, and Ava is there, catching up on tics and cues at an abnormal rate, making him feel better about himself and, by extension, her. To complicate matters, the facility suffers constant power surges that may or may not be intentional on any of the characters' parts. Garland shoots these power outages in stark reds, a visual alarm that should warn the characters to tread softly. But, as is all too human, as these outages give them freedom from constant observation, Ava and Caleb soon begin to show feelings of care, maybe even love, for each other.

It's not much of a question whether Ava passes the Turing test, and Garland should be applauded for dispensing with that fairly early, because the more important question on his mind is voiced by Nathan later. I'm paraphrasing here, but he tells Caleb that artificial intelligence has been inevitable for decades. He wants to be the one to crack it, and that rush to be first leaves out the obvious and equally important notion of doing it right. This leaves the viewer in a state of fear for the cliff diving aspects of these inventors' personalities, as they fail to recognize the calculated nature of this artificial woman they keep in captivity.

And that's where the second social anxiety – the feminist angle – of Ex Machina comes into play. Ava is a female robot for very specific reasons related to where power lies between human beings. She is kept against her will by her creator, a man, who does with her as he wishes. Despite his entire reason for conducting this experiment – to create a thinking, reasoning being – he denies her the ability to make her own choices. On one level, she is a machine, and as such, she is a tool. Nathan's admittance that she is only one model of a continuum on the way toward achieving the best possible product is a nuanced bit of humanizing for him, taking him out of pure bad guy territory – his silly, drunken dance sequence is another. This is a machine that has proven to be quicker to the mental draw than even these brilliant scientists, and that is frightening, and rightfully so. But, if she is able to pass the test, thus ensuring her status as a consciousness, Nathan must face some difficult realities about the nature of having a mind, questions he seems ill-prepared to answer given his constant inebriation/head-in-the-sand coping. Is Ava a person? If she is, then he is playing into centuries old gender discrimination with more than a hint of sexual slavery as subtext.

Enter Caleb. He's the classic “nice guy.” He's full of feeling and goodwill, quickly growing to want Ava's freedom nearly as much as she does. But, with the possibly preprogrammed attraction growing between him and Ava, he's acting in his own self interest. He wants to be with her. He fantasizes – in sequences seemingly shot on videotape, a nice flourish by Garland to show the vagueness of the plan – about a romantic and sexual life with her outside the walls of the research facility. Without going so far as to say it explicitly –
Ex Machina is too refined for that – Caleb expects her companionship as a reward for freeing her. Simply getting satisfaction from helping someone – even an artificial being – self actualize is not on the table. He must retain the semblance of power he has in these interrogation scenes, so his own sense of self (re: ego) is not imperiled.


Tied in with the previous two anxieties is the most existential of them all. What if we, humanity, aren't “it?” We know about evolution, sure, and some of us even understand the intricacies of how it works. Nathan and Caleb are two such people who get it. That, along with the shifting gender power dynamics, are part of what freaks them out about this situation. Throughout the film, Garland has his two male leads inch their way toward a realization that Ava might represent their obsolescence. This gets to the heart of everything Ex Machina stands for, and the questions get harder (impossible?) to answer. You can be as pro-gender equality as you want, but what if the opposite gender is also an artificially created being – is it okay to be wary then? Is it still an accomplishment for an artificially intelligent being, programmed from the start to be smarter than humans, to outthink one? Is discovery worth the slippery slope toward death for the world as you know it? Is there even a moral component to this, or is it, like Nathan suggests earlier, all part of a continuum to find the best possible product? 

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