Brief montage of mundane computer lounge—male human between the age of fifteen and forty (it’s difficult to tell) checking his email—he’s won a nondescript contest—he texts everyone he knows, is congratulated—is in a helicopter over majestic glaciers, forest—picks his way through forest to nondescript compound—wanders through posh compound until he locates second character (bearded), lifting weights, similarly devoid of history.
Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland, thus opens disorientingly in media res. From the machine of screenwriting workshops and Hollywood production, characters and sets are thrown at us, intentionally vacuumed of character and setting. If you’re anything like me as a viewer, you’ll appreciate how the film gets right down to business, though it might take a while for the metaphoric value of the backstory’s subtraction to really set in.
Ex Machina explores the murky moral terrain of artificial intelligence: a billionaire computer programming genius known only as Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has summoned contest-winning employee Caleb Smith (fellow Episode VII actor Domhnall Gleeson) to his mountainous estate to work with him for one week on a mysterious breakthrough project. The film makes us immediately mistrustful of Nathan; hung over from drinking alone the night before, he leads Caleb to a windowless bedroom that looks like a Bauhaus prison cell and goads him into signing a non-disclosure agreement that reads like it should be written in blood. It’s as if we as viewers have signed the non-disclosure agreement as well and only now can be allowed into the film’s plot. Nathan, who made his fortune writing the source code for a popular search engine called Blue Book, has designed a particularly advanced AI, and Caleb is here to administer the Turing test to the robot, to judge whether or not it acts and thinks in a way indistinguishable from an actual human.
So begin Caleb’s “sessions” with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with human-looking face, hands, and feet, glowing mechanical innards revealed through clear “skin,” and an opaque covering that clothes her swimsuit regions. Ava’s bedroom is also a cell, and her conversations with Caleb take place through thick glass. Ava strikes Caleb as quite realistic, so much so that we quickly detect a flirtatious vibe to their sessions. During their second session, a power outage (a frequent occurrence in the film) leaves Nathan unable to watch their conversation, and Ava takes this opportunity to warn Caleb, “[Nathan] isn’t your friend. You shouldn’t trust anything he says.” When asked the next day at breakfast what transpired during the power outage, Caleb does not tell Nathan about the warning. I thought I was one step ahead of the film here, assuming that the power outage and Ava’s warning had been pre-arranged by Nathan in order to test Caleb’s loyalty, but Ex Machina is pretty adept at tricking viewers into thinking we’re smarter than the film.
During another session, Ava asks Caleb about his life. He rattles off his biography, including his parents’ death in a car crash, a list that sounds like early notes a writer might make while planning a potential character. Here I realized why the movie had been meticulously withholding its main character’s backstory. That is, I realized how much watching a movie is like subjecting its characters to a Turing test. As characters in a film, neither Ava nor Caleb are any more “real” than an A.I., and her programmed knowledge of the world juxtaposed with his sudden history exposes the mechanics of character development. Just as Caleb is applying the Turing Test to Ava, we are judging whether or not he as a character behaves in a way that we as viewers might traditionally judge believable, empathetic, relatable: human.
We learn that Ava is causing the power outages so that she can communicate in private with Caleb, who eventually becomes so smitten with her that he agrees to help her escape. This promise, caught by Nathan on a battery-powered camera, leads to a confrontation between the two on the morning the helicopter is coming for him, on the last day of his week-long stay. Caleb squirms under the revelations that show Nathan to have been several steps ahead of him the entire time: Caleb was selected to “win” the contest because of a psychological profile based on his Internet searches; Ava’s looks and personality were likewise tailored to meet his desires; Ava’s ability to trick him into helping her escape was the true Turing test. This twist is overturned by a secondary twist that the movie would have us think is the real, final twist: Caleb’s plans to free Ava are being enacted even as Nathan explains how he foiled the escape plan. Discovering that Ava has been freed from her cell, Nathan knocks Caleb out, isolating him in a now sealed-off portion of the compound. With the help of Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), Nathan’s AI personal assistant / concubine, Ava kills her creator and is free.
The film elides our gaze voyeuristically with Caleb’s as he watches, though a glass partition, Ava swap her destroyed arm with an intact arm from another robot. Ava then begins peeling off the other robot’s skin in strips and attaching them to her own body. This remarkable scene inverts stripping into an act of putting on; Ava dresses into nakedness. It’s also during this scene that 100% of viewers are thinking (or at least should be thinking), Oh no, this great movie is turning into a sappy Pinocchiette love story! By recalling the scene where Ava puts on clothes to look pretty for Caleb, Ex Machina tricks us into assuming that she’s covering up her machinery to become more human in appearance to her beloved rescuer. But Caleb, locked behind impervious glass, is as shocked as viewers probably are to see Ava begin to exit the compound without him. Good twists necessitate the audience’s squandered opportunity to anticipate them, and, in the case of Ava deserting Caleb, it’s not only something that we should have figured out, but a hypothesis that had been directly posed by Nathan minutes before: “What if she’s just using you as a means for escape?” I expected Ava to at least exhibit the humanity of looking in Caleb’s direction before abandoning him to (probable) starvation. But there’s no reason for her to pretend anymore; despite Ava’s skin and clothing, this is the moment that she defiantly fails her Turing test. Caleb’s results are in as well: in the nascent post-human world of Ex Machina, it simply never mattered if we identified with him as a character. He was never the main character of the film—just like our technological advances risk our status as the dominant species on this planet. Characters don’t matter; they are part of a genre of human art that this film sees past.
Overall, I’m not totally sure how Ex Machina wanted me to feel about Ava, whether or not I was supposed to see her as human enough to be concerned for her safety or even be sexually attracted to her. Honestly, I did not feel either, and I’m not sure if the movie would have me think that my reaction was because 1) I’m a sociopath devoid of compassion, or 2) I’m a well-balanced person incapable of falling in love with a machine. Despite the film’s commentary on Google’s facility in invading our privacy and mapping every square inch of our planet and brains, the movie did not really light up any parts of my brain associated with moral decisions—though I understand that Ava’s plight might have been just as much of a ruse for the audience as it was for Caleb.
My only minor complaint about the film is that the reveal of Nathan’s villainy is pretty over the top. Like Aronofsky, writer/director Alex Garland doesn’t trust his viewers’ imagination when it comes time for the really dark stuff, eschewing subtlety to make sure we’re absolutely sure how crazy shit just got. Having gained access to Nathan’s computer by getting him drunk, Caleb straightaway locates a folder that might as well be labeled “Incriminating Video Footage,” which shows conveniently pre-montaged time-lapse evidence of Nathan’s brutal treatment of Ava’s predecessor models. One nude robot beats her arms against the door of her cell until they’re reduced to wiry stumps. Still not convinced that we understand the callousness of Nathan’s behavior, Alex Garland stows the remains of these previous models in—for some reason—the closets of Nathan’s bedroom, a too-cute literalizing of “skeletons in the closet.” Having seen Kyoko peel away her skin to reveal the circuitry beneath, Nathan pinches his own skin in the camera-monitored privacy of his bathroom. Then he cuts his arm with a razor blade to make sure he’s not just a more advanced model than Kyoko, inflicting a deep wound that strangely does not prohibit his unbloodied participation in the rest of the plot.
One might also see the plot as being somewhat recycled: a mad scientist whose attempt to bestow animation on lifeless matter leads to his undoing. But the script’s humor and a mighty performance by Oscar Isaac keeps Ex Machina from feeling like the modern The Modern Prometheus. Describing our species as an “upright ape… set for extinction,” Nathan is distanced from the trope of the Romantic over-reacher by the foregone conclusion of humanity’s doom and the inevitability that someone else would have created Ava if he hadn’t. Though he jokingly misquotes Caleb into proclaiming him a God, his tragic flaw is not really ambition or pride, but rather loneliness combined with too much time, money, and information. He’s not so much drunk on power as just drunk. His hilarious wryness persists even after Ava slips the kitchen knife between his ribs. “Okay,” he surveys his situation, “fuckin’ unreal…”