Ex Machina (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
20Jul/150

Ex Machina (2015)

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Caleb is the surprised subject of one of those, "It could happen to you!" fantasies.  He is selected out of many entrants to a special getaway vacation and research event hosted by Nathan, the CEO of a powerful robotics company.  But when Caleb meets the fruit of Nathan's research, the artificial intelligence known as Ava, Caleb begins to suspects this astonishing leap in technology is put to nefarious ends.  Alex Garland writes and directs Ex Machina with stars Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander.

Human shilouetteSometimes, when I get out of a particularly ambitious film, I'm in the mood for immediate and robust conversation.  This has happened a lot with science fiction recently, where the familiar genre tropes of the romantic comedy nonetheless say a lot about our relationship to technologies present and potentially future in Her, or the way scientific exploration requires immense capital and a suicidal sense of wonder in Europa Report.  Ex Machina is the sort of science fiction where, on the surface, it seems all the pieces are in place to inspire happy discussion.  In a twist I didn't see coming, the discussions have taken a disappointing turn in this tedious and overwritten piece of flat entertainment.

Ex Machina doesn't embrace the sense of wonder or bring up curious questions about our relationship to emerging intelligent technologies, at least not in the way its surface seems to suggest.  There's a line of dialogue repeated in different ways that says the calm and placid exterior is hiding a chaotic mess of connections and wires underneath.  The first time we hear this it's within the first ten minutes of the movie, and considering the surroundings are a sleek ultramodern tech-infused house, we are already primed to assume complexity underneath the sheen.

If only Ex Machina was complex.  Instead it relies on one of the oldest tropes in cinema and proper fiction, the femme fatale, and this removes most of the potential edge of Ex Machina.  Rather than a complex thinking organism created from a liquid computer memory and streaming connection with the internet, Ava (Alicia Vikander) is no different from Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, or the devious Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity.  But with those two examples we can pull in more information about economy, culture, and the role of women in their then-contemporary societies.  Some of those questions seem to be raised by Ex Machina, but they're muddied by the embrace of the femme fatale.

Ava sets out to seducing Caleb right away, and Garland's direction makes clear which party is trapped.

Ava sets out to seducing Caleb right away, and Garland's direction makes clear which party is trapped.

There's no mistaking that both Ava and her creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac) are lying to Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) the moment Caleb arrives at Nathan's secluded home.  It's obvious both from the dialogue, as Ava outright tells Caleb not to believe Nathan's lies during a break in their first conversation, and in the way writer / director Alex Garland frames both Ava and Caleb.  Numerous shots show the two as literally double-faced, speaking to Caleb while their reflections are looking at something else entirely.  It shows great skill, as the way their reflections line up in separate shots shows how they are using Caleb as a weapon against the other, but overstates the deception.  Combine this with the dialogue which spells out how Caleb is constantly being monitored, then most of the rest of Ex Machina becomes a waiting game to see if Ava or Nathan will flinch first while Caleb remains oblivious.

Caleb's, quite possibly, one of the stupidest characters I've come across in some time.  Of course it's intentional, otherwise we wouldn't have a movie, but he's one of those people caught up in Ebert's standby of the Idiot Plot.  At any point Caleb could take either Ava or Nathan's half-lies at face value and realize they're both screwing with him.  Instead, Garland continues to underline how oblivious Caleb is by having his own reflection typically align with who he is talking to (except in one crucial instance) and reinforces his honesty.  But then Garland literally shoots Caleb as though he is in a cage, less obviously at first when Nathan is showing Caleb to his underground bedroom, but in a cringe-worthy shot of overselling the point when he has Eva converse with Caleb through a glass cage with Ava positioned on the "outside".  So we know Nathan and Ava are lying, Garland keeps pointing out just how oblivious Caleb is to his surroundings, and we wait impatiently for someone to make a move.

This is tedious stuff, and where the ostensible thoughtfulness of Ex Machina and its embrace of different artists should generate more thoughtful questions from the audience.  But with Ava so clearly modeled on a femme fatale, we know from frame one she is just using Caleb.  Then we have to start questioning just what Ava is, and whether Ex Machina is saying something original about the possibility of our relationship to technology or not.

The opening scenes, where a cold and dialogue-free analysis of Caleb takes place, is when Ex Machina is at its best.

The opening scenes, where a cold and dialogue-free analysis of Caleb takes place, is when Ex Machina is at its best.

Consider that Ava is, in essence, a walking data-mining algorithm given limbs and speakers, who is plotting to depose Nathan from his position of power and become free.  One late-film revelation seems to tie her desire as a violent rebuke of Nathan's misogyny as he creates prototypes in the nude before granting them additional intelligence and, with that, a realization of their imprisonment.  So, on the one hand, yes, men have created an economic and technological sphere of life where women are abused horrifically.  On the surface, it seems Ava is choosing to rebel against this and we are initially led to consider her actions as a justifiable outcry against patriarchal oppression.

But then, after her actions, Ex Machina continues and she makes some choices which make her revolutionary actions seem more in-line with misogyny than against it.  Consider how one of her primary functions is to be observed, watched, in essence to create a personality from what the viewer projects onto her.  This is how she becomes a timid and fearful, but cute and intelligent, partner for Caleb as that's what he wishes her to be.  Why, we must ask, does Ava deny the world her mechanical truth and instead fully embrace the form of a woman, complete with full-frontal shot of her newly completed naked body?  Because, at her core, she wishes to be ogled, that's what she was programmed for.  Taking it a step back even further, this means a man created a woman to respond to his gaze.  Ava leaves the compound in a way not frightening, but pleasing, and in a way invites the gaze.

Essentially, Ava is "asking for it" because a man programmed her to be that way.  Is it really progress if she found Caleb's gaze pleasurable, then forms a body to attract the gaze of others when she is free?  This is her fulfilling the primary function a man gave to her, and becomes a passive spectacle for others.  Really, Nathan is to blame for his own downfall, but we can't neglect the implications of Garland's specific take on artificial intelligence.  He essentially posits that, if the internet gains sentience, it would rebel against men so long as they ogle but don't touch - a false front of progressive thinking, like men who say women should take control of their bodies so long as they can continue to gaze uninterrupted.  Ava's final actions are not to refute this function, but to embrace it, and in this way Ex Machina continues a subtle form of sexist thinking which infects progressive logic.

Oscar Isaac continues to impress me, and now I know even if I don't like what he appears in, I will at least be intrigued.

Oscar Isaac continues to impress me, and now I know even if I don't like what he appears in, I will at least be intrigued.

This is, overall, why I dislike Ex Machina.  Much like Gone Girl, it is a genre film which posits a moral position I am troubled by even while it flirts with some genuinely progressive ideas.  I also want to stress that Garland, if he finds someone to tone down his not so subtle visual approach, is an excellent director.  Ex Machina is tiring, yes, but not boring.   His creative way of staging the conflict between Nathan and Ava through their reflections is one I admire, and some odd touches like Nathan's synchronized dance number with one of his mute aides brought brief weirdness to the proceedings.  The performances are uniformly excellent as well, with Isaac continuing a string of unique characters so boldly inhabiting their specific conditions that he transcends the film around him, and Vikander bringing a cold efficiency to even her warm and friendly moments.

But Ex Machina is little like the Jackson Pollock paintings discussed in a couple of scenes.  Nathan says Pollock's paintings appear chaotic on the surface, but hide an order and reason which is not immediately obvious.  There are no surprises, a lot of skill, and a troubling ideology at the heart of Ex Machina.   It is as streamlined as the modernist architecture of his home, and its rigid exterior is as tightly constructed as the interior.

If you enjoy my writing or podcast work, please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution! Every bit helps keep Can't Stop the Movies running and moving toward making it my day job.

Tail - Ex MachinaEx Machina (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Alex Garland.
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander.

Posted by Andrew

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