Review by Timothy Lawrence
Ex Machina derives its title from the Latin “Deus ex machina,” meaning “god from the machine.” The film’s removal of God from its titular equation is apropos, as is the allusion to classical tragedy. In this polished directorial debut, Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine) has crafted something of a modern Greek tragedy: Ex Machina is a tight-knit, small-scale story focusing on a mere four characters, employing a tortured quasi-familial dynamic as it barrels inexorably toward poetic justice. Garland uses his science-fiction conceit to explore familiar themes in a new context – human hubris, dysfunctional gender relationships – any of which would be right at home in a classical myth. Like many science fiction stories, in looking ahead into the future, Ex Machina ends up looking back into the past.
Garland deserves a great deal of credit for bringing this project to life. His screenplay is tightly coiled and astonishing in its efficiency. The opening sequences move at a breakneck pace, handily subverting many world-building tropes in order to focus on what is really important. His direction is deliberate and precise, and the film does a great job juggling tone – unexpected humor arises on more than one occasion, but Garland never loses sight of the omnipresent underlying tension. Yet a small-scale piece like this relies heavily on its characters, and Ex Machina has an excellent cast.
Dohmnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) is the film’s beating heart as Caleb, a young lackey at BlueBook, a fictional equivalent to Google. After winning an in-company lottery, Caleb travels to the Alaskan estate of BlueBook’s reclusive founder – and here, to his credit, Gleeson continues to exude simple decency and good intentions even as his situation reveals new and ominous depths.
At the estate, Caleb finds himself alternately patronized and terrorized by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a vaguely unhinged technological prodigy. Isaac, who is one of our most reliably terrific up-and-coming actors – over the past two years, he’s given two indelible performances in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year – brings Nathan to life with unexpected exuberance, yet never goes too far over the top. Contrary to the nerdy stereotype one might expect, Nathan is constantly gulping down beers or lifting weights – but this he-man masculinity never undercuts his fearsome intelligence. After pressuring Caleb into signing a non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals that he has been developing artificial intelligence, and wants Caleb to take part in an elaborate series of tests to determine whether or not the machine has consciousness.
The test is complicated by the fact that the machine takes the form of a humanoid female and adopts the name Ava (appropriately, a variant of Eve). Alicia Vikander plays Ava in the same long tradition of unsettling, seemingly human characters as Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Artificial Intelligence or, more recently, Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin (to which this film is comparable in not insignificant ways). Ava is a character about whom the audience is never sure how to feel: like Caleb, we are placed in the position of determining for ourselves whether she has consciousness.
The question of consciousness is Ex Machina’s central dilemma, and Nathan, Caleb, and Ava philosophize at length about what it means to be sentient. Nathan insists that the trick is to show Caleb that Ava is a machine and see if he still thinks of her as a person. Ava, for her part, at least does an excellent job imitating sentience; she expresses fear for her own safety and displays a growing romantic interest in Caleb. Caleb is infatuated in turn, but Nathan sows seeds of doubt, asking, “Does Ava actually like you, or is she just pretending to like you?” Perhaps Ava does not have consciousness. Perhaps she just views Caleb as another puzzle to solve, and is manipulating his empathy for her own ends.
It turns out that Nathan chose Caleb specifically because of that deep-seated sense of empathy, and as the film progresses, empathy turns out to be key to its definition of humanity. It is a trait which Nathan himself clearly lacks, as he callously explains the countless breaches of personal privacy that he committed in order to program Ava. Ex Machina suggests that Nathan’s lack of empathy makes him no better than a machine – and thus, as Ava and Nathan both seek to use Caleb for their own purposes, the pawn becomes the only really human piece on the board.
Dishearteningly, though, Ex Machina suggests that decent humans are not always able to resist the subterfuge of the heartless machines. Caleb is not perfect, and in the end, both Nathan and Ava are able to outsmart and outmaneuver him. Tellingly, Caleb’s weakness stems from his attraction to Ava, who uses her sexuality as a diversion tactic – a tactic to which Caleb is unfortunately susceptible. His initially scientific observation slowly metamorphoses into voyeurism as he becomes more and more infatuated, and in a stinging scene, he asks Nathan if her appearance was based on his pornography preferences. Caleb’s culturally perpetuated view of women proves to be the fatal lapse in his humanity – and a revelation in the third act makes the idea of the objectification of women frighteningly literal. Caleb’s fundamental decency is undermined and stamped out by a culture that does not value empathy.
In the end, the creator paves the path to his own destruction at the hands of his creations. Ava kills Nathan and traps Caleb in the facility before escaping into the real world – a world where she blends right into the crowd. Ex Machina’s final image is its final damning statement on the lack of empathy in modern culture. In a world without God – a world where no one really knows anyone else – what is the difference between a human and a machine?
- Release DateApril 10, 2015
I go into any movie about artificial intelligence assuming that the answer to the question, “Is the robot actually a human?” is “Yes.” The real question is, “Can this movie remain interesting if the robot’s humanity is assumed?”
I found “Ex Machina” interesting over the first hour, and Oscar Isaac was captivating throughout, but in the end, this film seemed a rather standard play on what Christopher Vogler calls “the golden triangle.” Employee’s loyalty to boss is challenged by the boss’s alluring wife. Nathan is a rich thug who wants someone to praise his new girlfriend, and the new girlfriend bats her eyes and pits employer against employee for her own gain. After the humanity of Ava is accepted, I struggled to find something deeper to grapple with.
Was there a variation on the employee-employer-employer’s wife setup that I missed here?
My favorite part, surprisingly, was the twist – I should be more specific, as this film as a number of twists that it forces on the viewer right at the end (yes, this is one of my negatives…)
At first thinking this was fairly convoluted, the more I thought about Caleb’s revelation that he had already set things into motion the previous day, Nathan’s reaction reveals a lot about his character. Nathan has realized long ago that if he is to succeed in his goal, it will most likely mean his death. As he has revealed to Caleb, the end game is for the AI to overcome the tests. This explains the heavy drinking. Nathan is part father, part creator. His inner self struggles with the fact that “what he has created hates him,” while also being so committed to his creation that he’s willing to die for it. He mistakenly believes that Ava is almost there, but not quite… his intention is to purpose Ava for something other outcome and set to work on the next – possibly successful – model. However, when Caleb reveals what he has done, his reaction is priceless – he has just come face to face with the fact that he may die very soon… that the end has come. Once that washes over him, though, he grabs a weapon and sets to work. I admire that aspect of his character, I think. He might have been successful at subduing Ava, except he made a second miscalculation – Kyoko. His failure takes a very different form than Caleb’s… in the end, I kind of felt worse for Nathan – mainly for some of the reasons that Timothy explained above.
I found the first half of the movie – the worldbuilding – compelling, but past the halfway point it felt like the movie ran out of interesting things to say and the ending felt foregone in a way that Garland’s movies with Danny Boyle didn’t.
Maybe in a tragedy the ending is supposed to feel inevitable, but I found it unsatisfying. Especially when the movie teased us with the possibility of plot twists it had no interest in.