Ex Machina takes a conceptually simple plot and layers it brilliantly with a set of extremely complex characters and challenging questions about identity, sentience, control, manipulation, and survival.
The film begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at NotGoogle, being informed that he’s won some sort of company-wide lottery. He’s immediately whisked off to the massive estate of the company’s reclusive and luxuriantly bearded CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After railroading Caleb into signing an NDA even creepier than the one in 50 Shades of Grey, Nathan reveals the reason for all the mystery: he’s built a robot operated by an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to determine if she is sentient.
While the problem itself can be stated simply, the process of determining Ava’s sentience is no small task. But more importantly, the process of interviewing and assessing Ava places Caleb in a position where he is masterfully manipulated by both creator and creation. The meat of the film is found in the multilevel chess game that Ava and Nathan play against each other, each using Caleb as a pawn.
Nathan’s manipulations are far less subtle than Ava’s; he spends a lot of time telling Caleb “This is what you’re thinking” and then steamrolling over him through sheer force of authority and personality when Caleb disagrees. From the beginning of the film, everything he does seems focused on reminding Caleb who holds the true power in the relationship—from making Caleb walk a long way through apparent wilderness to arrive at the house, to informing him in a nearly jovial tone that “If you try a door and it won’t open, it’s not for you.” This is a film that explores power in relationships by making Ava her creator’s prisoner, but also effectively rendering Caleb a prisoner to Nathan’s personality. The balance of power only shifts when the two prisoners begin to plot together to overthrow their captor.
Nathan is a dark vision of what a character with a background, funds, and genius on the level of Tony Stark would be in a more realistic world. He’s obsessed with his own power; he tellingly misquotes Caleb repeatedly as having said, “You’re not a man, you’re a god,” and pointedly ignores Caleb’s attempts to correct the record. (He also ignores Caleb’s later—if oblique—reference that likens Nathan to the atomic bomb.) The extent of his desire to control others is even more disturbing than already described, revealed when Caleb finds out his darker secrets—horrors that won’t be spoiled in this review.
The setting for the film is almost exclusively Nathan’s massive estate, which switches between beautiful natural vistas and simplistically modern underground rooms that become increasingly claustrophobic as the movie progresses. The visual contrast between the modern/futuristic interiors and the natural exteriors acts as a shorthand for imprisonment versus freedom but also the human versus the inhuman. Ava longs to escape the house and enter the natural world. Caleb and Nathan spend time outside, discussing a few philosophical points that are delivered with real enough dialog that the film itself escapes pretension no matter how pretentious the characters sound, but continually return to the sterile rooms, the effective prison that Nathan has created with Eden locked outside.
While there are no windows in Caleb’s room, there’s a screen on which he can watch Ava whenever he likes, voyeurism that’s exercised with impunity by Nathan as well. When Caleb and Ava talk to each other, Nathan is shown watching them via video camera, often without a shirt on, giving the exercise an almost pornographic air. Ava herself has only what appear to be static windows to view, looking out on a world she’s never been allowed to even touch. When Caleb interviews Ava, he sits in a bulletproof glass box while she moves around on he other side, reminiscent of an animal in a zoo.
The film is divided into distinct sections once Caleb has arrived on the estate—numbered sessions with Ava. Each section begins with Caleb and Ava talking, continues on to show a discussion between Nathan and Caleb, and then the effects being used as a pawn between the two has on Caleb’s psyche. Each session shows a shift in the balance of power between Caleb and Ava, as she goes from being an object to be examined by him to the person truly in control of the conversation. A few sessions in, Ava reveals that she can tell when Caleb (and presumably Nathan) lies, due to her being able to read microexpressions. Caleb never has any such guarantee of her honesty, and certainly none in regards to Nathan either when they talk afterward. It isn’t gentle, what being constantly manipulated by both sides does to Caleb; at one point, he dismantles a safety razor so he can cut into his own forearm and be certain that he’s still human.
As a character, Ava is a fascinating new twist on Frankenstein’s monster, played with a careful touch of inhumanity by Alicia Vikander. Prior to becoming an actress, Vikander studied ballet, and utilizes her fine control of body movement to portray Ava as indefinably other. Part of the trick of testing Ava’s personhood is the fact that she is so obviously inhuman; transparent portions of her body show the machinery within. Nathan later admits that the real test hasn’t been administered by Caleb, but by him through Caleb; if Ava can connect with someone emotionally to the extent that she can manipulate them, what better test of human-like sentience can there be? Beyond that, Ava displays a desire for self-preservation that is normally considered the hallmark of life; she asks Caleb during one session, “What will happen to me if I fail your test? Will I be switched off?” Caleb answers, “It’s not up to me.” Her rejoinder is devastating: “Why is it up to anyone?”
Perhaps due to the claustrophobic setup and very small cast, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Ava and Kyoko appear to speak once, but considering the circumstances, it’s very likely (and understandable) that they’re discussing Nathan. Taken from the perspective of Ava being designed to be female—and as shown later, designed to be much more physically delicate than one would expect of a robot—Nathan’s absolute control over her life takes on an even more disturbing tenor. Nathan brags about having created Ava and decided parts of her down to the smallest detail, including making her capable of having—and enjoying—sex and dictating that she is heterosexual. He also acts abusively toward his servant, Kyoko, whom he claims can’t understand English, and has sex with her. (One might question if Kyoko can even really consent to sex for a multitude of reasons.) Is Nathan trying to create a woman whom he can control wholly? In that case, why let her have a mind of her own? Is he just lonely and twisted in that loneliness, or is the subjugation of a living, thinking person’s will what he’s after?
There’s a good deal of feminist commentary that could be read into this film, particularly when it comes to the commodification of the female body and abusive relationships. Ava herself is a an extremely complex and thoughtfully written character, if one who gets less screen time than either her captor or her pawn. The ending of the movie is hers entirely, though, and leaves the audience wondering how much we’ve been manipulated by her as well—though for the sake of perfection, I would have liked it to end about a minute sooner than it did.
While the trailers for Ex Machina implied a hint of horror to the film, what’s found within is more of a psychological thriller, and all the more disturbing for it. The understated soundtrack fits right in with the creeping sense of dread and discomfort that builds as the film heads toward its conclusion. But the layers upon layers of difficult questions the film asks—what is life? To what lengths will a living being go to protect itself? Is Frankenstein the true monster, rather than his creation?—are what linger most disturbingly. British independent film has lately led the science fiction and fantasy genre when it comes to deep, difficult, and thought-provoking work. Ex Machina all but guarantees its continued supremacy.
Rachael Acks is a geologist and writer. In addition to her steampunk series from Musa Publishing, she’s had short stories in Penumbra, Waylines, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bicycles at least 100 miles per week) with her husband and their two furry little bastards. More information can be found on her website.