Ex MachinaReviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 04/27/15 07:40:03
“Ex Machina” is a great film about deceptive surfaces. At nearly every level—from its plots, to its themes, to its characters, to its set design—it feels designed to misdirect and divert. It’s the sort of film that invites audiences to toy with it, only to reveal it’s been doing the toying all along.Writer/director Alex Garland presents a familiar tale wrapped up in an almost too sleek surface reflecting over two centuries of sci-fi musings on man playing god. Brilliant programmer and search engine tycoon Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) invites naïve employee Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) to his isolated, futuristic compound under the pretenses of having won a lottery to hang out with the boss. In reality, he’s summoned Caleb to conduct a Turing test to determine whether or not he has created actual artificial intelligence with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a fully functioning robot capable of human-like interactions.
Eerily human-like, even. One that you can trust about “Ex Machina” is the immediate, tangible dread Garland hardwires into its circuitry. From the moment Caleb arrives at Nathan’s absurdly desolate but chic home, the film takes on an unnerving, suspicious vibe that extends to Garland’s hovering, prowling camerawork. Slinking and roving through empty, glossy corridors, it evokes “2001” and “The Shining” in its Kubrickan sense of suffocation. Even when Nathan greets Caleb with a gregarious welcome, there is unease in the way his automated home hoards secrets behind doors that aren’t meant to unlock. Mysterious power outages disrupt Caleb’s sleep, and he suspects he’s never truly alone in the house due to heightened surveillance and security measures. Nothing good will come from this.
Ava herself is perhaps the exception. As soon as he meets her, Caleb—and by extension the audience—is taken with her. Whatever threat Caleb must endure is worth it for those moments where he and Aba engage in conversation. She’s a marvelous creation both within the story and without: brought to life via seamless CGI and Vikander’s performance (which balances luminous, childlike innocence with a cunning awareness of her own femininity), Ava’s intelligence is never in doubt. Questions regarding her humanity soon become irrelevant when viewers glimpse the desperation behind her eyes: at some point, “Ex Machina” becomes less concerned with proving Ava’s self-awareness and more concerned with preserving her existence. Clearly, she considers herself to be alive and will take any measure to stay that way. ]
On its most immediate level, “Ex Machina” is a riveting thriller documenting the fatal dance its three characters engage in. At all times, it feels like each is skirting around the other, each hiding his or her own motivations. To his credit, Garland suspect his audience might snuff out the true intentions, so he weaves misdirection into the proceedings, much like a magician’s sleight of hand. He points in one direction, be it through dialogue or mise en scene, but he always has his eye trained elsewhere. “Ex Machina” features rats trapped in a maze, only they’re unaware of it: some of them even fancy themselves as manipulative gods when they’re actually set to be stalked by a vengeful cat whose purrs turn to feral howls during a blood-stained climax.
Watching this all unfold is wildly entertaining, top-notch filmmaking with moving parts that become more fascinating as they grind and shift. Isaac is particularly magnetic in his almost playful shiftiness: the mad scientist of this tale, he never seems forthcoming no matter how outgoing he might be. Real menace lurks beneath his sleepy eyes and his strangely robotic dance moves, making him a perfect foil for wide-eyed audience surrogate Caleb. Once the latter becomes suspicious of his host’s true intentions with Ava, the two engage their own cat-and-mouse game that effortlessly twists and turns with each new revelation, with both remaining completely oblivious to the real threat they’ve nurtured.
Obviously, this puts “Ex Machina” on a trajectory that combines the typical “Frankenstein” musings with techno-paranoia surrounding A.I. to lead viewers to another deceptive layer: yes, this film intones against the dangers of man playing god and forging creatures that grow beyond control. Such a destination feels inevitable from the moment Caleb and Nathan meet, and the film functions well as a tautly constructed, stimulating reminder of these old maxims.
However, this only half the story since “Ex Machina” heavily implies that it means man in the most literal sense. Garland slyly contorts the “Frankenstein” story into a feminist parable about the way men treat women as objects to manipulate as they see fit. Nathan is the most obvious target here, a bro-grammer who creates Ava as a gendered, sexual creature because it’s cool. Never does he consider how she might feel about this—not when his intentions involve only his own twisted desires. It turns out that whatever designs he has in mind for Caleb pale in comparison to his insidious view that women are apparently worthless unless they’re specifically fulfilling his needs, be them sexual or intellectual.
Garland doesn’t let Caleb off the hook, either: during the course of his interactions with Ava, it feels like he’s the one being tested, if not silently judged. Whatever relationship they have thrives on his privileged position of power: she remains perpetually trapped in a glass cage, meant to answer questions from a man whose inflection is similar to that of an adult speaking to a child. Even though his intentions are less sinister than Nathan’s, they’re guided by the same insidious undercurrent: for him, Ava is a different type of object—a princess in a castle in need of rescue—but an object nonetheless. His well-meaning is yet another glossy surface that somewhat blinds audiences: ultimately, he, too, has a problem in his desire to only see Ava for what he expects her to be rather than what she is.
What she actually is serves as the film’s big—if not somehow obvious—reveal: like Frankenstein’s monster, she’s a misunderstood creature who only resorts to violence because she has been born into a world without actual love. She may be doted on, and her creator may rave about how fucking awesome she is, but, ultimately, no one considers her as a person. It’s the ultimate irony of “Ex Machina”: in a film where two men attempt to prove a woman has feelings, neither actually bothers to care about those feelings. For both men, Ava is a mountain to climb, and both deserve to tumble from their status as conquerors once she’s on equal footing with them.
During an early tour of the house, Nathan explains that he the search engine data of the entire world has mapped Ava’s consciousness, so it’s little wonder that she has grown up with a warped sense of her own sexuality and gender. There’s a temptation to read into the film’s climax and another disturbing perception of women, but it simply feels like more smoke and funhouse mirrors: if Ava’s rage feels harsh, it’s merely a reflection of the only world she knows, one where men attempt to control women and discard them when they’re no longer “usable.”
One of the film’s most subtle misdirects involves fluorescent lights formed into the shape of a cross to seemingly cast Ava in a martyr’s glow as Nathan berates her. Caleb watches on a monitor as his unfolds (literal male gaze), incensed but oblivious to his own misogyny. It never occurs to him that Ava has no plans on being martyred and has taken her own steps to prevent it. He fancies himself a white knight for a woman who doesn’t need one: ultimately, she chews on the patriarchal poison and spits it back into the face of those who fed it to her.“Ex Machina” leaves audience with unease: Ava’s vengeance is both horrific and totally righteous. She is truly a god from a man-made machine, a fierce, cunning femme fatale born from generations of male domination and misogyny. Like the best sci-fi tales, “Ex Machina” isn’t disturbing because it points to a terrifying future but because it reflects our ugly past and present.
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