Ugh, AI stories. One of the most covered aspects of science fiction, with numerous films and TV options having approached the idea from seemingly every angle. Tired is the word, and we’ll be seeing plenty of it this year again, whether it is blockbuster level stuff like Avengers: Age Of Ultron, CGI animation in Big Hero 6, or more relatively low-budget offerings like Chappie. Jumping ahead of all of them is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, which sets its AI-centric scene around the not inconsiderable talents of Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, with Alicia Vikander in the middle. But can it do anything to escape that whiff of stale ingredients?
Caleb (Gleeson), a coder for search engine giant Bluebook, thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he wins a lottery to spend a week within an isolated bunker complex with reclusive company CEO Nathan (Isaac). There, he discovers he’ll be administering a “Turing test” to Ava (Vikander), a robot Nathan has created, seemingly with artificial intelligence. But as the week passes by, Caleb is left wondering whether one or both is manipulating him for their own ends, as Nathan’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and Ava’s consciousness becomes more and more obvious.
I really enjoyed Ex Machina . It’s taut, it’s stylish and more than a little thrilling. Garland dumps you into this cramped, isolated world of clashing personalities with little fanfare, and lets his principals do the talking, with an environment more akin to a stage play than a sci-fi movie. But it also does a fair but of hand holding when it has to – on AI theory and the like – to help form this impressive achievement, a film that is remarkably simple in its basic drive and purpose – a warped trinity with a sci-fi edge – but has plenty of hidden depths to make you ponder as the credits roll.
The standard stuff is actually covered quite quickly. Caleb is tasked with determining, via Alan Turing’s famous parlour game, whether Ava really is the real deal or not, and the interactions between him and Nathan are largely concerned with this. But it’s obvious to the audience that Ava is all that she is claimed to be, and even if she isn’t, she’s as near as you could hope to get. But the sequences about this are still engaging, because it becomes a matter of trying to figure out whether Ava is the innocent, wallflower-esque girl she appears to be, or whether there is a darker manipulation of Caleb going on. And, if there is, is it a manipulation of Ava or Nathan’s design? Is it a puppetmaster at work, or is Pinocchio making her own moves? Ex Machina’s great strength is that it keeps you guessing on this point for nearly its entire run time.
The “AI or not” is thus superseded by what you could fairly describe as a love story. The sessions between Caleb and Ava are striking in their framing and evolution. She’s this unfurling flower, he’s an overeager kid with a toy. But it doesn’t take long for a darker and insidious side of things to emerge, as Ava’s sexuality and the reality of her imprisonment become clearer to Caleb. At the same time, Nathan is a hard drinking and mostly infuriating character, whose bouts of mania – yelling at mute attendant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), regular bursts of violent exercise or a memorable but greatly unnerving dance moment – mark him out as a danger. Caleb has to deal with him too, and the frighteningly real possibility that his presence in this claustrophobic bunker is no chance affair.
There is a wonderful tension to all of it, starting low and just building and building to a satisfying finale. Ex Machina keeps you guessing right up to that end when it comes to the aims and motivations of both Nathan and Ava, with Caleb almost taking on the role of an audience surrogate at times (though not too much: Ex Machina is as much about Caleb in many ways, his own insecurities and flaws, as it is about Nathan or Ava). It’s that which makes Ex Machina stand out compared to other films in this sub-genre, with the negative tone to proceedings making it all feel like a unique approach.
The sexuality of Ava, and how Caleb reacts to the idea of her as a sexual being – something Ex Machina spends a lot of time on, both between those two and with Nathan’s oddly creepy pontificating on the matter – is an important aspect of Ex Machina. Ava’s appearance, switching between a Spielberg’s A.I-esque creation and a more down to earth outfit, has this crazy contrast to it, with her looking more traditionally attractive in the first state – in what looks like just shorts and a tight crop top, which the camera draws attention to – and more, well, homey dress and woollen stockings combination in the second, like a girl you’re introducing to your parents. Both aspects are meant to be attractive in different ways, and part of the engagement in such things is seeing Caleb’s reaction to them, both initially and as he tries to figure out what game Ava is playing with him. And it gets more elaborate from there.
There’s a crudity and immaturity to the way that Ava’s working vagina is elaborated upon, or how Caleb awkwardly tries to disassociate himself from interest in this. But it fits rather well, and the growing amount of nudity that the film shows manages to avoid needlessness, forming a more complete purpose, that especially involves the hidden motives of both Caleb and Nathan. Certain developments in the third act revolve around this completely, and help to create a more formed idea of the characters and what’s driving the narrative. In a world of film where female characters are still required to show off their bodies to a degree that is downright unhealthy, it’s actually great to see a film that makes a use out of such a choice, as opposed to just throwing it in for its own sake.
Ex Machina is not without its flaws all the same. There are times the film takes on the feel of a lecture being delivered by a too cool for school professor, who prefers to compare and contrast his creation with a Jackson Pollock painting than get into the nitty gritty of things, with plenty of “Dude’s” thrown in. When Nathan and Caleb talked back and forth, I was more engaged by the dialogue concerning their respective relationships to Ava than I was with diatribes on the nature of AI and the testing of it. Films like this do sometimes have the tendency to get wrapped up in the science of the crux – Lucy is an example of that – and Ex Machina crosses that line on a few occasions, where elaboration on the premise takes over a scene, rather than simply adding to it.
Worse are some other choices. The standard AI plot often goes hand in hand with “Is XXX actually a robot?”, and sure enough, Ex Machina goes down this road. I’ll speak below in more detail, but suffice to say that this sucked a bit of the drive out of the film for me in a few moments. I didn’t feel like this topic needed to be explored, and, in fact, Ex Machina features a much better choice of “twist” in its ending, which is both thought provoking, suitable for the story that had been told and enjoyable.
It is a beautifully acted production. There’s obviously those main three, and none of them is doing anything less than a top class job. Gleeson’s proven his acting chops elsewhere, but in the lead of a film like this, he has an expanded opportunity to emote beyond the expected. He’s a starstruck nerd given the chance to experience true sci-fi wonder, and then horror, and Gleeson gives us his all in what could easily have been just any other kind of bland audience surrogate. But he is one-upped by Isaac. I wasn’t very fond of Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, but found him far more impressive here, as a demented version of Steve Jobs, who seems to want to be just another guy around Caleb but then also needs to show off at every opportunity, in increasingly immature ways. His is a man out of control, playing God and intoxicated by that idea, as much as he is intoxicated by beer and vodka most of the time. I’ve just come from a very different kind of warped billionaire in Foxcatcher, but Isaac’s Nathan is far more engaging than Carell’s du Pont.
But then there is Vikander. I’d never heard of her before now, but man does she have a great career ahead with performances like this to offer. Ex Machina needed that virtuoso acting job in the centre, in a film about whether a machine is as good at a person at emoting (and faking it). Vikander is that good, and she manages to imbue Ava with this great range of fragility, innocence, manipulative sexuality and empathy. And she does all with just the right level of awkwardness or missteps in language or movement, just so you never forget the exact nature of the thing that she is portraying.
It behoves me to also note Sonoya Mizuno. She has no lines in the course of Ex Machina, but her character’s growing importance to the narrative is matched by the growing skill of her performance, as her Kyoko starts to become, in the audiences understanding, far more than just a mute serving girl.
Oh, what a film visually it is as well. The cramped interior of Nathan’s bunker, with its neutral colours and sterile air, is contrasted wonderfully with the roaring water and lush greens outside. The wildness outside becomes civilisation inside, but a civilisation based on deception, hiding places, locked doors. Rob Hardy on cinematography clearly wants us to have breathing room from the madness inside, but the pristine environment outside offers only a little relief, so associated as it becomes with Nathan’s mania and need to control. When the helicopter dropping Caleb off vanishes in a wide expansive shot, it’s done with the utmost care at creating a feeling that Caleb is very much on his own, the dull human out in a world he can barely comprehend.
The camera work for those interactions involving the main three involves simple enough set-up, but achieves a level of complexity with the emphasis on reflective surfaces – the point is readily made that Ava is a mirror of both the desires of her creator and the desires of her tester. Added to that is the chosen colour palette, a simple blue for moments of supposed normalcy, and the an almost demonic red for when things in the bunker go haywire, which does just enough to leave the audience – and Caleb – greatly unnerved.
And it should go without saying that the CGI work on Ava, with her artificial limbs and internal work visible for much of the film, is of a great standard. The aim is seemingly to show Ava as artificial as possible, but then to make the audience engage with her like they would any other character – a Turing test on its own merits I suppose, and one that results in a win for effects supervisor Richard Conway.
Alex Garland is a script guy most of the time, and Ex Machina has all of the flavour you might have sampled from him in things like the 28… franchise, Sunshine or Dredd. It’s simple, down to earth stuff for the most part, with the film almost mocking the idea of being “quotable” through the reactions of Nathan to Caleb’s forced declarations of grandeur – “It isn’t the history of man anymore, it’s the history of Gods” Caleb proclaims, but it doesn’t take Nathan long to bastardise his line into a declaration that Nathan himself is a God – a Freudian change if ever there was one. Far better though are the interactions between Caleb and Ava, which rapidly become this intriguing battle of words between the two, involving double meanings, things not said and the crushing reality of Caleb’s growing attraction towards her.
Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s music is low key, mostly throbbing synthesised beats meant to add to the feeling of being inside a devolving madhouse for Caleb. But there are musical moments of note, mainly how the choice of musical pieces are made to try and accentuate a scene. The entrance to the facility is marked by high brow piano music, the audible sign of civilisation in all of its refinement and wonder, but later, during one of Nathan’s manic episodes, Get Down Saturday Night starts blaring from the speakers, in an impromptu disco moment, whose grotesqueness teaches us something very important about the attitude of Nathan towards the people he controls.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-Yeah, the “Is Caleb a robot?” false flag, starting with the scars on his back and then what could easily have been a constructed memory of having no attachments to the world, was tired, and ended in a rather dull sequence where Caleb cuts himself open and the smashes a mirror. I feel like I’ve been seeing characters smash mirrors a lot recently.
-When it comes to creepy billionaires, Nathan beats John du Pont, hands down. Du Pont was awkward and weird, but Nathan is actually threatening as an individual. That extra bit of characterisation, expansion of motivations, or even just emotional range can go a long way.
-One of Ex Machina ’s best aspects is trying to figure out whether Ava was just using Caleb to try and escape, and if her growing attraction to him – or seduction of him – had any basis in genuine feeling. That Caleb falls for it hook line and sinker is to be expected, but it led up to a really great finale.
-The revelation that Nathan has been constructing his AI’s partly out of a childish desire for his own sexual gratification makes perfect sense at the end of the day. He’s a remarkably immature individual as he is depicted, and having sex on the mind seems naturally in tune with him. It’s horrific, and the video footage Caleb finds of the previous AI’s, kept trapped and naked until they go crazy, was immensely disturbing.
-Of course, the fact that these beings are given consciousness before Nathan decides to have his way with them – gleefully expanding on how he has designed functioning genitalia – means his actions towards them are more sex abuse than a boy playing with toys. And since he is also a father figure to all of these beings, especially Ava, it has an added warped dimension.
-I’ve seen three films this year – Birdman, Foxcatcher and now Ex Machina – which decided to forgo any use of violence throughout the run of their production, only to introduce it in the final stages. The result is a good one, with the violence having far more power as a tool to finish the story because of its absence before that. Nathan’s death isn’t exactly a shocking moment, but it ensures that we are aware of a very definitive line being crossed as Ex Machina draws to a conclusion. The machines can fight back.
-I’m not kidding when I say that the moments that take place bathed in red, with alarm noises and a following silence, were greatly unnerving to me. And sure enough, those are the moments when Ava is manipulating Caleb the most. The hellish symbolism isn’t hard to spot.
-Great was Nathan’s reaction to being stabbed by his robots, unable to comprehend the reality of it and almost annoyed at the clichéd irony of it. He’s been killed by his own creations, and can’t quite believe it.
-So, that ending. A friend of mine, post viewing, put me on to the idea of the AI box, and the theory that a super intelligent AI could trick a person into releasing it from confinement through malicious (or seen to be malicious anyway) means, and that such a result speaks to our own view on what morality actually is. At the end of the day, Ava is the next level of being, but she’s also been raised by a crazy person with a penchant for sexual abuse. That she would then use Caleb for her own ends, seducing him in a way that is concurrent with Caleb’s own desire to be seduced, before essentially leaving him to die – committing a second murder – is thus not that surprising. This is how Ava has been raised. She’s has intelligence, but it’s been trained to be a malevolent one by its interactions with people. It sees a use for Caleb, and when he is no longer useful – and, in fact, dangerous to her because of his knowledge of who she is – she gets rid of him. It’s a stunning twist, made better by its execution, as she chooses a virginal white dress to step out into the world after a set-up where you were expecting her to take Caleb with her.
-I was so shocked by it, even as I began to understand it, that part of me still foresaw that “happy” ending even as Ava left the bunker. As the helicopter flies off into the distance a second time, I half thought the camera would pan down to show Ava returning to the bunker, there to live out a life with Caleb. Or, if they wanted to go full dark, that Caleb would then become her prisoner. But no, Garland stuck to his guns. It’s a disturbing, yet satisfying finale.
-And the question must be asked: Did Caleb deserve it? The obvious answer would seem to be no, that he is the victim of a manipulative being that only wanted him as much as she could use him. But on the other hand, Caleb is also guilty of some of the same things as Nathan. He initially views Ava with the child-like glee that indicates he doesn’t see her as a person, and later shows a sort of pervert-like intensity when he has the power to watch her unobserved (or so he thinks). Ava uses this fascination to her own ends, and part of me feels like she was justified. We’ll never know if Caleb didn’t just view Ava as some kind of target for gratification or if he had purely healthy motives in trying to help her escape. But still, his fate seems harsh, for a character that never asked for any of the situations he faced.
-And so, the film ends with the genie out of the bottle, and Ava freely walking around humanity, people watching as she so desired. What will come next? Who knows, but I’m drawn to Nathan’s notable declaration that Ava and her kind will one day look back on us like we today look back on the upright apes of pre-historic Africa, just learning to use tools. They may be superior in many ways, and if Ava is any indication, they may view humanity as a threat that, like Nathan and Caleb, needs to be used as much as possible before being ended. It’s a terrifying thought. To drop a quote from a somewhat random source, “You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here, there be monsters…”
Ex Machina is a really great film, already one of the stand outs of the year. It manages to take a very dull and overdone concept, and rejig it into something worth watching. It does that through making it a stage-play onscreen, a claustrophobic look at the desires, manias and resolutions of three intensely interesting characters, shot with skill and panache, scripted with the right combination of abandon and restraint. Scored well, paced well and vivid in both its general execution and in its ending, Ex Machina only stutters in fleeting moments, which cannot really dim the overall experience too much. Alex Garland is off to a flying start when it comes to directing, and I eagerly await his next effort. If it comes with all of the skill and care taken with Ex Machina, a real classic of the sci-fi genre, it will be well worth watching. Ex Machina , on its own merits, is one of Garland’s greatest accomplishments, and comes highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).