*Includes heavy spoilers*
In times of emotional turmoil, we tend to cling to the familiar. The nostalgia of what we once loved (or better, who we once were) envelops us in all its warm graciousness and grants us the opportunity to exhale. But when the world is as disorienting as it is now, the familiar loses its appeal. We don’t understand nearly as much about ourselves as we thought we did a few months ago, and the routines we so mechanically perfected have slipped through our fingers. So, now seated directly in the cross section of faltering politics, global malady, and emotional exhaustion, we begin to find comfort in faraway and previously uncomfortable spaces. For me, that space is the universally beloved sci-fi masterpiece, Ex Machina.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina finds its footing in a world of advanced artificial intelligence, reclusive billionaires, and wavering morals. Sound familiar? Garland relies on this technological omnipresence in our lives to carry us through the story. It’s science fiction at its most plausible; nothing looks particularly out of the ordinary, even the vastness of the setting and its inhabitants. The twist in our reality is when we find out that Nathan, a search engine giant, has created a form of AI that can supposedly pass the Turing Test—an interrogative method of inquiry designed to test a machine’s capacity to pass as human. Granted, many have argued the inadmissibility of this test as a genuine marker of an AI’s ability, but it makes for an insanely cool storyline so we’re running with it.
Caleb, who works for the search engine company, wins a contest to spend a week with the CEO. After a spine-chilling helicopter ride, he arrives at Nathan’s sequestered and stunning home, eager to learn. The purpose of his visit, however, is quickly revealed to be less than coincidental—Nathan wants Caleb to test his creation: Ava. From this point onwards, the viewer is trapped within the confines of this house and Garland won’t allow our minds to veer away from it. Now, I’m aware that this is an unconventional comfort watch to have during a global pandemic, but I think that it speaks to a longing for escape. There is an appeal to the film’s physical distance from the “real world,” now more than ever. The boundless forests, ravines, mountains, and the slab of unspeakable material wealth that lies within them exist far away from the lives that we lead.
This prolonged dissolution of reality is something I’ve found to be relatively unprecedented within cinema. Most movies want us to apply our own experiences to them; this lessens the burden on the filmmaker to create something “perfect” and instead, they can rely on our lives to fill potential gaps in the characters’. I firmly believe that good movies should act as a conversation, not a lecture—but with that being said, Ex Machina simply cannot be a collaborative venture. Audiences must find themselves engulfed and implicated in the horror of it all for any relevant point to stick. Essentially, this is one of few films that genuinely forces you to escape from your world in order to understand it.
There are myriad takeaways from the film’s ending but the most unnerving is not, in fact, the prospect of robots seamlessly infiltrating our society, but the realization that our own introspection is cataclysmically faulted. Throughout the film, we make the distinctly human mistake of assuming we know more than we do about everything. Like any great psychological thriller, Ex Machina guides us to come to different potential conclusions throughout: is Nathan a robot? Is Caleb? God definitely has to play a part in all this, right? By the film’s third act, we sincerely believe that we’re one step ahead of Nathan and the world he represents when, in reality, our metaphorical foot hasn’t even left the ground. It was never about Nathan or Caleb; it was always about Ava.
Ex Machina is a surprisingly feminist work. Through the AI being personified as a woman, viewers are granted the steady central plotline of an unconventional budding love between Caleb and Ava. But, of course, Garland doesn’t stop there. There are several philosophical exchanges between our two male protagonists about the decision to grant Ava sexuality. This reiterates the overarching theme of man as the creator (“Deus ex machina” literally translates to “God in the works”), but can also be read as a play on the politics behind men controlling women’s bodies. At one point in the film, Nathan asserts that there exists an inherent sexual dimension in all living things that incentivizes interaction, and that there can be no consciousness without interaction. Only seconds after this intelligent spiel, he declares “Anyway, sexuality is fun, man,” which is one of many instances that heavily imply that Nathan was having sex with Ava.
Early on in the film, the lines between woman and machine become blurred; Ava constantly goes from being treated like a “thing” to being treated like a woman. This brilliantly forces us to conflate the two and, in turn, serves as excellent commentary on gender. She is ultimately able to escape at the expense of the men around her by giving in to the female stereotypes that accompany her physicality. Ava plays Caleb by performing a girlish passivity and a need to be rescued from her circumstances. In his mind, he becomes the hero to Nathan’s villain. She plays Nathan just the same by being intelligent enough for him to bask in his superior capabilities but never smart enough for him to suspect resistance. These two supposedly brilliant minds fall into the same trap as the audience insofar as they forget that Ava is inhuman.
While there is a lingering fright to the idea that a robot could adopt these stereotypically feminine qualities to its advantage, you’re definitely lying if you say that you weren’t rooting for Ava in some capacity. Now why, pray tell, do so many of us opt to side with the robot in this story? Is it the cathartic retribution against Ava’s captor? The deliciously feminist implications of her escape? The revisionist take on Biblicality? I don’t know. Perhaps given the current state of the world, human error is just so magnified that we can’t help but find ourselves relieved by the implicit presence of robots in our society. (Just kidding. Maybe.) Ex Machina is and always will be a joy to behold. Its ability to pull you out of your world and subvert every expectation you have is both creative as hell and entirely necessary right now. Or maybe this was all just a long-winded way of me saying that I enjoy staring at Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson for two hours straight.
By Saffron Maeve