Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” may be another film amongst many concerning the Frankenstonian relationship between master and creator but what separates “Ex Machina” from not only its contemporaries but also its predecessors, is the film’s thematic roots in modernity—specifically the internet culture which has come to define the current generation at hand.
“Ex Machina’s” main protagonist is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for Blue Book. Bluebook is a company which acts as the film’s hybridized fictional version of Google and seemingly Apple (the company runs the world’s biggest search engine and is also a phone manufacturer). Caleb wins the company lottery to participate in an experiment with the Bluebook’s founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), and is then flown to an undisclosed location surrounded by forests, mountains and rivers. Caleb then stumbles upon Nathan’s house after being forced to walk the rest of the trip.
The result of Caleb’s journey and discovery is a continuous rapid change of emotions, from confusion to awe to joy and back. Nathan, to Caleb’s shock, behaves informally—the former is practicing his boxing technique when Caleb first encounters him and tells Caleb to drop the formalities: just two guys and some beers—and the conscious AI with a human body. The AI’s name is Ava (Alicia Vikander) and what Nathan seeks is to have Caleb perform a Turing test for a week on Ava, where the two speak to and get to know one another with Ava attempting to prove her humanity and Nathan attempting to prove just the opposite. The experiment is never as simple as it seems and innocent banter between Nathan and Ava begin to turn into pleas of freedom and escape and Nathan soon discovers that one of his two hosts is not to be trusted, thus “Ex Machina’s” thriller aspect comes into play.
The connections between “Ex Machina” and Shelley’s Frankenstein go deeper than just the parallels between the creations of life but extends to the nature of man and his escape from civilization and thus modernity. This aspect of the film isn’t downplayed but rather played in a more subtle manner through beautiful shots of nature that bookend each of the film’s chapters. Nathan, like Frankenstein among the Swiss alps, secludes himself to the desolate mountains in order to have some peace of mind but unlike Frankenstein who hopes to reject his monster by running away to the natural world, Nathan brings his along and thus Nathan’s actions can be seen as a bridging between ideas present during the Enlightenment era and ideas concerning our own modern society.
The creation of life within the film isn’t so unethical so much as it is a coveted business: Nathan tells Caleb that he picked his housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), because she can’t speak English and therefore is unable to divulge trade secrets from eavesdropping. And while on the subject of trade secrets and Capitalism, it is this economic ideology which smartly underlines “Ex Machina’s” creationist theme.
The specifics on how Ava is created is never fully divulged but Caleb does tell Nathan his secret for getting Ava’s facial and voice recognition to be so perfect and that’s, that Nathan himself has the ability to hack into every machine using Blue Book and infiltrate their own consumer private lives. Ava, like Frankenstein, can then be seen as an amalgamated creation but the key difference between the two is that Ava’s creation stems from the cultural masses. Ava’s voice and expression become a literal reflection of society and so Ava’s character begins to hint at the modern technology which governs us, which is the internet.
Our digital lives aren’t so much separated from our physical ones as they are each differently defined. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have made it known that our technologies are spied upon and so it’s no longer a secret as to how we leave a digital footprint behind. Amazon, Facebook, and Google tailor their advertisements and search engines to their audience’s tastes and it is the result of these algorithms that become our digital selves.
Yet Nathan’s role doesn’t stop at just creating Ava but in also directing both her and Caleb in their conversations. Throughout the film, while Ava and Caleb have conversations that are fed to Nathan via livestream, Garland provides shots of Nathan in the comfort of his own room, watching the test unfold. Nathan here appears to be more of a film director and editor than a scientist, although making film is its own science and Nathan’s role as an auteur is further emphasized when viewing the conversations between Nathan and Caleb through this meta-film lens. After each test, Nathan probes Caleb with a series of questions: he’s interested in knowing how Caleb feels about Ava, what they discussed, and so on. The Turing test between Caleb and Ava then begins to take on the form of an impromptu script that’s constantly updated by Nathan who behaves as the test/film’s director, editor and writer.
“Ex Machina” isn’t short of problems however. Domhnall Gleeson’s acting often comes across as stunted and awkward with certain lines being read in a deadpan manner, almost as if Gleeson is aware that he’s in a film and is fearful of showing his own self-awareness. The result is a disruption in the fantasy of the film and although this never hurts the thriller aspect of “Ex Machina”, it does nothing but harm, although an argument can be made for Gleeson’s acting being a reflection of Caleb’s own awkwardness.
Despite being a thriller, “Ex Machina” brings small moments of cinematic joy and laughter thanks to Oscar Isaac. As Nathan, Isaacs’s acting technique is reminiscent of James Franco’s roles as David Skylark and Alien in the film’s “The Interview” and “Spring Breakers” respectively. Isaac seems to completely let go and the result is a character that comes across as more than just a billionaire genius but a real person whose absurd attitude and actions undermine the audiences and Caleb’s expectations on how a scientist of Nathan’s caliber should behave.
Alicia Vikander as Ava is carried by both the special effects which make up her body but also her own ability to mimic what an AI should behave like. It is more than just Vikander speaking in a certain tone but her portrayal of the AI’s curiosity, love, hate and so much more for the new world she’s discovering via Caleb. Like Isaac as Nathan, Vikander is also able to elevate her own cinematic character, despite its roots in fantasy, into something real.