Alex Garland, 2015, UK
Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ does what all good sci-fi does: questioning our views of humanity and reality, giving a subjective vision of what we mean and our context. It plays games with its characters and therefore with the audience. Smarter people than I may have seen the end coming, but I was so busy watching for the moment where everything fell apart that I wasn’t predicting anything else - but it didn’t. Quite the opposite.* One of the complaints I’ve always had the screen versions of robots is that an urge to anthropomorphise something that is innately inhuman is rarely resisted (‘Star Wars’ is a great offender of this). But Garland premise takes anthropomorphising as the very basis and weaves a who’s-being-played? chamber piece from it. Is it Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) being played as the unsuspecting programmer who wins a week with his hero Nathan? Is it even Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator of Bluebook and, it turns out, of a breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence? Or is it Ava, the thoroughly convincing AI robot/android sitting in the basement as the next potential manifestation of consciousness?
Garland draws from recognisable digital age technology (which will probably date this in the future) and quotes and art to create a wide, recognisable canvass from which Ava springs from and exists in. She herself is a work of technology and art, and by extension humanity. This is ultimately what Nathan forgets and it causes his undoing, forgetting humanity’s (and his own) potential for violence and abuse. And its resourcefulness. It is a premise full of things to think and talk about afterwards and it feels very connected to the possibilities of the digital age. It’s sleek and stylish, looking like a magazine spread from a modish home magazine (How does it stay so clean? Where are the cleaners?). Ava herself is a formidable creation, seducing as much as she’s whirring, impeccably performed by Alicia Vikander: Vikander finds the right balance for acting something that is mimicking human behaviour, restrained but fluid. She taps into those much talked about micro-expressions to turn tables, but not going over the top to make the audience forget that she’s been programmed. Gleeson has an easy-going, appealing charm that makes Caleb instantly relatable and sympathetic. Oscar Isaac gives a cunning performance as Nathan, at once winningly disarming, frank but manipulative. The disco moment where he dances with the servant robot is a highlight, showing that Garland knows that such seemingly throwaway moments can tell an audience so much whilst entertaining.
It would seem that the accusation against ‘Ex Machina’ is one of misogyny, but this appears completely in character to me: if Nathan is holed away in his research centre by himself all the time and it would follow that he would make, shall we say, fuck buddies. His awareness of others’ humanity and agency would be greatly compromised not only by his own ego but by being so detached. Who’s to stop him? Which is probably the key to his greatness and his downfall. That is, surely the plot becomes Nathan’s punishment for that misogyny: it would not seem superfluous that he is finally murdered by Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Ultimately, it is that old story of mankind’s hubris being its own comeuppance. A logical and worthy extension of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.
And, of course, if we’re talking Deus Ex Machina meaning a happy ending for all…
* I was not a fan of Garland/Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’ and felt the weaknesses of their ‘28 Day Later’ overwhelmed its strengths. I enjoyed ‘Dredd’ more the second time around. Alex Garland wrote scripts for all of these.