The first question a viewer of Ex Machina asks is “Is she human?” The next question they ask is “Is she more than human?” Ava is a modern take on a classic character in science fiction: the ‘other’ being from another world housed in a human shell. Unlike characters from other science fiction, Ava isn’t coming from another world, and she wasn’t transformed from exposure to a radioactive spill. Instead, she has been sourced from humanity’s latest tamperings with the Internet and its greater hive mind. She is the Frankenstein but pulled from a heart of steel and circuits.
With any Frankenstein story comes a mad scientist. In Ex Machina, our scientist embodies the psychotic tendencies necessary to capture our attention and mobilize the plot through a believable twist. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a billionaire, alpha-male, tech-bro, CEO transfixed with blurring the lines between human and machine by creating Ava and her various early prototypes, which have become his playthings and romantic partners.
The title of Ex Machina comes from a Greek theater ploy known as “deus ex machina” translating roughly to “god from the machine,” in which playwrights would drop a god into the story by a wire connected to a crane (the machine). Deus ex machnia is used as a plot device when writers have boxed themselves into a corner, and the fate of their story needs a nudge in the right direction through divine intervention. Nathan believes that by leveraging the data stored through years of search engine skimming, he is able to play god and inspire humanity’s next evolution.
Also on the screen is Caleb, the quintessential geek. Caleb is skeptical, timid and the picture of a type of masculinity that one would expect behind the soft glow of laptop computers of any of the world’s techies. Caleb is tasked by Nathan to test Ava through a Turing test and deem her either a human, or computer (which would make her not just smart, but sentient). It is from Caleb’s carrying out of the test and Ava’s responses that the viewer begins to feel the inner struggle of his character.
It is important to note that men literally manufactured all of the female characters in the story of Ex Machina. Later on, we learn from Nathan that Ava was specially programed and physically modeled after Caleb’s elicit Internet searches and preferences. This makes it easier for her to play with Caleb’s feelings, weaknesses, and desires, proving just how vulnerably human he is. There is a stark irony here because Caleb is supposed to be uncovering the humanity within Ava — not the other way around. The experience of the viewer ultimately mirrors the experience of Caleb, for we too become uncomfortable with how lifelike and emotionally accessible Ava starts to become.
When we are not with Ava, much of the dialogue between Nathan and Caleb is rife with indirect references to the philosophical concepts of empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism, as well as some very direct references to Jackson Pollock. These are all suggestive of the notion that we as people don’t truly have free will, or at the very least we do not choose to want the things that we want. They simply occur as a product of aggregate past experience. Ava, Caleb, and even Nathan are all victims of their own neurology. This is largely in line with the beliefs of the famous thinker David Hume, who postulated that humans act out of passion rather than operate with any kind of consistent rationale or decipherable morality. Nathan’s search engines seem to suggest the same.
In the same way that Ava and her earlier prototypes conjure up an artificial image of femininity, which contrasts the alpha male ego of their creator, so too does the setting of the film feel contrived as if being seen through virtual reality lenses.
Shot almost entirely in one setting, we find all the major characters of Ex Machina engaged in the smoke and mirrors of modern architecture, surrounded by serene forest and babbling brooks.
Gorgeous to look at, the intentionality in which Ex Machina uses its setting to mirror its characters is evident. The green of the forest juxtaposes the iron and steel of the home. In the same way, certain characters come to embody traits of the living and the lifeless, the organic and the inorganic. But behind the beauty of the film there is also an unsettling contrast of polar opposites demonstrated by the cinematography. In watching Ex Machina you encounter an encroaching feeling that the balance between the yin and yang is false.
The forest is too placid – nature, yes… but a sense of wilderness is missing. More accurately it’s more romantic qualities appear manicured like a carefully kept French garden. So well manicured in fact that the serene beauty seems to serve as a facade for entrapment. It is a setting in which you are left with the impression that even if Caleb had made it out of the house he would still have been trapped.
For a film with such a small cast, filmed entirely in a single setting Ex Machina excels. We consider it the film of the year because of its masterful choreography of a dance of paradox. By watching Ex Machina we were forced to consider complimentary but contentious ideas such as “Compassion and Calculation”, “Attraction and Revulsion”, “Real and Fake” and most importantly “Human and Not Human.”