2015 • 108 minutes • A24
Ex Machina concerns Caleb, a programmer at the Google/Apple stand-in Bluebook, winning a lottery to spend a week with the founder of the complany, Nathan. Upon arrival at Nathan’s compound, Caleb is taken aggressively under Nathan’s wing and asked to participate in a Turing test to determine if Ava, Nathan’s latest project, is sentient.
It’s not a spoiler to say that this does not end well.
Ex Machina reminds me of Only Ever Yours, which is to say, it’s science fiction about gender that takes place in a context where the only women present are artificially created by men who do not see women as full human beings. Of course, Ex Machina takes place fifteen minutes in the future, so actual women do exist, like a co-worker of Caleb’s we see briefly, but they may as well not at Nathan’s compound. Other than Ava, the only other woman on the grounds is Kyoko, Nathan’s woman servant presented as a Japanese woman who does not speak English. And Nathan treats her like garbage in direct view of Caleb, who, either from being unwilling to contradict his boss or not be a bro, never says anything about it. (He does reject Kyoko’s advances when she assumes he wants to have sex with her, in horror, but that’s hardly the first stop for treating someone like a person.)
It’s easy to sympathize with Caleb, a lonely soul that Nathan manipulates like taffy. When Caleb balks at the extensive and opaque NDA he has to sign before participating in the Turing test, Nathan encourages and bullies him into signing. Nathan pulls him in closer by flattering him, challenging him, and outright abusing him. Given one horrifying visual late in the film, it’s very easy to see this film as a riff on Bluebeard. As the film progresses, we start to see why Caleb is an easy mark for Nathan—no family, no girlfriend, no life outside of work—but it’s also dangerous to dismiss him as such.
Because Ex Machina isn’t Caleb’s story—it’s Ava’s. Nathan and Caleb may initially seem to treat her differently—Nathan discusses her as a series of parts, while Caleb entertains chaste fantasies about her—but they both see her as an object, not a person. Ava is charming during all of her interviews with Caleb, but her forays towards her own agency disturb him. For instance, Ava can read microexpressions, and Caleb minutely reacts in confusion and disgust when she confesses her desire to go people-watching on a date. But she plays along, waiting for her moment. It’s only when she discovers that she is, in fact, the latest in a short, abused dynasty, that she begins to take truly drastic action, and Ex Machina’s ending packs one hell of a wallop.
It’s atmospheric and incredibly well-acted—Vikander, especially, is amazing as Ava. Honestly, I found Ex Machina to be such a breath of fresh air, reminding me a bit of Under the Skin, although the latter is much more weird.
I rented this film on iTunes.