“Ex Machina” is a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Cyberpunk

My review for Ex Machina could just read like this: See the movie. Afterward, go home, turn off all the lights, and curl up into the fetal position.

Ex Machina is risky filmmaking centered around a very simple story. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for Bluebook, a search industry site that dominates its industry. Think of Google, but without the filmmakers exposing themselves to lawsuits. Caleb wins a trip to meet Bluebook’s CEO, Nathan. He’s whisked away to a remote mountain retreat. There, Caleb is asked to test a new A.I. that’s been developed in secret. Her name is Ava and, aside from a transparent torso and the whirring noise of her fans, she acts like a very innocent – if provocatively designed – young woman.

Caleb’s job is to gauge how human her emotions are. Can Ava develop feelings for him? Can he feel for her?

Ex Machina is an existential horror. It’s not the kind of film that makes you jump up at a scare. There’s nothing that’s even particularly frightening about it. Instead, it creates increasing feelings of trust and distrust in the viewer. It displaces the worst of its horror into your head as you watch. Here’s a movie that knows we scare ourselves by our own potential for ruining others more than a movie ever can.

I described It Follows a few weeks ago “like watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed.” If that’s the case, then Ex Machina is the dream you’ve locked yourself in the bathroom with as you desperately try to scrub every fingerprint off it.

It’s not scary horror we’re talking about. It’s not dread or fear of something outside ourselves that Ex Machina plays with. Instead, it provokes and teases out some very dark recesses of our minds, particularly for men.

The android, Ava (Alicia Vikander) is an owned object. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is her creator. She is his intellectual property. She belongs to him, literally. Yet if she’s truly conscious, this poses a moral dilemma. For all intents and purposes, Ava is a woman, and Caleb becomes the overwhelmed middle man whose responsibilities are clouded by his own attitudes toward morality, his duty to a man he idolizes and emulates, and his view of the role of women in his life.

First-time director Alex Garland has written some truly cynical screenplays, including those for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. What he accomplishes as a director is nothing short of revolutionary. Dialogue scenes evoke the intimate filmmaking of directors like Jane Campion (The Piano). Even if they’re on opposite sides of a transparent barrier, the connection between Caleb and Ava is palpable. The pacing itself and the spaces in between these scenes hearken closer to horror, however, and evoke the structure of John Carpenter’s (The Thing) films. These are the connective tissue between all those intimate moments.

The Campion-like intimacy inspires trust with the viewer. We feel privy to secrets we shouldn’t hold. If the film trusts us with those, we’re led to believe we can trust the film. When this is combined with the deliberate pace and diabolical visual irony of Carpenter (along with a score he’d be proud of), we start to distrust the reality that the film’s built up for us. It’s like trusting someone you know is out to get you. We don’t know how, we don’t even know “if,” but we do know something is very, very wrong. It’s exactly where Garland wants to put the viewer.

You’re jerked back and forth between trusting the movie’s emotional honesty and suspecting it’s withholding important pieces of the narrative. Not only does this mirror Caleb’s experience, it also reflects the contrast between the earnest and childlike Ava and the domineering ego of her creator, Nathan.

Gleeson is good as Caleb, but he’s something of a cypher. It’s Vikander’s and Isaac’s performances that shine and make Ex Machina the masterpiece it is. Vikander gives us far more complexity and nuance than the ingenue role of Ava calls for, while Isaac’s Nathan can veer from admirably driven to self-destructive to obsessively narcissistic in the space of a single line of dialogue. I’ve also seen Isaac as the lead in A Most Violent Year and Inside Llewyn Davis. It is nearly impossible to believe all three characters are played by the same actor.

Ex Machina is a challenging and conceptually ambitious film. I watch movies from an empathetic perspective, and Garland can utterly destroy a viewer with a surplus of empathy. After the film, I thought two things – it’s brilliant, and I feel less whole than when I went in. When I think of it analytically, and I suspect on future viewings, I can suddenly view the film from another perspective. The next day, as I thought about Ex Machina with more distance, I started viewing it as a much more hopeful film.

From tragedy to triumph in 24 hours: that’s what makes Ex Machina special. The film scared me and then reassured me as I examined it over and over again. It’s a film that demands you judge success from multiple angles. It really is a staggering achievement and I highly recommend it, but be aware that its cynicism may make it unsatisfying for some viewers. If you feel a lot for what’s happening on-screen, Ex Machina may test your limits. If you watch movies from a more intellectual perspective, you may love it. It’s important for viewers to be challenged, but not everybody values being made uncomfortable in the theater, and Ex Machina operates by getting inside the viewer’s own senses of desire and morality.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Ex Machina have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Alicia Vikander plays Ava and Sonoya Mizuno plays Kyoko.

2. Do they talk to each other?

The answer to this is very complicated.

3. About something other than a man?

The answer to this is also very complicated. I feel like the CIA. I have to redact the answers to these last two questions. Ex Machina is just built that crazily.

Here’s a big question: Is Ex Machina erotic? The advertising says it is. The filmmaking and shot choices are incredibly intimate, but the story… it depends on how you view it. Few films have so successfully told themselves from the perspectives of multiple gazes. The male gaze dominates much of the film, depicted between the clashing viewpoints of a dominator and abuser (Nathan) and a young man with both a victim and hero complex (Caleb).

Nathan takes what he wants because he can and when he can’t take it, he designs it. Caleb is someone with enough of a moral compass that he doesn’t take what isn’t his, but he thinks he has enough of a right to it that he resents his moral compass for making him think that. Both men think they are heroes when they really aren’t, but for very different reasons their circumstances have dictated to them.

What about Ava? She’s a test subject, no more than a very advanced computer. She is a victim who needs a hero, but how much has she been designed this way by her creator? Earlier, I said Ava reads to viewers as a woman. More accurately, she reads as a girl. She is boiled down to the most fundamental components of the male gaze: a face, breasts, physical and mental youth (in this case unending), and the pressing need for a man to help her.

Caleb is a good person, sure, but this doesn’t mean he can’t have unhealthy perspectives. This is what he believes a woman ought to be. What Garland creates the film’s horror out of is the male gaze itself.

Ex Machina addresses other elements – the inevitable shift humanity is experiencing toward technological dependency and the place and value of the middle-class worker when it comes to large corporations achieving their goals. The core of it and what makes it a horror that plays out inside the viewers head even as it plays out on-screen is just how psychologically piercing Garland’s critique of male gaze is.

It’s a feminist movie, but it exploits the male gaze in order to criticize and create horror from it. This means women get exploited, but the exploitation and mindset of abuse needs to be shown in order for Ex Machina to successfully horrify from inside that mindset. Like I said, it’s complicated, and even more so when you don’t want to give anything away.


Have you seen Ex Machina? What did you think?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.