Steve Heronemus

Ex Machina: Is This The First Feminist Sci-Fi Movie?

Sorry, George Lukas. The Empire Strikes Back is no longer my second-favorite science fiction movie. Ex Machina is a brilliantly conceived, written, and executed film inhabited by deep characters subtly, expertly, portrayed. This is a gripping psychodrama encased in an exploration of artificial intelligence that questions the definitions of humanness, femaleness and patriarchy. It is creepy, mesmerizing, horrifying, and triumphant. Ex Machina (Greek: From the machine) demands multiple viewings in the same manner as a haunting; it will not leave you alone.
That this is Alex Garland’s directorial debut is stunning. His taut, sparse, approach belies an exacting richness of important small details that rivals Kubrick. Indeed, the Master of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s influence might be on display in Ex Machina’s suffocatingly cold, geometric, interiors and paucity of exposition. Garland is confident and comfortable enough to dispense with spoon-feeding his audience, letting his actors and script put piecemeal flesh onto the bone of this story. But enough foreshadowing.
The story has Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lonely programmer, “winning” a week of hanging out with the founder of the company at the founder’s estate. The company is the internet’s largest search engine and Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is it’s brilliant founder. Caleb is clearly out of his element in the vastness of both Nathan’s estate and IQ at first, but Nathan’s appearance and insistence on a friendly relationship bring Caleb slowly out of his shell, leading him to show off some of his own intellectual chops. 
Nathan trumps the my-brain’s-bigger game by revealing the real purpose of Caleb’s trip. This is a working holiday as Caleb is to perform a Turing Test on an artificial intelligence project Nathan’s been working on. The Turing Test, described by the (now) famous British mathematician involves interacting with a machine to determine if it’s responses are indistinguishable from a human’s and therefore a true intelligence. 
Caleb’s interest is markedly piqued when Nathan introduces his AI, all tubes, wires, and mesh in a lovely female form with only a face and hands in synthetic skin. Caleb finds out the AI’s name is Ava (Alicia Vikander) and is immediately struck by Ava’s humanness, including her apparent sexuality. 
What follows is an alternating set of interactions involving Caleb and Ava followed by debriefings of Caleb’s impressions by Nathan, usually in the company of Nathan’s maid, Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), who is doing her best Chief from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest impression. Each sequence unveils a rabbit’s warren of deception, motives, and personality cues that leave us wondering what is real versus pretend and who is playing whom. Is Nathan the cool boss/big brother type or deluded genius with a God complex? Is Caleb just the star-struck dweeb in the presence of beauty and awesomeness? Is Ava a sentient being or just responding to programming? Are we?  
With such a small cast and heavy reliance on nonverbal cues to fill in spaces within the script, there is no room for a lackluster performance. Fortunately Ex Mechina features some truly top-rate acting. Isaac proves he’s earned rising-star status with a performance by turns disarmingly casual with a side of sinister. Gleeson (with an American accent) excels in moving from awestruck dweeb to sympathetic beau/savior. Then there’s Vikander, whose movements, gestures, vocal tone and expressions evoke human, but subtly not quite. Hers is the finest android/human balance I have ever seen. The one flaw is Mizuno, who is a bit obvious for me. Given her spot in the lineage this may be a directorial decision, however.
Some other directorial decisions: For all Nathan’s obsession with artificial life, Garland gives him a residence/lab notably void of life. Real life can happen only outside. Similarly, Nathan’s surrounding and clothing is absent any color one might call vibrant. His is a world of grey, white, and black, echoing Caleb’s anecdote of the expert on colors who lives in a black and white home and has never learned how colors feel. How does red feel to you, Nathan?  Other exceptions to this striking lack of color are Ava (natch), the red emergency lights activated during the frequent inexplicable power outages, the red REJECTED message given to Caleb near the end, and a Jackson Pollard painting. The painting spurs a discussion of automatic art, a form wherein the artist consciously begins a painting, but then lets motion and color flow from unplanned movements creating unexpected results, a clear reference to Nathan’s AI project.
The residence/lab is situated in the gorgeous mountains of Norway and Garland frequently shoots Nathan and Caleb from a distance when they are outside. Is Garland making a statement on the spectacular scale and beauty of creation relative to the created humans?  The only outdoor close-ups of Nathan come during his “I am God” discussion. Nathan’s creation seems mighty small in comparison.
The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is fittingly spare and electronic, with echoes of the Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind theme at crucial parts. A tremendous musical reference is J.S. Bach’s 2 Part Inventions playing inside the front entry to Nathan’s home. 
Some critics complain that the pace is slow. At 107 minutes Ex Machina is far from bloated. I find the pace perfect for unwrapping the plot; there is time to let the import of revelations sink in before discovering the next. Note to Attention Deficit America: this is not Jason Bay popcorn fluff. One cannot leave the brain elsewhere during this movie. 
Others complain the ending devolves into pointless voyeurism, to which I strongly disagree. Ava’s journey to self-actualization as a human cannot be complete until she puts on her own skin – no help needed from the boys, thank you very much – and I react to the nudity as identification, not objectification. Ava becomes fully She. Ava even gets to choose which skin to put on. 
With that I finally get around to the title question of this post. As a dude I have no business labeling this work feminist, but despite Nathan’s possessive objectification and Caleb’s romantic patronizing Ava is very much in control of her own destiny. It just takes the boys too long to figure that out. I get a huge smile when she steps out into the real world and finds her street corner. Ava triumphs, and the world better watch out.