From its glossy surfaces to its halfhearted contemplation of singularity, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, so closely follows the lead of Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, for which Garland adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, as to feel instantly redundant. In place of besweatered clones existentially grappling with their life’s purpose as organ donors is an artificially intelligent robot whose potential for consciousness is tested by her creator and his chosen lackey against a minimalist backdrop that succeeds only at reinforcing the impersonal nature of Garland’s artistry and the easy digestibility of his script’s philosophical musings. Replacing Never Let Me Go’s airless metaphor for capitalism with a nebulous treatise on patriarchy, Ex Machina is the equivalent of attending a lecture on autonomy at a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe exhibition.
In a landscape where the arrival of every sci-fi film suggests a capitulation to the morally and politically jejune Star Wars universe, it’s easy to see why Ex Machina registers itself as intelligent life. When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s selected by Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to conduct a Turing test on his latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), arrives on his employer’s reclusive island lair, he immediately and excitedly gets to work. In between sessions with Ava, Caleb and Nathan drink and exchange ideas, both inside Nathan’s fancy abode and outside on the strikingly diverse terrain of his private Nordic Isla Nublar. Topics of discussion include the history of gods, autism, nature versus nurture, and automatic art—this last one while the men stand before an enormous Jackson Pollock painting. Garland, unlike George Lucas, may not be in the business of selling us toys, but his itemizing of ideas has an equally dumbing-down effect. Why think when the film can do it for you?
At least this lack of spontaneity is consistent with Nathan’s challenge in trying to find action that isn’t automatic. That’s one way of describing Caleb’s sessions with Ava, which occur throughout the film as he sits within a glass-walled compartment and are often punctuated by massive power outages that don’t allow Nathan to observe Caleb and Ava via his camera system. That Ava reveals to Caleb that she can control the outages becomes proof of her capacity for autonomy—and soon their initially schematic meetings become flirtatious and they begin to plan her getaway. At which point Ex Machina shows its hand as a battle for liberation against patriarchal might, and one where the lines between victim and victimizer are further blurred upon Nathan revealing that he selected Caleb to the conduct the Turing test based on his browser history. Caleb sits across from Ava only because Nathan knows his “type.”
The film’s amusing Tinder stunt at SXSW, wherein Ava got to toy with festival attendees via the dating app, is consistent with the film’s acknowledgment of how exploitation is built into the algorithms that run our lives. One understands Caleb as a stand-in for the average Joe and Nathan as an amalgamation of Bluebeard, doctors Frankenstein and Moreau, and your run-of-the-mill douchebag Silicon Valley millionaire, only one you can share a pint with. More easily understood is their ideological tussling, which illuminates nothing about Ava as artificial intelligence that isn’t obvious from the manicured-seeming nether regions of Nathan’s other robots, including his servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), or from Ava’s decision to don a pretty white dress before hightailing it out of her island prison: that she’s a high-tech blowup doll—a manifestation of Nathan’s male heteronormative fantasies.
One understands that Ava, more so than the clones in Never Let Me Go, has been deprived of the cultural interactions necessary to making her feel like she’s part of a world alive with history, tradition, rules, and entertainment—not to mention that she’s capable of agency. If Nathan’s desire to keep the nuances of her programming a secret from Caleb suggests a desperate mode of self-preservation, Isaac’s peacocking cannily suggests as much, but one wishes that Ex Machina had pushed further. The casualty of Garland’s refusal to give full expression to the man’s weird science—the very algorithms by which he codes his AI’s gendered sense of self—or the personal demons that drive him to drink means that Ava’s desire to escape his clutches lacks for emotional epiphany. Like the frequent cutaways to the evil lair’s scenic surroundings, from snow-capped mountains to trickling waterfalls, her ambition is stock. In the end, more than just the machine remains an enigma.