Ex Machina knocked me out. Knocked me OUT, I tell you.
Written and directed by Alex Garland (a novelist and screenwriter), it is a first feature: extraordinary, considering the authority the film carries. There are no first-time jitters in evidence. No grabbing-for-the-brass-ring and showing the strain, common of first-timers. Garland knows exactly what he is doing, what story he is telling, and how he wants to tell it.
I saw it without reading the reviews – only hearing the raves. That is the way to go. I’ve read reviews since and they give a lot away. I will try to not do so here, but feel free to skip the review – and SEE the film, and then come back to discuss. Because watching the film with little prior knowledge meant that I did not know what was coming, I had no sense of the trajectory of the story, and was able, then, to be drawn into this creepy claustrophobic world. If Caleb feels trapped, if Ava feels trapped, then so did I.
Briefly: the film wastes no time getting started. A young programmer named Caleb (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson) wins a company-wide contest. He works for a Google-ish Search engine called Blue Book, invented by a genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The “prize” is a week spent in Nathan’s secluded (putting it mildly) hideaway in the mountains, an extended one-on-one. Nathan is a mysterious figure, a Citizen Kane, whom nobody has really seen. To get to his home, Caleb has to board a helicopter, which flies over glaciers, through mountains, white and green, to a small green valley where there is an empty field. The helicopter drops Caleb off, the pilot saying, “The house is over that way. Just follow the river.” Confused, in his suit, holding his suitcase, Caleb makes his way through the forest to a house buried in the woods. He is issued a key-card by a robotic female voice at the front door. Once inside, he descends a glass staircase into the house proper. The furnishings are elegant and spare, there are glass windows everywhere, looking out on the river, the trees. But there’s no one around. No one greets him at the door. He finally comes across Nathan, bearded, shirtless, punching a boxing bag out on the back porch. Nathan greets him with a “Hey there, bro, what’s happening?” vibe that is both disarming and somewhat suspicious. (Oscar Isaac’s performance is incredible.) Whatever Caleb, clearly a good boy trying to make a good impression, in his suit, calling Nathan “sir”, was expecting, this sweaty guy talking about how he’s detoxing after a hangover, in a “You know how it is, right, dude?” manner, is not it.
Why has Caleb been brought there? What are the two men going to do for a whole week in isolation? Caleb has been kept in the dark. Nathan has an air of excitement and focus that looks either sinister or enthusiastic, depending on the moment-to-moment behavioral cues. Alone, in his mountain lair, Nathan has been working on something, something big, something that will change the world (even more than he already changed it, with Blue Book). He has been working on A.I. technology. For years. And he thinks he’s finally getting somewhere. That a breakthrough is imminent.
But it needs to be tested by an outside eye, which is where Caleb comes in.
Enter Ava (Alicia Vikander), the Artificial Intelligence. She is kept in a glass-walled room. Her arms and her torso are see-through, showing blinking circuitry within. The film is broken up with chapter-markers: “Ava: Session 1” or “Ava: Session 2.” Caleb’s job is to have sessions with Ava, and then report back to Nathan his impressions. Nathan can be frightening. He is charming, but he can also “turn.” He’s volatile. What he wants from Caleb is not a nerdy lecture on her impressive and fluid vocabulary and her understanding of semantics. What Nathan wants is Caleb’s emotions: Do you FEEL that she is human? What do you FEEL when you are in her presence? Nathan doesn’t mention the “uncanny valley”, although that is what I thought of. What Nathan is interested in is Caleb performing The Turing Test.
Caleb’s sessions with Ava proceed. Nathan quizzes Caleb afterwards.
Shit gets twisted, dark, and terrifying. I had no idea how the story would go. All bets seemed to be off.
And that’s about all I’ll say about the plot. I did flash on last year’s magnificent Under the Skin (my review here), and there are many similarities, especially in Ex Machina‘s interest in exploring gender, and what that means, how it presents, how we respond to it, the “state” of being a woman, and what that actually means. The “state” of being a man, and how that informs/distracts/enlightens. How does one understand who one is on this basic level? Under the Skin was practically a gender-studies thesis, although that makes what is riveting and visceral sound dry and academic. These films do not lecture. But they have more to say about the realities of gender imprisonment (for both men and women) than more realistic films. Good science fiction can address the human condition with total confidence (I am thinking of Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – thoughts here – turned into Blade Runner, of course – another source material I thought of after I came out of Ex Machina, blinking into the raw rainy morning. I had been on a date the night before, that went really well, sparks! fun! talk! he spent the whole night glancing at my mouth! Yay! – and then careened off the rails in the last 5 minutes, so I was still trying to shake it off the following morning. AND, to intensify the literary conceit, as I walked down 8th Avenue to the subway, post-date, I was assaulted. I was walking in the “lane” next to the bike-path, because the sidewalk was crowded, which meant I was next to the line of cars that park along that lane. A guy lunged at me from out of a car, grabbed my breasts, hard, he hurt me, and said “Nice titties.” I am not even kidding. Had he just watched the despicable Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or something? I bashed his hands off me, said, “Fuck you” and kept walking. I forgot about it promptly because I went back to the weird date in my mind, thinking, “What the hell just happened.” I didn’t even remember the “titty”-grab until the next morning because the date was on my mind. I know, I’m strange. Like … the titty-grab was not the weirdest thing that happened to me that night. The entire night was like Womanhood in Microcosm, with all elements represented. In regards to the date, I felt like I had joined a cult for 36 hours and was trying to come out of it. Ex Machina spoke into that personal experience, as all good films do. It wasn’t just about me, but there was a dovetail present – and I’m sure if I saw it on another day, with no great-date-that-turned-super-weird followed by a-scary-stranger-grabbing-my-breasts directly in my rear-view mirror it would have reminded me of other things, other experiences.)
There is a deep and very human empathy at work in Ex Machina, startling and strange considering the scientific and spare environment of that house, its chilliness, its intimidating perfection. I don’t need all films to be kind and empathetic towards women. I honestly don’t. I loved Wolf of Wall Street, and was so frustrated with the “It’s misogynistic” commentary. For God’s sake, of COURSE it was, because those guys in the film were misogynistic ass-clowns. What do you want? One of those douche-bags to suddenly spout a regretful monologue, “Oh my God, I am a misogynistic asshole and I am so sorry!” Or to have Scorses somehow point an arrow at all of them, telegraphing, “This is bad behavior.” Have you seen a Martin Scorsese film before? So what you are saying is, you would have liked Wolf of Wall Street better if it had been a bad film but showed the “enlightened” viewpoint? Get outta here with your bullshit. Showing something is not necessarily endorsement. I want to put that on a billboard.
But Ex Machina has something to say about women, and how they are viewed, the prisons men put them in, literal and imaginary. It’s subtle and sneaky, there isn’t too literal a point made of it, but it’s there, it’s the atmosphere of the film, it’s the air it breathes.
However: more than Under the Skin, or any other film/book about A.I., what Ex Machina reminded me of was the famous French folktale about Bluebeard, clearly a deliberate choice. Bluebeard, who gives his wife a set of keys to every room in his castle, telling her that she can go in any room she likes, except for one room. She is forbidden, under any circumstances, to go into that one specific room. She has a key to the room on her key-chain, but she must never ever unlock that door. She promises. But of course Bluebeard goes away, leaving her alone in the castle, and she makes a beeline to the forbidden door, opens it, and finds, to her horror, all the bodies of Bluebeard’s murdered wives.
Film-making pioneer Georges Melies made a film in 1901 called Bluebeard, and the moment of revelation is horrifying and evocative.
Nathan was Bluebeard. The key-card that Caleb is issued opens only some of the doors in that massive house. Nathan tells Caleb: “You can go in any room that the keycard lets you into. But if the door won’t open, then that room isn’t for you. Kapiche?” Caleb says Fine. Yet the longer he is there, the more he wants to know what are in the other rooms. The other rooms could also be representative of Ava herself, mysterious and conscious, yet clearly robotic and see-through. What is inside her? She seems to have feelings that happen organically. Is it a trick? What is it like to be her? Embedded in this is the “unknowability” of women (from the male standpoint), men who struggle to put themselves in a woman’s shoes (human or A.I.), because desire messes everything up. Desire is good and human, don’t get me wrong, but it also can cloud compassion. Caleb is forced to consider Ava, outside of any desire he may feel. It is a destabilizing experience for him. He is forced to understand who she is, outside of his own conception of her, of women in general.
Caleb goes further and further into Bluebeard’s castle, and finally, of course, the forbidden doors he wants to go into will be unlocked. The fairy tale makes that inevitable. He will find out Nathan’s secrets. He will understand what he has walked into. He will understand the stakes, he will see all.
And that’s all I will say. More would be unfair.
Just see it.