It is not an easy feat, grappling with the philosophical issues that lie at the heart of human thought: what constitutes our sense of morality, and what makes us truly human? Screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut “Ex Machina” attempts to unpack these questions and provide an answer that may not be as morally clear-cut as one would hope. Packed to the brim with scenes of skin-peeling robots and reality-warping twists, Garland’s film carves him an even bigger place in the niche world of cinema science fiction.
The tale begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a savvy programmer who has won the chance to visit his genius boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his luxurious private estate. Once there, Caleb quickly finds out that Nathan has an ulterior motive: to have Caleb fulfill the role of the individual in the Turing test, a psychological experiment designed to see if Nathan’s creation, a robot named Ava, can be considered truly human. Over the course of one week, Caleb’s interactions with Ava turn from awestruck curiosity to infatuation to dismayed foreboding, culminating in a coordinated plan to escape from Nathan’s isolated home.
Part of the film’s shock value lies in its complex use of simplicity. Featuring only four characters and taking place in only one location (Nathan’s estate), the story embeds into these aspects a subtle message about natural versus artificial life that becomes more prominent as the movie progresses. Nathan’s home implicitly combines the two concepts in its careful balance of architecture, incorporating cutting-edge technologies with a modern style while keeping the property’s unique rock formations and verdant landscape intact.
Even this single location is immensely nuanced, but that did not stop the bills from adding up. Garland said, “When I wrote this, I actually figured we’d be making it for about 4 million dollars or something like that. … But once I got to the point of writing the script and showing it to the producers, everybody felt [that] to do this properly you can’t do it for 4 million: you need 15. If you took the video effects out, it’s four people in a single location in a contained environment. You can actually shoot that very quickly and cheaply and easily. It’s always the cheapest way to make a film — except for the fact that one of them is a machine.”
There is not much in the way of computer-generated imagery apart from the uncannily realistic body of Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s robotic creation. Garland is not set out to mold an entirely new world from CGI, which would have raised the budget immensely. Instead, his method is more strategic than that, focusing on visually crafting Ava and bringing her character to life in a location not weighed down by excess visual props.
Being that Ava is central to the plot of the movie (Garland notes that she takes on the role of the protagonist by the end), it was vital that her computer-generated body add rather than detract from the message of the story. A heavy amount of planning went into her design, and the final product is both visually stunning and thought-provoking.
“It had to be the case that the first time you saw her, there was no doubt she was a machine. Missing sections of the body was the best way to do that. It’s almost like the magician’s trick where you cut someone in half and pull them apart. It just demonstrates something impossible in terms of it being a human,” Garland said.
Ava has a perfectly sculpted face with the round brown eyes and light skin tone of a Caucasian woman, and the outline of her body is the epitome of feminine beauty. Yet bits and pieces of this body are wrapped in high-tech mesh or are transparent enough to reveal the galaxy of electrical wires and gears churning below the surface, serving as a constant reminder of her mechanical nature.
“The breakthrough idea was this mesh, which was kind of like a spider web inasmuch as you can see it in some lighting conditions but not under others. What it meant was you could see her as a machine, and then if the light glanced off her midriff in a certain way, you could see in a fleeting way an impression of a torso, something more organic or something more humanlike, and then it would be gone again as the light changed,” Garland said. “It meant you immediately establish her as a machine and then equally immediately start drifting away, start slightly subverting that sense of her being a machine.”
The movie plays on this well-worn notion of artificial intelligence with a psychologically thrilling buildup on par with that of “Black Swan.” Tension between the characters, keeping audiences on edge for the film’s duration. This subtle intensity bubbles to the surface in the escalating clashes between Caleb, who begins to fall in love with Ava, and Nathan, who seeks to dismantle her and move on to a more promising model. Caleb’s conceptions of reality and morality become increasingly picked apart by Ava’s existence, as well as by a mysterious server girl named Kyoto (Sonoya Mizuno), who turns out to be a submissive machine inhumanely tampered with by Nathan. When at last Caleb and Ava’s escape plan is put into action, the startling and fatal results crack the film’s already fragile moral compass and leave audiences wondering exactly who they should have rooted for.
“Ex Machina” is the kind of movie that raises more questions than it answers. Set in a near future where genuine machine consciousness is possible, the film completely subverts our own ideas of what is right and wrong by presenting Caleb and Nathan’s behavior alongside Ava’s forced imprisonment. While at first the film’s premise may seem to set itself down the well-trodden path of recent robot sci-fi flicks, Garland’s expert techniques as both a philosophical screenplay writer and a meticulous new director sets “Ex Machina” above its less imaginative peers.
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