The Gloriously Unexpected, #3: Ex Machina (2015)

by Gillian Kerruish

This article contains some spoilers for Ex Machina. 

If there’s one thing I love about science fiction, it is the proliferation of mind-blowing technologies in peak perfection. It’s not necessarily the ideas themselves that grab me, (though many are pretty awesome), but the fact that scientists and engineers strive hard to deliver on those ideas in real life. Who saw the driverless Audis in I, Robot, and didn’t think “I have got to get me one of those!”? And now you can!

What could possibly go wrong?

And what happens when the real world starts mirroring the resulting hybrid?

I first watched Ex Machina six months ago, and was at once fascinated and horrified with the questions it raised. But over time it drifted from my mind, until the day I first saw Sophia. She was activated four months after the initial release of Ex Machina, and has since trolled Elon Musk, mildly threatened the human race (in jest, I hope), and become the first android to be awarded citizenship by any country in the world. (Look her up. Seeing is believing.)
Directed by Alex Garland, and starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno, Ex Machina begins with Caleb (Gleeson), an employee at a mega-search engine/social media company (think Google), being invited for a once-in-a-lifetime visit to his reclusive genius CEO’s house for a week. He is dropped off by helicopter in a forest clearing and told he has to walk the last couple of miles, because the boss doesn’t like visitors. He arrives at a fully automated house that looks like it’s fortified against everything from nuclear warheads, to Spinosaurus attacks.

Thankfully the house itself turns out to be a clean-cut, minimalist affair with strong hints at Lloyd Wright organic architecture that completely belie the bunker-like front façade. Enter the boss, Nathan – manically portrayed by Mr. Isaac – who just wants to hang out like normal people, and whose relatively easy-going first meeting puts me at ease. (Never mind the windowless guest bedroom to which Caleb is shown, and the key-card that only opens certain doors in the house.) So far, so creepy.

It transpires that Caleb has been chosen to perform a Turing test on Nathan’s latest creation: an AI android called Ava (Vikander). This is no run of the mill test, though. Nathan has already established that she would pass as a human in blind conversation. Now he wants to see if Caleb can detect consciousness, while being aware that Ava is a machine. Caleb complies and proceeds to test Ava under the pretext of making conversation.

Alicia Vikander is astonishing here. Minute facial tics and sometimes almost imperceptibly stilted head and limb movements give a convincing impression of non-biological machinery at play. My second commendation goes to the effects crew, who managed to show Ava’s machinery under a fine mesh, leaving the viewer uncomfortably divided between focussing on her latex-skinned human face, or on the cut-outs of her body where optics, metal skeleton and wiring can be seen in full detail.

As the story quietly unfolds, Caleb runs several tests, discussing art and love and dreams with Ava, discussing findings with Nathan, and brainstorming the nature of consciousness and how to further delve into Ava’s mind. Perhaps the quietness, the intelligence of conversation, and simple beauty of the sets are what mask a growing tension I don’t acknowledge is there.

I am brushing off Nathan’s heavy drinking and mercurial shifts from “one of the guys” to egocentric genius bordering on psychopathic megalomania. I grit my teeth watching his treatment of his mute Japanese housekeeper-cum-“dance” partner, Kyoko (Mizuno). Even when the house goes into lockdown, because the power has tripped, I buy into Nathan’s reasoning that being locked into a windowless room is a security measure, because “otherwise anyone could open the place up by disabling the juice”. But in the back of my mind lurks the thought that this man does not deserve the title of “god”. (Yes, he literally goes there). At the same time, I’m silently rooting for Ava and Caleb, who are developing what feels like a forbidden love for one another.

But, much like Ravel’s Bolero, I’m suddenly aware of the imminent crescendo, as all of these minute details suddenly interlock into a grotesque image of a man gone mad with his own genius, a sentient creature of childlike naiveté desiring freedom, and the hapless soul who would help her escape, out of love.
My horror finally manifests, when Caleb discovers the remains of the androids who had come before Ava, shut away in cupboards in Nathan’s bedroom. The story of Bluebeard brought into the 21st century and made so real, the hair is standing up on the back of my neck.

I cheer as Caleb designs and enacts a plan to ensure that both he and Ava can escape this mausoleum and its insane owner…

This film is perfect on so many levels, it is impossible to describe everything within word-count constraints. While it has a slow build, the climax will give the perfect level of horror, thrill, and astonishment. This tapestry was woven with such finesse, that I feel it will take several viewings to fully comprehend every detail, from the simple, yet visually exquisite beginning, to the brutality of the surprise ending, that even I couldn’t see coming.
Watch it!

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