Ex Machina

Down-and-dirty double-crossin’ robot dames!
Alex Garland
Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
The Setup: 
Guy brought in to test other guy’s AI robot.

I do enjoy some good, intelligent sci-fi, and this looked like the genuine article, with an interesting premise and wonderful look and good performers and lots of unsettling intimations in the trailer. And in many ways it delivers, except it has a weak third act and ultimately raises more expectations than it’s prepared to fulfill. But these seem like quibbles when the majority of the movie is so good.

So this coder Caleb wins a contest to visit Martin, the president of his tech company, at his exclusive enclave in the wilderness. Martin has developed a Google-esque search engine that commands 94% of the world’s search traffic, and is very much modeled on some of our current tech moguls, especially in “Dude!”-peppered speech and loose sense of morality. Before you know it, Caleb is being helicoptered to Martin’s headquarters, which are somewhere that looks a lot like Norway, with glaciers and huge green mountains. Deep into the wilderness, Caleb is told that he’s “been flying over Martin’s estate for the past two hours.” At a certain point the helicopter “can go no further,” a nice touch I thought borrowed from Dracula, and the movie makes no bones about setting Martin up as a menacing figure. He is met recovering from a wicked night of drinking… but there was no party, he drank alone. Caleb arrives at the house to find a blue security light that is a color-switched clone of HAL’s famous red eye.

Nathan makes Caleb sign a non-disclosure agreement that he cannot use the phone and must allow his computer to be searched, in order to see what he’s told is the most important scientific advance in decades. Turns out Nathan has developed an artificially-intelligent robot, and he wants Caleb to test it: the Turing test, which states that if someone can’t tell it is a robot, then it is genuinely AI. Now, he just TOLD the guy it’s a robot, and now he’s going to test to see if he can tell it’s a robot. But let’s not get bogged down with that. Caleb says “That would be the most important event not in the history of man, but the history of God,” which Nathan later remembers as him saying “You’re not a man, you’re a God,” in a good touch. Unfortunately, a lot of the great touches throughout aren’t really going to amount to much in the end, but be very nice character window dressing.

So Caleb is to have a series of conversations with Ava, Martin’s robot. Her design is one of the main strengths of the film, many of which are purely visual. The movie has a lot of ingenious visual touches, like how amazing a simple wall full of Post-Its looks when lit from above, and Oscar Isaac with cropped hair and a full beard. Ava has a fleshy face, but her arms and torso show mechanics covered by a body-shaped mesh, which makes her look unmistakably unnatural, even as she moves with natural grace. She is a giant CGI-creation smack in the center of numerous scenes, and she looks great every time. She is also uncannily sexual, and we are soon told that she is able to have sex. You start to wonder… what are some of Caleb’s tests going to verge on here? Fascinating premise… and once again, more than the movie is prepared to deliver.

So Caleb’s first conversation with her is predictably shallow, but that’s to be expected. Then his next conversation is… also fine, but also not that deep or interesting. I thought he was supposed to be testing her? Then their third conversation is also kind of a bust, and by now you’re realizing that he’s never going to ask really probing questions, like how she feels? How she learns? What does she think about music or art? Would she like to go outside? But this is diverted from because, during a blackout—when Martin’s persistent surveillance is down—she tells him not to trust Martin, that everything he says are lies.

Okay, so now we have some suspense. And Martin is seeming ever-more suspicious. He’s around when you don’t expect, and he’s constantly drinking, and getting edgy. And what’s with the mute Japanese servant that he viciously belittles? And he watches everything Caleb does at the place. Things get creepy—then creepier! Is he abusing and belittling Ava? He confesses to committing an egregious worldwide surveillance atrocity without a thought. He also tells Caleb that Ava will be destroyed and upgraded eventually. Meanwhile, Ava is coming to like Caleb, to discuss dating him, and confess her dislike of Martin. It all continues, steadily but slowly tightening, until—

Caleb gets Martin drunk and steals his key card, then goes downstairs and finds out that… his Japanese servant and other previous robot models are basically sex machines! There is a lot of effectively macabre imagery as the robots remove parts of their skin, making for some extremely gory zero-gore images. Caleb does a bit of programming, and tells Ava to plan for their escape!

Also in here is a long sequence that just fell flat for me. Caleb, after seeing the robots downstairs, goes to his room and cuts open his arm, and plays around in the blood. I guess we're supposed to feel like all this realistic robot flesh around has made him question his own humanity? But that came across only intellectually and not emotionally, and given all the other things in the film that receive short shrift, I'd rather lose this ineffective aside for more interesting content.

Now—do you want to know the ending? Because knowing it might be a bit of a disappointment, once you see how little it comes to. Last chance. Martin reveals that he knows Caleb is planning to escape with Ava—he was actually listening during the blackouts. Martin suggests that maybe Ava is just pretending to like Caleb in order to use him. Caleb reveals that he already reprogrammed the doors. Then—Ava is free! She tells Caleb to stay where he is, and she and the servant stab and kill Martin. Caleb seems to be locked in, and Ava doesn’t seem too concerned with getting him out. Danged down-and-dirty double-crossin’ robot woman! She leaves him entombed to die while she goes out and explores the world. I guess she didn't love him after all! The end.

So, it’s one of the endings you can guess from the beginning, and I had hoped for a few more surprises. Makes sense, and follows, I guess, it’s just not very exciting. Ava was never very threatening throughout—in fact, it’s hard to have the sense that she really wants anything—so the thought of her getting her way doesn’t bring much sense of dread. Furthermore, because it ends this way, one can’t help but feel that most of the brilliantly laid-out escalating sense of fear and dread of Martin never really comes to much of anything. Ultimately, he’s not that threatening, so all of that build-up was just kind of… interesting asides?

I also honestly expected the film to go in a sexual direction with Ava—I thought it likely that one of the weird tests of her humanity would be Caleb expected to have sex with her—and I’m a little bummed that none of it panned out. Could have been pretty explosive, no? Kinky and uncomfortable? But no. And while I get that she’s being made out as a bit of a femme fatale, I think they should have gone further in this direction. What if she full-out seduced Caleb and induced him to murder Martin? A full-out AI robot Double Indemnity could have been a very modern, fascinating little tale. But not that, either. We get what seems like an honorable, but unexciting, little wrap-up.

And again, for as fantastic a creation as she is, we really don’t get to know Ava. How fascinating it could have been—even with this ending—if we came to understand a lot more about her mind and how it works. We have a series of conversations, a structure the entire movie is built around, but none of them are very interesting, and we scarcely know her at the end any better than we do at the beginning. This movie could have kept everything else intact, but made a devastating emotional impact if only we really came to know, and feel for, Ava. Or if we had a concrete sense of how she uses her intelligence to emotionally manipulate the humans. But she remains a blank.

Still, there’s so much good about it: the realization of Ava, the look of the house, the slow menace of Martin, the excellently rising tension, that it remains worth seeing, and is generally “good.” But it could have used some real emotional stakes and psychological involvement with its characters to fill out that brilliant scaffolding, to end up with something really moving and special.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, it’s good, I just think it could have easily been great.


I found its quiet ominousness, free of the usual clamor and frenetic editing, to be very refreshing and welcome, and all the more effective because of it. It seemed that shots were held longer. I don't know if this makes sense, but it almost seemed to me like a foreign film in that regard. I guess maybe quiet is rather foreign to our culture.

Yes, that's one of the film's strengths, for sure. I was thinking how certain movies need to give you time to think about them as they're happening [the classic example being when they removed the voiceover from Blade Runner, allowing viewers time to think about it], and this one definitely does that. Quiet is definitely becoming a rare quality in Amercian movies.

Anyway, did you ever see Beyond the Black Rainbow? It's a conscious throwback to 70s sci-fi along the lines of THX-1138, and while I didn't make it to the end, I was enjoying the languid style of it. It's on Netflix streaming...

I walked out of this movie feeling pretty good about it, but I've found that it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. The main problem is that it doesn't hold itself together well enough to really explain the actions of the Caleb in the final act. [spoilers>] The content of the conversations between Caleb and Ava have almost no depth, so it's hard to believe that Caleb has really developed an attachment, let alone enough of a relationship to double-cross Martin for Ava's benefit. Lacking a connection to Ava, we're left with mistrust of Martin as the only explanation for Caleb's actions, and that alone doesn't cut it. The movie does a good job of building up Martin as a menacing figure, but not enough in itself to justify Caleb's hacking of the security system and release of Ava. Added to this is the fact that a lot of the structural elements don't make sense on their own and are (in retrospect, at least) clearly there only to facilitate the plot. For example, the security lockdown in event of power failure (what if there's a fire that cuts power?), and the use of a keycard for access to the main computer in Martin's room (he has a thing against passwords? Where in the world do access controlled areas not also have password-protected computers?). At the beginning of the story these are used effectively to enhance the atmosphere, but by the end it's clear that they're mere contrivances to aid the weak plot.

On top of that, at the end Ava isn't even instrumental in killing Martin - he's fatally wounded by the otherwise innocuous servant/sex robot. Why does she turn on him at the end, when she previously had no meaningful character development? Your guess is as good as mine. We're supposed to understand that the robots want freedom, but why? Apart from the general idea that freedom is desirable, and that we don't have any (which the movie has as an undertone throughout - everything that happens until Caleb's betrayal is orchestrated by Martin, who's a stand-in for insert-your-tech-company-here, and every interaction until the end is managed in some way), we don't have a compelling argument that the robots have a thirst for it.

It's not all bad, though. The overall atmosphere and the creepily entitled way Martin brings Caleb to his house and the morally bankrupt way he sexualizes his creations for his own amusement are good elements. It just doesn't add up to all that much in the end.

Agreed on all of it... glad someone else felt this way. Particularly disappointing that the character of Ava was such a bust... I saw the writer/director talking about artificial intelligence and a recent trailer tries to build suspense about the threat of AI, but the movie barely touches on that as a topic... it's just a story machination.

I certainly don't regret seeing the movie, it's genuinely nice to look at (and not in a let's-blow-some-shit-up kind of way) and listen to, and not stupid, but I think people who hadn't really have contact with some serious science-fiction will be impressed much more: enthusiasthic reviews and IMDb score seems to confirm that.

As for the "foreign" feeling to the movie - it's British.

Under the Skin is another recent movie dealing with similar themes, but much more interesting. Both films portray human-shaped non-human characters exhibiting non-emotional, non-malicious indifference towards humans, but - in a way, where Ex Machina ends, Under the Skin really starts. It's also a British movie, directed by Jonathan Glazer (of Birth, which seems to be one of the oldest reviews on your site) and probably the first one I ever saw with a truly Kubrickian vibe (in a good way).

BTW I'm surprised that you didn't mention Chappie in your review: both films feature a very similar scene in which non-human character has their damaged arm easily replaced.

My take on it was similar to yours, but ultimately I had a lower opinion of the movie as a whole. Like you say, the ending is a bit of a letdown and Ava's character isn't really established. Honestly, for all that the movie is about the question of whether she has artificial intelligence, I'm still not convinced she did. Nathan thought the ultimate test was whether she could affect Caleb enough to convince him to help her escape, but whether this was her actual desire or merely something Nathan programmed into her is never clear. The fact that she succeeded doesn't really tell us anything. I saw an AMA with the director who claimed she had compassion, but for the other robots, not people, but I saw no evidence in the movie of that, either.

The cinematography and performances were very good, Nathan was an interesting character, and Caleb was okay as a kind of everyman. But I don't think the questions the movie asked about AI, or the answers it came up with, were nearly as insightful as the critical consensus seems to indicate.

In agreement with you as usual (and with many other comments here)--apologies if some of this in overlap. I think this movie suffers from what must be an incredible challenge in film-making--attending to every aspect enough to make the whole thing quality--and so ending up with some beautiful elements (like some of the pacing, cinematography, design, etc.) and some terribly superficial ones (deeper themes, characterization, etc.). One thing that's pretty impressive about this film is that the director tried very hard to be faithful to actual scientific research in AI. He consulted several scientists and philosophers in this area (I know one of them personally) and so a lot of the things discussed in the movie are pretty accurate or are at least theorized in the scientific community--which is very cool. If only that had been taken a bit farther...but, alas. Nevertheless I do have a slightly more charitable reading on the character (however underdeveloped) of Ava. One big question in the area of AI is exactly what would prove someone is "like a human." And so we have a lot of romantic ideas about things like love, compassion, etc. that Ava seems able to fake without really "feeling," suggesting she is not really an AI on the level with humans. I confess the ending disappointed me at first. But then I thought: what if Ava is just a sociopathic robot? What if the true test of AI is that it can make any kind of AI...not necessarily something like (or improving on) a human, but which can have the same kinds of flaws as human? Being a jerk, being self-serving, etc. Maybe in the end the true test of AI is that you can get the same variations as with humans: great people and jerks and all.

Hmmm, many things to address. I agree that there is an incredible amount to attend to when making a film, which is why it's disappointing that they have such a short moment of cultural relevance now... I was thinking the other day how, before video, a movie would be in theaters and discussed for months. Now they get a week in the sun if it's a blockbuster, although one could argue they can have longer "lives" on Netflix and such... anyway, it amazes me the amount of WORK that goes into one only to have it thrown in the vast cultural bin with everything else...

That said, Alex Garland has a history of movies that lose focus in the final thirds. I don't doubt that he consulted numerous scientists and philosophers... I think his movies get TOO ideological in ways that lose their flow as just a straight-up story, which was the case with The Beach and Sunshine...

I think the takeaway is that Ava has true AI because she faked attraction and used him to get out... I just wish this had been developed in a more intersting and consistent way. So she is for sure a jerk, but also a cunning one. An interesting OTHER movie would be to follow your idea, and have an AI that is SO AI that it actually goes crazy, or becomes psychotic...

Thanks for your comment!