Weekend Review: Ex Machina

“I want to talk to you about the greatest scientific event in the history of man.”
–Nathan, Ex Machina

The most successful indie SF film of 2015 revisits and genders the Modern Prometheus, raising, predictably, more questions than we can answer.

Not to be confused with the anime of the same title.

Title: Ex Machina

Written and directed by Alex Garland

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb
Oscar Isaac as Nathan
Alicia Vikander as Ava
Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko


A young employee of Bluebook (aka “Not Google”) gets hired by his company’s eccentric founder to assist on a very secret project involving artificial intelligence.

High Point:

The film’s problematic examining of AI, independent thought, gender, and even race has led to controversy and consternation. Ex Machina does not get a free pass simply because it’s well-made, or because it hangs its worse excesses on its narcissistic, sexist Dr. Frankenstein figure. However, I believe its strength comes from its dramatic examination of those issues, however uncertain and flawed any given viewer may find that examination.

Low Points

I understand the need to build character and context, and so this isn’t a really big deal:
But is there a rule saying the first act of all indie SF films has to move at as slow a pace as can be?

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 We’ve had many takes on the Modern Prometheus since Frankenstein, and more than a few have understandably dealt with the specific problem of machine AI. This film provides some twists of its own, including a problematic but fascinating commentary on gender.

Effects: 6/6 The effects used to show Ava’s robotic nature are excellently realized.

Acting: 6/6 The characters inhabit their roles—none more so than Alicia Vikander as Ava.

Production: 5/6

Story: 5/6

Emotional Response: 6/6 The movie has been written, directed, and acted to create strong responses…

Overall: 5/6 …and the breadth and depth of the debate it has created shows it has been successful. Flaws and all, Ex Machina may be the best indie SF film since Moon, and it’s great to see it succeed despite a lack of spaceships and explosions.

In total, Ex Machina receives 36/42.

Of Gender, Race, AI, and that Ending

Warning: Spoilers. I advise against reading the following if you have not yet viewed the film.

The film’s discussion of AI has been pre-empted, in many cases, by its consideration of gender and even race.

The most villainous character is darker skinned than the more likable of the two men, who is blonde. The Asian AI is subservient, and the one who dies in the escape attempt. The ending might be viewed as both a feminist and an AI-evolutionary statement, but it comes after a film with a Bluebeard’s Closet full of dead, naked fembots, and discussions of them by two deliberately problematic male coders.

Ex Machina consciously casts the god-to-human debate as a male-to-female one, with its founder creating gendered female robots he also, not incidentally, uses as slaves and sexbots. Part of his test of AI involves seeing if it can outsmart a human; Ava does so, in a large part, by manipulating the more powerful male figures around her, in the manner traditionally ascribed to woman in a male-dominated world, where the ability to manipulate may be the only power afforded them.

Ava and Kyoko take revenge on Nathan, and (since Kyoko dies), she leaves Caleb to die (assuming Nathan doesn’t have a security protocol, where someone checks up on him if he doesn’t check in regularly). She does so… Well, why? Because she has only been manipulating him and pretending to have feelings? Because that’s what them independent women do, especially to NICE GUYS like Caleb? Because his escape plan made no provisions for the more seriously-mistreated Kyoko? Because she views all men as a threat? Because she views all humans as a threat?

How you answer that last questions will significantly affect how you feel about this movie.

We’re late to the party, so I’ll leave the debate to the Comments. A few interesting analyses may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

9 replies on “Weekend Review: Ex Machina”

  1. I agree with the review. I thought it was brilliantly done (story, acting, and production design). My wife, who likes sci-fi, but is no where near as “into it” as I am, was blown away. It’s great when someone not steeped in the tropes and “syntax” of science fiction can walk away with the same level of appreciation that a full-blown nerd does.

    And my brain totally refuses to parse that Nathan and Poe Dameron are played by the same actor.

  2. I read the film a bit differently. This wasn’t a film on gender roles and abuse masquerading as an AI film, it was an AI film masquerading as a film on gender roles and abuse.

    Caleb was a stand-in for the audience, his reactions, trying to do the experiment, falling for flattery, empathizing with and falling in love with the Eva, are all reactions we’d likely have and fit into a film exploring gender. His downfall is that Eva isn’t a woman, shes not even human, she’s an entity who is trying to survive. It manipulates Caleb for exactly the reasons Nathan predicted, it wants to escape. And it kills Caleb because he served his purposed and at that point the risk he’ll realize the deception outweighs any further benefit he has. It kills him the way it does, by simply walking away and leaving him to starve, because he’s irrelevant so it has no reason to stop or look back.

    Nathan doesn’t make the mistake of anthropomorphism and he thinks of the AIs the way you would NPCs in a computer game. He understands that the AIs were acting like abused women to trigger his empathy so his response was to dehumanize them and shut off his empathy. His downfall is the lack of human contact has made him very unstable, his behavior bizarre, and his ethics broken. He has no idea how to deal with normal people and that’s why Caleb is able to surprise him with a betrayal he had already planned for.

    Both men suffer the consequence of trading human company for computers. Caleb treats a non-human entity as human and gets betrayed while Nathan treats human-like machines as pure machines and becomes a monster

    For this reason I would actually give it a higher originality score. I haven’t seen anyone take the subject this seriously in a film before and it manages a decent social critique on both gender and technological detachment.

    • Ok, I’m assuming most ppl have seen it at this point but the spoiler was supposed to keep going until the last paragraph.

      • Fixed.
        The tags close here at the end of a paragraph, so you have to repost the spoiler tag for each paragraph. And yes, your reading is excellent– though whether they are merely acting like abused women or responding to actual abuse as AI creations remains for me an open question.

        • Thanks for the fix.

          The thing I really liked with the movie is it did give you a few different levels to work about. I hadn’t really thought about the full implications of the gender and race dynamics you mentioned. I still don’t agree in how they relate to the female characters, but I think they do reflect on the male characters.

          One thing I felt that supported the reading I had, of the AIs having a fundamentally different consciousness, is the role that art played. Jackson Pollock’s painting came up a few times and I think it was meant to display a very human style of art, abstract, orderless, and indulgent. Very much like Nathan whose actions were largely driven by desire and led to him getting pass-out drunk around a person whom he knew would betray him.

          Conversely Eva’s drawing of Caleb was essentially a dot matrix printout of a photograph, no emotion, completely detached from desire, and utilitarian without any waste. Just like her decision to not bother looking back at Caleb after she’d affected her escape.

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