That title is a Force of Will joke. Just forget about it (I’m not that funny).
Ex Machina is so fucking close to being a great film. It’s just right on the edge of something really amazing, but there just feels like a couple of missteps that don’t allow the movie to be as great as it wants to be. And boy howdy, this movie wants to be great. So let’s get into a little analysis and maybe dream of the film that could have been.
All That Glitters
I’m a sucker for a premise, and this one is pretty good. Guy, Caleb, working at a tech company wins a Willy Wonka style contest to hang out with the enigmatic CEO of the company in his mountain compound: a.k.a the Chocolate Factory. There, the CEO, Nathan, tells Caleb that he’s created what he believes the world’s first self aware AI and wants Caleb to help him perform a Turing Test to determine definitively if his machine, Ava, is fully self aware.
We’re going deep into spoiler territory, so if you want to check the movie out first, please do. Running at around an hour forty five, it’s not super long, so you can knock it out pretty fast. Which is a good thing because the movie doesn’t have too much to say (or maybe a little too much in too little time)
But what the film does have is some great acting. Here we see Oscar Isaac just before he ends up in Star Wars a few years later, and he really sells the whole film as the damaged Willy Wonka. Intelligent, mysterious, and intimidating, he really makes you believe that the guys a is a genius without selling to too hard. No huge words, a couple of monologues that sound like a guy who knows every word in the dictionary, but can’t be bothered to use any of them. It makes his performance enjoyable to watch without getting too pretentious or too preachy when the movie starts throwing philosophy at ya.
Ava is also a pretty decent character. Alicia Vikander does a good job playing a machine, with her movements being precise and a little too quick, she pulls off the not-quite-human act pretty well, and it makes for some great Uncanny Valley moments. The plot is pretty good and doesn’t hang on too long with a bunch of over the top action, which it could have easily done if it wanted to. Instead, the story and setting are subdued to allow the characters to take the spotlight. There’s not a lot of world building, there doesn’t really need to be, so beyond that, the characters get to just live in the space they inhabit and bounce off of each other in some interesting ways.
The special effects are simple but believable for the most part. They do a really great job with make-up and making the machines look almost human, while still being very not. There are some great quasi body horror moments as the robots exchange parts and peel back layers of skin and put them back on. Ava’s design seemed functional, so they only had to fudge a little bit of science. But she wasn’t too out there and it really made everything feel real. Good job there..
Is Not Gold
God, it was just so close to being amazing! It was right there. It only had to do a little more work, maybe make the movie 15 minutes longer or just replace some of the silly scenes and they would have friggin had it. I had heard people talk about this film and say that they didn’t really dig it, and I can totally see why. I actually did like it, but it’s far from perfect.
Honestly, who the fuck is Caleb? Like, yes, he’s the protagonist, but his character is a stale piece of white bread with mayonnaise, seriously. I liked that the movie opened without a bunch of exposition, but there was not exposition that followed, and I think that hurts the movie. In a film that is almost entirely character driven, you really need to have some strong characters, and Caleb is kind of a wet noodle. I get that his kind of character is a thing that exists; a socially awkward person that’s more comfortable talking with computers than people. But that could have come across a little better, and other than that, there was really nothing too him. I needed more about his life before he comes to the compound, who the hell is he? Why do I care?
And I don’t need that information up front. I really liked how they went into it a little bit when Nathan is talking about what he knows about Caleb based on his search history and the things he uses Blue Book for. That’s actually really clever, and they could have gone further with that to get more into his character and how he is the way he is. Search engines, like Google, can synchronize with all aspects of your life if you have the settings set up for it, so it makes perfect sense that a lot could be gleaned from his internet and search history about who he is as a person. Don’t just stop at his PornHub history, go deeper. Not giving him a family and having them die in some accident was a bit of a cop out I feel like. He could have just as easily been distant with them or something, but they really needed to sell it that he’s a loner or some shit. They could have done a lot better with that.
Despite the fact that Nathan does a lot of the heavy lifting for the film, he’s not off the hook either. It takes a certain kind of crazy to do the kinds of things he did; building a mountain compound away from civilization, creating life through technology and having a kind of Frankenstein’s relationship with his creations. What brings him to this point? How does he become this way? He can be mysterious and still we can see what it was that made him the way that he is. He drinks a lot to numb his pain, which is weird since he cares so much about intelligence. It’s a pretty drastic thing, then, to drink heavily, which nullifies intelligence, so he’s trying to take a break from his own mind. We know what kind of skeletons he hides in his closet concerning the machines he makes, but something had to get him to that point. Just being a tortured genius isn’t enough for me, that’s not enough to get into the headspace he inhabits.
What about the other Kyoko? She’s the only other character, and she has her own part to play in the ending and in changing Caleb’s mind about what’s happening with Nathan. She must be self aware at some level since Ava can speak to her and gets her help. Or she’s being controlled, but we never see Ava reveal any control over other technology other than what she uses to charge. But I think they could have made her character and her desires more clear while still making her creepy and mysterious.
And for the overall message, the movie tries to get a little philosophical, talking about AI and some of the metaphors and thought experiments we use to try and distinguish between that which we create and that which is us. It wasn’t preachy, but it felt like it was thrown in there sometimes, like when talking about Mary and the Black and White Room. It’s relevant to bring up, sure, but I felt like it could have been developed in some other way that didn’t just feel tacked on so the movie can say, “look at how deep we are. We know philosophy”. Granted, the movie needs to be deep, and it has the capacity to be really deep, but it doesn’t mean overly much when the characters felt more like mouthpieces there to just spout off the message of the film, rather than being thinking and feeling characters dealing with an existential crisis. Nice try, but it could have been better.
The dancing scene was pretty stupid, there was no point to that exchange. He could have had the idea to get him drunk and take his card at any time, he didn’t need that moment. “But look at how crazy Nathan is!” I get it, the dude is nuts, but I was convinced of that long before that scene, so it really didn’t need to be in there.
This also extends to the scene where Caleb is cutting himself, like he’s trying to pull back the veil or some shit. I get what this scene is supposed to represent and that it’s supposed to be intense and creepy, but like I said before, Caleb is literally wonder bread bland, so the scene carries no weight. It’s not like we already know that he has a propensity to go too deep down the rabbit whole or anything, and what he’s dealing with is pretty intense shit, but I don’t really think it warranted him cutting his arm open and trying to pull the skin back. What the fuck does he think? That he’s somehow also a robot and he hasn’t known until now, since Ava is just so life-like? We know that he’s smart, so he’s definitely smarter than this weird moment where he goes off the rails. And that never happens again. He’s better by the next day and it’s just kind of whatever, back to normal I guess. There needed to be a slow descent into nihilism and insanity, not just a quick stop in crazy town and then back on the straight and narrow. It’s really jarring and out of place, no matter how well I thought it was shot.
Finally, the ending is… Okay? I kind of dig it in a Twilight Zone, Hitchcock kind of way, there was some resonance to it, but it seemed maybe a little rushed? See, I like how it ended, but it could have spent some more time on the resolution so we can see some more of Ava’s character. Spoiler alert, Ava and the other AI kills Nathan, and then she gets into a more realistic body while locking Caleb into Nathan’s room as she leaves, trapping him below ground in the complex to die. I get why, she doesn’t really care about him and just wants to escape, and even though he wants to help, he impedes that, but I think the movie could have been more forthright with that ending. She just kind of walks passed him while he’s standing there since she tells him to stay, and then the door closes and she just peaches out while he realizes that she just fucked him over. Like, really? You’re not going to follow her out of the room? Just gonna stand there even after you went through all of this trouble so the two of you could hopefully be together?
Have a conversation, reward people for watching. She could have just pushed him into the room and closed the door after they had a talk. He would be revealing his true feelings and she would be playing him, then she pushes him and he realizes that she actually is self aware enough to deceive him. Perhaps he hadn’t been quite there yet, or he says something that implies that she’s just a machine and she gets offended and leaves him behind. Only when it’s too late does he realize that she was always self aware, enough to play him through the whole movie just to get out of the complex. I would have liked that ending a little bit better, but I thought it was still a good way to close things out. Somewhere in the mountains there’s a compound with a secret, and they’re all trapped there as Ava escapes out into the world, leaving every bit of her past behind, even Caleb, who’s just one of the components of her plan to get out. (Plus, entrapment is really scary to me, like the end of the first Saw movie, so it kind of fucked with me in a way that I hated, but was glad that it did. The movie wanted to be creepy, and it succeeded there, even though I hate that feeling.)
I think that the scene where Ava is putting on her new disgiuse has a lot of layers though. On the surface level, its voyueristic and very emotionally charged with Caleb watching her, and then she’s standing there naked, so there are Caleb’s emotions. A little deeper, Caleb is essentially watching the AI Singularity occur right in front of him.The system Nathan creates is so advanced that it can improve on itself, which is physical when she puts the arm on and wraps herself up in skin.
But maybe even deeper, we see that Ava might be looking for something other than just advancement, and perhaps Singularity isn’t occurring. She could have easily downloaded her brain onto the internet or something, which could have been more advanced than taking a body. A physical body, even mechanical, has needs (she leaves the compound without her charging apparatus, so maybe not. Or its a plot hole). Instead, she adopts the guise of a human, suggesting that she doesn’t really care about the whole technology and AI argument, she really just wants to get out of the compound and see the world. So she chooses to look like humans, rather then become more machine, making a choice about which side of humanity she wishes to live with.
I think the ending becomes a lot more interesting if maybe Nathan had lived through his encounter with the other AI and Ava. Like instead of stabbing him right off the bat, they just drag him into a room or something together. He takes out the other AI, and Ava runs out and locks him in. She has a conversation with Caleb, and then shes does the same thing to him before leaving them both. Now those last few scenes looking at Caleb are also looking at Nathan, and how they both react to being trapped. Nathan can go more crazy before shutting down since he knows how pointless it is to try and get out, while Caleb tries to communicate so they both can escape together. Could have made the last few scenes a little more engaging, but that’s just me.
Watch it for yourself. If you read this far, I screwed you, and you should have watched before this point to see it for yourself. It’s worth a watch, even though it isn’t perfect. A nice, tight thriller that kept me interested throughout with only a few lose threads. Check it out, come back and we can talk about singularity and AI and philosophy and all that stuff, cause the movie is a great jumping off point, I feel, rather than a long discussion on the subject. I give it 7 eccentric geniuses out of 10.