Ex Machina Review: Alex Garland Fucks With Everything
4.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (14 Votes)

Am I real? Or am I a machine? I found myself questioning my humanity as I walked out of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Despite already having heard about the how the movie would end, I still spent most of the movie perched on my seat in suspense. The 108-minute long British science fiction film (in theaters now) had me hooked every thrilling second, wondering how everything would go down.

A lot of what makes Ex Machina so gripping has to do with the beautiful, stark cinematography and the creative sets and backdrops. You and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the movie’s naive protagonist, are alone in a futuristic prison in the middle of a lush expanse of nature with, horror of horrors, no cell service. The only way on and off the estate is by helicopter, which is due to return in a set amount of time to pick Caleb up and go home.

In the middle of the beautiful greenery sits an ultra modern house protected by an automated security system which takes Caleb’s picture and spits out an access card. Enter the clinical glass-and-metal building, and we find a warm fireplace and a faux stone wall. It’s nature, but it’s jarringly artificial. Every element of the entire film is juxtaposition upon juxtaposition.

Even the music, composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, is an odd coupling of melodious, lilting keyboard and celeste notes and the dark, unrelenting beats of synths and manipulated brass. It’s unnerving, not uncomfortable, but keeps you on your toes.

What really lures you into Ex Machina are the characters. Like Nathan (brilliantly played by the talented and immensely likable Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of Google’s equivalent in Ex Machina’s world. The first time we meet him, he’s beating the shit out of a punching bag, until he turns around and says hi to Caleb. Suddenly he’s all smiles, and as cool as a frat bro. Yet there’s something still inherently sinister about him. I never let my guard down with Nathan–not trusting him for one second.

Caleb and Nathan

Worse, however, was the character whose morality and humanity we (and Caleb) are here to determine. Ava (Alice Vikander)– the childlike robot who’s the result of Nathan’s years of research on AI, is the character you’ll trust the least.

Using algorithms derived from people’s web searches all over the world, Nathan has found the answer to what humanity is, and put all of that into Ava. He’s invited Caleb to the facility to conduct a Turing test — which, according to the mighty Wikipedia, is “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.”

At first, Ava herself is a mix of human and machine. Her face and bald head are human, as are her fingers, but the rest of her body is a transparent, glowing, cybernetic mess. Over time, though, as Caleb (and the audience) get to know her better, Ava becomes more and more human. This physically manifests in her putting on a wig and clothes to hide her robotic nature. But as she gained that humanity, she covered up her body’s openness. As you get to know her better, you start to know her less.

In just one image, Garland conveys multiple ideas: that being human involves keeping secrets and having motives, that you can never really know or trust someone. And, if you think about it, Ava covering herself up to appear more human is like Adam and Eve covering themselves up after eating an apple in the garden of Eden. In her quest to become human, Ava took on the burden of original sin.

Much of the time, you’re seeing the world of Ex Machina through Caleb’s eyes, but at some point, that viewpoint shifts to become Ava’s, and the lines become blurred. The viewer becomes Ava, and as she gains our humanity, we lend her ours. We are, as humans, all inherently flawed. It’s a disconcerting realization, but a surprisingly freeing one. Like Caleb in the house, we are at once lost and trapped in our humanity. It’s like one of those revelations you come upon in the middle of a particularly deep high — it sounds like it makes no sense, but it actually makes plenty.

If you’re anything like me, these questions will haunt you far beyond the film’s runtime, leaving you to ponder more than just what the hell is wrong with Garland.

Here’s another piece of mind-fuck material: the  only human characters in the film are male, while the robots are all female, with the majority of them being used as sex slaves. The women start out subordinate, harmless, even, as the men try to control and understand them. But eventually, not only do the men lose control, they are also overcome by the formerly subservient robots.

How many allegories is Garland trying to cram into one feature film? The Civil War, colonialism, the women’s rights movement, Scientology, even — all are called to mind when you consider what the robots and men here represent. But it is all left to your interpretation. Garland leaves you to ponder and attach your own meaning to what it could represent — so much so that in a nearby bar later, a few members of the audience and myself chatted for hours about what all that meant, and we each had our own theories.

Everything in Ex Machina is done deliberately, most of the time to just mess with the viewer. Garland even said during an interview that nothing Nathan says is true. So, at the end of it all, what do we have left to believe in?

Nothing. And yet, everything. At the end of Ex Machina, you’ll believe human-like robots are possible, that man can play God. That Adam and Eve were doomed to sin like Ava was. And that’s the beauty of a movie that makes you question everything, even your very being.