I couldn’t help but feel throughout Ex Machina a sense of unqualified teasing and taunting. It is what science fiction cinema, especially indie sci-fi has to have under its sleeve in order for people to respect it. There needs to be a ace of spades tucked under the lining, a coin behind the ear, something that hits you in the film that makes you go “that was smart”. Alex Garland had all the pieces set in place for this. He chose a remote location, away from everything, behind closed doors, with an owner named Nathan (a brilliant as always Oscar Isaac) who’s disarming frat-boy personality from the get go seems extremely suspicious given that he’s a genius computer scientist. He chose a timid, but crackling smart computer wiz with a troubled past as the test subject for an experiment to help a robot named Eva pass the Turing Test. This is a typical set-up for a mouse in a labyrinth story line, a game of wits in between claustrophobic walls, and cold emotionless landscape. Think Polanski’s Cul-de-sac in a sci-fi future. There are many directions that this tantalizing narrative could turn.
If teasing and taunting us is the game Alex Garland wanted to play, then he should have had a bigger trick up his sleeve than he did. Its not a mistake to think Ex Machina is a film which considers itself smarter and cooler than it actually is. In that sense, ironically, Garland is an embodiment of his senior character Nathan… eager to point out the twists and smoke and mirrors hidden inside his own creation but not realizing he let his secrets slip sooner than he really wanted to. This is the part where I get into some spoilers. I’m not bragging about this, but merely pointing out the reveal in tone and character that I noticed when first introduced to Kyoko… I knew she was a robot too the moment she came in to deliver Caleb his breakfast. Her mechanical movements, expressionless actions, the moment she starts dancing at soon as the lights dim, that she can’t speak English, I wouldn’t call these dead giveaways, but there are too many aspects of her interaction with both Nathan and Caleb that are too mechanized for even an ethnic Japanese servant.
What Garland does extremely well in this film however, is pinning sexuality and deception in an Artificially Intelligent “life-form” as human traits. While Spielberg & Kubrick’s A.I. talked to us about love and loyalty, Ex Machina is turns towards the darker and dubious side of human personality. Make no mistake, the dialogues that occur between Eva and Caleb, the “do you want to be with me”, “lets go on a date” and others merely serviced a continuation of the Turing test, and it was Eva’s body, her smooth mechanical sexuality, the way she rolled her stockings up her legs, and connected synthetic human skin onto her abdomen, these were the signals of attraction that drew Caleb, and us as the audience, in. By the end of the film, Eva was a beautiful woman, and in her nudity, standing in front of the mirror with flowing hair, there is a glimpse of carnal instinct that elicits all of us.
The twists that Garland employs at the end serve no greater purpose than surface level joy, that we get to finally learn the truth about all the confusion and secrecy that’s going on. Don’t trust Nathan, the security lockdowns, why Nathan chose Caleb as his apprentice for the experiment, all of these questions were asked throughout the film just so that Garland could misdirect us several ways. It’s not a narrative flaw, its just narrative laziness. It reveals nothing about the characters, and it reveals nothing about artificial intelligence, which really is and should be the center point of the story. This is why Ex Machina only seems smarter than it actually is, like a magic trick, its smoke and its mirrors reveal themselves to be just simple birthday party magician tricks. No real magic, no real questions or revelations. What doubles up against this film is also that it can’t position itself on the same pedestal as a Nolan film, which has the luxury of big budget coupled with of course, Nolan’s talent in writing thrilling stories. For indie sci-fi like Ex Machina, the ideas have to be there ahead of anything else.
What should have been the talking point of the film is Eva’s ability to dupe Caleb into pretending she likes him in order to escape becomes the scariest of all propositions in regards to artificial intelligence; that robots will be able to consciously trick us for their own gain. What could be more human than that? It’s a brilliant look into the fear and paranoia of our world; who’s lying to us? What’s the truth? Who can we trust? That Nathan owns and operates a giant search engine company (an obvious reference to Google) should be a talking point about whether we can ever trust them. What happens when Google and Apple A.I. are able to think and operate for themselves, or converse through a human consciousness? Will they lie to us too? It may seem like a lot to discuss, but if Shane Carruth can warp our minds with ideas of relativity in Primer, and Duncan Jones can teach us the depth of human fear of isolation in Moon, one would expect Garland to be able to talk about the implications of his artificial intelligence instead of just using it as a vehicle for misdirection.