Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ex Machina

When writing about Ex Machina one must do so with the utmost care. It is a piece of work easily spoiled not solely in terms of its story, but also in how the viewer is predisposed to view it. The film - from the mind of writer/director Alex Garland - offers little more than a sliver of revealable expository action.  Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a rather green programmer "wins" a chance to travel to the secretive compound of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the enigmatic and deeply eccentric tech billionaire at the top of his company.  It is unclear what will happen there, and why he has been brought.  Nathan  claims Caleb will have the chance to be administer the Turing test and face off with his prized invention, a piece of artificial intelligence called Ava (Alicia Vikander) in a series of sessions.  Indeed he does, but as the days go by the conditions within the house seem to change. It is a type of intelligent prison, Nathan drinks to the point of excess, Caleb's bedroom is too enclosed, and Ava seems to be aware of the ulterior motives the lurk in the hearts of the men. 

In some ways Ex Machina plays out as a type of haunted house story. It's a Gothic novella updated to more contemporary standards of "the fantastic."  The unexplained, the supernatural, all of that here becomes linked to the limits of the general populace and thrown into the uncanny valley.  Caleb's perception - the longer he remains in Nathan's house - becomes intrinsically linked to the film's oppressive atmosphere, and we watch as spaces fit for the pages of Architectural Digest become colder, starker, sinister externalizations of the tension between the two men.

Nathan's house is arguably haunted, yet the question that the film seems to want to ask is by what?  Human beings have no place here, and the spirits that seem to remain are the "ghosts in the machine" the title suggests.  As the property's power repeatedly shutters, fails, and locks the men in with their demons, the film builds to a visceral, maddening peak.  We no longer know who to trust, what to believe, or whether our sympathies should remain with the living or the mechanical.  The construct has failed us: Nathan is an unlikable type of Byronic hero, mad, bad, dangerous to know.  Caleb is - ultimately - a sort of mysterious stranger thrown into the role of caretaker, succumbing to the paranoia instilled by noises in the night and odd encounters. And Ava?  She is the ghost, the mad woman in the attic, the sickly child who exists as a byproduct of something like Nathan's cruelty or unusual ways. 
This is the reading that I feel highlights what's most interesting about Ex Machina to me, and what makes it a successful hybrid of genres.  It's Gothic sci-fi with a touch of the Bluebeard fairy tale thrown in for good measure.  This is also the reading, I think, which will allow you the viewer to enter the film with a lens that can then accent the myriad other thematic issues this raises.  As I noted, the thing about Ex Machina is that it is a film easily spoiled by specific close readings, yet which is fluid enough in its approach to the content to allow for any number of possibilities.  While this makes for a rich, complicated piece of filmmaking, there are certain design decisions that force some very heavy questions (and problems) front and center.  [Spoilers around the corner] 

Though the film's approach is anything but standard (and really quite beautiful, in terms of its aesthetics and cohesion), in very clearly framing the artificial intelligence as female we find ourselves face to face with a confusing approach to what is arguably being offered up as a serious problem. Nathan's aggressively masculine presence serves as sharp contrast to Ava, and there's a leering, domineering quality to not only his "creation" of her, but also the sexualized form he has chosen to give her, the subservient qualities he seems to expect, and the fact that our primary "female" presence here is - in fact - actually an object.  This is a provocation, and one the film is actively in conversation with. It wants us to question how we're meant to view Ava well beyond the Turing Test.  It wants us, too, to see Nathan's dismissive mistreatment of her and Caleb's eventual savior complex as equally misguided and in line with one another.  There's some very smart posturing throughout the film, and arguments to be made both for and against Garland's decisions at every turn.  

In the film's final moments, though, there's something of a problematic shift that forces the ending to be both what the viewer wants and yet deeply unsettling, and after the film is so surefooted in its approach, things becomes suddenly unclear.  Because Ava has been presented to us as, essentially, a type of fembot (to quote Robyn, they have feelings too), because she is forced to use flirtation as manipulation, because the film places great visual emphasis on her chassis, because she is established as a potentially very dangerous piece of machinery, we do not know how to feel about her freedom.  On the one hand: the Gothic read would perhaps allow us to see her "haunting" as a byproduct of and necessary turn from the evils of the men around her.  She is victorious, smarter, now more stable.  On the other: because the film spends much of its time drawing less from the tropes of sci-fi and more from a type of psychological horror, we can see the dawn of this "woman" as a releasing of an unsteady power onto the world.  

Because we don't really have any other female presences in the film, Garland's thesis remains unclear and the final scene is as powerful as it is troubling.  What kind of reckoning is Ava?  What does she spell for the film?  Though it's hard to say, exactly, I would argue that the fluidity of the possibilities makes this a movie worth seeing, worth thinking about, and deserving of real attention.  Garland has crafted a compelling film, and one that grips you from its opening moments and tightens its hold until the credits roll.  It's a success, even if it's a slippery one. And so the question becomes: what did you see in it?

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