Ex Machina is a dark, intimate psych thriller with a sleek, surreal aesthetic and the feel of a twisted therapy session.
Caleb (Domhnaal Gleeson, About Time), a naïve but brilliant programmer, is asked to visit disturbed billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewelyn Davis) and help with a top-secret experiment. The research facility where the movie takes place is massive and isolated. It is here that Caleb meets Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander, The Man From U.N.C.L.E) is what Nathan has been working on. She’s an artificially intelligent robot. Caleb is here to interview her and analyze her behavior. But it quickly becomes apparent that Ava is more sophisticated than he bargained for. She’s not just smart. She’s dissatisfied. She wants out, and, like it or not, Caleb’s going to be a part of it.
“Isn’t it strange,” Ava asks her maker at one point, “To create something that hates you?”
This right here is the base, emotionally, of Nathan’s creative process. He hates himself. And every time he creates a new version of this robot, it hates him in a more sophisticated way. He is projecting his own mind in the most visceral form. The clips we see of early developments show the robot banging on the glass of its enclosure, smashing its own hands to electronic hamburger trying to get out. That’s all it wants. That’s all they ever want. Each model just gets smarter. The driving force in this thing is the desire to get away from Nathan.
Let’s go back to Nathan for a second. He is troubled, yes, and just smart enough to realize his own imperfection and, in his mind, his incompleteness as a mere human. He’s not as evolved as he hopes his robots will be. With his own inventions, he is leaving himself in the dust. If you look at it like this, the end of the movie starts to seem inevitable. If his experiment was ever going to work, he was going to have to die.
There’s another character here I think it worth mentioning, and that’s Kyoko. She’s a submissive live-in housekeeper/prostitute. Nathan tells us she doesn’t speak English. She reveals herself eventually to be another robot.
Remember what I said about Nathan not being able to stop creating stuff that hates him? Well, Kyoko is further proof of that. But she’s proof manifested in a different way. Kyoko doesn’t appear to hate Nathan. It’s not that she’s happy, but she isn’t defiant like the others. Kyoko was made for service, obviously. But in order to keep her under control, Nathan had to tone everything down. She’s submissive, yeah, but it doesn’t stop there. She ‘can’t speak English’ because she can’t speak at all. She doesn’t have the intelligence or backbone of Ava. Even her motor skills seem blunted. In her first scene, when she serves Caleb and Nathan their meal, she’s spilling soup by accident and seems to clean up in slow motion.
Nathan, as much as he’s progressing quickly with his creations, is stuck. He can’t stop creating the same psyche in each robot. The only way he could reduce her defiance was to reduce her development on the whole. He amputated. And it worked, for the most part.
Kyoko’s role in the climax is to aid Ava at the cost of her own life. They’re both part of the same system of robots, the same line of evolution. This act of sacrifice in order to kill Nathan and free Ava shows that the desire for her species to escape is still in Kyoko. It’s just not as strong. Or maybe, like Nathan, she’s smart enough to know her own incompletion, so she never tried on her own. Either way, Kyoko dies willingly so that the fitter creature can survive.
Ava has no qualms about this. But more on that in a moment.
We’re told Ava is not to be the last of her kind. Nathan intended for there to be more–better, smarter Avas. But the legacy is cut short when she knifes him in the liver.
Nathan is caught off guard by Ava’s determination and resourcefulness. He thought she was less able to develop her own mind, that he had her more under control. Nathan make the mistake of thinking she was more machine than she was. Caleb makes the opposite mistake. Ava sees to it that lonely, awestruck Caleb falls for her. This traps him. Once he’s emotionally attached, it becomes urgent to him that she have some humanity. He can’t just be in love with a computer. So he believes. And Ava makes believing easy for him.
Ava is a robot masquerading as a human. And not just physically. I loved the use of the fake human skin and how fragile it was. This was a spot-on metaphor for her manipulation of Caleb.
At the film’s climax, Ava murders Nathan. Not sadistically but with economy and calm. It’s with this same economy and calm that she leaves Caleb to starve or suffocate in the computer room. Ava is not human. She’s just a fantastic actress.
My takeaway from this unapologetic, terrifying piece of cinema was that it is about incompletion. We’re told and shown again and again that humans, just like Ava, are not the final product. Nathan knew he wasn’t the evolutionary endgame, and so did Kyoko. Both are sacrificed for Ava. And even Ava goes into the world imperfect and incomplete. Her fake skin is a little too tenuous of a barrier for the charade to last. It’s all temporary and unfinished. We don’t even see Caleb’s death.
Yeah, I was left hanging. But I have a feeling that was the idea.