Not sure about you cats, but I’ve been trapped in a snowstorm for the last few days so I’m hungry for a little horror. No, I didn’t re-watch The Thing or The Shining, even if they are standard snowstorm choices. I finally got around to watching to Ex Machina [2015, directed by Alex Garland]. You might be saying “hey now, that’s not a horror movie.” And you would be wrong. This is absolutely a horror movie. Quick side note: Garland also wrote the screenplay, and wrote the 28 Days Later screenplay. I’ll make my case starting at the beginning.
The Monster and his Bride
I’m going to get this bit out of the way – this is 100% a re-writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So, who are our players?
Nathan: Victor Frankenstein (obvi)
A classic narcissist, Nathan plays God on the nanite level instead of the biological level. But really, what else can you call a man who has a lab full of parts belonging to young women? Nathan has no emotional attachment to his creations and is untroubled by destroying them, repurposing them, or at the very least, manipulating everything that they do. He does all of this while trying to make them as much like human beings as possible. I would normally call someone like Nathan a sociopath, but in this case, I would label him a full-on psychopath. He hauls in poor Caleb to the facility because Caleb is a vulnerable choice. He sets up this experiment with every detail calibrated for Caleb’s circumstances and likes. Nathan takes profound pleasure in manipulating his entire world and causing others harm and distress.
Caleb: The Monster
Poor, sweet, stupid Caleb. He lacks the deep distrust that any sane person has towards the obscenely wealthy. He is at first wide-eyed at the spectacle of Blue Book’s hidden oasis in the middle of mythic nowhere. But he does almost no exploring of this building and blindly listens to Nathan instead of finding the entire situation – and weird cult-like nature of the company – to be very extremely suspicious. I’m calling Caleb the Monster, instead of Ava. That is because Caleb is another one of Nathan’s creations. Nathan shows Caleb life like he has never imagined, and because of that, Caleb loves Nathan, admires him, and eventually hates him.
Ava: The Bride
Yes. Now, hear me out. Ava is the Bride and not the Monster. She is not Nathan’s first creation. She is a better model of previous works and is more calculating than anyone else present in the facility. She may be a “rat in the maze,” as Nathan calls her, but I actually think her planning was more nuanced than just “escape by any means.” She starts with a flirty friendship with Caleb but transitions through her methods of escape while she pieces together what is possible. She might very well have been warming up to Caleb, but saw a quicker and easier route out when Kyoko-the-cyborg enters her living space. Then she sees Caleb for what he really is: a naive man-child. I also want to note that Ava could have been fully formed into a clothed human-like creation, or even a nude lady, but she is instead partially transparent, showing her gears and inner workings. You could even say Ava is half-nude. Nathan designed her to be entirely appealing to Caleb. Every inch of Ava was never meant to be her own, which is the basic right of human beings, or any creation with self-awareness.
NORWAY. Known for heavy metal and cyborgs
Y’all, I could totally live in Norway after watching this. Ex Machina was filmed in Norway. I’m not sure where it’s meant to be in this fictional world, perhaps somewhere in Canada? If Blue Book’s headquarters is in New York and Caleb took a chopper to get to the oasis, I’m guessing it’s supposed to be Canada. Every view inside and outside of this facility is staggering. It’s not just the facility that has a minimalist quality to it; the story and script are also operating on a slimmed-down level.
Think about the cycle of this plot. There aren’t really Acts in the traditional sense. It breaks down Caleb’s visit into the days (Ava Session: 1, etc), but more than that, each day is constructed the same way. Caleb wakes up, chats with Nathan, talks with Ava (each Ava visit is different), then talks with a more unhinged Nathan over dinner, aaaaand repeat. This bugged me at first, but eventually I saw that this pattern is actually built by Nathan into Caleb’s days, and combined with the minimalist quality of the setting, allows the cracks to really show as the visit devolves.
The magician and his hot assistant
One of the reoccurring (and more obvious) themes in this flick is the idea of the magician and his hot assistant. It’s discussed at annoying length by Nathan and Caleb, so I’m going to try and problemitize this in more depth.
It was immediately clear to me that Kyoko was an AI, and based on Nathan’s narcissism, I guessed an earlier and unsuccessful model that he repurposed for his food, cleaning, and sexual needs. Nathan’s views of women are delivered to the viewer at every step in this story. Of course he wouldn’t have a male man-servant. Of course his lady-servant would be wearing a short slip of a thin dress. Of course he would design a female AI to test, instead of a man, and of course, he would give her girly parts with “pleasure receivers.” God, I feel like I need to wash my hands right now.
Ex Machina functions best when it doesn’t reveal the magic trick. I’ll give you an example: Caleb is telling Ava about a theory involving a woman in a black and white room who can perceive color, but has never seen it. This woman is a robot when she’s in the room. Once she leaves the room and sees color, she becomes a woman (not a “human being,” he said “a woman,” so I give a big ol’ F in feminism to the house of Caleb). This statement is obviously foreshadowing what will happen, and then to really swivel the blade around in our ribs, it shows Ava filmed in black and white standing on the hillside outside of the facility. Alright already, geez, we’re not that thick.
This is a very slick movie that does not trust the viewer to be smart enough to follow what’s going on, and that bums me out. We don’t need Nathan telling us at the end of every work day how we should be feeling about Ava and Caleb. A more successful interaction would have been Caleb probing Nathan for information on Blue Book’s search algorithm or who built the AI microparts. Good writing would show Nathan’s psychopath tendencies creeping through those talks. But Ex Machina doesn’t think we’re smart enough to do that.
You know what they say about men with dolls
The thing that bugged me the most about Ex Machina is the facility. This is a house of horrors that goes very unexplored for almost the entire movie. Also, did Caleb really think he wasn’t being watched and recorded every second that he was in the facility? Of course every meal, every shower, every loving gaze at the CCTV of Ava was cataloged.
Some of the best horror sequences happen before the finale. It’s not surprising that Nathan would keep all of his previous AI models, but it’s absolutely horrifying that he keeps them in separate closets in his bedroom. EW. EW. EW. All of those poor ladybots need to be disinfected. And bleached. And probably burned.
The CCTV archive footage of ladybots trying to escape the facility while Nathan watches is heartbreaking, but the video of one of the AIs slamming her robot arms into the door until they are just wiry stumps devastated me.
I also consider Ava dressing herself in the finale to be a stunning horror sequence. She finds the bodies of old decommissioned AIs, and chooses one to pull the skin off of. She dresses herself in skin, then picks out an outfit and hair. She didn’t even need to restrain Caleb. She tells him to stay and wait and he does, because she’s a m.f. boss.
God from a machine
Nathan’s death is so perfect, so straight from a Greek tragedy. Let’s take a moment to examine the title and the meaning of a human-made god. In Greek dramas, the device deus ex machina signified the entrance of an actor dressed as a god, who was entered on the set by a machine, like a crane. The “god” would be dropped into the scene to disrupt events and force a resolution or outcome.
The same effect happens with disruptive technology. I’m guessing that Blue Book was meant to be interpreted by the viewer as disruptive technology. Now we have an AI who is smarter than her creator and can almost wear her disguise and pass as a human seamlessly. Ava drops herself into the world.
Nathan’s death is everything he deserved. His creations gang up on him and stab him in the back and chest. I loved how slowly the AIs inserted the knife. He has ample time to feel betrayed and try to stagger before his lungs collapse.
That’s all I got! May your winter nights be cozy, and your winter days free from black ice. Until next time.