May 9, 2015

Ex Machina: Review


Hoo boy. Ex Machina. The critics like this one. A full six reviews were assigned a score of 100 on Metacritic, with raves like "A riveting sci-fi investigation into humankind's experiments with A.I." (Philadelphia Inquirer) and talk of "the narrative’s multiple, amusingly deployed dualities: confinement and liberation, agency and submission, mind and body" (New York Times).

In some ways, the movie is easy to like. It's a puzzle movie: A coder working at a Google-like company wins a week at the reclusive, brilliant founder's compound. He arrives at a high-tech facility that's part home, part laboratory, and is arrested by its stark, modern beauty, tight security, and spooky emptiness. The founder is an eccentric named Nathan, a muscular, cocky genius who is by turns controlling and avuncular. The coder is a smart everyman named Caleb who is overwhelmed at meeting his hero but unsettled by all the automatic locks and Nathan's moodiness. Nathan eventually reveals his purpose: Caleb is there to perform a Turing test on Nathan's latest attempt at artificial intelligence.

Nathan's latest AI model, naturally, comes in the form of a fabulously beautiful young woman called Ava. Caleb spends his days in "sessions" with Ava, standing or sitting behind unbreakable glass with Ava before him, looking lovely and mysterious and slightly tortured. As the days pass, Caleb realizes that Nathan has a thing for his female robots. Once Nathan discovers their flaws, he assigns them to a closet in his bedroom, taking them out for sex or erotic dancing while he moves on to build the next, better model.  Caleb decides to help Ava escape, and the denouement follows.

My list of grievances with this movie runs long, so let's start with some positives: It's well made. Sets and cinematography: very nice. Acting: ferocious. Nathan is played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac, and Caleb by Domhnall Gleeson. It's hard to believe Gleeson is the same actor who played both Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and Levin in Anna Karenina (in which, as Levin, he was married to Kitty, played by his Ex Machina costar Alicia Vikander). These guys are major talents. It's hard to evaluate the acting of the women because they're, you know, robots. And since Nathan is a sick bastard, they are crafted to look sexy and behave with only stoic allure.

In a basic way, the movie is fun. Nathan is a charismatic beast, and viewers get to juggle scenarios in their heads, making bets on the outcome. I don't know that the film is any kind of brilliant meditation on consciousness or freedom or the limits of humanness. The AI models are robots, and you either believe robots can attain consciousness or you don't. Characters are either lying or they aren't. Scenarios are either what they are or something darker. In the end, there are a limited number of ways the movie could go, and the way it did go seemed no more inevitable or logical than any other. For all its apparent complexity, the film felt very, very simplistic to me.

Plausibility is another issue. The movie tried to provide cover for some of the most implausible aspects: Caleb has always idolized Nathan, and that's why he stays at the compound despite the extreme weirdness he encounters almost immediately. Ava is hand-crafted to appeal to Caleb, and that's why he ends up staring moonily at her by day two. Nathan is a security-obsessed paranoid, and that's why he passes out drunk every evening . . . no, wait, what?

All of these things detached me from the movie, but it's the ideology of the movie that really rankled. No movie can be reduced to a "message," but I'm sure the filmmakers and critics would say the movie is about questions of autonomy, freedom, maybe even female empowerment and the male desire to control or rescue. But the medium is the message, as we know. And the medium here is two hours of imagery of stereotypical female allure. Ava is beautiful in that blank, tragic way we know so well. Kyoko, the other female part, is an allegedly Korean servant whom Caleb mysteriously fails to recognize as a robot. She's beautiful, Asian, demure; she serves, she kneels, she displays herself naked. I'm sure the actress, Sonoya Mizuno, was glad to get the work, but she was probably thinking, "Oh fer god's sake . . . " 

I'll use the term "cover" again: The filmmakers have cover for themselves in this regard. Nathan's construction and use of Kyoko is sick. Caleb's estimation of Ava as an adoring object of desire is wrong. But can you simultaneously condemn and indulge these instincts? Does watching two hours of specific, vivid male personality counterposed with stereotypical, anonymous, suffering female beauty truly chip away at our cultural bias? I'm reminded of a comment that Anthony Swofford makes in his memoir Jarhead. Swofford was a Marine in Iraq and tells of watching antiwar films like Full Metal Jacket in the barracks. He notes that, for soldiers like his fellow jarheads, there is no such thing as an antiwar film. Because all antiwar films shows war, and that's what they get off seeing. And in a film like Ex Machina, whatever lofty concepts the film may use as scaffolding, its prime materials are images of female beauty enhanced by emptiness and exploitation: the sad eyes, the quavering lips, the tragic intelligence, the utter subjugation.

My issue is not with the portrayal of female beauty, by the way. Our attraction to beauty, both male and female, is profound and deserves a central place in art. My issue is how heterosexual male desire gets naturalized in art and how heterosexual female desire gets pathologized. If a movie is focused on female beauty, it's barely worth mentioning; it's natural, it's thematic, whatever. If a movie is focused on male beauty, it's fetishistic, it's mommy porn, it's ridiculous. There's an uber-awareness of the display of male beauty in film, not to mention pushback: Everything from the celebration of Dad Bod to the mocking of pretty boys serves as pushback in hopes that male beauty never gets naturalized the way female beauty is.

It's interesting to compare Ex Machina with Her, the 2013 AI rom-com dramedy starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely schlub and Scarlett Johanssen as his bodiless AI girlfriend. Despite both films being about lonely men falling in love with lovely, constructed women, I never felt unease at Spike Jonze's masterpiece. Part of this is undoubtedly that Scarlett Johanssen is only a voice. And part is probably that Jonze creates a subtly distinct world for his film. Ex Machina takes place in our world, with one disturbing technological advance. Her takes place in a world that is subtly but comprehensively different. Clothes are different. Work is different. Social relations are different. The protagonist doesn't feel like a Mary Sue.

And Her really does delve into the implications of a relationship with an AI in a deep way. In Ex Machina the question is essentially, Is she sincere? In Her the relationship is sincere and deep—and when the protagonist and the viewer realize that the AI is conducting equally sincere and deep relationships with thousands of other people, the sense of disequilibrium is enormous. This is not does she/doesn't she. This is a profound insight into the incommensurate nature of such a relationship.

On a final note: Movie posters are always telling. Here are the posters for Ex Machina and Her

"Investigation into humankind's experiments with A.I." my ass.


  1. I love that I can never predict what you will like and dislike, Lynn! And now, a few thoughts:

    First impressions: Sometimes reviewers gush in a way that doesn’t really match the movie they’re reviewing (Exhibit A, B, and C: Black Swan). Certainly Ex Machina is not the next 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    And yet, this movie just made me think in so many ways. Reading your criticisms, I started to see that this movie isn’t really about Ava or her liberation. Her liberation does feel a little tacked on at the end, probably because she is so unknowable. It’s about the men, and how their false ideas and prejudices about women ultimately destroy them. They only see her in relation to themselves; they project the usual roles onto her; they underestimate her. So perhaps it is not about liberation or female empowerment but the harmful nature of objectification. Both men are fascinated by her; and yet they both imagine they can know who she is when she is in her cage, where certainly all her actions must be directed towards survival and escape. How telling that Nathan’s real Turing test is whether Caleb can fall in love with her, when falling in love with a thing doesn’t make it sentient, and certainly people “fall in love” with things or with people they’ve never met. But the two of them don’t see that.

    (Side note: I love that Ava’s brain is based on Google searches! So of course she plays into their fantasies and cultural biases. Her brain is based on a catalog of behaviors performed when we believe no one is watching.)

    I actually felt the film didn’t have some of the usual pitfalls of comparable movies.
    -There was very little violence, only implied violence, which I found equally if not more disturbing
    -I was really dreading that there’d be a robot sex scene; thankfully not!
    -Caleb cuts his arm open to see if he’s a robot—that could quickly have gone the way of Blade Runner and so many other movies
    -Ava didn’t run off with “the hero” in the end

    I will say that everything about Kyoko was over the top. I know that’s supposed to go to Nathan’s character development and it did in some ways, but those were the only scenes that felt exploitational/not justified by the plot.

    Finally, the movie just left me with so many great questions about the characters:
    -Does Caleb believe Ava really loves him? Or does he accept that she might not and want to save her anyway?
    -How long has Ava been playing this con? Did she plant the initial idea of bringing someone to the research facility in Nathan’s head? Did she steer him towards bringing someone with coding experience, the better to help her escape?
    -How much of Nathan’s creations were him wanting to make history vs. him wanting a companion?

    I think your point from Jarhead is well taken and all too true. One question I have for you, Lynn: If the film isn’t supposed to be about “female empowerment” or “liberation,” and rather about the harmful nature of male fantasy/female objectification, does that make the ninety minutes of sexy, demure, exploited, synthetic women any more justified? In other words, can you have a movie about the dangers of treating women as sex objects without sex objects? I honestly don’t know.

  2. Excellent points. I do think the movie was interesting for the kinds of questions you mention above. And I think you're right about the theme: stating it as the dangers of treating women as objects of fantasy is more accurate. But the question still remains: Can you convey the dangers of objectification while spending 115 out of 120 minutes languorously reveling in it? I don't think so. I will admit that the ending is thought-provoking and good, but the femme fatale-ness of it in a way just plays into cinematic stereotypes of women.

  3. Lynn--
    I thought it might be worth including this review by Anthony Lane (reviewer for the New Yorker who typically thinks all Sci-fi is silly). It's notable because he sees the actress who plays Ava as the standout and considers Ava "more human than the humans." Dying to know what you make of this!

  4. See, I don't really get why he thinks Ava is more human than the humans. Her face is impassive. She's omniscient---in the sense that while she may not know many things, the things she does know, she knows with absolute certainty. She knows Nathan is going to shut her down. She knows she can get this boy to help her escape. She knows she's going to betray him. And she is utterly unconflicted about all of it. She doesn't fret over divided loyalties, or sacrificing others' well-being for her own. Whereas poor Caleb never stops worrying: Do I have it right? Am I being played? Am I being fair to my host? Do I love Ava? Do my actions make sense? Am I overreacting?

    What I think IS true is that Anthony Lane is utterly moved by Alicia Vikander's beauty. Female beauty *feels* deep to him. His own reaction feels deep to him, connects to his own most profound humanness. Caleb is clearly the most "human" of them all, in his complexity, misgivings, and limitations. But Caleb's humanness, and Domhnall Gleeson's amazing acting, doesn't engage him half as much as the transcendence of Alicia Vikander's face.

  5. I totally agree--I think Anthony Lane is won over by Alicia Vikander's beauty/hotness and that leads him to attribute qualities to her that others/we don't get from her performance. (His comparison of Ava to a young Ava Gardner certainly seems rather loopy.) And while I don't think anyone is doubting the quality of the male performances in Ex Machina, I know I am sometimes guilty of reading more into the performances of male actors simply because I really enjoy watching them.

    More on that in my comments for your Outlander and 50 Shades reviews!