**THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS**
I recently re-watched 2015’s Ex Machina, and simply put, I fucking love this movie. I remember sitting in a movie theater late in 2014 and seeing a preview for this film, and the trailer completely absorbed me and I made a promise to myself I would see this movie in theaters as soon as it was released. So when April 2015 rolled around, I fell in love.
The inherent question I keep asking myself is what single quality makes this movie succeed more than many other films. It’s a difficult question to answer so I think we need to build up to it. Let’s start by talking about the acting.
Now, Ex Machina is essentially a movie that centers around three different characters. The most notable are the two male leads: Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. If those names are at all familiar, that is because you probably saw them in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as General Hux and Poe Dameron. The reason they do so well together in Ex Machina is because they play two very different characters that work together in a limited space. Caleb who is played by Domhnall Gleeson is a quiet and reserved programmer who is randomly selected by Oscar Isaac’s character, Nathan, to partake in a scientific study at his remote facility. Caleb is a very identifiable protagonist because in many ways, he represents the average movie goer as someone who has no defining characteristics or interests, but grasps at straws to find a way to cooperate with his brutally honest host. He even looks fairly ordinary and routinely finds himself in the role of a fan versus that of a friend. On the flip side, Nathan is straightforward but completely aware of the roles at play. Nathan is in complete control, as he is that one that selected Caleb. Nathan owns the facility and surrounding property and has organized the experiment itself. He is the employer and holds all the cards in their arrangement. Caleb tries to ask technical questions and Nathan shuts him down because he wants them to act as two friends hanging out over beers. Nathan constantly tells Caleb how he wants him to act and this posits him as being in the position of power. Because of how differently they operate, there is this growing tension that develops underneath the surface. Caleb seems fairly naïve and curious in the wrong ways, and as a result can fall subject to rash, impulsive decisions. However, Nathan is portrayed as the villain from the get-go, but the audience does not have all the information and Caleb does not have much to work off of either which is why the third character is so important.
The third character in Ex Machina is Ava played by Alicia Vikander. Nathan informs Caleb after he signs the non-disclosure agreement, that he will be taking part in a Turing Test to determine if the AI he is speaking with is human or not. Their time together, Caleb and Ava, is divided into sessions where they learn more and more about each other. Caleb asks her questions to figure out how her reasoning and speech patterns work. Nathan observes from his room, taking notes. From an audience perspective we don’t really understand what Ava’s angle is until later in the movie because she also asks questions to Caleb. Oftentimes during their interactions, she reverses the role and sometimes catches Caleb off guard. All three players have their own agenda in this arrangement and they all have different priorities.
Putting the actors aside for a moment, the setting itself is not only important to the plot, but it is visually stunning as well. The most striking aspect is that the vast majority of the movie takes place inside the facility. However, it has a distinct futuristic vibe to it. The makers of the film did a tremendous job capturing the science fiction feel. For example, Caleb is given a keycard and in order to know what is and is not off limits, he only needs to hold the keycard to the door and see if it opens. If it doesn’t open that specific room is closed off to him. The facility is also accentuated by the environment. There are luscious green backdrops around the facility as well as other elements of nature such as waterfalls. In fact, some of the important, tense conversations between Nathan and Caleb take place outdoors, which is important to show in my opinion because it acts as a nice juxtaposition when talking about Ava and her future because her being unable to leave the facility is perhaps the most important story element.
The characters and their agendas and their surroundings are all part of the puzzle. Ex Machina ultimately succeeds so well because it defies expectations about how you think the characters will act. I will be the first to admit Caleb is the most uninteresting of the three because there isn’t much deviation with him. The movie hinges on a scheme Caleb concocts in order to rescue Ava. Caleb develops feelings for her and he believes he has heard and witnessed cruelty on Nathan’s end towards Ava. Ava tells Caleb that Nathan cannot be trusted and Caleb watches him tear apart her picture. Caleb decides he will have her switch off the security system at a specific time so he can rewrite the facility’s code and get Nathan drunk so he doesn’t interfere. When he goes to set this plan in motion, Nathan refuses to drink alcohol and takes him aside and explains that he knows about the plan. It is during this conversation where my eyes became awake for the first time. The movie wants you to believe Nathan is the villain. Everything we have seen and heard from Ava certainly suggests this, but Nathan is arguably not only the most consistent character, but the most honest one of all. Ava’s attempts at seducing Caleb were the true Turing Test, and the moment he develops his scheme is the moment she passes. Caleb does rewrite the code prior to the revelation so the plan still works and Ava escapes the confinse of her room. When Nathan prevents her escape, I couldn’t help but wonder if the viewer was supposed to sympathize with her plight. Wouldn’t we surely all desire freedom? I have a hard time making an argument that this should cost Nathan his life. When he dies, the movie enters a grey area of morality. Ava believes in the ends justifying the means, and when she leaves the facility she traps Caleb inside, the very person who made this all possible. Are we supposed to feel sorry for Caleb? That is a difficult question to answer because his actions indirectly cause Nathan’s death. Nathan deceives him but there is a greater plan at work. Caleb is never put in any danger. There definitely has to be some thought that Ava is the true villain of the movie, but she is just protecting her own self-interests. Her only aim as far as we know is to experience the outside world. The last scene is particularly compelling because it is only Ava7 shadow mixed in with others and it shows that an AI that appears to be human is no different than anyone else appearance wise. She succeeds in protecting herself at the cost of the other two, and the movie toying with your expectations is what puts it above a lot of other movies. With so many good films released last year, it is pretty easy to overlook Ex Machina, but if you find yourself looking for a character study, Ex Machina succeeds in spades.