So, I’ve been watching the science fiction films that Netflix has to offer. I started with the restored version of Metropolis and then moved on to 2013’s Gravity, but I really should have watched 2015’s EX-MACHINA after Metropolis. That’s not because it has similar themes, but it does share one major element and that is a female robot.
Where Maria from Metropolis is merely the mechanical servant of Rotwang, her inventor, here the robot is named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and her relationship with her creator, Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaac) is… a little more complicated.
Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer who works for Nathan’s software company. Caleb wins a week at Nathan’s secluded home. What he is actually there for is to conduct a turing test on Nathan’s android to see if she really does possess artificial intelligence.
The discomfort begins almost right away. Nathan’s house is remote. So remote it can only be reached by helicopter. The helicopter pilot informs the hapless Caleb that the miles and miles of land that they fly over to reach the house is all owned by Nathan.The helicopter lands a distance away from the house. Caleb is instructed to just keep walking until he sees the house.
Nathan’s house has automated security which lets Caleb in. Here he meets Nathan whose aggressive physicality, his shaved head and thick black beard provides another level of discomfort for the slight framed Caleb.
He is soon introduced to Ava and the relationship between the programmer and the android begins to develop.
Naturally, all is not as it seems. Nathan, although outwardly garrulous and up-front, has many secrets. The first hint of these is a cracked glass panel. Ava is separated from Caleb by glass panels. One of these is clearly cracked from within. Caleb seems oblivious to this disquieting piece of foreshadowing, but it is certainly not lost on the viewer.
From here the creepiness factor just keeps increasing. From the claustrophobic hallways of Nathan’s underground bunker of a house that suffers unexplained power blackouts, to a mute Japanese servant (Sonoyo Mizuno) whose blatant sexuality is unabashedly, yet seemingly unconsciously, on display. Nathan’s piercing stare, his brutish physique and his constant drinking provide even more discomfort for the hapless Caleb.
In fact, the level of creepiness, the constant discomfort is so redolent in the first half of the picture that by the time Ava tells Caleb (during one of the house’s power blackouts) that he shouldn’t trust Nathan the viewer is hardly surprised.
It was at this point that I began to think about how much the scenario reminded me of the classic “gothic haunted house” story. When Caleb discovers Nathan’s earlier android models hidden behind the walls I knew that EX MACHINA wasn’t a rumination on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise,as it was a riff on the classic story of Bluebeard.
Bluebeard is a French folktale about a violent noblemen in the habit of murdering his wives. In the case of EX MACHINA the young bride is substituted for a young male programmer. Nathan is Bluebeard (It’s probably not a coincidence that Nathan’s software company is called Bluebook). There is even a sequence that parallels Bluebard giving his young wife the keys to his castle when Nathan gives Caleb a keycard. “If it doesn’t open a door, then it’s off limits. If it opens a door, then it is for you.” Nathan assures Caleb.
Instead of dead wives, Nathan is hiding older versions of the android, all of them female, all of them sexualized by Nathan and all of them abused and tortured by him until he is forced to shut them down, copy the code, wipe their memories and start again. Their derelict chassis are kept like souvenirs behind mirrored panels in Nathan’s bedroom.
But here the story changes. The heroine of the Bluebeard story is the young bride whose only ally is her sister and help, in the form of her brothers, comes when her need is greatest. Here Caleb shifts from the role of the bride to the role of the helpful brothers. Ava is the one who needs help escaping and she has used Caleb to help her in that goal. Ava even has a sister, the Japanese servant who, it turns out, is an android herself. Together they manipulate Caleb to help them kill Nathan and aid Ava’s escape from the house.
In the Bluebeard tale, the young bride ends up in possession of Bluebeard’s house. In EX MACHINA Caleb ends up in possession of Nathan’s house, although not in any way he wanted. Ava traps him inside when she makes her escape.
So, is Alex Garland’s film really about artificial intelligence? Is it really science fiction? Or is it just another slant on the old gothic tales? Evidently it is the latter as the viewer doesn’t really gain any insight into the nature of intelligence except that it does take human-like intelligence in order to lie and manipulate one’s way to freedom.
Nathan describes his house as a research facility, but it is only a modernized gothic mansion in which unspeakable events occur. It’s more a morality play than scientific treatise. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it has more superstition about it than science.
Despite a visually appealing look and some outstanding performances, EX MACHINA ended up being a bit of a disappointment.