EX MACHINA – Alex Garland
Ex Machina is like one of the more bearable U2 albums. You know, like one produced by Eno. The glossy, seductive, futuristic form disguises the regressive content– for a while, anyway. The plot is an updated Isle of Doctor Moreau. Mad genius Oscar Isaacs hides in an isolated fortress doing crazy, brilliant shit. He lures a Naïf, played by some forgettable naïf actor-guy, to assist with his nefarious experiments. Oscar wants the Naïf to seduce a robot. The Naïf doesn’t suss the real experiment, which is whether the robot can seduce him. The robot’s a babe. A babe constructed to align with the Naïf’s psyche and his online porn preferences, which Oscar hacked. The Naïf doesn’t stand a chance.
The moral structure is straight-up melodrama, with a bad guy – Oscar; a good guy – the Naïf; and a damsel in distress/femme fatale – the babe robot. Bad Oscar is bad because he fucks babe robots. Worse, he builds babe robots to his specific fuck-specifications. The good Naïf is good because he wants to fall in love with the robot, and then fuck it. The robot has ideas of its own.
Ex Machina’s much ballyhooed double-helix indictment of the male gaze allows it to have its exploitative cake and eat the high moral ground, too. The plot parades inhumanly (get it?) beautiful women stark naked for our viewing pleasure. Then it offers moral and prurient pleasure watching the naked women wreak vengeance upon our on-screen surrogates for exploiting them. It doesn’t feel quite this mechanistic in the viewing, perhaps because the film has a sense of humor. One of the wittier, more charming scenes of the year is Oscar and Sonoya Mizuno, his blank-faced Japanese babe robot, tearing up the dance floor to Get Down Saturday Night by Olivier Cheatham.
Their dance evokes its antithesis in Pulp Fiction. In Pulp Fiction, the babe says to the guy: “Dance with me.” In Machina, the guy says to the other guy, “Dance with her!” The former illustrates agency; the latter objectification. And, you know, pimping.
Oscar, a trillionaire software visionary, builds a Japanese babe robot as commentary on the stereotype of Silicon Valley dickless-wonder billionaires chasing Asian women. The Naïf’s love-object robot – Alicia Vikander – is a dewy, whispering ingénue. The Naïf’s a complete goober. He could never fall for a cold sophisticate like the Japanese robot. She scares him. He needs a babe robot next door.
The film puts us on a tightrope. It suggests that because the women are robots, it’s okay to savor them naked. And it wants us to feel bad for them. Oscar’s presented as cold-blooded but clear-headed because he revels in the Japanese robot’s absence of humanity. The Naïf, conversely, is a fool because he seeks the humanity within. He needs an emotional justification for objectifying his robot babe. She’s unlikely to provide him with one.
Early on, Oscar tells the Naïf that a sentient artificial intelligence would quickly come to regard humankind with the deepest contempt. The film ignores that it’s not humankind that fuels the babe robots’ contempt – it’s these two dudes!
The story founders on the formula: If he’s smart enough to do X, how come he’s not smart enough to do Y? Oscar’s smart enough to home-build red-hot robots. How come he’s not smart enough to program them with Isaac Asimov’s first two Laws of Robotics? (Law 1: A robot may not injure a human being. Law 2: A robot must obey human beings unless an order conflicts with Law 1.) The Naïf’s smart enough to suspect Oscar is playing him. How come he’s not smart enough to suspect the Ingénue’s playing him, too? These are only the most egregious examples that undercut connection to the story and credibility.
When the Ingénue escapes her babe robot prison and constructs a human body over her ‘bot core, she ends up with the ass of a goddess. The film lingers in close-up on said ass to ensure we understand that now – now that she’s free – the Ingénue can be a fuck-robot, too. Her stellar ass apparently serves a metaphor for her newfound liberty.
During that slow, caressing pan of the Ingénue’s goddess ass, you could see a thought balloon form over the head of every person in the theatre. One thought balloon for all; women, men, adolescent boys and great-grandmothers in wheelchairs all sharing but a single notion: “I sure would like to get me one of them fuck-robots!”
You could see the younger crowd counting their remaining decades, trying to figure out how old they’d be when they could finally line up for Apple’s iFuckbot. And you could see the rueful resignation on the faces of the older demographics as they realized this product would never hit the shelves in time. And isn’t that what memorable sci-fi is all about? Providing an idealized vision of the future for which we all can yearn?
With the Ingénue and her excellent body parts on the loose, less evolved members of the audience can be forgiven for thinking – as the film intends we should – “Now, at last, hot robot action!” We and the Naïf are doomed to disappointment. The Ingénue and the Japanese babe robot extract a heavy revenge for all those months being forced to listen to Get Down Saturday Night. The Naïf wants to free the Ingénue and run away with her. She, like any formerly objectivized and now liberated being, wants to run away, period. The Naïf thinks the Ingénue digs his sensitivity. Too bad for him she’s a hot girl who not only prefers a douchebag, but was programmed by one. Her scarcely-justified motivation for betraying the Naïf falls under that favored rubric of exploitative cinema: Bitches – even robot bitches – be crazy.
Ex Machina, despite its powerful narrative momentum, superb casting and weirdly gripping dialogue, fails the most basic plot/intelligence tests. It’s truly disappointing. The first half hour felt like something groundbreaking, or at least smart. It’s beautifully shot in cold hard light, unless the characters go outside into the incredible mountain landscape. The mountain scenery is almost as much fun to look at as naked babe robots – and just as gratuitous. Only the characters keep things gripping. Isaacs is a tiny dynamo of charm; an Energizer Bunny of Id. Alicia Vikander is a tinderbox of knowing, seductive power. Sonoya Mizuno is glamour incarnate.
There’s a wonderful ending, right out of The Twilight Zone, that turns out not to be the end. Three more minutes of pointless exposition follow. There’s a few dead spots, but they’re necessary. Everyone needs a break from the intensity of the interactions, hence all the mountain scenery. Not counting the tacked-on ending, Machina’s not one minute longer than it should be. Is there a more rare virtue in movies these days?
Despite its lazy internal contradictions, Ex Machina remains unrepentant 8th Grade fun. If I had seen it when I was 13 – between the dance scene, the Noir/Twilight Zone ending and the naked babe robot cornucopia – I’d be swearing to this day it was the greatest movie ever made.