From Orphan Black to Never Let Me Go and Under the Skin, Ex Machina is the type of sci-fi that populates the market these days – speculative tales of created minds and bodies set in near futures, stories of seemingly free thinking people grappling with the concept that their autonomy and mortality is not completely their own. The focus of these tales is, unsurprisingly, on young women, reaching a time where they learn of their purpose in whatever grand and sinister plans their creators have. They learn that they are not seen as an individual, a person with free thought, but rather as a means to an end.To quote Cosima in Orphan Black, “we’re property”. They have one purpose and one alone, and that is to help their creator, mostly a powerful, wealthy man, to achieve whatever he pleases. That aim, whether it be an experiment, numbered and simply forgotten about, no thought given to possible future effects; or as a donor, picked from piece-by-piece like a biological pantry until empty; or simply as a living, breathing, intellectual sex doll; perpetuates something that is all too familiar in these days of social media and fame and hypersexualisation. That is, a sense of self is just as easily disposed as it is created to fit. Sexuality is toxic, a weapon to be contained until it can be used at the whim of someone else.
Alex Garland wrote the screenplay for the 2010 adaptation of Never Let Me Go. While the narrative occurs in a futuristic world that feels foreign to the viewer, cold and clinical, Garland’s screenplay was able to not get itself caught up in lofty ideals or robotic characters. Rather, it stripped everything back, until it left a tender, human story about life, death, and duty. The scientific element was secondary, which resulted in the film being extremely moving and familiar. Five years later, Garland is again confronting autonomy, a sense of free reign both in creation and action, with Ex Machina, a film that lacks the same resonance, rendering a film much more clinical and, ultimately, much less successful.
In Ex Machina, the young female in question is Ava (Alicia Vikander), an AI created by reclusive technology mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who has lived a Plato’s Cave-like existence until the arrival of Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson). Caleb is a lonely, detached, gifted programmer who won a lottery at his workplace (which is owned by Nathan) to spend a week performing a Turing test on Ava. Except, the rules have been changed – Caleb has full knowledge that Ava is not human from the beginning.
Ava’s purpose is evident from the beginning of the experiment. She’s constructed with exposed wires, nothing is hidden from Nathan, constantly reminded that he has ultimate control over her life. But, most tellingly, early on, this exchange occurs:
Ava: Do you want to be my friend?
Caleb: Of course
Ava: Will it be possible?
Ava, near invisible apart from her chest, buttocks, and face (but not the rest of her head) is gazed upon as yes, a living, breathing, thinking sex toy. She knows that it’s impossible for the men around her to look at her as anything but that, at the parts of her body that make her desirable. In a more interesting film, this would be the starting point for an interesting discussion of the male gaze and how it has shaped society’s views of women. How myths (which you could argue the film is, Nathan has a God complex) at the root of society continuously project onto beautiful women, which has resulted in still perpetuated ideas about women. However here, it’s quickly discarded.
It’s this that eventually lets Ex Machina down. Throughout the film, Garland has his characters engage in long, involved conversations that feel like psychological tests in themselves. They circle each other in verbal sparring and discussion, secrets and clashing power angles warring continuously. In the conversations, they talk of the experiment, of what got them to the successful positions they’re in, inserting ideas of Ava having agency over her own body and mind occasionally. But while the expansive themes of autonomy and gender divide are bandied about and shouted of the audience, Garland doesn’t lift these ideas out of the mouths and into the lives of the characters.
This is something Garland was able to expertly move away from in his adaptation of Never Let Me Go or any of its aforementioned contemporaries. The universe had been lived in and pared down, leaving nothing but the relatable emotions of panic about living an authentic life. The characters were able to develop into the full-bodied humans opposite to their fates. Conversations didn’t broadcast ideas to the audience, but rather wove them into the narrative delicately, allowing the characters to embody and experience, rather than simply speak them. Orphan Black continues to explore the ideas of gender in mythology and resultantly society, the revelations in season 3 only making the commentary on gender roles, power and a sense of self only stronger.
In Ex Machina, Garland’s characters are shells of the interesting humans they could have been, in spite of the magnetic performances from particularly Vikander and Isaac. Are these empty beings perhaps meant to be symbolic of the disposability of a natural self, how Nathan is able to create a living, breathing, thinking human out of nothing but pieces of metal? How Ava is still, in 2015, created for sex at the whim of her creator, shoved in a back room until he needs her, that her life is ultimately under his rule, no matter how free-thinking she is? How she can be reset, another self constructed at a moment’s notice. From that perspective, Ex Machina starts to look more like the thought-provoking, resonant sci-fi it could have been. But at least in its current form, it doesn’t make for particularly compelling, instead mediocre, viewing.