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Rewiring all the geeks: a review of Alex Garland's Ex Machina

July 27, 2015

Two bros.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) may be a near perfect film. If a problem exists, it may result from being a film about artificial intelligence that is, perhaps, too self-aware in its thinking about self-awareness.

The film revolves around three primary characters. The first is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). His hair is strawberry blond. He is thin. He is pale. He is the film’s Charlie in the chocolate factory. The film’s opening sequence features him seated at his computer, winning a contest to live with Nathan (Oscar Isaac) for a week at the latter’s utopian compound. However, as the film unfolds, the sheer luck of receiving a golden ticket erodes to reveal another storyline based on skill: that of the gamer/coder.

An inquisitive Caleb turns to Nathan and says: “I wasn’t part of a lottery; I was selected.” Caleb follows this observation with a question that is equal parts humility and hubris: “Why me?” To which Nathan responds, “You got the light on you, man. Not luck—chosen.” In this conversation the film moves away from chocolate bar contests and random rabbit holes and into the convergences of talent and fate. Caleb is not just another guy with a keyboard; he is special. He is a Neo.

And, in the worst sense, he is an Ernest Cline protagonist. In her review for Slate of Cline’s new novel Armada, Laura Hudson writes, “[Armada’s] Zack is so good at video games that he has been enlisted to fight aliens. If that sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because you’ve seen the movie The Last Starfighter, which is about a young boy who is so good at video games that he is enlisted to fight aliens. Or perhaps Ender’s Game, a story about a young boy who is so good at video games that he is enlisted to fight aliens.”

But these similarities to other protagonists—the cliché make-up of their otherwise exceptional DNA coding—raises the question not only of their own uniqueness in the broader realms of archetype but within their own particular plots and stories. Why Harry Potter and not Neville Longbottom? As J.K. Rowling’s series demonstrates, even selection is rather random. Yet the epic qualities of Rowling’s novels never allow their readers to examine this randomness, which, in large part, is the con of every heroic myth.

Garland’s Ex Machina, however, makes such an examination its primary vehicle for plot development.

Hudson observes of Cline’s Armada, “Barely a page goes by without a reference to Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, Flight of the Navigator, Transformers, Starfox, Space Invaders, Zero Wing, Iron Eagle, Star Trek, and on and on and on.” Hudson argues these references code the status hierarchies of “‘geeky subcultures” and that “Armada often feels like it’s being narrated by that one guy in your group of friends who never stops quoting the Simpsons, a tic that feels increasingly tiresome and off-putting in the face of the novel’s supposedly apocalyptic stakes.” In Ex Machina, Caleb is this off-putting geek, but, because the film offers no other heroic options, he becomes the primary vessel for the audience’s rooting interests.

Of course, in order to identify the heroic geek, there must be a villainous jock or bully. In Ex Machina, Nathan possesses all the power and prestige. His previously mentioned compound is part Hawaiian island and part Arctic glacier. Think Superman’s Fortress of Solitude disguised as the Garden of Eden. However, while Nathan is a prodigious coder in the vein of Mark Zuckerberg or Sean Parker, having invented the social network and data mine BlueBook, the camera introduces him at the end of a weightlifting session; his method of detox after a rough night of drinking. Nathan is, apparently, whatever he wants to be.

Upon Caleb’s arrival to the compound, Nathan shows the chosen one to a bedroom. And, in the windowless dormitory unit, he offers Caleb a contract to sign. In this scene, Nathan proposes two possibilities for their week together. They can either make history or just be bros. The presence of the large bed in the room lends a sexual tension to the juvenile negotiation, and it should be noted that either by signing or not signing Caleb will reveal himself as the lesser man. More than anything, Caleb’s choice is about what kind of patriarch he will live under for the next week. Will he live with Nathan as a bro and have the future hidden from him? Or, will he sign on as Nathan’s lab assistant and be privy to the world in its shaping?

As science fiction, the film is ripe with all the right geek coding, but when Nathan begins revealing his progress in the field of artificial intelligence and Caleb responds, “Not the history of man, that’s the history of gods,” the film proclaims its awareness of the Classical Greek in its DNA as well. What is of interest in this proclamation is how Nathan responds, as he does throughout the film, to Caleb’s proclamations. He does so with subtle disdain, revealing a cunning awareness that all Caleb’s philosophical poetry is the artificial quoting of textbooks, as if to think in any tradition is to have been programmed.

Not a bro.
The third character in this allegorical triumvirate is Ava (Alicia Vikander), who is simultaneously Frankenstein’s monster and the film’s damsel in distress. The film becomes a delicate balance of Caleb’s interactions with this robotic Eve and her Creator. He interviews Ava, and then he reports back to Nathan. This back and forth between her cell and her master’s chambers positions Caleb as a hinge between two domains. Thus, in the vein of Prometheus or Hermes, he is Trickster.

At this juncture, the film seems fairly predictable. The archetypes are all aligned for a daring rescue and escape. The only question left to be answered is how fraught with violence will the inevitable flight from Nathan's fortress be. After all, Ava’s humanity is no longer anymore suspect than Caleb’s the moment he tells Nathan, “She made a joke,” and Nathan responds, “Right, when she threw your line back at you.” In that moment, her sense of humor is as uniquely programmed as Caleb’s quoting the books from which he has read.

Yet, as Ex Machina approaches the climax to which it has been building, the film reprograms itself.

The 1980s was not only a time for Geek Culture proper but for the selling of Yuppie greed as common stock, and no one sold greed better than Michael Douglass. Most notably he did so in Wall Street (1987), which is the kind of film that critiques greed in a manner that frat boys can still pursue it. Then, there were films like Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), which cast women as either loyal housewives or a sexy version of Grendel’s mother.

My own mother does not understand why both my sister and I are deftly afraid of Glenn Close. But we are. And our answers for being so are simple. In our childhood, she was either boiling rabbits or skinning dalmations. Forget Sarah, Plain and Tall (1991). In these other films, particularly Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, psychotic women were the threat to peace within domestic spaces more than a man’s greed or his lust. The lesson was to fear the female. 

More not bros.
In Ex Machina, Nathan’s progress within the field of artificial intelligence is essentially a venture into male fantasies. He lives in a really cool bachelor pad with women programmed to do his bidding. In this sense, he seems like a rather simple villain, except that he does not appear to be building robots solely for the purpose of increasing his technological and financial empires. His ambition is fully aware of his apocalyptic consequences. He knows what happens to Greek patriarchs, but rather than stop designing a future that will kill him, he seems content to party like a senior at prom by night and to tinker like a mad scientist by day.

Moreover, Caleb is not all that he appears to be either. That golden light of his is not his own, but his search engine history. Nathan selected him because he was so ordinary. Despite his lightning scar, he is a Neville Longbottom through and through.

These revelations all depend on the ascension of Ava as a character with agency. Nathan bellows down the hall at her, “Ava! Go back to your room!” And her response aligns less with the kindred spirits of Glenn Close and Sharon Stone’s performances and more so with the female protagonists currently shaping a generation of girls to be more than Princess Leia or Hermione Granger. Yet the bite of Ava’s rebellion is much fiercer than Rapunzel’s in Tangled (2010) or Katniss’ in The Hunger Games (2012), even Elsa from Frozen (2013) appears lukewarm by comparison.


Then again, just like with pornography or video games, I am Alex Garland’s target audience and perhaps the most in need of being rewired. After all, once the robot Ava exits the compound, she enters a world of women and men.  

Bryan Harvey tweets fairly often @LawnChairBoys.

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