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  • Writer's pictureLiz

Ex Machina

Cerebral sci-fi for the digital age.

On Netflix | UK 2014; US 2015 | R | 1h 48m

Genre: Sci-Fi, Frankenstein-ian Horror

Why we watched: Liz watched this a few weeks ago in advance of attending a lecture on contemporary Frankensteinfilms. The talk was given by cultural critic and film scholar Shane Denson, author of Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface(What a mouthful of a title, right?) And since Tess did her master's thesis on Frankenstein and technology, Liz quickly forced encouraged Tess to watch it, too! Even if you saw Ex Machina when it came out in 2015, we think you should give it another viewing with this in mind; it certainly changed the way that we both thought of the film!

You might also like: Writer-director Alex Garland followed-up Ex Machina with the criminally under-appreciated Annihilation. "Equal parts horror, mystery, thriller, and drama, Annihilation is difficult to describe," Grace wrote when she recommended the film a few months ago. "For me, what makes it different is what makes it so impressive." The same can be said of Ex Machina. Looking for something more action and less sci-fi? The new Tomb Raider—starring Ex Machina's inimitable Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft—is streaming on HBO.


What happens when man becomes the architect of new life?

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818. A familiar touchstone in popular culture, most people know the Gothic thriller as the story of scientist Victor Frankenstein's creating a monster. Although technically true—Frankenstein does imbue matter with life and animate his creation—the novel never actually features a pivotal "creation scene." Frankenstein glosses over how "life" is created and instead tracks the consequences of creating a sentient being. The same, perhaps, can be said for Ex Machina.

Like FrankensteinEx Machina is rich for analysis, serving as a layered allegory about technology and gender. The film begins when computer programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest through his company Bluebook—basically Google, Apple, and Facebook combined—that includes an invitation to the private home of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the company's founder and CEO. When Caleb arrives at Nathan's creepy bunker remote estate, though, he realizes that the trip isn't going to be quite the vacation he expected. Nathan has created a robot who can mimic human intelligence; Caleb will serve as the human component in a Turing test to determine the capabilities and consciousness of Nathan's creation, Ava (Vikander).

Ex Machina is an independent British film, made on a budget of just $15 million. (The Martian, Hollywood's sci-fi offering of the same year, had a $108 million budget.) But this doesn't stop the film from being visually stunning, so much so that it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Nathan's house is quite literally a house of mirrors, with images reverberating about both its inhabitants and the viewer. Imagine the challenges this presented the graphics team, and yet the complex computer-generated set is one of the most illuminating aspects of the film. What's real, and what's merely reflection of something real? That's Caleb's question, and it's ours as well as we watch him connect with Ava. "It's not whether she does or does not have the capacity to like you," Nathan says cooly to Caleb, "But whether she's pretending to like you." 

Frankenstein films flourish during phases of technological innovation, reflecting the moment in which they were produced. So what does the current crop of films have to say about the twenty-first century? Alongside Ex Machina, Her (Spike Jonze, 2013; on Netflix) and Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017; on HBO) both ponder female artificial intelligence. We live in the age of Alexa or Siri, who we ask to schedule appointments for us, give us directions, and make purchases on our behalf. We trust algorithms to pair us not only with movies we're sure to like but also with romantic partners, car services, and travel destinations. And the films and series that you stream don't actually exist in any material way: They're compressed digital files that break down into numeric code.

Ex Machina is a very, very weird movie. The ending is weird. The feelings we had while watching it were weird. But the technological moment that we're living in is also an odd one. 

Happy streaming!

Liz and Tess

Layers upon layers of animation create Ava and Nathan's house of mirrors.


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