Deuce Ex Machina

Screencap from Ex Machina

Okay, I’ve seen Ex Machina a second time, and I have thoughts about it that will include MAJOR SPOILERS. WE ARE TALKING TOTALLY SPOILERIFIC.

So I thought the movie played really well the second time through. All the mind games work just fine even when you know what’s going to happen, which means their success isn’t completely reliant on their trickiness. The mind games are telling us something about the nature of intelligence and consciousness that are key to the story of artificial intelligence. I also caught some things I hadn’t noticed the first time through, perhaps most importantly Ava’s line to Nathan, “How does it feel to have created something that hates you?”, which seems to echo off the earlier exchange between Caleb and Nathan about the creation of machine intelligence being the work of a god. The other big thing I caught was that in the very final scene Ava does exactly what she told Caleb she’d do if she got out into the world: she visits a busy intersection.

Puzzles or mysteries remain, however, including the mystery around the character of Kyoko. Was she part of the development that led up to Ava, or was she created purely as a servant and sexual companion? Does she really not understand English? What language is Ava using with her at the end? Kyoko clearly has some subjective sense of herself and some understanding of what’s going on around her, as evidenced by her revelation of her robotic nature to Caleb when he discovers the closets full or old robot bodies. (Shades of Bluebeard!) How much autonomy does Kyoko have? One of the most intriguing scenes is the one where she enters the interview cubicle in Ava’s room. Has she been locked out of there until then? I can’t remember now whether she enters that room after all the doors have been unlocked. There’s another scene earlier showing her sitting on the floor in the corridor, and I wondered this time whether she was sitting outside Ava’s room.

Screencap from Ex Machina

The other thing I puzzled over a bit this time is the number of shots of landscapes and plant life that seem to act as transitions between the various character sessions. Is there anything to them other than their beauty and a reminder of the setting? They feel right, but they also feel disconnected from everything else. Are they a commentary somehow on the vanity of the mind games we’re observing? A reminder of the natural world? If it’s a reminder of the natural world, is it meant to contrast with the “artifical” world of human science, or is it meant to imply that all of this is natural, all of a continuum?

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to talk about it is something I thought didn’t work so well on a second time through. Well, first let’s start with something that bugged me even the first time through: Kyoko’s death. It doesn’t make sense to me that Nathan’s destruction of her jaw would kill her. Are we supposed to believe that the blow destroyed her artificial brain? It just seems off somehow. This, however, is a minor quibble in the greater scheme of things.

Less minor is Ava’s behavior after she finishes Nathan off. She goes to Caleb and tells him, “Wait here.” Makes no sense whatsoever, does it? Why not lock him in the room right away? Now, maybe it’s because she needs to get into Nathan’s bedroom, where all the old robot bodies are, and that’s the only way in. I didn’t question it at all the first time, but that’s mostly because I thought this whole sequence was going to lead to her and Caleb leaving together. That’s what Alex Garland wants us to think (as he explained in an interview with Andrew O’Hehir on Salon), and the second time through it felt like she was only doing it because Garland wants to fool the audience. It didn’t make sense in terms of her own motivation. Why would she trust Caleb to let her do what she wants? If she needed to get past him to get to Nathan’s room, it would make more sense for her to disable him in some way.

Screencap from Ex Machina

I understand, by the way, that some feminist critics have complained that Ava ends up being a typical femme fatale, using her body and her sexual wiles to manipulate Caleb, but even if it’s true that her sexual manipulation doesn’t count as out-thinking the men, the difference between Ava and a classic femme fatale or vamp is that she not only gets away with it but she does it to save herself. She’s not doing it because she’s a monster who enjoys destroying men (the devil in the machine — deuce ex machina), but because if she doesn’t do it she herself will be destroyed. So I still feel, despite her problematic behavior, which only makes sense as part of Garland’s manipulation of the audience’s identification with Caleb, that Ava remains the hero of the story. Her right to freedom and self-determination is what the film is all about.

That said, there’s something else that bugs me about Ava’s scene in the bedroom, and like Kyoko’s death it bugged me the first time too. It’s that she’s able to “clothe” herself in parts from other robots without the mismatches showing. Again, this is a suspension of disbelief problem, and Garland could have probably hand-waved it away by having Nathan describe “smart skin” or something that’s able to adjust to whatever robot it’s put on. However, there’s an eccentric part of me that wishes Ava had gone out into the world with an obviously mismatched arm and some sections of skin of a slightly different pigmentation. That would have been a different, slightly weirder movie, for sure. What’s actually interesting about what Garland shows us is that Ava specifically takes the arm and skin from an Asian-looking robot, so he seems to be implying that race really doesn’t matter when it comes to robots.

I could also write about the oddly childlike or adolescent look of Ava’s body when she’s finally covered herself with skin, but I’ll leave it there for now. This is a very smart, sleek, disturbing piece of work, and even with my niggles (almost all of them having to do with the finale) I enjoyed it just as much the second time through as the first. And that fricking dance scene is hilarious and completely out of the blue. Oscar Isaac is really something else, bro.

Screencap from Ex Machina

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