Welcome to the Stepford Years. These are the days where men expect, or at least lust/dream after, a lover who is fully realized, perfect in mind and body, and most importantly, compliant in every way…if you catch my drift. Call it coping with pornocopia. Those girls seem to know what a man needs, why can’t mine be like that?
We see this meme proliferating now in our films, indeed, some of our best films of the past several years. Ex Machina, the directorial debut from Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine), continues this meta-exploration into the male misconception of female perfection. Like recent predecessors Her and Under the Skin, Garland’s film shows why this expectation is likely a very bad thing.
Ex Machina is super-smart sci-fi that probes a future that may nearly be here, where—let’s just say it—robots are created to not just take care of our menial duties, but are also there for men on an emotional, even physical, level. Basically, the ultimate mate, and one who is not problematic and challenging like our real wives and girlfriends.
In the story, a highly intelligent young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by a powerful and mysterious CEO (Oscar Isaac) to perform a “Turing Test” (evaluating the consciousness and emotional bandwidth of artificial intelligence, i.e. a machine) on his latest invention: a very attractive, umm, robot (Alicia Vikander).
She quickly understands that her continuing “life” is in the hands of her observers, and begins playing mental poker almost immediately. What enables her ultimate survival is the development of emotional intelligence, which proves far more sophisticated than that of her genius laboratory gawkers. Her divide-and-conquer strategy is classic art of war, and the men, even knowing what they know (or think they know) are in the end helpless against her allure.
As we watch the psychological duel play out, we increasingly find ourselves nearly as helpless as the men in the film. We watch the young programmer try to remain professional while obviously falling for her hard. We know that he knows that she might be trying to trick him, but he is unable to resist, and we identify…who wouldn’t want this woman saying these things every single day?
Ex Machina features three amazing performances. Isaac, who has established himself as one of our sturdiest actors with impressive work in films such as Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, chews the scenery here like a megalomaniacal lawnmower. His brilliant but emotionally unhinged mogul/tech wizard is seemingly trapped in a personal wrestling match between his higher and lower aspirations; his true motivations are as confusing to himself as they are for the viewer. In Ex Machina, Isaac has created a character as unforgettable as he is impenetrable.
Gleeson also brings great nuance to his role as an innocent trying to understand the truth of the situation. He brings emotional resonance and depth, and we know we would likely make the same choices, and unfortunate mistakes. Both Gleeson and Isaac will be starring in a little film called Star Wars this December, but however boffo the box-office of that highly-anticipated film, I have a strong intuition that Ex Machina will be the more thought-provoking film, and their performances here will likely stand as the more impressive creations.
And, not surprisingly, given the juicy dimensions (to say the least) of her role, Ex Machina features a star-making turn from Vikander, whose beauty and grace under pressure is simply fascinating to watch. She is the wild card in the truest sense, but, as with Gleeson character, we just really want her to be real; she represents everything we think we desire.
But the real revelation here is director Alex Garland, who infuses every scene with foreboding narrative and a deeply-probing eye, asking precisely the right questions, and careful to not provide answers wrapped in bows. He doesn’t try to make a statement; instead he simply asks us to think about the ramifications of (and the unconscious desires that lurk beneath) our technological evolution. He masterfully juxtaposes huge ideas within sparse set-designs; the weighty concepts are allowed to breathe without clutter or convention. The cinematography from Rob Hardy is the McCartney to Garland’s Lennon, the look of the film lush and exciting while remaining detached. Ex Machina leaves the ultimate meaning to the viewer, and I guarantee you will be pondering the implications for weeks after.
With his masterful direction of Ex Machina, Garland leaps onto the critical A-list of filmmakers with something important to say, or at least something crucial to ask. From classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey to kitschy confections like Westworld and The Stepford Wives, modern cinema has been warning us of the dangers of technology without morality, and Garland’s film takes that dialog to a new and frightening level. Unlike those past films, which were extrapolating far into the future Ex Machina is concerned with a reality that is nearly upon us now—this science fiction is actually science reality, and we would do well to heed its warning.
And, make no mistake, this warning is concerned with sexuality, and our puerile understanding thereof. The “battle” of sexes is now playing out in our high-tech invention, and our very reasons, it seems, for creating new technology in the first place. We may have the ability to feed the hunger of our desire through these means, but Ex Machina makes the point that our nourishment may not exists where we think it does. This might be most evident in the character of the maid—did I forget to mention her? She doesn’t say a word throughout the film, so she might be easy to overlook, but I suggest you keep an eye on her. Certainly the male characters would have been better served by considering her as something more than a gorgeous, passive concubine. She just may have a say in the matter as well.