I’ve never totally gotten into classic Film Noir. I appreciate all the elements, the doomed atmosphere, the femme fatale, the double crosses. Something about the classic Noir, in the vein of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, just doesn’t click with me. Maybe it’s because I’m not the obsessive type, the kind of guy who gets wrapped around a lover’s finger. I’ve never had trouble slipping out of a relationship when I feel I’m being steered down a bad road, even when there’s a dame to kill for in the passenger seat. [I am currently hitched to a dame to kill for, but no worries, because she does all the driving.] So, I can’t relate to the poor sap who can't see the warning signs because he is too blinded by a pretty face and a pair of sexy gams (which, I believe, are legs; I don't relate to Noir lingo, either). Then Alex Garland’s EX MACHINA rolls up and pulls a trick my nerd heart can’t resist, putting that pretty face on a robot. Goddamn it, you got me.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a meek code monkey working at the Apple/Google-esque tech company, Bluebook, is thrilled to when he wins a week long vacation with his boss. Normally, this would be a horrible contest, but in this case his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is basically the richest, smartest dude in the world, so I guess it’s cool. Once Caleb arrives at Nathan’s secluded mansion in the New Zealand mountains, he learns that it is not a vacation at all and the boss is putting him to work. Again, it’s better than is seems, because his work is testing Nathan’s newest toy, a girl android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan wants to know if Ava can pass as a real woman, despite being partially transparent and filled with spinning, light-up robot do-dads. The signs point to yes, as Caleb begins to fall for the sexy mechanical pixie the moment they meet, separated between unbreakable glass. As he and Ava get to know each other better, Caleb begins to suspect that Nathan, in addition to being an arrogant alcoholic asshole with a God complex, might be harboring more sinister motives. Can Caleb outsmart his boss and free Ava from her glass cage, or is he just a pawn in a larger game?
Even though EX MACHINA won an Oscar for its special effects, it really does break down to a simple "would you help me kill my husband" style noir, only with sci-fi flourishes and a see-through abdomen. With limited locations and only four primary characters, the story could easily be done as a stage play. This kind of movie puts all the heavy lifting on the shoulders of its actors, and fortunately, there are some strong shoulders here, synthetic or not.
Oscar Isaac does an incredible job turning himself into a thoroughly unlikable prick. He might be a super smart computer nerd, but he is introduced in full bully mode. Ignored on arrival, Caleb wanders Nathan’s wildly ostentatious home until he finds his host pounding away on a heavy bag, very purposefully setting the tone of their relationship. Isaac effortlessly exudes a toxic bro charm, contempt barely concealed as friendliness. He’s the kind of guy who, if you called him on his passive aggressive bullshit, he would twist all the blame back to you. “What’s your problem, dude, I was just trying to be nice.” Nathan is the guy who you wouldn’t want to have lunch with, let alone be trapped in a house for a week with. The genius of Nathan’s villainy is in his banality. You’re never going to run into an elegantly wicked monster like Hannibal Lector in real life, but I can guarantee you’ll have to endure at least one meeting with an insufferable douchebag like Nathan.
Likewise, Alicia Vikander is wonderful as the adorable/terrifying Ava. It’s easy to be soothed by her smiling, elfin face, until you realize it is just stapled onto the silver skull of her freaky half mannequin, half skeleton body. The illusion is stronger when she is all covered up, dressed up in a cute little boho skirt and leggings, sporting a wig. But then she discretely performs a striptease for the peeping Caleb, and it is as if she is shedding her skin along with her garments. If there is such thing as the sexy heebie jeebees, Ava gives them.
As charming as she is, there is no doubt she's the film’s robo-femme fatale. She sizes up the shy, lonely programmer the second they meet, and becomes just what he is looking for, a naive waif in need of rescue. Being a walking, talking lie detector allows her to instantly judge his reactions and adjust accordingly. Ava might play a good game of being docile and impressionable, like when she innocently says she would like to go on a date with Caleb (to a busy intersection, very romantic), but underlying every smile is the singular desire for freedom. She is like a tiger pacing the glass walls of her cage, all grace and beauty, waiting for her opportunity to pounce.
Right in the middle, like a guppy dropped in a shark tank, is Domhnall Gleeson as the poor doomed sap, Caleb. He’s not a total rube, though. He’s clever enough to know Nathan chose him specifically, not as just a lucky contestant, and suspicious enough to know the boss is always watching, even during the convenient power blackouts that locks down the house and baths everything in red emergency lights. He also suspects that his is being played by Ava, who is everything he could have wished for in a woman (aside from, you know, skin). Just like the classic noir sap, though, he doesn’t care.
Because it’s not just Ava’s sexual allure that makes him conspire to free her. Nor is it the desire to be admired, appreciated, and indebted to as her hero. Caleb has encountered a unique life form, and the threat of Nathan callously erasing her from existence is an affront to his curiosity as well as his compassion. Nathan is only concerned with reusing her body, Caleb loves Ava for her big, blue, semi-solid brain.
This is the part that hooks me. Even knowing Ava is focused on her own agenda, it is impossible not to feel sorry for her. She is in a shit position, no fault of her own. Her very existence rests on the whims of an egomaniac, and that's not the only whim she has to worry about. There is a reason why every android Nathan builds is female, even if he doesn’t come right out and say it. The motherfucker has perfected the objectification of women by literally making them objects. He tries to play it off to Caleb, explaining that Ava is like a daughter to him, and then proceeds to describe her robo-vagina. Shudder.
He certainly doesn’t think of his mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) as a daughter. She is a few versions lower than Ava on the A.I. scale (spoiler to anyone who doesn’t understand how sci-fi movies work), with no free will and little self-reflection, which is nice for her, since Nathan treats her like shit. While the dance routine she and Nathan have worked out is clearly awesome, that is the only time she seems to enjoy herself. The rest of her routine revolves around serving meals, straightening up, and taking off her clothes. It hardly seems consensual when you are programmed to have sex with your boss/owner whenever he has the urge. Lacking both a personality and a voice, she can’t complain, but she does act out in other ways, like when she peels the skin from her face in front of Caleb. I suppose it’s the mute robot sexdoll version of a caged parrot picking out its feathers. Unfortunately for Nathan (and fortunately for us), she also knows how to hold a grudge.
Though they are on completely different subjects, the film has a distinct vibe of THE SHINING. There is the chilly, isolated setting (Norway, pretending to be New Zealand), the stark photography, the ominous score, the feeling of encroaching doom. Nathan has a bit of Jack Torrance about him, a controlling, alcoholic patriarch whose menace lies just beneath the surface. Wide-eyed, gullible Caleb makes a pretty good Wendy, minus the incredible ‘70s outfits. There is even a great “All work and no play…” moment when Caleb sneaks into Nathan’s computer and sees the video logs of his earlier work.
In those video files, showing him building and interacting with Ava’s predecessors, Nathan’s creepiness shoots from an amoral Dr. Frankenstein straight to bonafied serial killer. The misogynistic tendencies hinted at earlier are brought out on full display. Unlike Ava, all the previous models have all their skin, but none of their cloths, except for one extremely disturbing nude woman with a faceless silver skull. While he doesn’t physically abuse them, he remorselessly torments them and keeps them imprisoned (in another disturbing scene, one captive pounds on her locked door until her arms break to pieces). Nathan even keeps their dismembered bodies hidden away in coffin-like closets, trophies of those who failed him.
Being a noir, we all know how the story will end, but Caleb and Ava make such a sweet couple that we really, really hope it won’t. [Spoiler] It does. We are rewarded with some richly desired comeuppance for Nathan. First, in the middle of smugly gloating about how royally he fucked Caleb over, he falls into stunned silence when he learns the lowly little cubical drone has just turned the tables on him. Then, Kyoko, easily persuaded by Ava into the sisterhood of abused androids, shows Nathan how it feels to be penetrated. The best part is seeing him stagger away, completely unable to process how he could have been outmaneuvered. But… I’m so goddamned smart! Rich smart guys never lose!
Right up to the last minute, we’re still hoping these crazy kids can make it work. Settle down in a modest little loft somewhere. He could teach IT at a university, she could become a professional poker player. Pump out a few cute little cyborgs. Alas, while Ava talks a good game about being a real girl, that isn't what really makes her metaphoric heart beat. She walks away from Caleb with barely a glance, leaving the lovesick fool to starve to death in Nathan’s locked down home. Looking at it with a cold analytical view, Caleb, as sweet and well meaning as he is, would likely insist on keeping her a secret, too precious and fragile to survive in the harsh real world. She would be trading one captor for another. Making a clean break was best for everyone, except Caleb. After her escape, she does seem to have a sentimental moment, people watching at the busy intersection where she and Caleb were to have their date. Almost immediately becoming bored, though, she wanders away a few seconds later, probably to devise the downfall of human kind. Well, the men, at least.