Ex Machina is a film about misdirection, just not the kind of misdirection you think.
Caleb Smith, a 26-year-old computer programmer at Bluebook, a thinly fictionalized Google, is chosen by Nathan Bateman, the immensely wealthy founder and CEO of the company, to participate in an experiment on Artificial Intelligence. He’s flown out to Bateman’s secluded compound deep in an unnamed wilderness, made to sign a “non-disclosure agreement,” then introduced to Ava, the subject of the Turing Test. Can a machine feel human emotions, think like a human, manipulate other people like a human? It sounds like a fascinating experiment, especially for a 26-year-old computer nerd, but there’s a problem. Bateman’s compound is so alienating, so much like a prison, that anybody as obviously intelligent as Caleb Smith would have refused to sign the non-disclosure agreement as soon as it was put down on the table in front of him. He would stood up, turned around, walked out of the bunker, and got on the next helicopter back to civilization.
So why doesn’t he?
The easy answer is that Caleb Smith is horny. Ava is not only an intelligent machine. She has been designed to look like a composite of his searches on the Internet for pornography. Caleb Smith has good taste. Every image on the world wide web that he’s has ever masturbated to has been distilled into Alicia Vikander in a robot suit. Bateman also lets him know that she has a working vagina. In other words, Ex Machina is all about the question of whether or not you’d fuck a robot if it looked like Alicia Vikander. The Turing Test is all about Caleb Smith’s penis. Has Nathan Bateman been able to design a machine human enough to make Smith forget it’s made of plastic and metal and fall in love?
The answer, spoiler alert, is yes. He has. Smith not only falls desperately in love with Ava. She manages to dupe him into helping her escape. But while the relationship between Ava and Caleb Smith works on paper, on screen it falls flat. Even though it’s obvious that Ava is an actress in a robot suit and not a machine, and I had no trouble believing she was human, there was no sexual chemistry between Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson, the actor who plays Caleb Smith. As Nathan Batman tells Smith near the end of the film “the hot robot was a misdirection,” a very hot robot and a very good misdirection, but a misdirection nonetheless.
So what keeps Caleb Smith from leaving?
Ex Machina is not a science fiction movie about Artificial Intelligence. It’s not a love story between a sexy robot and a needy, virginal young man, and while it physically takes place in a secluded bunker in the middle of nowhere, it actually takes place at Bluebook. Just think of the bunker in the woods as an annex of the main office, the AI laboratory in the basement nobody ever visits. Ex Machina is a movie about the relationship between an employer and an employee, between a boss and a worker, between a master and servant. I might even go so far to say it’s a film about the homosexual domination of a stronger man over a weaker man, and about the weaker man’s ultimate rebellion. The question is not “would you fuck a robot if it looked like Alicia Vikander?” It’s “would you let your boss fuck you up the ass to keep your job.” The real Turing Test is not about whether or not the beautiful Ava can convince Caleb Smith to stick his dick inside her mechanical vagina. It’s about whether or not Nathan Bateman can transform Smith’s subordination into a sexualized subordination. If Smith fucks the robot, his job is fucking him. If Smith falls in love with the robot, the devil has his soul.
Oscar Isaac, who plays Bateman, is what makes the film work. He is utterly convincing, and creepy, as the domineering tyrant as hipster tech bro. That he didn’t get the Best Actor award instead of Leonardo DiCaprio is as much of a travesty as Dances With Wolves winning Best Picture over Goodfellas. Isaac’s performance is so remarkable because it feels so unremarkable. As the prototypical white collar boss, he gets everything right. Like every employer, he believes he’s being generous with his employees, even as he’s abusing them. He constantly makes you feel as if he’s being patient with your incompetence, even while you’re not being incompetent. The more he seems to restrain himself, the guiltier he makes you feel for taking his money, or his sexy robots. When he jokes about having a team of independent contractors killed, you not only believe him. You reproach yourself for thinking ill of your benefactor. When he yells at his Asian sex slave, you get angry at her for making him yell at her. Nathan Bateman is the banal face of evil, the bland CEO of the corporate American tyranny, the soft-spoken Fuhrer of Silicon Valley.
Caleb Smith is Bateman’s dupe, and his slave, even after he rebels. As soon as he signed the non-disclosure agreement he was doomed. He will never leave the office.