Horror has an interesting relationship with a lot of other genres, and those relationships are one of the things that keep drawing horror fans back. Whether it’s the notion of timing and delivery that separate horror from comedy, or the intensity that can keep horror and thriller apart, the way those different genres recognize a part of each other helps make them accessible, and keeps the new creations fresh. Even when old stories are resurrected, there is usually a different spin that can be applied, and that spin is sometimes informed by other genres.
Speaking as a parent, a story that resonates loudly with me is Frankenstein, as told by Mary Shelley. Far too many filmic adaptations of the story have missed the mark for one reason or another. At the core of the story, it is the story of a parent and a child, and the parent’s overall failing to be a parent that leads the child down the path that it follows, and those subtleties often seem to get glossed over. However, a recent attempt to breathe new life into Shelley’s story, whether conscious or not, also dabbles in the realm of science fiction, and asks the audience to think deeper. That film, of course, is
As stated above, Ex Machina is something of an update for the classic Frankenstein myth, in that it deals with a man and his creation, and the man’s overall lack of empathy towards what he has created. However, instead of wrapping the story in Victorian trappings, Ex Machina casts it into the present, or possibly the near future, and we’re given a surrogate through which to see how everything plays out.
The film opens with us meeting Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a programmer for what is clearly meant to be the in-universe version of Google. Caleb is the lucky winner of a lottery held by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and gets to spend an entire week living with his enigmatic employer. When Caleb arrives, he is immediately presented with a picture of Nathan as a man who, while clearly ridiculously wealthy and freakishly intelligent, his drive also leads to a hard-drinking lifestyle. In fact, Nathan admits to a hangover, which prompts Caleb to comment on what must have been a raging party, and his questioning is met with a deadpan response. It is clear that, while Nathan will at least be cordial with Caleb, he has expectations for his employee. Even from the opening scene, Ex Machina wastes little time establishing Nathan as a driven, brutal genius, but one who has sacrificed aspects of his own humanity in the pursuit of the next great discovery.
Shortly thereafter, we are presented with the crux of why Nathan was holding the lottery. Caleb is to be the human component in administering a Turing test. The computer on the other end is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot that Caleb is introduced to almost immediately. Her identity as a robot is never disguised, which makes Caleb initially doubt the validity of the test, until Nathan points out that the best way to tell if she has true artificial intelligence would be for Caleb to relate to her, despite knowing the entire time of her robotic nature. This is the crux of the story, and presents a nice framework for the audience.
The film plays with the concept of artificial intelligence, and how we relate to our continually more computerized world through simple conversations between Caleb and Ava. It is these conversations where a real human connection can be felt, and they present a sharp contrast to the communication between Caleb and Nathan. Between Nathan and Ava, he is the one who seems to be trying harder to present a mask of humanity, and she is the one who seemingly embodies the more human characteristics one might expect. This is an obvious choice to make when discussing artificial intelligence, but that doesn’t make it a bad one. Caleb clearly needs that spark of humanity, and, while he tries to make a connection with Nathan and fails, his success doing so with Ava allow for not only the tests to continue, but for Ava’s plans to come to fruition.
Ex Machina is presented simply, with relatively sparse sets, and a small cast working in intimate settings. The starkness of the scene actually serves to heighten the opulence we’re meant to feel with regards to how Nathan lives. Instead of being bare, we are presented with a space that contains only what is meant to be contained there, and only items of the highest quality at that. This is exactly how Nathan lives his life, as only the best is allowed to grace his presence, and he doesn’t have a need for the cast-offs that came before. As a man driven to consistently improve on what he’s already done, this doesn’t bode well for any of his creations, and, with her intellect, Ava is aware of this.
That last part is a big element of why Ex Machina really does feel like a modern retelling of the Frankenstein story. Ava started out as a blank slate. She was created by a man driven to create life; life that could fool even the most perceptive. In the Frankenstein story, what drives the monster is the fact that it simply wanted to be loved, and it was denied. In Ex Machina, it does seem that Ava at first may have wanted the same thing, but that being denied by her creator, she drove herself towards a need to escape and experience. And, in true Frankenstein fashion, even when there is another who wants to give her what she’s asking for, Ava instead relies entirely upon herself, having been taught distrust and neglect at the hands of her creator.
But was Nathan telling the truth when he said that her “rat in a maze” actions were actually part of his initial programming, and that the real test was not to see whether she could pass as human, but if she could seduce her way out? Upon initial viewing, it felt like Nathan’s story changed haphazardly, but, with further reflection, it’s clear that he’s crafted almost everything that happens. Nathan exerts a great deal of control (it isn’t until events happen he didn’t foresee that the entire plan fell apart, for him), and he’s parceling out knowledge to Caleb as he sees fit, and as he feels it necessary to further the test. Is he just really good at looking at the different angles as they are presented to him, or was the entire week laid out in advance, and, as part of his drive to create artificial intelligence, did Nathan study humanity enough to predict exactly what Caleb would do every step of the way?
Ex Machina deals with the (current) fiction of creating artificial intelligence with both a sense of wonder and dread, and that helps ground the film. Would a try AI connect with humans, or replace us? Would it help us to enrich our own lives, or would we be nothing more than intellectual ants to it? Again, much like in the Frankenstein story, the unachievable science is both a thing to behold, and a thing to fear.
Ex Machina, as a film, works for me because of the steady pace, the strong performances of the cast, and the deliberate setting. As a story, however, I feel Ex Machina resonate even more strongly. It calls forward all of my hopes and fears as a parent, in much the same way that Mary Shelley has done as well. It makes me hope that I am able to take this new life and fill it with so much joy, wonder, and deep love, giving what that life needs to sustain itself and be happy. It also presents a bleak picture of what the world can be like for those who never receive what they need, and the place they end up having to carve out for themselves.