‘Ex Machina’ Is The Erotic Tale Of One Boy’s Affair With A Billionaire MRA’s Sex Robot

Senior Editor
04.23.15 67 Comments
Ex-Machina-AVA

A24

The beauty of Ex Machina is that of the recent slew of movies about AI and the nature of consciousness, it’s the only one that acknowledges the link between consciousness and sex. “If the AI didn’t have a sexual component, what incentive would it have to interact with anyone?” Oscar Isaac’s character asks, explaining why his beautiful, pert-breasted, but mostly skinless AI bot, Ava seems so flirty. The subtext is that he’s justifying the movie itself.

Whereas Transcendence (I think I’m the only critic who sort of liked that one) imagined what would happen if you took human consciousness and transferred it to an organism without sexual desire or pleasure organs, Ex Machina, almost its perfect opposite, examines artificially engineered sexuality. Specifically, the kind of artificial sexuality that might be engineered by an eccentric billionaire chauvinist, a sort of GamerGater writ large, who’s done in when his f*cktoys develop the ability to think and have opinions.

The setup is simple: Domhnall Gleeson plays a wet-behind-the-ears coder who wins a contest, where the prize is an internship with an eccentric tech magnate played by Oscar Isaac, who lives on a remote compound somewhere (Iceland? Alaska?) accessible only by helicopter. Gleeson’s only job will be to fly in and “test” Isaac’s latest creation – a comely, wide-eyed AI bot named Ava (Alicia Vikander, who’s Swedish, of course), on whom he instantly develops a crush. “You know, I also gave her a working vagina,” Isaac’s character tells Gleeson, at just the moment to elicit maximum sheepishness. Is he serious? It’s hard to say, but you definitely want to find out.

The fact that writer/director Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, in his directorial debut) takes on consciousness and AI, but keeps the focus small, and heavily sexual (“Okay, AI exists, yadda yadda yadda, he wants to f*ck it”), is probably what makes Ex Machina so much more successful than Transcendence or Chappie (though again, speaking for the minority, I loved those). Cinema’s dirty little secret has always been that it shares as much with porn as it does with literature. Strip away the moving picture’s eroticism and what’s the point? You might as well just read about it.

There’s a lot to love about Ex Machina, but I think its best attribute is that it unapologetically relies on us identifying with a guy whose main motivation is to make it with a robot. A robot who doesn’t have hair or any skin other than on her face, whose internal engine parts are partially visible through her transparent shell like a Ferrari. Similarly, it sets Oscar Isaac’s character up as the antagonist, a sort of charming-but-terrifying Bill Gates meets Bill The Butcher character. Yet believing that his character is “bad” at all relies entirely on us empathizing with robots, the only people Isaac’s character does any real harm to. None of it works unless we’re as sympathetic to Ava as Gleeson’s character is. We’re hoisted by our own boner, so to speak (or by the AI’s own credulity, if you want to get cerebral about it). In that way, Alex Garland plays Oscar Isaac to our Domhnall Gleeson, transparently playing to our weaknesses in a way that we’re powerless to resist, even when we know exactly what he’s doing. Are we feeling empathy or just being tantalized? Though it’s ostensibly about consciousness, Ex Machina‘s greatest insight might be the irrationality of sexual attraction (and/or empathy).

Obviously, in this film that only really has about three and a half characters, none of that works without intense chemistry between the principals. Gleeson does sincere bemusement so convincingly he might as well be a sentient Spielberg face. And just as a side note, shirts fit him really well. Like, if there was an Oscar for shirt wearing, just give him the trophy. Oscar Isaac, meanwhile, does a lot of the heavy lifting. Tasked with playing the chessmaster among pawns, he’s calculating and diabolical, yet gregarious and endearingly idiosyncratic (he’s sort of a lovable, depressive drunk, in addition to being a megalomaniacal utopianist demagogue). It can’t have been easy to humanize a character who’s essentially an online lonelyboi superhero (Isaac’s character’s hair, his house’s decorative skull motif, and his penchant for scotch and forests all seem to have been cribbed from Canadian “race realist” Davis Aurini). Isaac does it all, and carries the movie.

And yet the best performance of all may be Alicia Vikander’s, who has to evince an impossible mix of innocence, guile, weakness, strength, calculation, and sincerity. You have to believe her one minute and question her motives the next, all while simultaneously falling in love with her and taking it for granted that she’s a robot built in a sexist billionaire’s glorified garage. I saw a couple reviews and thinkpieces that wondered if it was “problematic” that Ava is simultaneously a fembot and a damsel in distress. Like… duh? Again, she’s a robot built by a sexist billionaire. She’s a fembot by design, and a damsel in distress because she’s clever enough to tap into male fantasies in order to manipulate them. The curse of 2015 is that you can’t do satire without someone accusing you of perpetuating the thing you’re satirizing.

In any case, it seemed clear to me, largely because Vikander played it so perfectly. But of course, I could just be blinded by my attraction. If Ex Machina taught me anything, it’s that lust and empathy are hard to untangle.

GRADE: A

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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