Movie Manipulation: Exploring the deceptive connections between film and the audience in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina
In Alex Garland’s A.I. thriller Ex Machina, young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has won a trip to stay at the remote home of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive billionaire. On arrival, after Nathan shows Caleb his room—which is underground and windowless—Nathan reveals that his mansion isn’t a “house” but a “research facility.” The sleek, ultra-modern architecture is simply a façade. Nathan’s reveal sets the stage for the countless ways in which he deceives and manipulates Caleb throughout the movie. It can also be interpreted as the movie calling attention to the medium of film itself (as well as the process of filmmaking), which is a highly deceitful medium. In reality, Nathan’s “research facility” doesn’t exist and is actually a composite of two places: a hotel in Norway and a set at Pinewood Studios in England.
While never directly referencing filmmaking or the film industry, Ex Machina is about how filmic narratives are constructed and used for purposes of audience manipulation. Caleb thinks he’s been invited to Nathan’s “house” to help conduct a version of the Turing test on Nathan’s robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) that is, test to see if it has consciousness. Instead, he’s part of a very specific Damsel-in-distress narrative involving her. Ava is supposed to create a “bond” with Caleb (i.e. making him sexually attracted to her) and use him to escape, a narrative that Caleb (somewhat willingly) goes along with. So then, Nathan’s compound isn’t a house nor a research facility but a film studio wherein Nathan is constructing and staging this fictional narrative. By depicting the compound as a film studio, placing Nathan in the role of a manipulative director, making Caleb a surrogate for the film audience (as well as an actor in Nathan’s “movie”) and making Ava the actress and object of Caleb’s desire, Ex Machina argues that when we watch movies we’re actively allowing ourselves to be deceived and manipulated, resulting in betrayal.
Starting with the idea that Nathan’s compound is a film studio, film studios are places that contain rooms where films are made called sound stages. These sound stages are decorated, dressed up and lit to resemble real places (a living room in a house, a factory, even a stormy ocean can be recreated on a soundstage) while actors act in front of them. Meanwhile, there’s millions of dollars’ worth of sound, video, and lighting equipment to capture and help bring the artificial world of the film to life. However, none of that technical equipment is seen in the final movie because it would ruin the illusion—it would pull the viewer out of the fictional constructs of the narrative. All the audience sees are those artificial environments and the actors playing fictional people. In other words, studios are highly controlled environments and the audience is only allowed to see of them what filmmakers want them to see.
Similarly, Nathan’s entire compound is heavily controlled with Caleb seeing only what Nathan wants him to see. This is especially apparent during the sequence in which Caleb first enters the compound. The camera tracks him as he walks down a flight of stairs into a living room (looking for Nathan) where pleasant diegetic piano music is playing from some unseen source. Then the movie cuts to a high angle shot of Caleb from the ceiling, clearly indicating that a camera is watching him. The layout of this particular room is extremely neat—there isn’t a speck of dust or any stray object lying around. In fact there are no other objects at all beyond a couch, coffee table, two chairs and ceiling lights. Everything in this space has been meticulously staged to the point where it looks artificial. It doesn’t look like a room Nathan or anyone has ever sat in for an extended period of time. And considering Nathan and Caleb never come back here again this living room is like a film set (it only resembles a real living space). Meanwhile, the camera and the sound system playing the piano music are nowhere to be seen, similar to how all the technological equipment used in making of a film isn’t shown to the audience. In this scene, Ex Machina recreates the experience of watching a movie with Caleb representing the audience and Nathan’s “living room” representing the artificial film world we’re allowed to see, while the piano music recreates a non-diegetic film score. Soon enough we learn that Nathan’s compound has dozens of hidden cameras and microphones; in Caleb’s room there’s a camera behind the mirror in his bathroom. In this instance, the mirror is more or less a prop that Caleb (the audience) perceives as being a real mirror. By turning Nathan’s compound into a studio with artificial “sets” and props, Ex Machina argues that film studios and film sets play a significant role in crafting cinematic deception.
Running this studio is Nathan, who assumes the role of producer and director--intent on crafting his Damsel-in-distress narrative, using both Ava and Caleb. One of the primary ways he maintains control over his compound is through an elaborate keycard system. When Caleb first arrives he is given a keycard that only opens certain doors. Using this narrative device, Ex Machina draws parallels to both the director-actor relationship and the director-audience relationship. Beginning with the former, since the director is in charge of a film, actors are traditionally there to be controlled. Their job is determined by what the director wants them to do and where to go. Through the keycard system, Nathan is literally directing Caleb-- telling him where he can and cannot go and also what to do. It resembles the cinematic (and theater) technique called “blocking,” where the director determines precisely where the actors are placed in a particular scene and where they move to, if they move. Before Caleb’s arrival, Nathan has carefully determined what doors Caleb has access to and what doors he doesn’t, controlling his movement too. At the same time, the keycard system also works as an appropriate metaphor for the director-audience relationship. When we watch a movie we are at the mercy of the director, we rely on him or her to guide us through their cinematic landscape. We can only go where she or he wants us to go and see what she or he wants us to see; we gain access to certain doors while others remain “off limits.”
As the “director,” Nathan also inserts himself into his own narrative, “playing” a role of his own. At first he acts easy-going and relaxed in order to welcome Caleb into his “studio” and make him feel more at home. When they first meet, Nathan asks if they can see one another as two people instead of “employer and employee” so as to ease uncomfortable-ness. Nathan calls Caleb “dude” and “bro,” lightly patronizes him (when Caleb says that talking with Ava is like being “Through the looking glass” Nathan says he’s very “quotable”) and feeds his ego (calling him a talented coder) to keep him from figuring out the ruse. At the same time, Nathan also establishes himself as the villain in this “damsel in distress” narrative, the one standing in the way of Caleb falling in love with Ava and taking her away from the compound. In his review, critic Matt Zoller Seitz talks about how Ex Machina “acquires an undertone of film noir, with Nathan as the abusive husband or father often found in such movies…” (Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com). The abusiveness of Nathan’s character is meant to get a rise out of Caleb, which we see in a fairly pivotal scene near the end. Nathan enters Ava’s room, sits on top of the desk she is sitting at. After a few minutes of talking he proceeds to rip up a drawing she’s made. The moment is captured in long shot on one of the CCTV’s installed in the house. Caleb sees it because the feed to the camera is connected to a TV monitor in his room. At this point, Caleb has been regularly watching Ava on the TV almost like his own personal mini TV series, which contributes to his growing attraction towards her. Nathan is very well aware of this (it’s part of his narrative after all) and so the tearing up of the drawing functions as a climax for the “Ava Show.” Later on, Nathan shows Caleb the footage again, this time with audio where he can be heard saying that he knows Caleb is watching. In other words, Nathan performs the role of abusive master to keep the main Damsel-in-distress narrative going. In his role as the master orchestrator, Nathan produces a miniature film within the larger film starring himself to further manipulate and deceive Caleb, all of which directly relates to the way a film director actively manipulates and deceives his audience.
This particular act of deception on Nathan’s part highlights the rather unfortunate position Caleb finds himself in for pretty much the entire movie. No matter what he does he always ends up being manipulated and deceived, either by Nathan or Ava. He thinks he’s been invited to Nathan’s compound because he’s a talented coder but instead it’s because he happened to fit the particular role Nathan was looking for: a “good boy” with a “moral compass” and “no girlfriend.” It would be easy to say that Caleb is unfairly manipulated and tricked without his knowledge. And while that may be partly the case there are also numerous instances where Caleb is skeptical of the whole set up, like a film viewer becoming aware that what they’re watching is an artificial construction. He knows Ava isn’t a real woman (but a machine programed with gender) and more importantly Nathan’s creation. At one point he asks whether Ava was specially programed to “flirt” with him. And yet, despite his skepticism and questioning he continues to go along with the narrative, allowing himself to be controlled by Nathan and especially Ava.
During one sequence we see an extreme close up of Caleb taking a shower. The film then cuts to a black and white image of Ava standing on a cliff, looking directly at the camera. After briefly showing Caleb in the shower again we’re transported back to the black and white world (which is clearly Caleb’s fantasy) where we see, in long shot, Caleb gradually walking up to Ava on the cliff and eventually kissing her. The scene illustrates that Ava has seeped into Caleb’s psyche-- not as a genderless machine he’s conducting a test with but as a beautiful woman (or rather, an A.I. pretending to be a woman) whom he’s sexually attracted to and will do anything for. At the same time the scene comments on the nature of the film-audience relationship, referring to the way in which male viewers can become attracted (both physically and emotionally) to a female actress they see onscreen and fantasize about them later, even if they know on some level that what they saw was an illusion. Once again, Caleb is a surrogate for the audience. Ex Machina argues that as film viewers we allow ourselves to be manipulated by movies. We allow ourselves to get lost in a fictional narrative and develop an attachment to the fictional characters. (Even if, on some level, we know none of it is real.)
All of this deception couldn’t be possible without Ava, the “Leading Lady.” During the one-on-one interactions with Caleb she is constantly fueling his fantasy. She does this through flirting and acting naïve and helpless, gamely playing her “role” in the Damsel in distress narrative. During one of their one-on-one sessions, Ava suddenly announces that she has something to “show” Caleb. After telling him to close his eyes she goes to a small nook where she delicately puts on a chaste, flowered “Sunday best” dress along with a pair of long socks and a short haired wig—making her appear almost childlike. She plays up the innocence of her character even further as she slowly walks back, smiling and holding her sleeves in her hands, before quietly telling Caleb to “open” his eyes. In this scene Ava puts on a costume to alter her appearance and thereby enhance her performance as an innocent Damsel for Caleb, an action that alludes to the way actors alter their appearance (putting on various costumes or guises) in order to deceive the audience.
Reinforcing the idea that Ava is an actress manipulating Caleb is the fact that she is kept in a large sealed off room and can only see Caleb through a glass wall. In other words, there’s always distance between them during their interactions. The glass wall is somewhat reminiscent of a screen and when Caleb talks to Ava it’s as if he’s interacting with an actress in a movie. Additionally, when Caleb is not talking to her one-on-one he’s watching her on the CCTV where she continues her Damsel act. In one scene she’s lying on a chair, hands resting on her chest like a corpse trying to looking passive, while Caleb sits on his bed eyes wide, mouth agape and Adams Apple bobbing. She’s his object of desire, the subject of his gaze. As viewers of cinema we’re voyeurs too, gawking at the characters onscreen, something that actors are aware of and use to their advantage. Caleb’s only interactions with Ava (outside of his daydreams) are through screens, just as our only interaction with her (and the other characters) is also through a screen. By keeping Ava in this sealed off room and distanced from Caleb the surrogate viewer, Ex Machina recreates the way an audience observes and interacts with an onscreen character (and the actor) during a film, which is also at a distance.
Meanwhile, Ava’s eventual escape from the room and the compound serves as a harsh dose of reality for spectator Caleb. When he thinks they’re going to leave together (solidifying the bond he thinks they have) she suddenly shows no signs of affection or innocence and leaves him locked in a room. As she takes the elevator up to the ground floor, she has a look of indifference on her face. She never cared about him at all. With this final act of betrayal, Ex Machina argues that, in reality, the movie watching experience is a one sided relationship. We may become invested and stimulated in the moment but the film (as a real physical object being projected by a machine) can show no affection or investment back. The characters on screen are only imaginary, portrayed by actors whom we haven’t actually met or interacted with. In that regard, watching a film ultimately results in a kind of betrayal.
Traditionally, words like “betrayal,” “deception” and “manipulation” come with negative connotations. However, in the case of the cinema (as well as any storytelling medium) they can be viewed in a positive light. We like to be manipulated by movies because we like stories, we like reading stories, watching stories and telling our own stories. In addition to all its heavy, thought provoking commentary on artificial intelligence, other forms of technology, God and Man etc., Ex Machina makes us aware of this peculiar connection we, as the audience, have to the cinema. We look forward to being lost in the fictionalized world; we look forward to be deceived.
Seitz, Zoller, Matt, “Ex Machina Review,” Roger Ebert.com, April 9th 2015