As the title anticipates, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina kills both God and Adam. More, the faint correlates of Eden (though most of the film is shot inside and underground) and a protector-angel-at-the-gates (albeit roaring in a helicopter instead of wielding a flaming sword) coalesce into anything but a feel-good creation story, and the ‘Eve’ character is anything but a helpmate. This cold inversion of Paradise pulls viewers through an elaborate and elegant lab experiment that seeds the quiet but inevitable destruction of humanity.
The key words here are cold and quiet. Ex Machina is Frankensteinian without Shelley’s drenching sentimentality and moral rectitude; it is horrific without the crowded, global horror of Soderbergh’s Contagion or Forster’s World War Z. The bumbling, complex bustle of human sociality so typical of sci-fi and horror is reduced here to a tango between the affective economies of two men, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and their ‘affective’ interactions with two ‘women’, Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). [The po-mo quote marks are entirely the point, right? We find ourselves asking whether or not these affects are circulating or merely simulated, and whether or not they are women, and what can we possibly mean, really, when we ask the question this way?] But the tango ends up in a sweaty irrelevancy before the triumph of utilitarian logic—a logic that does not reduce everything to exchange value but rather reduces every value (sex, nature, fun, food, dance, companionship) to logical sets. This triumph, when it becomes irreversibly apparent, floods the screen with the hushed aura of a chess tournament. Less a gasp than an “ooohhh”, and in the nanosecond in which our allegiances shift we also realize the shift has come too late.
The lack of last names in the film is charming. The effectiveness of the lack of backstories for these characters is eerie. This lack of plot suggests that these characters function less as ideal types, and more as utterly mundane types. We already know this story. We know these two men; we know their daily habits, their work habits, sexual habits, and search engine habits. We know them as well as—and take them for granted as much as—the blood in our veins, the beauty of woods and rivers, and the feel of water on our faces when we shower. But blood and water, the fluids of human life, are no match here for the flows of big data. And that realization, too, comes (at the end of the film) in almost a whisper, through oblique, distorted and reflected images against the quotidian sounds of an urban street corner.