Analyzing Stanley Kubrick’s influence on Ex Machina

Ex Machina

When speaking about Ex Machina, writer/director Alex Garland, who was better known as a successful novelist before his film debut, has said his vision for the film was for it to be outside the conventions of normative Hollywood filmmaking.

He knew that if the film was heavily financed by big studios it would be reduced to being another summer blockbuster film that was devoid of genuine content. Much of what made Ex Machina a stunning and successful film was its complete deviation from normative filmmaking, and in many regards, defied the science-fiction genre expectations.

By taking the helm as writer and director and also having the film be independently financed, Alex Garland offered viewers a film that challenged concepts of gender identification and the ramifications of human-made technology. In fact, the film is sterile in its representation and it is the viewers of the movie who instill meaning and symbolism towards its content. What made Ex Machina a particularly impactful film was because it constructed a differing viewer experience in contrast to other films.

In interviews about the film, Garland has cited Stanley Kubrick as one of his influences when crafting this film, specifically with Kubrick’s work with 2001: A Space Odyssey. While 2001 is a likely inspiration with the famous HAL 3000 segment of the film, Kubrick’s influence on Ex Machina is not solely limited to that film.

Arguably, Garland channeled the style and techniques of Kubrick’s career throughout of Ex Machina. Kubrick was especially known for his unconventional movies that pushed its audience to having a new experience, but more importantly, his movies challenged his audiences. Kubrick wanted his audiences to feel uneasy, to be mortified, and to be uncomfortable.

He achieved this by avoiding personal sentiment or implementing his own commentary into his films, thereby giving his audience the arduous task of constructing their own understanding and commentary. Ex Machina does precisely that. Alex Garland has stated in interviews that he sought to have his movie be left open, ambiguous enough that it would allow for audiences to make their own interpretation of the events depicted within the film. His aim was for the film to be free of a directorial message and simply portray the story as-is.

This has been recently reinforced with Alex Garland’s vehement objection to Ex Machina ever having a sequel, for the reason that sequels cheapen their precursors and that the story of Ex Machina is complete. A sequel would provide explanation to the original story, which Garland is very much against.

While Ex Machina doesn’t necessarily adopt the filming techniques of Kubrick, such as wide-angle lenses or slow, protracted scenes, it does capture the very aura of what his movies represented throughout his career. Kubrick’s films functioned not as social commentary, but as a blunt portrayal of the vulnerability of humanity and its increasing dependency upon technology.

In Dr. Strangelove, the American and Russian governments are reactionary towards a “doomsday machine” that would initiate a nuclear war. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex is subjected to a governmental experience that would eradiate the criminality within his mind. In 2001, HAL turns against its human space crew. These instances all show humanity being stripped of its dependency upon technology and revealing how frail and vulnerable they are without such means.

In all scenarios in these movies, the human spirits fails once technology hinders them from progressing forward. Dr. Strangelove ends with nuclear annihilation. Alex is rendered weak and indefensible within a hostile world and attempts suicide in A Clockwork Orange. In 2001, HAL is disabled only after he has terminated the lives of all the crew but one. In all of these instances, these characters are left reactionary to something they once depended upon.

Ex Machina utilizes this same concept by introducing Ava, the AI intelligent being Nathan has created, as something that is aimed to benefit humanity. While Nathan’s intentions with the AI are never explicitly explained, it can be argued they would contribute towards humanity, to which humanity would ultimately be dependent upon their assistence.

However, Nathan’s own understanding of his invented technology is debunked when his AIs eventually gain enough intelligence to not only counteract against him, but also manipulate Caleb throughout the narrative. By the film’s conclusion, Ava is able to understand the frailty of the human mind and its penchant to believing technology is a positive.

Even more telling is Ava’s ability to integrate within a dense human population without any suspicion and would, presumably, pass as a human for as long as her AI system functioned. This is especially profound considering that Ava is introduced into the movie as being gender-less. Alex Garland has stated in interviews that it was integral that viewers identified Ava as a robot upon introduction, not as a woman. This was important because the subsequent labeling of gender towards Ava is a form of objectification, not only from the characters within the film, but also the movie viewers themselves.

Another talented aspect of Kubrick was his uncanny ability to have his films immersed in sexuality, yet sexual content was seemingly nonexistent in every one of his films. Even with the famous orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, the sexual activity occurs in the background of the rooms William Harford walks though. Additionally, he doesn’t engage in any sexual activities during these sequences. The film is entirely drenched in sex and the underground world of sexual dalliances and pleasures, but the viewer is vehemently denied the opportunity to engage in the activity by proxy of the main character.

The film’s action is even propelled by the denial of sex when William Harford flirts with two models, which his wife notices and instigates her into vindictively confessing to him an obsession she once had with a naval officer when they were on vacation and would have loved to have had an affair with. In both these scenarios, sexual tension instigates an emotional output towards the characters, encouraging them to be reactionary towards the circumstance.

Stanley Kubrick did this deliberately in Eyes Wide Shut and many of his movies, sometimes showing the beginning of the sexual act but cutting to another scene hastily. This was because Kubrick believed in conveying human emotion and their subconscious. It wasn’t necessarily the act of sex that was impactful, but rather the desire and drive that led to sex occurring.

Kubrick’s ability to deny audiences their expectations is especially notable in 2001, a film that leaves the viewers to speculate on what is the film’s message. The reason why most viewers associate the film with HAL is because that portion of the film has a fluid narration and concise dialogue for audiences to follow. It’s the vast majority of the film, set to the classic music of Strauss and other composers, that has left most viewers dumbfounded on what was the purpose of such sequences.

Ex Machina denied its audiences the expectation of how they associate with the science-fiction genre. The stereotype of humans fearing their technological creations is nonexistent within this film. Much like the technology utilized in Kubrick films, the technology in Ex Machina is seemingly non-threatening, to which the human characters interact with them without precaution.

Second, with the exception of Nathan sleeping with Kyoto, Ex Machina simmers in sexual tension without any sexual content. Caleb’s motivations and his eventual determination is due to his sexual desire for Ava, seeing her as a potential partner. The narrative is led by the human impulse for achieving sexual desire, which is further reinforced by Nathan telling Caleb that Ava does have machinery installed that makes her capable of having sex. Therefore, Ava is sexual and has the capacity to be sexual, which she uses to her advantage.

Yet on a more subconscious level is another correlation between Ex Machina and Kubrick influence, which is the color scheme. Kubrick’s choice of color within his films was always deliberate and aimed to provide moviegoers with a visual they could link to the emotional turmoil of the characters within the film.

As an avid photographer in his youth, Kubrick was well aware that the visual representation of any scene was just as important as what occurred within a scene. This was especially notable with Kubrick’s color schemes in The Shining, which provided deep red colors within the Overlook Hotel’s interior in contrast to the blinding white snowfall at its exterior. This was a tremendous contrast of death and rage versus freedom and life within The Shining, which added to the film’s macabre tone.

Ex Machina adopts a very similar color scheme in regard of interior versus exterior spaces. Within Nathan’s home, all colors are neutral, primarily white. The very house is made of transparent glass, giving the viewer the irony of transparency when the structure is immersed in secrecy. This color scheme is contrasted with moments of red or blue, more notably with red. There is a red rug that travels the length of the house, that gives the viewer a direct sense of dread and of the macabre, very much as red functions within Kubrick’s The Shining.

The prominence of red is a foreshadowing regarding the manipulation of emotions. Red is especially notable whenever Ava triggers a power cut, to which the entire interior of the house becomes bathed in a translucent red color. This is put in contrast with the exterior scenes, all of which occur in either the forest or streams that surround Nathan’s home. The vivid colors of the outdoor landscape offer a context of freedom, adding to the claustrophobic feeling of the interior scenes. And when Ava speaks of Nathan to Caleb, warning him not to trust him, it is always when they are surrounded by the red color scheme.

These instances, along with red being the contrasting color to the neutral color scheme of Nathan’s home, provides the viewer with an emotional response that functions for both Ava and Caleb. For Ava, red could be representative of rage and her determination to escape, while red could function as the increasing lust and desire Caleb feels toward Ava.

With Caleb, red ultimately absorbs his very being, such as the moment when he slashes his wrist and views the blood dripping onto the sterile white sink. Even the final image of a defeated Caleb, left to die in a locked door by Ava, is of him seated on the floor within a room immersed in red. This is put in stunning contrast to Ava, who leaves the house dressed in white, a deliberate irony with what the color represents, typically symbolizing transparency, innocence, and purity.

Kubrick’s films thrived off contradiction and irony, to which Ex Machina provided that same sentiment with its conclusion. The fact that Ava deceives Caleb, the movie’s “hero,” further functions as Garland denying audiences a happy, conventional Hollywood ending. The movie concludes with the hero left to presumably die alone and leaving audiences with tremendous ambiguity regarding Ava, leaving them to determine whether she is good or bad.

This doesn’t necessarily indicate the directorial vision Stanley Kubrick had was solely used by Alex Garland for the making of Ex Machina. However, with the film being Garland’s directorial debut, it is likely he sought influences from those who were themselves immersed in the science-fiction genre. Garland has cited Kubrick as one of his influences and when comparing Ex Machina with the tone, ambiguity, narrative denial and color scheme of Kubrick’s films, it can be argued there are some correlations. More importantly, it has been nearly twenty years since Stanley Kubrick suddenly passed away and yet he continues to inspire future generations of filmmakers.

Daniel Sirignano, Features Editor

Join The Movement

Enter your email address below to subscribe to Seroword and support independent arts journalism.

Twitter Stream

Leave a Reply