Alex Garland, famed primarily for fantastic science fiction screenplays, has demonstrated incredibly assured visual flair in his directorial debut, Ex Machina. Whether that’s due to his production design team or what Garland picked up from working with some great directors, or if it’s something he’s always had in him is unimportant, and also not the point. Ex Machina is a film that conveys so much about its three main characters through visuals alone. It is one which could effectively be watched with the sound off.
External view of the Ex Machina house
The most obvious place to start would be the house in which the film takes place, itself arguably a character by its own right. A modernist marvel tucked away in acres of land, it introduces its owner as one of significant wealth and privacy. Our first view of the building is unassuming, appearing more like a cabin in the woods. But when the door opens, beckoning Caleb to enter, we see only a deep black inside like the entrance of a cave, ominously suggesting a darkness within that awaits Caleb. And who better the inhabitant of this cave than a rugged, powerful, bear-like Nathan?
When we do get interior shots of the house, they are at first of a bright, modernist living room juxtaposed against the rusticity of natural rock along the walls. This is a house that has been built with seeming disregard for environmental obstacles, expressing the owner’s desire to exert dominance over nature or even to improve upon it. Within the first few minutes of the film and from the architecture alone, we know all about Nathan before having even met him, and without a single line of expository dialogue about his character.
The living room melds nature and technology
The beautiful spacious side of the house soon makes way for a more insidious atmosphere as they go underground. Scenes are no longer shot like photo shoots for Architectural Digest, but are now more like something out of Kubrick’s play book. There’s a claustrophobic sterility about this new environment, lacking in any windows in stark contrast to the living room which was entirely windows from floor to ceiling. When Nathan reveals that this is not a house but a research facility, we get more indication that not everything is as it seems on the surface.
The cold and unwelcoming underground research facility
Caleb is invited to the house on the pretext of being the human component of a Turing test, that he will be observing Ava and judging her. Yet the way he is framed in boxes both visual and literal during the sessions suggest he is the one being observed and interrogated. The film begins with Caleb being observed through the camera of his phone and desktop, boxed in just as he will be by the end of the film. During conversations with Nathan and Ava, he is also frequently framed in tight boxes suggesting the rigidity of his testing methods in contrast to Nathan’s free flow nature, as well as his inability to naturally connect with others which perhaps led to his susceptibility to falling for Ava.
Between Caleb’s positioning and Ava’s reflection, the interview sessions are not as they seem
Ava on the other hand is given a lot of room to wander while Caleb stays rooted to his seat, raising questions as to who is really caged and who is free. Ava is designed with transparent materials that reveal her inner machinery, allowing us to see right through the artifice of her humanity, but later covers herself up, hiding her true machinations and building the illusion of her humanity. For all that her transparency hints at an open and honest nature, Ava is frequently shot with reflections, hinting at her duplicitous nature. Regardless of how we appear or what lies inside, it is the way we convey ourselves externally that defines who we are.
When the power goes out and the cameras are dead, Ava has no reflection in the glass. Bathed in red, it seems Caleb and Ava share a genuine connection free from observation, outside the parameters of the test. Ava speaks with more urgency and frankness in these rare moments as opposed to coy small talk during the tests. Yet this too turns out to be a falsehood, and it is in these moments that Ava’s manipulation of Caleb actually takes place.
Ava and Caleb share moments of apparent sincerity away from the camera
Architecture, cinematography and design combine to bring the characters and the environment to life. It’s truly astounding how much care and thought was put into the visual elements of this film, given Garland’s prior field of work. Or perhaps, it shouldn’t be.