Replications Don’t Tell Lies: “Ex Machina” and doubles

Alex Garland’s debut feature as a director is the unsettling sci-fi film Ex Machina, a meditative climb into the ethics behind the creation of artificial intelligence. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a prize to meet the C.E.O. of BlueBook: Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he’s issued an identification card and is locked into a remote research facility where he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is no typical houseguest, she’s an advanced and developed A.I. created by Nathan in secret, with the intention of having Caleb test her to see if she can pass for human, otherwise known as the famous Turing Test. It quickly becomes apparent in the film that things are not what they seem. The minimalist styling may give the impression of an open book: but there are many doors that remain closed, and who to trust quickly becomes the only question that matters. Ex Machina is a taught, well put together, thought-provoking science fiction thriller that has more to say about humanity’s morals than most cinematic fare.

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(Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, arriving at Nathan’s home)

The necessary aspect to unlocking the secrets and narrative of Ex Machina lies in its reflections, or rather the appearance of doubles. Towards the very beginning of the film when Caleb encounters Nathan the screen splits into two, one Caleb faces towards Nathan, with his reverse image seen on the window pane behind him drenched in shadow. These shots repeat themselves throughout Ex Machina as an intelligent framing choice by the film’s cinematographer Rob Hardy. An imperative double appears when Caleb exits his bedroom to see Nathan’s shadow reflected in the door, again drenched in shadow. These two examples provide a glimpse at how drastically Caleb’s situation changes. The reflections at first just set a general town of uneasiness to the film presented as a general look at Caleb’s mindset reflecting his at first seemingly harmless visit. For example, the replicating effect is at first used to infer to Caleb being generally nervous around Nathan, being afraid due to the intimidating nature of his intelligence and demeanor. However, as soon as Nathan’s creation Ava begins to talk to Caleb during oddly frequent power failures his increasing understanding of the situation at hand cause the reflections to change into more sinister duplicates. Caleb’s duplicates soon become more suspicious in their nature, becoming the only true glimpse at any character’s mindset and goals in the film.

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(Nathan greets Caleb in the morning)

Appearances of doubles also feature a key role as a way of visualizing humanity’s obsession with vanity. By bringing something to life in our image we bring our power structure to a whole new high. Newspapers would be splashed with headlines that would read “MAN BECOMES GOD”, questions of ethics would come into play as we would have created something that we can control in our own image. These shadows and reflections quickly become a question of is it human or machine, the difference being shown through indistinguishable reflections and shadows. Ex Machina is an incredibly made film that explores the dynamics behind how humans view creation as the ultimate act of power. When we cannot tell the difference between a machine or a human, when our image is something that has acquired a peak natural intelligence, that is when God’s are forsaken and begin to fall.


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