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Review: Ex Machina

Written by: Alyssa | April 26th, 2015

The first homoerotic sci-fi thriller of the year!

The palindrome*, in magic and occultism, is a word or phrase that is spelled the same when read forwards or backwards. Palindromes are frequently used in composing magic squares and are believed to exert considerable potency in magical formulae.

EX MACHINA is a story about an artificial intelligent life-like robot named AVA.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a mega-billionaire so wealthy he owns a large chunk of a pristine forest. He lives alone in a high-tech palace with only one mute Japanese woman (Sonoya Mizuno) to take care of all the cleaning and cooking. He has built a reality he rules over. How he got everything up the mountaintop is only something he, and the engineers behind the Great Pyramid of Giza, can explain.

Nathan carries a genuine disgust for mankind. He can improve the species by creating a new one built according to his specifications. Has he engineered a new intelligent species or a very smart computer outfitted as a sleek catwalk model?

Maybe he is delusional. He’s an alcoholic and has a mean streak. So Nathan canvasses his technological empire and finds the smartest kid he employs: Computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Caleb is a farm-boy with wheat sticking out of his ears. He doesn’t know a thing about knocking on Nathan’s front door and is completely confused about how to use a key fob. He is in a fog and has only one week to figure out Nathan and the nature of the project he has been summoned for.

Caleb is at first dazzled by the legendary visionary. Nathan has the aggressive masculinity of a boxer. He’s bald but wears an anxiety-producing – in others – wild beard. He’s not someone you would confide in. Caleb physically shrinks in his presence. Quickly, Nathan challenges Cabel. It reminded me of my visit to the  Sera Monastery is Lhasa. The young monks were earning their kenpo degrees. In practice, the usual form is a debate between a Challenger, standing and asking questions, and a Defender, sitting and answering those questions. The Challenger is respectfully approaching the Defender with a quandary. The dramatic clapping is done by the standing Challenger only, and is used to punctuate the end of the “question,” which is an argument in response to the Defender’s answer. At the moment of the clap, the Challenger’s left foot stomps down.

Caleb does not have the verbal acuity to spar with Nathan. Or the ability to handle Nathan when he starts making him uneasy with that homoerotic wink.

Nathan explains why he has brought Caleb to his fiefdom. He has created an A.I. – an artificial intelligence – robot and wants an independent view on whether “Ava” possesses genuine human consciousness or is a very advanced computer. Nathan has completely lost his objectivity.

If Caleb represents us, he’s a dopey proxy. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is his sexual fantasy come to “life”. She is devastatingly beautiful even though only half of her body is covered in flesh-like material. We see that she is a machine but without a power source to rely on. I assume she is powered by the sun.

Instead of asking Ava questions about her beliefs in a deity, sexuality, if she has passions, lust or human emotions, they hold silly Q&A sessions that tells Caleb (our stand-in) nothing. Everything is being videoed by Nathan.

The worm turns when Ava takes a quick minute of a power failure to warn Caleb about Nathan. So he hasn’t been already figured out that Nathan is crazy.

The ending (which is all over the IMDb message boards but not here) is very satisfying and skillfully executed by Alex Garland, the writer-director.

As I implied above, I was not engaged by Gleeson’s characterization of Caleb; however, Isaac created a very original role. Nathan was sullen, dangerous and sympathetic. Isaac released all of Nathan’s complicated flaws.

Was the homoerotic dimension intentional by Garland and Isaac or the clever work of the film editor, Mark Digby, selecting certain takes? I always wonder about this. Of course, the most celebrated homoerotic movie is 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. And then there is Charlton Heston’s other starring role in BEN HUR.

In THE CELLULOID CLOSET, a 1995 documentary film, BEN HUR’S script doctor Gore Vidal described how he’d convinced actor Stephen Boyd and director William Wyler that there had to be a deeper motive to explain Boyd’s character Messala’s lethal hatred of his old friend Ben-Hur. He rewrote a scene to subtly evoke Messala’s unrequited homosexual love for Ben-Hur. The implication being that they had a homosexual relationship when they were growing up together. Boyd was in the know and nuanced his performance accordingly. Heston remained in the dark; no-one thought it was a good idea to tell him about it.

So sometimes the actor is not clued-in.

Vikander is terrific and displays a subtlety that never makes you cringe. She’s a smart robot and nothing would be new to an A.I. if they were programmed to be encyclopedias.

The only thing to complain about is Caleb’s indifference to Ava’s programming protocols. He never bothered to ask if she was introduced to the concept of compassion. So the ending is appropriate. Thank you Alex Garland, for not going for the Hollywood ending.

In case you really need to know: *Largely a visual phenomenon, the palindrome epitomizes the spatiality of language and scripture, something indicated already on the metaphorological plane of classical terminology: “running back again” (palindromos), “stepping back” (versus retrogradus) — a temporal motion in space. Allowing for reversibility of the linear discourse, the palindrome represents the very idea of transformation and metamorphosis. Palindromic reversion is a device for breaking up the linearity of speech and, by implication, the irreversibility of time. Irreversibility “thematizes itself in the palindrome form by eating itself up.” Quote taken from: A Chronotope of Revolution: The Palindrome from the Perspective of Cultural Semiotics by Erika Greber (Univ. of Munich / UC Irvine)

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Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at

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