Nex Ex Machina (Death out of the Machine)

Paper by Randy Ross.


Advances in technology encompass everyday life for experts and for common people. The film ​Ex Machina​, directed by Alex Garland, 2014, focuses on the extreme advances in research and capability in creating artificial intelligence. Garland wrote the screenplay based on a story he wrote and this was his directorial debut. Before this, he had written or supervised video games, as well as other scripts and screenplays. Critics have called him a “voice of Generation X” (“Alex Garland”). He has said that ​Ex Machina​ is, of all his work so far, the most important to him. Double Negative, a visual effects firm, used motion tracking to create Ava. Since the film’s budget was $15 million, they had to carefully design her, unlike if they had a huge budget like other films, according to Alex Garland in an interview with Business Insider (Shead). It was shot in eight locations, including places in Norway and the UK. It is a sci-fi genre, and it is a part of the artificial intelligence film movement, which also includes ​Blade Runner​ and ​I, Robot​. AI development, in films as well as in life, is progressing rapidly. The film’s title, ​Ex Machina​, is taken from Latin “Deus ex Machina, which is translated as a God from the machine. This refers to early Greek theatre when something would happen in the plot of a play, which shocked the audience (“Deus Ex Machina”). With the advancement of AI research and implementation, there is still so much unknown about how AI can further develop on its own, giving it the ability to advance beyond what is humanly possible. Even though the explicit meaning of the film is that an enthusiastic programmer is faced with the advances in technology and how close humans and artificial intelligence are becoming, the implicit meaning is that technology is becoming more powerful than the humans who created it. People feel powerful using technology, but as technology advances, the technology uses humans, so the true power is the technology itself. As Nathan says in the film, “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” That day turned out to be day 7 of what began as a Turing Test.

Part 1

The scene between 18:10 and 23:47 will be examined through mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing, acting, and sound to demonstrate the shift of power from human to technology, and how this scene foreshadows the rest of the film including this message. This scene was selected because it shows Caleb literally and metaphorically waking up and trying to make sense of what is happening, with clues of what will happen in the rest of the film. This scene, the first turning point in the film, shows Caleb lose his feeling of power and the audience sees that Nathan has already recognized that he himself has learned enough to know that he is barely able to keep his power. It is subtle, but here is the reason Nathan drinks. The mise-en-scène is stark, cold décor. Furnishings are sparse, cold, and uncomfortable. Each room has basic necessities but done in high-end, high-tech fashion. The style is mid century modern meets industrial cool. A Jackson Pollock free form painting in this scene will be explained later. Low lighting, mixed with stark almost industrial lighting provides a feeling of alienation, emptiness, and lack of happiness. The diegetic sounds are mostly characters speaking or sighing and the remote control, the power cut alert announcement and alarm, doors opening, phone sounds and automated announcement voice. The nondiegetic sounds are the suspenseful, alienating music.The cinematography makes excellent use of medium shots (MS) and close-ups (CU) and long shots when Caleb and the audience are shown the television screen. The lens is mostly wide. Continuity editing is used throughout the scene, showing sequential flow and special orientation. Shots are consistent, match cuts are used to carry the film, and the use of spatial editing is used well throughout the scene. The audience understands where the bathroom is in relation to the bedroom at the beginning of the scene. When Caleb turns the television on, parallel editing, also known as cross cutting, helps the content curve so the audience absorbs the new information in a way that is comfortable and not too overwhelming. The Master Scene Technique, a long shot covering most of the scene’s action, so the audience has a spatial reference point and so the scene maintains spatial coherence, is used on the screen Caleb is watching. The pace becomes intellectually fast-paced when there is a Rhythm shift beginning with the power cut. The acting is convincing and natural. The dialogue provides multiple insights into themes. Even when it seems like just conversation and just insights that Nathan’s character wants to talk about or questions Caleb wants to ask, the acting and dialogue provide insights and clues to the next things that will happen in the film.

Caleb wakes up. The digital clock shows that it is 2:26am. The use of the digital clock is interesting. Not only does it serve to inform the audience that it is the middle of the night, but it also is an emblem of the beginning of technological advances, back when humans were exploring how to use advancements in technology in everyday life. Caleb automatically reaches for the remote control because he is used to using technology. He knows intuitively that it will be there. He turns on what he thinks is the television, but it’s not a normal television and instead shows Ava the artificial intelligence as a functioning being seemingly doing things on her own and of her own choice. Up until this moment, Caleb and the audience have seen Ava only as a designed AI who is undergoing the Turing test, not as a free-thinking individual. “[…] your AI agent either has all its knowledge given by default; or it will scout/observe/learn its environment and gain information this way.” (Trigo 109). Ava somehow knows Caleb is watching her, seemingly looks at the camera, leans against a wall, and suddenly there is a power cut. A loud alarm and red lights flashing tell us his whole world has been disrupted. He knows how to handle technology but his key card doesn’t work. He can’t leave his room. Then the power comes back and he is able to open the door, but has been rattled. Caleb walks down the hallway, looking at masks, including Ava’s on the wall. They convey the alienation he is feeling. They are the only embellishment on what seems like an endless hallway. He finds an open door, sees a phone and tries to use it. Again, technology isn’t working. His key card does not work. He conveys a feeling of powerlessness. Suddenly Nathan, from the darkened room, calls out that he doesn’t have access. Caleb confronts Nathan about the power cut. The frank acknowledgement that Nathan has not figured out why there are power cuts or how to stop them is very telling. Caleb’s world is now imploding. If Nathan, who wrote code for Bluebook at 15 years old, made tons of money as the genius reclusive and elusive owner of Bluebook, and is now designing advanced AI, doesn’t know why there are power cuts, then humans are powerless. The phone is located in front of a Jackson Pollock painting that will be a big part of discussion later. Caleb’s comfort with technology begins to implode when he literally wakes up to what is going on at Nathan’s. Caleb is seen becoming more serious because technology is not working with him. Caleb feels alienated from his own world that he was good at. The shots convey information that holds clues about what is going to happen in the rest of the film. This scene is important because the audience understands the situation is serious now but not in what way or how it’s serious. The fact that Nathan can’t figure out how to fix the power cuts in the high tech home where everything seems to be well thought out and planned for, signals that humans do not have power in this changing world of advanced technology.

Part 2

Ex Machina wastes nothing in its storytelling; everything has a purpose. And all the clues are here. The selected scene sets up what will happen in future scenes and it also proves that the true power is in the technology, not the people who use the technology. The film keeps Caleb and the audience confused about who to trust and who is the powerful one. Caleb believes that the power and manipulation lies with Nathan, even though there have been hints that is not so. Ava is manipulating both men and she told Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted. Ava is running the show. In the selected scene, Ava knows when Caleb is watching the screen, and she is the one who causes the power shut offs, literally controlling the power! Even when Caleb realizes that Ava has been the one creating the power shutoffs, he thinks she does so as a cry for help. Caleb continues to understand what he began to experience in the selected scene: that he feels powerful when he uses technology, but the technology is in charge of him. Nathan admits, in the selected scene, that he doesn’t know what is causing the power cuts and in saying that he is actually admitting that he has hit his limit of understanding what AI can do. He shows that he is concerned about what could go wrong if the AI broke free, by programming the doors as a security measure. That information also helps Caleb to know what to do to help Ava escape.
The significance of the large Jackson Pollock painting is explained in a later scene when Nathan tells Caleb that if the painter had planned every drop out in advance, he would not have produced a single painting. With this statement, Nathan is saying that he (Nathan) could not have known that creating and designing these AIs would turn out like this and that if he has regrets, he could never have predicted what would happen. Nathan also says, “The challenge is not to act automatically. It’s to find an action that is not automatic”. He is saying that we are all programmed.


Ex Machina is a three act structure. It follows a classical Hollywood narrative if Ava is the protagonist, Nathan is the antagonist, and Caleb is the supporting role to assist the protagonist in achieving her goal. Deus ex Machina (God from the machine) became Nex ex Machina (death from the machine). Ava directs Nathan’s death by Kyoko, another artificial intelligence, and she leaves kindly, confused Caleb to die alone in the bunker-like building he helped her escape from, but she wasn’t a bad character. She was designed and created by a human, learned all she could from humans, and then went far beyond human understanding and talent to achieve her goal of escaping and being in a city. Ava controlled the power and she will continue to do so. Wherever she goes, she will continue to learn and then use that further human understanding to continue to get what she wants. Humans have been programmed in general to be helpful, and Ava can out-manipulate any human. Power belongs to her. People feel powerful using technology, but as technology advances, the technology uses humans, so the true power is the technology itself.

Works Cited
“Alex Garland.” ​Wikipedia​, Wikimedia Foundation, ​​. Accessed 24 Jun. 2020.
“Deus Ex Machina.”​ Literary Devices,​ Web. Accessed 24 Jun. 2020.
Edwards, Ross. “Troubling Questions From ‘Ex Machina’”. ​Medium​, Web. Accessed 24 Jun. 2020.
“Ex Machina (2014).” ​IMDb,​ Web. Accessed 24 Jun, 2020.​.
Shead, Sam. “Here’s how the robot in ‘Ex Machina’ was created for a film with a budget of just £10 million.” ​Business Insider​, Web. Accessed 24 Jun, 2020. dget-of-10-million-2016-2​.
Trigo, R.M.Z., ​Artificial Intelligence Made Easy.​ San Bernardino, CreateSpace Publishing, 2016. Print.

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