The Gothic is a large, nebulous genre that is found across various forms, starting with the novels and poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, filtering into films, music, comics and video games. It is simultaneously easy to spot and hard to define, its elements found patched onto other genres as well as existing in isolation. Despite that diversity, there are common traits throughout; Gothic texts often appear in times of uncertainty or transition when social anxieties are at their highest, exploiting taboo subjects for maximum effect and isolating its characters in situations of extreme psychological or physical distress.
The science fiction genre grew out of the Gothic, another way of exploring anxieties to do with more technological leanings, beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein back in 1818. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina shares several links with Shelley’s novel, the most obvious of which is Nathan’s hubris and passion for creation, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Victor Frankenstein himself. Garland similarly utilises various Gothic tropes to explore contemporary concerns surrounding the rapid development of technology, its ubiquitous presence in our lives as well as an examination of the social gender dynamics at play within the confined modern gothicism of Nathan Bateman’s isolated home.
Ex Machina follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer who wins a competition to visit his company’s CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) for a week. When Caleb arrives on Nathan’s expansive estate, he finds out that he is to be the human component in a Turing test, examining Nathan’s humanoid robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to see whether he can establish a human connection with her, despite knowing that she is an artificial intelligence. As Caleb forms a bond with Ava, he begins to question Nathan’s practices and slowly starts to uncover something more sinister.
Garland laces his film with other literary references, both explicit and subtle; at one point, Alice in Wonderland is poetically quoted by Caleb in reference to his journey of discovery, whilst the plot plays out like a twist on Bluebeard, Charles Perrault’s proto-Gothic fairytale. In that tale, a young wife is left to her own devices in the castle of her sinister husband, given a set of keys that allows her to access every room in the house. She is forbidden to enter just one room, but curiosity gets the better of her and in it, she finds that the room is filled with blood and the corpses of his previous wives.
Bluebeard is a common Gothic touchstone and its influence can be found in novels such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. More recently, it can be seen in Guillermo del Toro’s genre love letter, Crimson Peak. Ex Machina takes the basic format of the tale and transforms it to reflect its modern context and the anxieties which Garland wants to explore; Nathan’s impressive beard is a visual clue, his “wives” are his previous female AI creations concealed in his bedroom that only he has access to, with the role of the new wife split out into the trio of silent servant Kyoko, Ava and Caleb.
By using this narrative template, the film lays the thematic groundwork to tease out the Gothic tropes that it offers and transform them into something relevant to our contemporary anxieties. Like a more dangerous version of the traffic intersection of Ava’s dream, the film takes several opposites and forces them to clash, fracturing the delicate balance of Nathan’s carefully managed world. The most obvious is, of course, the natural world versus the constructed one, embodied both within Nathan’s home and in Ava herself. The latter opens up a male versus female battle as Ava fights for autonomy from Nathan, who sees her solely as another stage in his experiment, later wanting to break her down for parts, but from Caleb too, who sees her as something to be rescued in order to fuel his own fantasies of power.
As an introduction to these themes, Nathan’s home is a perfect microcosm. Gothic narratives often take place in isolation from the rest of the world; Radcliffe’s tales are set in obscure parts of Europe, for example. They are sometimes ruinous, sometimes claustrophobic, but they all tend to contain a dark mystery within their walls. Nathan’s is located on a vast estate, unreachable by anything but a helicopter, and that adds an element of danger to the proceedings within. There is very little chance of a fast escape for either Caleb or Ava.
The house itself embodies that clash between the natural world and man’s construction. The first image we see of it, it is surrounded by trees with a prominent satellite dish jutting through the leaves. Inside, rocks fashionably invade the walls in a carefully constructed aesthetic whilst a tree growing through Ava’s room is sealed off by glass walls. It is telling that when certain truths are revealed, it takes place when Caleb and Nathan are away from the house and in the landscape that surrounds it. It is a place that cannot be manipulated by Nathan, unlike in his home. Nature there is visible, but controlled, a metaphor for the way in which Nathan also seeks to manage natural processes in his creation of women with artificial intelligence.
Like the house, Ava is a visible combination of the biological and the technological. Her face is distinctly human, with a full range of expression, but her body is more visibly robotic. It creates a Freudian uncanny effect, common within the Gothic; she is at once both human and mechanical, familiar yet unfamiliar. Vikander plays with this dynamic throughout; she is noticeably human in some of her gestures, but there is always a performative quality to them, as if Ava is trying a little too hard to mimic her biological counterparts.
Nathan’s women, in this robotic form, are docile and easily dispatched when he no longer has use for them. Kyoko is entirely silent and Nathan is at his most overly misogynist in his interactions with her; the objectification of her, and the ‘dead’ naked robotic women he stores in his room, is fundamental in conveying these attitudes. Neither is Caleb immune from this. Ava is constructed from his pornographic viewing habits and his fantasies of Ava are of romantically possessing her. Male power fantasies are a typical Gothic trait, but Garland allows Ava to not only subvert this, but to destroy it from within.
In more contemporary examples of the genre, there has been a movement away from the helpless heroines of Walpole and Radcliffe to women more capable of managing their own fates, further explored in Crimson Peak and Ex Machina. In Helen Lewis’ article on the latter, she observes that “it is a film where the three lead characters all believe themselves to be the protagonist; the drama comes from their respective struggles for control of the narrative.” Caleb and Nathan’s mistake is that it does not occur to either of them that Ava is their equal in this. She takes advantage of their ignorance to seize not only control of the narrative, but also of her selfhood. Ava’s victory over the men who would manipulate her transforms the cautionary tale about the dangers of playing God to a feminist triumph of independence.
The battle for female autonomy is one currently raged across the world with abortion rights constantly under scrutiny, sexual harassment and abuse is widespread and, for some, even the right to call themselves women has been called into question. Ava’s struggle, despite her technological creation, feels pertinent to women everywhere. Similarly, in a world where scientific advancements continue to work towards a mastery of nature, the idea of technology gaining the kind of destructive independence that Ava obtains is a frightening one. The film’s claustrophobic setting allows these debates to take place in isolation, but the ripples are felt throughout the audience.
It gives the ending a moral ambiguity and it has proven to be Ex Machina’s most divisive moment. Should we feel triumphant for Ava, succeeding in her Darwinian struggle to survive? Should we feel sorry for Caleb as a dupe of both Nathan’s pervasive toxic masculinity and his own blinkered worldview? Is Kyoko the real victim here or is she also allowed a moment of sacrificial triumph? Nathan is about the only character who remains entirely unambiguous. He is controlling and violent and it is his hubris that gets the better of him. Like Frankenstein, the question at all times with Nathan is not “can he?” as he is obviously a genius, but “should he?” And just like Frankenstein, it is a question he refuses to consider.
The Frankenstein myth of a proud creator and the subsequent battle with his creation is a common format for a tale to take, but Garland, in linking his narrative to that traditional Gothic framework, crafts a story that feels timeless yet pertinent to our current anxieties. Ex Machina is an exploration of many things, but at its heart is a very familiar story of the desire for independence and freedom. Ava may be a technological construct, but she is crafted from the data found in Nathan’s pioneering search engine, inputted by its users; Ava is born of all of us. She is, as another sci-fi tale would say, more human than human.
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