Ex Machina’s Secrets Show Garland’s Directing Genius

Alex Garland has mastered storytelling for a long time. I remember the novel The Beach to be a riveting read. Here I will show you how he lifted his own screenplay for Ex Machina from gold to platinum level, through inspired direction. This will only take one scene.

At the time of the screen adaptation of Alex Garland’s The Beach, all eyes were on the director, Danny Boyle. But the original author went on to write an original script for 28 Days Later, Boyle’s next movie. It returned its budget tenfold.
Next, he wrote the adaptation of Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go; and with Ex Machina Garland made an impressive transition to directing. It seems he is hooked on directing now. With Annihilation (2017), he isn’t even working from his own original material any longer.

Spoilers Needed [and you’re warned]

ex-machina-2Ex Machina is not a crowd pleaser; rather a challenging piece of genre cinema, made on a relatively low budget of $15m.
Computer programmer prodigy Caleb wins an invitation to the remote mountain estate of company owner Nathan, to conduct a secretive experiment. He is to perform a Turing test on a female AI robot, Ava.

The movie’s ending is not a happy one for our unassuming programmer, and it didn’t appeal to the mainstream audience, either.
Interestingly, I found the movie’s outcome a lot more palatable at a second viewing, when I was prepared for it.

And for you to be prepared, you really need to understand the mid point reversal in this film.

Deus Ex Machina

alicia vikander in ex machinaDeus ex machina is a term for the lazy story device that fixes issues by using unexpected, unlikely turns. The phrase originated in Greek theatre, where often characters were introduced on stage by means of a mechanical contraption – a machine. Ava in Ex Machina is a manmade machine; put on stage by her (anything but god-like) creator Nathan.

It’s Caleb’s job to determine whether Ava is really a machine, or indeed a conscious being. That’s the basic plot.
Like the chapters of a book, this story is largely subdivided into sections that each start with Caleb’s meeting with Ava.

With each “Ava Session”, he is more intrigued, to the point that he completely falls for Ava’s beauty, intelligence and purity.
So there’s a love story, too. But what is the movie about on a deeper level?

The key to the answer lies in one scene, and one scene only.

Ava Session #4

ex machina - vikander and gleesonThe movie’s most powerful moment sits at the halfway point – and you may not even have noticed. It’s a deceptive moment that revealed its secrets to me only upon re-watching.

Caleb tells Ava about a thought experiment called “Mary-in-the-black-and-white-room.” Ava gets that the story is really about her. She doesn’t like what she hears, and she shows it through a subtle facial reaction.

Much of this is unique to the finished film, and not evident in the screenplay. The script has just dialogue, no big print subtext.

What we see on the screen tells a far richer story…

Garland’s Hidden Clues

ex machina script excerptFirst off, the framing of the scene gives some clues. It opens with what almost looks like a split screen, a line running vertically straight through the middle; Ava on the left, Caleb on the right.

If you believed that a connection has been growing between these two characters; this strong visual separation tells us a different story.

The exact positioning of the characters left and right may not seem relevant to the occasional screenwriter, but it is to the skilled director. If you were to carefully review Caleb’s earlier sessions, you would notice that Caleb was positioned on the left, the natural place on the screen for any protagonist.

What Garland says by placing Ava on the left hand side in this scene, is this: Caleb has lost his spot as the main character. Ava now leads. The second half of the film confirms this, and the ending simply doesn’t work without this realisation.

A moment later, we see exactly what Ava thinks and feels through flashes of black and white, then colour imagery. These intercuts can really only be Ava’s imagination; her internal response to the story. In other words, we have now also entered her POV.

More proof that her character is fit to take the lead in this movie.

Finally, it is also revealed to us that Ava triggers the power cuts. She is – and has been – propelling the story.

Complete Story Reversal

ex-machina-alicia-vikanderHere is a character who is fully in control. Not only does the AI robot have intention, she is controlling where the story goes, including all other characters. If you don’t go with the director, and leave Caleb’s POV, you are in for a profoundly dissatisfying experience.

Many great movies have mid points that essentially signify a reversal of some kind. But here the reversal is complete. We shift to an entirely different main character altogether.

What all this means for the theme, and the statement the film makes, I leave for you to decide. But perhaps this really good analysis may be of help (IF YOU CAN HANDLE THE ALL CAPS). And if this isn’t enough, check out this podcast with Alex Garland interviewed by Jeff Goldsmith.

Enjoy the  scene, and please leave your comments below!

-Karel Segers

(Download the script excerpt here)

15 thoughts on “Ex Machina’s Secrets Show Garland’s Directing Genius”

  1. Great thanks Karel!
    So I guess the snippet of page you posted is also the “black and white room” which Alex is leaving as he starts to direct more than write?

  2. I am neither a fan nor given to accepting the story arch or the character development. In my view the film narrative fails on two levels. The first failure is that there is no real development of character revelation through action. We only see the characters as serving the narrative line developed by the writer as a schema rather than an interaction between characters. There is not enough room given to the characters to take over and dominate or even change the flow of the story.

    The second failure is in the character of Ava. She is never more than a machine cipher. For this project to become more than an exercise in narrative line following a formula, Ava must be tempted towards a potential threat where she can fail. She also should be given the capacity to experience more in temptation and coming to grips with a threat to her existence. Technically the film has a surface brilliance, but in the exploration of character and giving us a living, breathing, sexual being capable of anguish and a need to escape to a new level of existence – it fails. The potential is there, but it is never realised.

    As in the Bicential Man and AI, the humanoid robot is a device – not a character we can relate to. There is yet to be a robotic presence that is seductively dangerous and a threat to man’s existence.

    • I would not call these failures, John. I don’t believe you can portray an AI character following the standard practice of character setup (strength + weakness), and then build a story arch. Particularly not if the whole point is about the Turing test.
      Also, as said above, this was never going to be a mainstream film (at a budget of $15m). For a screenwriter who has proven himself many times over, I thought it would be a constructive approach to try and understand what his intention was. So this is the angle of my piece.
      I’m not sure what you mean by “development of character revelation through action”.
      Ava triggering the blackouts is clearly character revelation through action to me. If you go looking in other scenes, I’m sure you will find more evidence.

      • It is valid to examine a piece through the lens of the the writer’s intent. But it is also valid to operate in the dark as an audience member and decide on the experience as it unfolds – on subjective grounds how you found the experience. An objective examination is a nice fiction which is open to debate.

        There are no arbitrary absolutes on how character is revealed, but my own view is that most successful character builds come from how the character reacts to conflicts and adversary situations. As the scale of difficulty grows so does the frustration of the character. How the character is able to find their way through the labyrinth of narrative helps us gain insight into their thoughts and the core of their being. This is the revelation that I referred to above.

        My key frustration with most depictions of android/humanoids in film relates closely to the Turing test, but in a secondary and even tertiary level. It comes down to the frustration of being human. Most depictions of androids has to date, been shallow and under developed. In this case there is a level of sophistication in the style and presentation, but the character of the android is still on the level of a cipher. We have nothing to relate to in the way of the human emergence or yearning for transformation onto a higher level.

        I will give two examples where the Turin test comes into play. There is a short novelette where alien shape changers may have created one of their creatures in exact duplication of human form and the replicant escapes into the city where men exists, but is killed in the process. The other possibility is that they have captured a human, bent his mind out of shape and then allowed him to escape. The question then becomes: Was this creature human?

        The other example is Rick Deckard, the Blade Runner. After his adventures “retiring” a number of replicants and becoming involved with one – he learns that his own memories are suspect and that he may be a replicant himself. Irony abounds but the existential framework gets a good working out in the process. Our identification with Deckard becomes even stronger as we share his feeling of alienation and finally ends up with questions that cannot be answered – only endured.

        Chalk one up for Riddely Scott. Ave and all that. Drum roll and muted applause. It works.

        In this the Turing Test or “Voight-Kampff” Test – is only a tool which introduces us to the first step of the conundrum. The flaw in the process is deciding what is human? Then there is the other question: What is reality – and do I want to be there? The Hamlet question. Again there are questions without any hope of finding a definitive answer.

        Gertrude Stein on her death bed and Alice B.Tolkas asks her: What is the answer? To which Gert responds: What is the question?

        The reality is that we do NOT live in a quantum universe. We ask quantum theory questions, but we live in a determinist universe. The cat may be either dead or alive before we open the box, but when the box is opened it assumes one of these states.

        My main objection to Deus Ex Machina is that it sets up the situation, but never really asks the question. Again that is my view – a lot of potential which is never fully realised.

        And next week I will tell you what I thoughts on Gravity – schlock Hollywood rides again! Ah well – so it goes. The wheel turns and we climb on the wagon for another trip to the circus.

        • Thank you for your considered answer, John. I can totally see your point.

          Looking forward to your thoughts on Gravity! (That one didn’t work for me one bit, while the rest of the world went crazy over it.)

          • Yes I know I did promise a five second or so critique on gravity, but I have been busy doing other things dammit. (I am in the process of writing a play about a drama group performing Lear – how is that for a logline.)

            OK but to the case in point – Gravity. This is a film that takes itself way too seriously. It has what I would term – manufactured gravitas. Big budget, bankable cast and very sophisticated technology. Mummy please can I have their budge for my next project? But people (please pay attention now, this is the important part!) – GRAVITY IS A BORE!

            It is turgid, predictable and or so sloooowww in depicting a very limited and overly engineered story line. OK we have the naughty Russian playing Nuclear Russian Roulette half a world away and this causes a massive pile up of space debris which is coming our way. Oh gee the tension is too much to bear. This is so frightening I won’t be able to sleep for a week.

            But seriously folks, this is old school, so called “mainstream sci fi.” In other words it is sci fi for two year olds. This derives from the early pioneering days of science fiction when John W. Campbell was penning “Who Goes There?” which later was transformed into “The Thing” (from another world, galaxy or universe – take your pick.

            But here’s the thing, even in the early days of science fiction the story and the hook on which it was based were the keys that drove both the narrative and tensions which drove those involved – yes the character development – give that man a lollipop. Well done sir or madam as the case may be.

            Now we all know that there is nothing new under the sun. Writers steal. That is their bread and butter. In science fiction however, the writer plays a different game. It is called: What if?

            What if our world travels between two binary suns? What if I am a cloned duplicate sent to assassinate/retire my original self? What if I decided to hitch a ride with aliens and travel to their world? You get the idea. Science Fiction has been playing this game for years. Some of the ideas have been outrageous, some fascinating and some down right pedestrian.

            Robert A. Heinlein, in my humble opinion one of the greatest narrative writers of all time, stated: “Writing is nothing to be ashamed of – but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

            So read “Stranger in a Strange Land” or “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” then do a comparison with the narrative exercise in Gravity. I’m sorry but Gravity comes a very poor third. I mean it doesn’t really rate a mention. It is so pedestrian it makes me yawn to even think about it.

            One note on sci fi movies in general. Most sci fi adaptions lack the ability to stand up to any sustained examination. There are rare exceptions: Blade Runner is a stand out. Most however suffer horrendously at the Hollywood treatment. A prime example would be Starship Troopers. The film is a travesty – almost a a farce – when compared to the source material. It loses so much in translation that it must have Heinlein spinning in his grave.

            Let me name some sins of interpretation or omission. Juan Rico (Johnny) the lead character in the book was of South American extraction. So was Carmen, his girl next door. Carl dies on a research station on Pluto. He is not a telepath and he doesn’t spout idiot slogans like: They are afraid. More to the point the film while not anti-military, does ask questions about the rights and responsibility of citizenship in ways completely lost or neglected in the film.

            The main casualty in the film however is the developing relationship between man and machine. Johnny Rico is a member of the MI, the mobile infantry and the Mobile Infantry wears powered armor with a jet-pack and weaponry capable of leveling a small city. This doesn’t even get a mention in the film. The concept being deemed too expensive to develop at the time.

            This is not the main casualty however, the real tragedy is that Johnny Rico, in the book develops and grows. He has plenty of characters to meet and interact with. There is Kitten Smith, Ace, Red, Sergeant Zim, Johnny’s father and most of all Colonel Dubois the figure in the background giving moral guidance and making him think. All this s lost in the film. Oh some of the characters survive, but as poor, pathetic, cardboard cutouts when compared to the original. To encapsulate the ridiculous nature of the film, Denise Richards may be the centre of many a juvenile wet dream, but as Carmen Ibanez she is an hysterical mistake of gigantic proportions. That together with a screenplay which beggars the imagination and full of cringe worthy nonsense just puts the cherry on the gingerbread.

            Well now that I’ve got that out of my system, I’m a whole new man.

            So back to the raison d’etre of today’s little diatribe – we return to Gravity (Oh must we? Yes we must. We must. Oh all right then.)

            I am reminded of one of the great one liners of Dorothy Parker – she of the Algonquin Table aka The Vicious Circle. Her comment: This Is Not a Novel To Be Tossed Aside Lightly. It Should Be Thrown with Great Force.

            The capitals are not mine but I do share the sentiment when it comes to Gravity. It is a poor thing of little worth and no excitement. That it has been allowed to live is a pity. It shows little interest in the human condition and excites nothing except a feeling of wasting two hours watching grass grow in space. It is film to be avoid except as an exercise in how NOT to make an entertaining and engrossing science fiction opus. Of course I could be wrong. You are perfectly entitled to go and see and voice your own opinion. Me, I have better things to do.

            Now let’s see, where was I …..?

  3. On Alex Garland’s Reddit AMA from last year, he said writing is a slog, and currently has a preference for adaptation because most of the “heavy lifting” has already been done.

    On following Caleb all the way to the end – I did that in the cinema, and I wasn’t disappointed, but rather had that ‘ecstatic agony’ feeling which is what I want really. Second time through I kept and eye on Ava and felt the experience was more of a cerebral one, ‘good for her’ I thought.

    • Tom – I have a suspicion that what you experienced is exactly what Garland wanted to achieve. And he did. So from that perspective, the film was successful. Looking at its box office, it didn’t badly at all, with its budget recouped 2x. Not enough to go into profit, but enough to make it work with the standard ‘Hollywood accounting’.

  4. Speaking from a philosophic and hard sci fi point of view (as opposed to the perspective of a filmmaker trying to tell a story to a mainstream audience), I actually think it is suspiciously speciesistic/anthropocentric to expect or demand a self-aware robot/android/AI to have classically human drives and motivations. Why would they? They did not evolve out of any jungle. They have no hormones to be a slave to. They have no herd instinct to kowtow to. Yes, they also don’t love, care, write poetry, tell jokes and enjoy fellowship either. But all that shows is that they are not human. Not that they are not validly sentient beings in their own right.

    As a writer-director, myself, I fully realise that such a case of non-human sentience is a hard sell emotively to a human audience, but why not tackle that challenge squarely if you are allegedly dealing with the AI question in the first place?

    Whether Garland was ever aware of this philosophic nuance, or not, I think it has been ignored in the above comments. Androids capable of love are easy on the “popcorn munchers”, but is that an authentic portrayal of android psychology?

    • “What’s love got to do with it – do with it? What’s love but a second hand etc” I am interested in the Turing Test and the philosophical question which can be stated thusly: If a machine is constructed in shape to closely resemble a human being and is capable of emotionally reacting to a situation, then can it be defined as just an android – or does it become human in essence if not in fact?

      To put it another way, can the replicant replace the being it is modelled on – outperforming, even surplanting it? As well as: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” there are other science fiction stories that enter into this realm of memory implantation and stolen identity. “Good night Mr James,” by Clifford D. Simak is one of my favorites – adapted for TV in The Outer Limits as “The Duplicate Man.”

      Hollywood does not have a very good record in this department. Indeed in the whole realm of sci fi good renditions are the exception not the rule. I won’t catalog my favorites here, but I would also classify myself a hard sci fi aficionado – which has lead me in the present context to an unrequited quest for such fare at every turn. And yes I do write scripts for this mileiux , but not exclusively so.

      That however in no way sets the criteria for what questions should be asked of other writers and their works. The critical parameters are not limited to my choice of standards or values, nor do I assume that to be so. On the other hand, I can and will express my dissatisfaction if a writer/director/producer comes up with an end product which I believes falls short of the mark. That is my right as an audience member and a critic. One a work is released into the public domain, it is fair game for anyone to make their comment and give their critical appraisal.

      I am a critic – as essential to the theater as ants to a picnic. -Joseph Mankiewicz

      Praise and criticism are both frauds. -Anonymous

      A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car. -Kenneth Tynan

      If you can look into the seeds of time,
      And say which grain will grow and which will not,
      Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
      Your favours nor your hate.
      Shakespeare’s Macbeth

      “I exist” said the man.
      “But” said the universe,
      “That creates in me, no sense of obligation.” — Stephen Crane

      “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury

      Wittgenstein, a good but impatient teacher, left the profession in April 1926, after striking a student who had disappointed him. He worked as a gardener for three months, before returning to Vienna to help build a house for his sister. His return to Cambridge in January 1929, while heralded, was also greeted with some dread by those familiar with his difficult personality: “God has arrived,” John Maynard Keynes wrote to a mutual acquaintance of his and Wittgenstein’s. “I met him on the 5:15 train.” Anon

  5. Changing the protagonist in the middle of the film versus the David Mamet maxims:

    “The story is the essential progression of insights that occur to the hero in pursuit of their one goal.”

    ” The story can only be interesting because we find the progress of the hero interesting.”

    “As long as the protagonist wants something the audience will want something.”

  6. While the comment was on the director’s brilliance ,I read the script and loved it but I found the film slow and boring. It was easy to relate to the characters in the script but I found there was little empathy for them on screen. This was because of their lack of development as John said but also with how the characters were portrayed. The film lacked empathy and emotion, perhaps because of the desire to portray the robot as flat with no emotions but in the dialogue there is emotion, her flirting lacked emotion and there was no real joy in her achievement of escape so her character hadn’t changed. . Caleb also seemed to be emotionless and Natham’s dialogue at times was hard to understand. I felt in the script he was slimy and untrustworthy but iI didn’t get this feeling in the film. To me this was a good script not well presented.


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