The Masterful Manipulation of Ex Machina

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Alex Garland’s script is designed to mess with your perspective. Here’s how.

There are a couple routes screenwriters have for delivering information to their audience. There’s exposition – where plot or character is explained through dialogue – then there are visual or aural descriptions meant to convey emotion. Basically it all boils down to telling or showing, but however its done, every line of dialogue, every scene, and every emotion in a film should have one express purpose: to advance the story. How a screenwriter chooses to reveal the information of their characters and plot has a direct relation to how we experience the tone and atmosphere of a film, and as such, that information (and our emotions about said information) are ripe for manipulation.

Take Alex Garland’s script for Ex Machina, which he also directed. Upon first glance it seems to be the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who wins a contest granting him exclusive access to his company’s reclusive genius CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, however, Caleb learns this is no mere meet-and-greet with Nathan, but instead an opportunity to be the human component in the Turing test, which is “a test for intelligence in a computer, android or robot, requiring that a human being should be unable to distinguish the machine from another human being by using the replies to questions put to both.” The robot in question here is the enigmatic and alluring Ava (Alicia Vikander), who by the end of the film proves herself to be far more self-actualized than was ever thought possible.

For the majority of the film, the way Garland dispenses his information would have us believe that it is Caleb’s story we are watching. But when all the revelations come to light, we realize we’ve been duped, in a sense, and the story isn’t about Caleb at all, it’s about Ava, as told through the perspective of Caleb, which is something entirely different.

Just how Garland manipulates the information of the film – that is, the perspective, the characterization, the plot structure – to in turn manipulate the emotions and expectations of his audience is the issue at the heart of yet another stellar video essay from Michael Tucker’s Lessons from the Screenplay. Garland, who started out as a novelist, has proven himself to be one of the most intelligent screenwriters in the game, and Ex Machina is, to-date, his finest work. Tucker graces it with his erudite insight, and the result is a deeper appreciation for one of the most prescient films of our time.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist