"I got the mother of all fucking hangovers."
That's one of the first things we hear from eccentric trillionaire Nathan Bateman, a bearded bro punching a heavy bag outdoors. There's an actual mountain with a running river to his left and he's not even enjoying the view. He's just boxing.
This is how we enter Ex Machina. One of the most influential science fiction movies of the 2010s, the directorial debut of author/screenwriter Alex Garland is a science fiction film loaded with atmosphere, tension, and confusing critiques of the alpha masculinity found in the tech world. It's a phenomenal thriller just steps away from being a full-fledged horror film. Its arrival in 2015 feels prescient, for here we are in 2020 furious at tech giants for mining our privacy and confusing complicity in white supremacy with free speech. On top of all that, Ex Machina is the one movie you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on July 25.
In Ex Machina, computer programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleason) is the lucky employee of a tech giant who wins an internal corporate contest. His prize: A week's stay at the residence of the big boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive cult of personality whose lavish residence is an alluring secret.
When Caleb arrives, Nathan reveals to him Ava (Alicia Vikander), a lifelike android with breakthrough artificial intelligence capable of thought and consciousness. But when Nathan isn't looking, Ava warns Caleb about his boss, revealing he is not to be trusted.
As if given the same writing prompt that led Mike Judge to make Silicon Valley for HBO, Garland's film frames the uneven world of tech billionaires and lowly engineers in a piercing satire. It is a movie about so-called cool bosses trying to be your friend or family, often in a preemptive measure to keep those employees in line. "Can we just be two guys?" a sweaty Nathan asks Caleb in an effort to disarm him. "Not the whole, employer-employee thing?" Following a handshake, Nathan gives Caleb his key card — and a non-disclosure agreement.
Ex Machina is an original story by Garland, whose 1996 book The Beach earned critical acclaim and transformed him into a voice for Generation X. After Garland's ilk had their college backpacking years, they settled down into the workforce and defined the modern office space as we know it. Though Ex Machina spends only a few minutes in its opening in an actual office, the movie is definitively an office satire in the spirit of Office Space or The Office.
In Nathan, a character marked by heavy drinking and casual misogyny, Ex Machina is a nightmare about an emotionally abusive superior who dangles friendship in exchange for complicity.
A crucial point in the film comes when it dawns on Caleb, and the audience, who he's dealing with. Midway through the film, Nathan's speechless servant, Kyoko (played by model/actress Sonoya Mizuno) joins Nathan in an over the top dance routine that is shockingly, eerily well-choreographed. Almost like Kyoko is programmed that way.
Ex Machina presents itself as a satire of tech culture, but Garland obfuscates how much of his film is a spoof and how much of it is earnest fetish for an artist who has backpacked throughout southeast Asia.
Science fiction, too, has a visible Asian fetish. It manifests in the neon signs of Blade Runner, in George Lucas' frequent citation of Akira Kurosawa, in the Mandarin-English of Firefly, and in the green code rain of The Matrix. Consequently the tech industry, full of people who devour sci-fi, has a lot of white guys who love Asian women. "I'm one of the many twentysomething East Asian women living in the Bay Area," wrote Chin Lu in a Bold Italic blog in 2013. "I’ve lost count of how many guys have walked up to tell me that their ex-girlfriends are Asian."
Ex Machina wants to be a satire of this fetishizing, but it stumbles in the effort. Just before the dance scene, Kyoko unbuttons her blouse — white and silk and complimentary to her slender frame — as if ready to give herself to Caleb, who protests. Much later, Caleb finds Kyoko, now nude, eerily tearing off her skin to reveal an inhuman, robotic skeleton underneath.
The mutilation of a mute, sexy Asian woman was not lost on some critics. In a 2017 essay on Medium, Trevor Richardson pointed out that Kyoko is "an apt example ... of common fetishization stereotypes of servile Asian women." While Kyoko's programming advances Nathan's villainy, Richardson argues it still "align[s] with stereotypes frequently associated with Asian women that position them as subservient, sexually, or otherwise, especially to white men." (Isaac himself is ethnically Guatemalan-Cuban, but his role of Nathan is heavily coded to be white.)
There are, of course, hairs to split. Kyoko is revealed to not be the only female-presenting servant of Nathan. There are white and Black (and more Asian) android skeletons in Nathan's secret closet. But the film has very clear hang-ups that can't be ignored. Perhaps to its own dissatisfaction, Ex Machina continues what so many other science fiction films like it has done before.
At the same time, the triumph of the movie's third main character and Garland's casting of Mizuno in a more active central role in his spiritually similar Hulu series Devs suggests Ex Machina has something of a progressive mission. It's just at odds with the beautiful skin it encases.
Ex Machina is streaming now on Netflix until July 25.