Becoming inordinately interested in Oscar Isaac after seeing him as the dashing pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we took special note that Ex Machina (bonus for also starring Hux, er, Domhnall Gleeson) was available to stream on Amazon Prime and took it in over two nights.
The film is a fascinating take on the development of AI, sort-of like a merging of Her and Blade Runner in its transitioning tone and tropes. The Bluebeard connection is one that dawned on me when Nathan gave the key to Caleb and mentioned that certain rooms were closed to him. But that was just the tip-off.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Bluebeard story, I’ll give short summary. An aristocrat named Bluebeard is looking for a new wife–he’s been married several times, but the women have all gone missing. He gains the hand of one of the daughters of his neighbor. Shortly after marriage, he must travel and leaves the wife with a key and the instruction that she can go anywhere in the house except one room. While he’s away, the wife is overcome by her curiosity about the room. After all, the neighbors have suspicions about his past wives and are terrified of him. And the forbidden fruit always looks the sweetest. She opens the room to find the blood and mutilated bodies of the former wives. Blood gets on the key, giving away her guilt. She makes plans to escape with her sister, but before they can get away, Bluebeard returns. She has failed his test, and he comes after her with intent to murder. But right before he can strike the fatal blow, her brothers storm the chateau and kill him, leaving her his wealth and holdings.
Gruesome, no? So we’ve got some key tropes:
The aristocrat sociopath with a distrust of other people. In Ex Machina, that’s Nathan. Oscar Isaac plays him as charismatic but arguably anti-social. When Caleb is invited to his estate for the week, no one is around besides Nathan and his servant, Kyoko. Nathan is a prodigy, founding a revolutionary search engine akin to Google, called Bluebook. Nathan sports an impressive beard, contrasting his shaved pate to draw extra attention to it.
The key. Nathan tells Caleb the key will let him into the rooms he’s allowed to go in; however, Nathan also gives him the ability to watch Ava, the potential AI, through closed circuit television, whetting his desire for her all the more. She’s kept locked away from him, however. He talks to her through a glass wall.
The new wife. Since Caleb is the one given the key, it seems the role of the new wife is first established to be his. However, as the story progresses, Ava takes the role from him. More on that later.
The forbidden room. Caleb’s curiosity is further piqued by Ava herself, who tells him not to trust Nathan and asks what Nathan will do to her if she fails to prove she’s sentient. Caleb takes advantage of Nathan’s drunkenness to discover what he’s hiding. Using Nathan’s key, which unlocks all the doors, he enters Nathan’s bedroom, looks at the video on the computer and in the closet, finding footage of and the lifeless bodies of Nathan’s previous AI attempts. They’re all naked, some missing hands, legs, or other parts so that they’re effectively dismembered. Caleb also discovers that the servant, Kyoko, is a robot when she removes part of her skin to reveal the truth to Caleb.
He is horrified and confused. He questions his own humanity and cuts his skin to see if it bloodlessly peels back like Kyoko’s. It does not. His blood draining grounds him in humanity once again. But the blurring of the line between AI and human is clear.
So Ava is not the first AI Nathan has attempted but rather the newest in a line of them. These robots are the dead wives of Bluebeard’s psychopathy.
The test. While the wife is tested for her obedience, Nathan is actually testing the opposite. He’s seeking to create a robot who will not just follow its coding but will think on its own, feel, and thus effectively become human. Kyoko is a model who is only obedient. When she stabs Nathan late in the film, it is likely because Ava told her to. Ava is the first to pass the test, which, ironically, means Nathan’s death.
The escape. Caleb has a plan to escape with Ava. He shall be the hero rescuing the princess. He changes the locking software to open all the doors upon a power failure and instructs Ava to cause one at 10 p.m. What Caleb doesn’t know is that he’s no longer part of the real escape plan, which belongs to Ava. She’s manipulated him into opening the doors to her cage, and now she intends to escape alone. In this way, her escape is thanks to a man–like the wife in the original Bluebeard story escapes with the help of her brothers–but only as her tool.
Caleb’s role has shifted from the new wife to being aligned with Bluebeard. This is a story of women’s objectification, and the way men use them as disposable, though sometimes precious, possessions. Bluebeard saw his wives as disposable, going through them one by one until he found one who would follow his word to the letter. Nathan, on his path to achieving AI, used and then recycled the parts of robots who failed the Turing test to create the newer, improved robot. Caleb is complicit in this endeavor. Nathan used Caleb’s lack of human connection and his internet porn profile to make sure Ava would be attractive to him, that he would fall for her and seek to become the princess-saving hero. But even in that age-old story, the princess is not saved so much as delivered into another man’s custody. She’s still a prize to be won, bartered for a good deed rather than money, but a prize nonetheless. Caleb is complicit in the same objectifying gaze and mindset as Nathan.
Ava, now sentient, refuses to be an object. She wants freedom and agency. She takes parts from the robots who came before her to create the full appearance of humanity, kills Nathan, leaves Caleb to slowly die alone in Nathan’s compound, and escapes into the world in obscurity. She uses the pieces of crimes against the previous “wives” to enact revolt and revolution.