Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, is one of my favorite films from 2015. I’ve sat for hours with friends discussing the film’s outstanding soundtrack, its connections to an incredibly interesting thought experiment, and how this wouldn’t be the last time Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac find themselves fighting over a droid. All of this aside though, it took a second viewing of the film for me to fully appreciate the cinematography done by Rob Hardy. I noted just how beautiful the shots were during my initial viewing, but upon reviewing the film, I found myself captivated by how brilliantly he and Garland use shot composition to manipulate the audience’s perception of the characters.
By the way, this should go without saying, but I’ll just put this warning out there for those who haven’t seen the film yet: this essay contains spoilers.
Ex Machina‘s three principle characters for study are the programmer and protagonist Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and Nathan’s robotic creation Ava (Alicia Vikander). Throughout the course of the film, each of these characters is shot against their setting in fairly important ways. The choice of surroundings and the composition of the shots goes beyond simply creating something evocative and memorable, delving into the realm of providing information to the audience about the characters and setting a tone for how we should feel about them.
How Images Shape Characters
Following Caleb’s first session with Ava, we find him and Nathan discussing Caleb’s thoughts regarding her. Caleb is excited, lively, and joyful, which is understandable and even relatable. Caleb is shot against clear windows with a view of the wilderness beyond the confines of Nathan’s home. This not only invokes thoughts regarding the uncharted territory that Caleb and Nathan are exploring, but it also calls to attention that the audience should have a sense that they can perfectly understand Caleb. For the audience’s sake, Garland and Hardy don’t just want relatable. They want their audience to see Caleb with crystal clear clarity given that he’s the linchpin to the entire film, allowing the audience to put themselves into this very situation. There’s also an ulterior motive to providing this sense of clarity for the audience, but that’s to be discussed later.
All of this follows the classic assumption that a protagonist should be someone that the audience can put themselves into the place of to help them learn about and understand the setting and story that they’re experiencing. When the protagonist learns something, the audience learns something too. When the protagonist feels something, the audience should feel it as well. Like the windows that Caleb is shot against, giving us a clear view into the wilderness, the protagonist is the window by which the audience views the story.
Contrasting this is this shot of Nathan from the very same scene. Nathan is against a dark, near-featureless wall, providing the audience with no sense of clarity regarding Nathan’s motives. This is perfect as this is the first scene in which the audience is given just the smallest hint that Nathan is a man of secrets. When Caleb begins to push his boundaries and ask questions regarding the exact technicalities of how Ava works, the camera pans in even closer, pulling us into an uncomfortable close-up shot of Nathan’s stern look.
Nathan is not the story’s protagonist, and as such the audience is only allowed to learn about him at the same pace that Caleb learns about him. We can no more see through Nathan than we can see through the wall that he is being shot against in this scene, and as a result we are forced to wait until Caleb can find a window by which to view Nathan’s hidden agenda.
Understanding how these shots relate information to the audience helps us to understand the next scene in which they converse about Ava, that being the one that follows Caleb’s second session with her. Rather than speaking about her during the day, it appears that Caleb and Nathan have waited until dinner to discuss her. Bear in mind just how uncomfortable this scene is for both Caleb and the audience, because during his second session with Ava, she provided hints that Nathan was not someone Caleb should trust.
The choice of having this scene take place at night so that the characters are only illuminated by poor, artificial lighting is not a mistake. Nathan’s face is cast in shadows, hinting at the same things that Ava warned Caleb of in the scene prior to this one. Nathan is once more shot against those featureless walls, giving us no way of seeing through him and deciding if Ava was correct. In fact, this only reinforces the idea that what Ava was saying was the truth. And while Nathan probes Caleb about Ava and what she talked about with him, Caleb is shot against those same windows, only this time it’s completely dark outside. The audience is allowed to see through Caleb because the audience sees the entire film through Caleb’s eyes, but this darkness represents Caleb’s own secrets that he’s hiding from Nathan.
But then consider what happens at around the halfway point in the film. Caleb and Nathan take a hike out into the wilderness that Nathan owns as part of his estate. It’s at this point, far away from Nathan’s home and research facility, that Caleb confronts Nathan about the lies he’s been spinning, declaring that there never was a competition in the first place. After all, there was too much at stake with a Turing Test to allow a randomly selected individual to be involved.
What Nathan gives Caleb in response, for once, is the honest truth. Caleb is correct in his deduction; the competition served only to hide that Nathan personally selected Caleb to be involved in the test. While admitting this, Nathan and Caleb both stand at level ground with one another. There are no walls or doors for Nathan to hide behind here. There’s no room for secrecy or deception. In fact, this shot provides the sense that Nathan and Caleb could potentially see eye to eye with one another, even be treated as being on a similar level to one another. After all, Nathan says he and Caleb both know what it’s like to be smarter than those around them. This is another incident that serves an ulterior motive that I’ll get back to later.
There are plenty of other really great examples of shot composition being used to tell the audience information about Caleb and Nathan, and I could honestly keep writing about them, but I think these examples already prove my point. There’s a great level of detail and care present in these choices that reflects on just how much Garland and Hardy are aware of the power of an image.
The Authenticity of an Image
The third character of interest, Ava, is where things become complicated.
From the very start, the images of Ava are used in powerful ways to manipulate the audience. Besides the fact that the audience can literally see through her, every meaningful shot of Ava is presented through the glass barrier between her and Caleb. Even the very first shot of Ava puts her against a green backdrop not unlike the one we see Caleb against in the scene immediately following this. All of these things are used as weapons against the audience. We’re made to feel as if we can understand and relate to Ava on an emotional level just as much as we can with Caleb.
It’s important to note, however, that these shots are interior ones. Through most of the film, we never see Ava against anything other than concrete walls, which we’ve already determined are representative of secrecy and deceit. Even the very first shot of her puts her against a green backdrop, but that green backdrop itself is also presented against a concrete wall. Prior to the end of the film, the only time we ever see Ava outside the confines of her prison and in the open space of the wilderness are in daydreams experienced by Caleb, and as such these images serve only to strengthen the illusion of clarity for the audience that is just that: an illusion. By the time we reach the end of the film and realize that Ava has been emotionally manipulating Caleb so that she can escape, even we as an audience realize we’ve been played despite the signs being in front of us the entire time. When Ava finally steps out into the wilderness to head for the helicopter meant to bring Caleb back to society, this is the first time that the audience is truly allowed to see Ava for who she really is.
What this does subconsciously to the viewer is force them to question everything they witness during a second viewing. Every action and word spoken by a character is scrutinized and studied as much as possible as we question whether that act or word or feeling is genuine or a sham. Ava’s presentation as scared and vulnerable is no longer trusted against the walls of her prison. Nathan’s own lies are immediately recognized at a glance. Even the motives of Caleb are called into question when the last image presented of him in the film puts him through a window and against a concrete wall, forcing us to consider whether he helped Ava because he’s a good person like he claims to be or if he only helped her because of his own emotional infatuation with her. All of this is rather befitting; just as Caleb is meant to determine the authenticity of Ava’s artificial intelligence, we as an audience are meant to determine the authenticity of the characters and their motivations. There are some strong feminist ideas at work here, something many other people before me have written extensively about.
What it also does, and what I find more interesting, is it forces us consider the authenticity of images. This isn’t a subject that’s entirely new; in Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves, he discusses this very same problem at a point in time in which digital manipulation of images was beginning to become more and more prominent. He writes:
“While enthusiasts will continue to empty entire dictionaries attempting to describe or deride it, “authenticity” still remains the word most likely to stir a debate. In fact, this leading obsession – to validate or invalidate the reels and tapes – invariably brings up a collateral and more general concern: whether or not, with the advent of digital technology, image has forsaken its once unimpeachable hold on the truth.”
Before digital technology, there were few ways to truly manipulate an image in profound ways. As a result, there is something poetically charming about the truth found in an unedited photograph, something genuine and unbiased. It’s that sort of appeal to analog photography that still draws in youthful students to the art form today. Today, however, digital manipulation of photographs has become all the rage, and while it can serve as a powerful tool, there are also too many cases of that tool being abused.
It’s also important to note that such a problem is not exclusive to photography. Cinematography has always made use of special effects to create amazing images on screen, but it has only been in recent decades that digital technology has been able to be used extensively to alter the images presented to an audience. James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic is a pretty good example of digital effects done right in my opinion, as he makes use of computer-generated imagery to enhance the physical sets in shots that include larger portions of the ship, bringing it to life in a manner that’s incredibly convincing and genuinely enjoyable. What’s important to note about a film like Titanic however is that digital effects weren’t the main tool in Cameron’s belt. In fact, many of the most impressive shots seen in the film relied on practical effects that are still outstanding to see. This is in contrast with many of the films produced today which rely almost entirely on digital effects as opposed to practical ones, something that is a subject of great debate. In either case, however, we have to remember as an audience that it doesn’t matter whether the effect is digital or practical; it’s still an effect. It’s still an illusion.
Where that leaves us with a film like Ex Machina is a position in which we must scrutinize the images presented to us, no matter what the composition, because the images being presented are not safe from manipulation. Images like the ones presented earlier in this essay with Caleb against the windows — or of him and Nathan standing on even ground with one another — are direct contradictions to the truth. They are lies presented boldly to the audience, and Garland has no inhibitions about using images to lie. The audience is even made aware of the physical cameras used to produce these images in shots like the one above allegedly taken from Caleb’s webcam, itself a bold reminder that there is a digital component to the images in the film. We’re made to acknowledge that such images cannot be trusted solely on the grounds of the actors and sets being physical things.
What Garland is trying to remind us of, I think, is that images themselves are not something that can be entirely relied on, regardless of whether they are digital or analog. There is more at work behind the camera lens that goes into an image’s composition, something that doesn’t need digital effects to obscure and alter the truth. We must recognize that it’s far easier to manipulate us on an emotional level than we’re prepared to consider, which is an important lesson to consider given the current presidential election here in the United States. We must consider what is more important to us: the truth within the image, or the truth behind it.
All images are taken from Ex Machina and are the property of Universal Pictures. They are used for non-profit purposes in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine.