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Futuristic Abstraction Within ‘Ex Machina’

Futuristic Abstraction Within ‘Ex Machina’

Technological Sentience Takes Over

Alex Garland’s 2014 mind-bender Ex Machina was able to strike a chord with audiences in the way it portrayed a thrilling examination at the dangers of technological sentience. The film is not only positively received due to the enthralling plot but also due to the message and thematic elements that the plot presents to its viewers. It puts a spin on the usual format of AI exploration within fiction and is able to give life to the eeriness of its existence. By outlining the plot’s structure, it becomes naturally more apparent how the film sets precedents within its characters and within the society that governs humanity’s advancements. 

Mapping The Story

Looking at the main structure behind the plot of Ex Machina, the film is able to create a dilemma within both the main character and the audience who perceives the story through that main character. The film begins with the protagonist, Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson), and his rather ordinary lifestyle working as a programmer and tech savvy office employee at a big tech company. 

Caleb is the lucky winner of the staff lottery which grants a one week stay with his boss Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac), the genius behind the company Caleb works in, Blue Book. Caleb meets Nathan at his estate and brings up his newfound creation of artificial intelligence called Ava along with the idea of the Turing Test and how he will be the human element of the test. The Turing Test is defined as a way to examine whether a machine has the capability to exhibit intelligent human behavior indistinguishable from that of an actual human. He has his first session of the test where he is able to meet the artificial intelligence wonder that Nathan has been working on. Moving forward, as Caleb gets ready for his first night, he turns on what seems to be a TV, which ends up being a direct monitoring of Ava’s room. He sits up, surprised as to why he is able to see that. Suddenly, the power goes out, and he is locked in his room due to the estate’s security measures. Caleb starts to notice how protective Nathan is about information and what he wants the public to really see. From there, as Caleb is having his second session with Ava, the power goes out once again. Ava suddenly tells Caleb that he’s wrong about Nathan being a good friend and that he cannot be trusted. 

Now this is what would probably be considered the first act in a traditional five-act structure of storytelling, with the protagonist being called to go on a journey of sorts, beginning to gain knowledge of what their journey is really about, and awakening to the fact that something important is going on. As the plot moves forward, it begins to fall into place with the other major elements of a five-act story with things like the midpoint, the regression, and the reawakening.

Futuristic Abstraction Within ‘Ex Machina’
Oscar Isaac as Nathan and Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb | Image via A24

Thematic Messages Present

Watching this film in the present day while taking into account the sphere of technological advancements that have been made throughout recent years with machine learning and AI makes Ex Machina feel even more worrying than it did before. As machine learning starts to peer into the entertainment media business as well as the art world, a considerable amount of people are starting to doubt whether the world really needs AI and if it will take over their jobs in the future. Now, obviously Alex Garland’s film presents a more far-fetched representation of AI, with the AI being basically its own person with a body and all that, something that hasn’t been done as of yet in the real world. That being said, the film almost feels like a work of prophecy that has detailed the way in which technology can and could very well take over without real humans noticing. 

Visual Abstraction

Throughout the film, there are several instances of abstraction through visual references shown to the viewer. A good example of this is a scene in which Nathan explains his interpretation of an abstract painting that he owns in the estate. The painting itself, named “No. 5 1948,” is from esteemed artist Jackson Pollock. The scene refers to the work in a profoundly abstract way, with Nathan explaining how it’s “Not deliberate, not random. Some place in between.” He further explains to Caleb how if Pollock would have had an exact and deliberate motive behind the painting, not a single mark would have been made on the canvas. “The challenge is not to act automatically…It is to find an action that is not automatic.” 

This can be said to relate directly to Nathan’s own philosophy behind his work with Ava and artificial intelligence as a whole. He strives to do the work not because there’s a deliberate intention, but rather because he feels he was called to it, to make a mark on the canvas of the landscape of technology. 


As Alex Garland continues to make a name for himself in the realm of the film industry with upcoming works like Civil War poised to release later this year, Ex Machina is proof of his profound approach to cinematic storytelling and how the importance of the message behind the story can reveal overlooked details about modern society. The film serves to be almost a work of prophecy with how machine learning and AI companies like OpenAI are taking over the landscape of tech. This is especially seen with how the new in-development Sora video generator is beginning to make advances towards replacing real filmmaking. Garland provides audiences with a cautionary tale that also happens to be one of the best films ever made. 

Futuristic Abstraction Within ‘Ex Machina’
Futuristic Abstraction Within ‘Ex Machina’

Ex Machina (2014) Official A24 Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Hi! I am a Dramatic Writing and Performing Arts major at SCAD from Puerto Rico. I have an intense passion for all things film, tv, and music. I believe everyone has a story to tell, and putting it out there is the most important.

Cailen Fienemann is a current student at Le Moyne College pursuing her BA in English and Communications with a film studies minor and a creative writing concentration.  Though uncertain about her career end-goals, any job that allows her to write is a cherished one indeed.