What was your main takeaway from Ex-Machina, last year's deliciously fucked-up slow-burn sci-fi thriller from director Alex Garland? It may have been that in the future, robots will be alarmingly lifelike and undeniably hot. It may have been that in the present, Alicia Vikander is alarmingly lifelike and undeniably hot. Or it might have been that if you find yourself in a glassy luxury pad hidden in the mountains hundreds of miles from anywhere, some bad shit is likely to go down.
There's a reason nobody ever leaves a movie raving about how incredible the set design was — it's not that it's unimportant, or boring, just that if it's done right, you probably won't notice it at all. But Ex Machina is the rare exception to that rule, a brilliant example of the power of set design, and specifically the ways that the spaces in which a character lives and moves can reflect or compliment their state of mind — or warn the audience that something evil is lurking.
Ex Machina is a pretty unusual movie. With the exception of a very brief prologue and epilogue, the entire story takes place in one place, the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant tech billionaire who has all the money in the world but dreams of creating something more valuable (or dangerous) to the human race: A.I.
To sustain the tension without any action set pieces (until the film's climax), this space inhabited by Nathan, his employee Caleb and Ava, his most advanced robot, needed to be an impossibly beautiful, uber-modernist dream home. The script placed Nathan's rural retreat in Colorado, but production designer Mark Digby scouted Europe for a suitable filming location and ultimately settled on the wilds of Norway. A private mansion and the Juvet Landscape Hotel (yes, you can stay there; no, you can't afford it) doubled up as Nathan's home.
Ever wondered where people who live in houses like Nathan's actually keep their stuff, and how their living spaces are always immaculate? When a home is almost too perfect, you begin to suspect that there's a room or an attic somewhere filled with hundreds of boxes. What kind of person doesn't accumulate stuff?
Nathan's home, so perfect it barely looks lived-in, is an ice-cool reflection of the man himself — on the surface he's handsome, wealthy, clearly of superior intelligence to Caleb and pretty much everyone else he ever met. Caleb, though, is sharp enough to sense that his boss is disturbed or at least untrustworthy on some level, and for the audience, the total absence of clutter in his home becomes a major red flag signifying that Nathan is hiding a dangerous secret.
Speaking to Vanity Fair, Digby noted that the hotel's stunning view of the Norwegian mountains made sense in terms of the movie's A.I. theme, bringing together stark modernism and nature. That exact combination is also found in Ava, the pinnacle of advanced technology who may or may not have developed something natural — instinct, free will... the capability for evil. As Digby puts it, "she is man-made, but of nature."
The interrogation room in which Caleb visits Ava is pretty distinctive in that he effectively occupies a tiny glass room, while on the other side of the window pane she has a living space in which she can roam, draw, and potentially deploy whatever artificial intelligence she's been gifted.
Again, the design of the set acts as a pretty major clue to the audience about who really wields the power in this dynamic. Caleb may be free and Ava trapped in spatial terms, but on an emotional level, it's he who's trapped by his fast-developing feelings for her, while she feels nothing, and ultimately just needs a vehicle to escape her prison. She uses him, and the physical situation is cruelly reversed when Ava locks Caleb in the airtight bunker, where he'll most likely die a slow and hideous death.
Long before Ava is revealed to Caleb as far less pure than her translucent carbon body suggests, the architecture of Nathan's home and the lab beneath it keep the audience one step ahead, foreshadowing the fact that Nathan is not the only person in this temporary ménage à trois capable of bad behavior.
Whether you consider Ava or Nathan the ultimate villain of Ex Machina probably depends upon your interpretation of Ava's ability and willingness to manipulate Caleb — is she evil, or merely accessing the full spectrum of human emotion she was expressly created to mimic? Whatever your interpretation, though, Nathan's creepy and beautiful home acts as a dark mirror to the souls of these characters, and that's just one of the reasons Ex Machina is such a forward-thinking movie.
Who is the real villain of Ex Machina?