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10 Reasons Why “Ex Machina” Could Have Been a Masterpiece But It Is Not

12 October 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Hrvoje Galić

Ex Machina

The phrase ex machina comes from the Latin phrase deus ex machina, which literally means “god from the machine.” In ancient times, it was used to explain the appearance of a god that was lowered onto the stage on a cable (thus the machine). Nowadays, the phrase is used in a negative connotation referring to illogical plot twists. This could be interpreted as a self-irony on the part of the director, anticipating that some viewers will consider plot twists in the film “illogical”.

This 2015 movie is the debut of British director Alex Garland. The visuals in the film are stunning and beautiful, and in this aspect, the film succeeds completely. It won the Oscar for the Best Achievement in Visual Effects in 2016. Sadly, this achievement is one of the reasons why the film was disappointing for some viewers. To understand this, we must consider Lacanian psychoanalysis.

“Jouissance”, a French term used by Lacan, can be translated as simply “enjoyment”, but in his psychoanalysis it can be defined as a “sense of fullness” or “superabundant vitality”. To take an example, a Star Wars fan watching “The Empire Strikes Back” experiences “jouissance” while watching the film.

Also, when “The Godfather” fan watches the first two parts of the trilogy (or the third as well), he experiences it. But when the film brings enjoyment in the aspect of visuals, as “Ex Machina” does, but fails to provide a great script and flawless acting, the viewer feels partial “jouissance” and soon becomes frustrated. That “not it” feeling appears.

Thus, another psychological mechanism from Lacanian psychoanalysis takes place; the “theft of enjoyment.” The “thief” is, of course, the director himself. If a viewer sees a trailer and it stirs his imagination before watching the film, if he reads good critical reviews or hears positive experiences from friends, he anticipates “jouissance”. The director promised “jouissance” and partly delivered it, but in the end he failed. This mechanism can explain 1-star reviews on IMDb, although many people would claim that the film deserves a higher rating.

The criticism is often directed not only at the director, but also the scriptwriter, since these figures are the most important for a large part of the audience. The “thief of enjoyment” is, in other words, someone who is blamed for the lack of enjoyment.

Some of the viewers probably enjoyed the film on a whole, but nevertheless, 10 reasons will be provided why the film ultimately failed to deliver what it promises with stunning visuals. In all these segments, the film partly succeeds, but does not achieve the high standards it aspires to, and although it had great potential, ultimately it is flawed.


1. Acting


Alicia Vikander as Ava does a good job; she portrays an innocent but manipulative character in a convincing way and is elegant and thought provoking.

On the other hand, Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb at some points tries too hard to depict an insecure character, to the point where he seems insecure himself. His facial expressions sometimes give away too much for the type of role he is playing.

Although his acting can provoke sympathy, it is not likely that any deep connection between the viewer and Caleb will be established. Oscar Isaac as Nathan does a decent job, considering how his character is crafted. His appearance on the screen is confident, but what his character lacks cannot be considerably improved by acting alone.


2. Scriptwriting


Alex Garland was nominated for the Oscar in the category of Best Original Screenplay for his effort on “Ex Machina”. Nevertheless, the script’s flaws can be seen in the pretentious attempt to deliver a magnificent and impressive story; the scriptwriter fails to do that simply because of a lack of originality, subtlety, and character development.

A considerable part of the film is almost “violently” composed as a means to reach the desired ending. The ending itself is memorable, but the problem is when it is obvious that a part of the film (which can be easily interpreted as illogical) is made simply to lead up to the ending and is “tailored” for that purpose.

To sharpen the argument, even the characters, their motifs, and habits are crafted simply to reach the ending in a way that was envisioned by Garland.


3. Dialogues


Dialogues are witty at times and are crafted in an interesting way, but sometimes they are so straightforward that the viewer can feel “attacked” by the lack of subtlety. At times, some lines are completely obsolete. The conversation about Jackson Pollock is interesting and the points that are made can tell much about the use of instinct in the process of art creation.

On the other hand, Nathan’s remarks and his character often tell much about the process of scriptwriting when instinct is used but rational approach is neglected, regarding the “intention” to create a character that is both memorable and coherent in his personality structure. For instance, the brief conversation that Nathan and Caleb share about the AI and the future of humanity is too straightforward, and key points are not elaborated in a sufficient and consistent way.

The quote “I am death, destroyer of worlds” by Oppenheimer hints to the crucial question whether creating the AI could possibly lead mankind to engineering its own extinction (a question posed by Nick Bostrom from the University of Oxford in an elaborate and interesting way).

Nevertheless, at this point, a conversation about its implications, not necessarily long and elaborated, could commence, but it does not. There are too many questions that are opened, but are left hanging.

It could be a strategy of the scriptwriter to send a message in a sentence or two, probably believing that this approach is subtle, but subtlety can lie in elaboration and elegant argumentation as well. That way, much about Nathan’s motivation and worldviews would be presented, and that could only add up to character development and the film’s symbolism.


4. Music

Although music does deliver an eerie sense of claustrophobia and intensity, it does not seem to be an important part of the movie; it’s more a distraction of some sort. The music seems generic at times, as if it is made for a computer game and not a movie, although the piano element serves well as an emotional intensifier and adds to the main impression.

At the end of the day, it is not impressive enough and is not the main force behind the movie. It accompanies the movie, but does not carry it on a whole new level.

The music that is chosen or composed for a film is a strong tool to provoke desired feelings in a viewer, but it has to flow alongside the narration as a stream, in a natural fashion. Detached from the movie, it has to have its own life. If it does not, then it cannot blend with the movie satisfactorily.


5. Lack of imagination


An idea itself is interesting; it is something already seen in the history of art. It is as old as 1818 and Frankenstein, and of course, Garland is aware of it. An allusion to Mary Shelley’s work is made at one point when “Prometheus” is mentioned.

The novel’s subtitle is “Modern Prometheus”. Borrowing an idea from another artist is not a problem, per se, as artists often do that successfully. The problem is that “Ex Machina” does not offer much substantially, in terms of creativity and imagination.

When the film’s plot complexities are reduced to a few basic sentences, it can be demonstrated that it doesn’t offer much, apart from its Frankenstein-esque plot, occasional witty lines, and underdeveloped AI philosophical questions.

Quotes from famous scientists only prove that lack of imagination, and the viewer wonders why there isn’t some memorable quote that is new and not just a quotation. Also, the AI’s fulfilling the function of sex slaves suggests the lack of imagination.



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  • Jorge Carrillo

    “god ex machina” means god is movement, the meaning in google translate falls short to convey the intention of the phrase.

    • Unkle Amon


  • Awesome1984

    Wow you are so, so, so wrong.

  • Wyatt W.B

    Honestly, fuck off.

    • CaseX

      So much this.

  • Pingback: 10 Reasons Why “Ex Machina” Could Have Been a Masterpiece But It Is Not | Roberto Cimatti()

  • jagfun

    This might be the craziest article I have ever read here!

  • george peter

    So much idiotic effort has been put into this ridiculous article. One must suffer from a very deep frustration if they come to dissecting like this a film of obvious high quality.

  • Marcus Cunha

    Most of what you said about the film can be atributted to it’s honest to god selling point, which is, the film is made to be raw. I agree with you on some of these points, and yes, the film does lack “drive” to be a masterpiece, but the whole point of mono-moral characters, or AIs being taken to the point of just sexbots, or even the simple music, can be atributted to the fact that the whole idea behind the movie is to have the viewer decide for himself what he thinks about the themes being displayed. The idea here was display the basic premise of what we could be moving towards in the field of AIs. (Because if someone doesn’t think the first step with them are gonna be prostitutes, I’m terribly sorry to inform everyone that we are almost at that already. Which is why I’m saying the movie is made to be raw. Even the first concept it tries to sell us about AI, is a guy so inteligent, but also so socially crippled, that he ends up developing basically a hooker.)

    Yes, the film would definitely be more memorable in the long term if you could identify with one of the characters, or hum a song from it (I know I can’t), but that was definitely not it’s point. Nor was it sold as such, which makes it even better to the viewer, since he/she won’t come out disappointed from a theater because he/she was promised more.

    So, tl;dr, the movie is supposed to be AND few raw. It achieved that perfectly, which doesn’t make your points moot, but it does make then not accurate enough to judge this particular piece.

    P.S.: To the guy saying “ex machina” means “through movement”, it means “by the machine”. Deus Ex Machina was a term used in Roman Theaters to refer to a character in a play acting an angel, or something holy, that was lowered into the stage by cables. Nowadays, it means “something made perfectly for a situation in the right time that situation would need it”. Take action movies for example, like how they always find the PERFECT solution to defeat the bad guy right when they are about to die/lose, that’s Deus Ex Machina.

  • De Chan

    Finally! Someone is able to see the flaws that I felt after watching this movie.
    Also security card??Really? In a time where one is able to create human-like android but still relays on security card?.

  • Marc Morrow


    My only criticism of the film would be that at times the dialogue between the two male leads sometimes (sometimes!) smacked of the conversational style used in stage plays which, by virtue of limited scene-changes and action, rely on dialogue to move a story forward. But then, the characters were literally isolated to a confined space anyway, with no peripheral characters to bounce off, so it wasn’t an unreasonable technique to employ. Everything else about the movie was fine. And I use the word “fine” in its best sense. In my opinion, it was a brilliant piece, both visually and thematically.

  • AmazingAmy

    I love Taste of Cinrma blog but the writers always write questionable article……like they said mad max overrated or said lars von triers makes great movie abt woman…

    If you want, please write why that kristen stewart suddenly goes overpraised at the point article called her best actress in her generation, say whuttt ?!!!?!?!
    Or write why that actor or actress totally overrated…..

  • hector hazard

    you didn’t like it then…?

  • SCParegien

    I do have one point of disagreement with one of your supporting observations. Though Frankenstein is referenced you missed that the plot follows Bram Stoker’s Dracula plotline almost to a T. Instead of a carriage ride to the carpathian mountains we get a helicopter ride. He is let into the lair but not by his host. His host lives alone but later reveals women/brides (lack of emotion mirrors undead brides). The main character eats but his host does not eat with him. Harker/Nathan must stay in his room and not go in certain other rooms. He eventually becomes trapped in the “castle”. It subverts the misogyny of Dracula by making Ava the Dracula figure who now leaves Nathan behind. I think I’ll just have to do my own list. 10 ways Ex Machina subverts the misogyny of Bram Smoker’s Dracula to retell a feminist story.

  • I’m in the (small) camp that feels this movie is grossly overrated. It’s a fine film, but nothing near the “genre masterpiece” many purport it to be. I say this as a massive Oscar Isaac fan, and Alex Garland. I went in wanting to love this movie so much, but it fell flat for me.
    The visuals were nice – not awe-inspiring as many feel – and the acting was solid all-around. Nothing about the plot was particularly unique or clever, and much of the dialogue suffered.
    Whereas take 28 Days Later, which Garland wrote. That film blew me away on first viewing, and was rife with original takes on an (at that time) stale genre.
    It will be interesting to see how this stands the test of time. In 5-10 years I may come back and have to admit I was completely wrong, or many others may start to see it in the same light I do.

    I’m very interested to hear what other hardcore fans of “genre films” found so astounding about this film

  • D Train

    Regrettable article. Not worthy of Taste of Cinema. No more like this, okay?

  • Josh Wolf

    Fuck this article! You don’t know shit about film, acting, writing, or music. 2015 was an amazing year for movies and this was in the top 4, easily. I can see why the writer’s don’t put their name on these articles. What a dipshit write up. I hope there’s an opening for content writer at Taste of Cinema now.

  • Andres Becerra

    Why do you say could’ve been great? It looks like you just plainly hated the movie. You never speak of the potential it had to be great. You just point out what you see as flaws, which is basically every aspect of the film, in your opinion. The reasoning here is ridiculously generic. With this title, I thought I was gonna get a careful analysis of the narrative of the film, and why certain creative decision make the film, for you unsatisfactory, not this complaining about why a film doesn’t follow traditional filmmaking.
    Terrible article.

  • Jacob Audrey

    Even for Taste of Cinema this is pretentious garbage written by a pretentious garbage person.

  • BaronMarx

    Sounds like someone had their first “Intro to Screenwriting” class today and decided they learned enough to write an article that can only be categorized as “laughable”.

  • bathroomtile

    Just to add to the criticisms of the other users, I’d like to say that the the comment about the movie’s generic music being comparable to video game music as a whole was just such an out of touch and ignorant remark. This is a thing I keep reading in non-video game related articles, comparing something bad about a movie to video games in general. It just shows how out of touch with one of today’s most influential media someone can be. Video games are no longer 8-bit time wasters with some 30 second loop of background music. Composers and whole orchestras compose music for video games just as they would for a movie, and many times a video game soundtrack is what gives a game its emotional edge, or its symbolic subtlety. It’s not just up-beat bips and bops. Basically, just a sad, ignorant remark.

  • ryan d

    Every point that you have made is completely invalid. You’re not a student of Cinema. you are a narcissist trying to prove a point. this movie does a great original spin on everything. the acting was so good and dense. They did not emphasize sex . sex is merely a large part of Human Experience. I’m going to stop at this rebuttal because it’s obvious that you are seeing layers that aren’t there because you need to prove a point.

  • Benjamin Izaguirre


  • Martin Tribunsen

    This is the single dumbest piece of shitty “film criticism” I have come across so far. Just honestly say that you didn’t get the movie and stop summoning up big psychoanalytical ideas to put down a masterpiece.

  • ClanTechie

    You’re actually forgetting the biggest plothole: if Ava’s fate depends on the result of the test, Caleb could very well tell Nathan she passed it, and he wouldn’t even be lying. End of story. I still love the movie and think it’s brilliant.

  • FXII