Let’s be clear: Ex Machina is a terrible movie. Its depictions of women, especially Asian women, are damaging and disturbing. It is the epitome of a white man’s attempt to be profound and progressive while failing to understand what empowerment looks like (here’s a hint: it’s not a white female-coded sex bot dismembering a decommissioned Asian female-coded sex bot and appropriating her body). But underneath all of… well, that, is there anything salvageable in this film? Yes, actually. Where the plot, characters, writing, directing, and most of the acting drag the film down, there is one key element that hints at its potential: the setting.
Ex Machina’s setting is simple on the surface (Nathan’s bunker-like mansion/research facility in the middle of the wilderness) yet conveys a level of thematic complexity that tells a story on its own. The interior, despite its opulence, functions as both a classic horror house and a prison with its many representations of isolation—from locked doors only accessible by keycard to the lack of windows in certain rooms to the fact that the location is only accessible by helicopter. Several of the rooms, particularly the kitchen and the hallway with the masks, while not small, feel contained—a medium shot in these location contains multiple barriers (walls, counters, etc.) surrounding the characters, essentially trapping them in the frame. The set also conveys a sense of voyeurism, expressed through the extensive use of both surveillance cameras/footage and glass walls.
In contrast with the prison-like interior, the breathtaking exterior shots of the Norwegian landscape evoke the desired sense of freedom, where the isolation reads as a luxury rather than a means of torment. The wide shots convey a grandness of scale, as opposed to the tightness of the interior set.
The lighting emphasizes this contrast—the bright, warm light of the exterior shots evokes feelings of truth and comfort compared to the interior, with its extensive use of high key and heavy shadows. The decision to go with the flat, harsh red lighting during the power cuts, while a little on the nose, was a good choice. Rather than plunge the set into darkness, this extreme light carries subtext of danger, mystery, and the implication of both truth and lies. Truth in the sense that the flatness of the lighting (compared to the heavily shadowed light in Nathan’s office) makes it so everything in the shot is illuminated. Nothing is hidden. Yet at the same time, this truth is distorted (and, you know, dangerously red). This lighting also works its way into the plot, where every time the power cuts, Ava’s words or actions simultaneously convey a truth and a lie.
In the right hands, Ex Machina’s setting offers a powerful visual foundation for an intriguing sci-fi/horror/thriller film to explore themes of freedom and identity. Unfortunately, even the most beautiful Norwegian landscape shot can’t make up for the macabre carnival of misogynist power fantasy we ended up with.