Foreshadowing is essential to any complex narrative, giving a unique insight to each character’s role in the story. In film, the static frame creates the boundaries of each shot while the position of the camera in space creates unique lines of sight. This generates a composition while allowing people to place themselves into that context. Therefore, the ways in which the camera presents each situation can be tailored to give a unique insight to the viewer that is not recognized by any of the actors. In Ex Machina, Alex Garland uses the camera to frame the architecture around each character in a way that adds new meaning to their actions. In such a complex plot, the architecture sets the tone and adds visual clues embedded in the composition of each shot so that the viewer may sense the real emotions and intent of each character.
Camera position is crucial in how people read the overall composition. It gives a sense of scale, letting the viewer become transported to that particular place. Perspective lines, materiality, transparency and lighting all play a role in how an overall composition is read. One of the unique things about Ex Machina is that the three main characters all have their own objectives. The idealistic youth, Caleb, the zealous scientist, Nathan, who won’t let anything stand in the way of his vision, and the artificial intelligence he created, Ava.
A contest winner, Caleb, is transported deep into the wilderness by helicopter to a cabin submerged into the hill, spilling down its side. The entrance is clad in wood and blends in with the dense forest that surrounds it. Upon entering, Caleb finds himself in an intimate residential setting with relaxing music playing in the background. Nathan, the scientist, is introduced on the balcony that is perched on the side of the mountain. Exercising equipment litters the ground when Nathan is found punching a bag with impressive skill.
A sense of aggression defines Nathan’s character as an intimidating and powerful individual. Most scenes show Nathan sitting down low, drinking a beer with a hard dark surface behind him pointing out how obtuse Nathan’s character is. The scientist continues to avoid any real questions Caleb asks and this lack of transparency creates more tension between them. Eventually he is found sinking into a dark couch in front of a dark concrete wall obscured by beer bottles to hammer the message to the viewer that Nathan is hiding something.
On the other hand, Caleb is initially framed behind a clear glass wall with all of his enthusiasm and naivete exposed to the viewer. When framed together, Nathan and Caleb are constantly placed behind these materials, whose properties become windows into each character as the complex narrative unfolds. The visual line that separates the two creates a tension that only the viewer can understand. As the story plays out, these visual cues act as a litmus test that only the viewer can read.
In every session, Caleb and Ava are separated by a glass wall that extends into Ava’s cell. This line of separation is essential to their relationship. On Caleb’s first visit, he is shocked to find a large crack in the security glass separating Ava’s cell from the interviewing chamber. This mark frightens Caleb but as Ava approaches he is caught up in the awe of her beauty and delicacy. At first, the viewpoint is Ava mainly from inside the interviewing chambers looking out. This perspective shows Ava as a prisoner, and her cries for help soon reveal her situation.
Later that night, Caleb finds a video feed into Ava’s chambers and becomes mesmerized by her grace. A sexual tension begins to grow as Caleb continues to watch the AI and as they become closer, Ava reveals her romantic feelings for him. Soon the viewer is presented with an alternate perspective within Ava’s chambers looking onto Caleb in his glass interview cube. Ironically, the way the director frames these scenes poses a question to the viewer: Who is actually in the drivers seat, Caleb or Ava? This question gets posed again when Ava reveals her role in the power outages that have been occurring.
A laboratory in the wilderness is prone to power outages. Being so remote promotes security but requires a power station and generators. One primary aspect of a laboratory building typology is to have little to no fenestration so artificial lighting is critical. Nathan actually points this out to Caleb as they arrive at the guest room. The artificial light is very soft and subtle, diffused through the hallway by a line of columns separated from the wall only by a thin strip of light. Hallways are another defining feature of a laboratory. Sterility is important in any lab to prevent unwanted data from interfering with an experiment. A hallway acts like a spine that is lined with labs that each have their own conditioned space. By dividing the spaces up into their own environments, conditions can be maintained more accurately than if all the labs were conditioned by the same HVAC system. However, once those systems lose power, all experiments in that laboratory are suddenly forgotten.
An eerie red glow illuminates the lab when the back up generator kicks on, turning off all the video monitors. Illuminated in a deep red, Ava and Caleb use this privacy to talk about Nathan. This lack of any oversight lets the two speak freely as the red lights overtake their senses. For a few minutes each day they can reveal their true selves to each other. However, this bond is put into question when the climax twists the narrative, answering a part of what makes us human by examining the separation between what is simulation and what is real.
As technology increases at record pace the desire to break out of the frame is taken to new heights. Ex Machina presents an eerie take on what it means to make a true AI, one capable of independent thought and learning. Through all of the deception and manipulation the camera frames the truth by composing the actors around architectural elements that shed light onto the underlying narrative. Perspective lines, transparency, materiality and lighting all inform the viewer to create a holistic film experience. Ex Machina is a prime example of how architecture can become incorporated into a visual narrative, giving the viewer a more intimate and poetic experience.