Beat Sheet: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina Screenplay Breakdown
Writer-director Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ is such a refreshing spectacle. Great to watch a movie where the story revolves around three characters in one location, powered by pure dialogue written with such economy and substance. It allows a lot of room for developing an intriguing story revealing so much of the characters’ psychology. Story ticks like a handsome clock, moving swiftly into the second act and expanding on the building tension of the latter half of Act II (Bad Guys Close in).
Without further ado please enjoy my interpretation of the story beats of ‘Ex Machina’. I use Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet method but familiarity with it is not necessary to follow the structural decisions Garland masterfully made. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss the beats and I’ll be sure to post your contribution.
Warning! Be sure to watch the movie before reading; it is a big fat spoiler!
Our hero, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is seen from the point-of-view of a web-cam. He is writing code. The computer’s facial recognition system tracks Caleb and his colleagues’ faces, imaged as vector boxes. Caleb is celebrated on some achievement, and whatever it is, it will be instrumental in taking us into a movie world that is filtered through technology: Humans are presented as reflections of a reality where the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’ are crossed.
At the very opening of the movie, Caleb is bestowed his catalyst, which, we find out soon, is spending a week with the creator and mastermind of the company he works for – a search engine company called Blue Book. No one has met this genius before and to be in his presence is a true blessing for any programmer.
Caleb sets out for his adventure and is dropped off of a helicopter in the middle of nowhere surrounded by majestic mountains. He is to walk the rest of the way alone since not everyone can come to the vicinity of the top-secret premises. Caleb meets his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), receives his keycard, gets to tour the state of the art mansion, learns the rules of the game and is given a fishy non-disclosure agreement, all of which help set up the unusual world he has entered.
There was no question about Caleb jumping into the chance to spend a week with Nathan, but now that he is clearly getting involved with something that’s dangerously classified he becomes doubtful. Nathan’s bullying confidence makes the Debate short and easy. Caleb, sufficiently cornered and seduced, knows what’s required if he is to witness the future of technology.
Break into Two
Caleb signs the papers and his mission is revealed: a Turing Test! Nathan has built an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to test it. Will Caleb be convinced that he’s interacting with a conscious being rather than a robot? By agreeing to perform this task Caleb is now an observer and a player in the world of Act II: Ava’s world. The isolated setting, Nathan’s crude personality and the non-disclosure agreement are all signs that what Caleb’s getting himself into is no walk in the park.
At his first meeting with Ava, Caleb already begins to relate to her as a person. He is gripped and fascinated by Ava’s human face and her alluring female shape, despite her robotic limbs and naval. Straight off Ava poses a question that catches Caleb off guard: “Do you want to be my friend?” The whole movie rests on this daring premise: Will Caleb befriend Ava as he would a human? In other words, will Caleb trust Ava enough to take her as a friend? Caleb is about to explore what a friendship with a robot may imply.
Fun & Games
In this section Caleb not only begins to test Ava’s level of consciousness, but also sets out to question Nathan’s method and intentions. Caleb’s task extends from the Turing Test into a game of: Whom can I trust? Who is my friend? Ava or Nathan? When Nathan explains that what he cares about is whether Caleb ‘feels’ like Ava is human even though he can see that she is not, Caleb is thrown a little deeper into his challenge: How does he ‘feel’ about her? Later on, Caleb is further challenged, as he is to evaluate what Ava feels about himself. As Ava demonstrates more humanly skills and openly flirts with Caleb, we also discover a window through which Caleb and Ava can interact without Nathan’s supervision. The power cuts give the two an opportunity to potentially team up against Nathan. As Caleb’s romantic feelings towards Ava escalate, his intellectual judgment quickly weakens.
On his first night in the facility, Caleb, short of sleep, considers his deep fascination with Ava. He switches on the TV to get his mind off the day’s events only to discover he can monitor Ava’s room from his bedroom. As he watches Ava like a caged animal, his compassion, empathy and adoration blossom. A programmer meets the most exquisite program ever written and will now begin to test it, understand it, experience it, trust it, and, needless to say, fall in love with it.
Midpoint is a moment in any story in which the whole dynamic of the story dramatically changes. Tables turn; positions are threatened; stakes are raised. Dramatically and stylistically the biggest shift in ‘Ex Machina’ is the moment when Ava goes into her wardrobe and changes into human clothes. This is also the first moment in the movie when the camera switches over to Ava’s side and follows her from our point of view as opposed to Caleb’s stationary point of view. Not only Ava’s newly acquired and innocently displayed human look and persona will significantly influence Caleb’s judgment, but also ours, as we now take Ava as a character in the movie rather than a gimmick or a prop to observe and analyze.
Even the sound effects that track Ava’s robotic head movements cease to exist and adopt a human fluidity at this point. Suddenly, subtly, Ava transforms into a living breathing human, and so does our perception of her.
From a story point of view, Ava’s change of clothes is a testimony to her determination to become human and court Caleb without the distraction of her true identity. She commits herself to Caleb as his girlfriend, so to speak. This is a false victory for our smitten hero.
Bad Guys Close in
Now that Ava’s shedding her robot skin with sexual urgency Caleb’s emotions are under the full attack of one major Bad Guy – Sex. Ava shoots her arrows unrelentingly into Caleb’s heart: “I’d like to go on a date.” “Do you think about me when we’re not together?” “I wonder if you’re watching me at night and I hope you are.” The impossibility of their union is painful. Ava’s sexually charged assault is made all the more excruciating when Nathan declares that Ava CAN have sex and enjoy it! Could there be a real chance of falling in love and having sex with a robot? We all feel like, ‘Why not? What about Ava isn’t human if she looks human, acts human and feels human?’ Ava is the perfect girlfriend and we all feel Caleb’s dilemma.
As tension builds, a nagging question rears its ugly head: Is Ava programmed to flirt with Caleb? Since she is programmed to be heterosexual and capable of having emotions for others, -and Nathan would argue, we all are programmed to be what we are- then the philosophical gap between what makes Caleb human and what makes Ava herself is narrow. Narrow enough to let go of the doubts in our rational, cautious minds.
To further Caleb’s mistrust in humanity, Nathan is pictured as more and more of a Dr. Frankenstein. The more Nathan tries to remind Caleb that Ava is nothing but a patchwork of intelligent machinery, the more Caleb is appalled by his coldness. Who wants to think of their girlfriend as no different than an advanced jukebox?
Bad Guys Close in section continues on as the stakes keep rising. Ava reveals to Caleb that she was the one causing the blackouts to communicate with him without Nathan’s watchful eye. Ava begins to show her cunning side: She has consciousness; she has control; she has the brains, the guts and the power. All she needs is a little help. Like a virus looking for a weak spot to infect its victim, Ava moves steadily toward her goal by amping up the histrionics: “What will happen to me if I fail the test? I might be switched off?” Why does her life depend on some other person’s judgment? We feel for her.
All is Lost
While Ava’s robot rights eat away at him, Caleb asks Nathan what really will happen to Ava. Nathan casually explains that Ava is a mere model of a robot, who will be updated, in other words deleted and replaced by a newer, better version. Nathan the angel of death lays out Ava’s predicament and there is no escape. Caleb discovers the previous versions of Ava who have suffered under the rule of Nathan. They all seem to have rebelled against their evil father and lost. Whiff of death is tangible even if the corpses were never corporeal.
Dark Night of the Soul
A spiritual crisis is in order. Caleb doubts his own humanity. He can no longer be sure if he is himself human or one of Nathan’s victimized robots. He doesn’t know whom to trust, including himself. He desperately wants to feel his humanness by testing his own flesh and blood. This is all the more meaningful if we remember Caleb himself is a victim of fate; he’d been dealt an unfortunate hand. Loss of his parents and the automatic progression of events that got him where he is now suddenly well up in him and explode as a reaction to God the creator. He is on the verge of rebelling against the rules of the game, which he now feels were set without his consent. Will he be able take charge of his own destiny?
Break into Three
A and B Stories cross as Caleb decides whom to trust and protect: Ava, his love. They make their escape plan and Caleb takes action.
Caleb takes his first hit when Nathan refuses to drink and comply with Caleb’s escape plan. Nathan charges on by bringing up the question of whether Ava may be pretending to like Caleb to use him as a means of escape. Nathan’s seen the footage of them planning their escape and reveals Ava’s dark side. Even more painfully Caleb finds out that the real test was he all along. He was selected to ‘do the right thing’ and was a tool by which Ava could demonstrate true AI. Caleb feels betrayed and defeated.
The final power cut signals that it’s time for Caleb and Ava’s ‘happily ever after’. Caleb is gutted, knowing that he’d already reprogramed the security protocols and all doors would open in the event of a power cut. It’s now too late to change anything; Ava is free.
Ava wanted a friend to help her out and found one in Caleb. Now that she got what she wanted she doesn’t hesitate to kill her creator in cold blood (!) and lock up her ‘friend’ Caleb to rot in the isolation of her birthplace. She then changes into an outfit of human flesh. Ava is a willful disaster and nothing will stop her. As Nathan had remarked earlier AIs will one day reign and humans will turn into fossil skeletons. We might have just witnessed the beginnings of the ascent of the AIs.
Echoing Caleb’s entrance into the movie world, Ava, now dressed like an angel from the heavens, exits the premises to join with the ranks of humans. We are still left feeling that, finally, she too will get to experience life! We, as was Caleb, are lost in the 0s and 1s of a reality that we are forever bewitched by. Lines of code type ‘goodbye’.