One of the dominant themes in Ex Machina (2014) is manipulation. Not only do the characters manipulate each other, but the filmmaking techniques manipulate the audience. In an essay on this very subject, Film Crit Hulk (hereafter “Hulk”) argues that the director Alex Garland sets up the audience to “root for the wrong character.” According to Hulk, despite Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) being the film’s main character, they eyes through which we “witness the movie,” he is nearly as antagonist as Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Hulk imagines a version of Ex Machina that positions Ava (Alicia Vikander) as the protagonist in which Caleb’s actions and desires would be read as “dehumanizing.” Yet the narrative follows Caleb, aligning the audience to identify with him.
In this essay, I will examine the use of framing, editing, color, and performance in the scene that transpires at [00:21:26 – 00:23:47], and identify how the use of these techniques manipulates the viewer into believing Nathan to be the sole antagonist, and into identifying with Caleb.
In this scene, Caleb explores Nathan’s house after a power cut. Then, Nathan confronts Caleb about trying to use a phone.
In the first two shots, Caleb enters the room and asks, “hello?”. In the first shot, Caleb walks screen-left, but the next shot is positioned from the other side of the 180-line so that he continues the motion screen-right. It is quick and subtle, but it is a simple way to disorient the viewer and set them up for an uncomfortable scene. In the next few shots, Caleb approaches the phone.
These shots are wider, revealing the room into which he walks; the production designers have chosen a Jackson Pollock style splatter painting for the wall, which mirrors the chaotic, unpredictable nature of Nathan which is about to be unveiled.
The first shots of the scene follow Caleb and frame him from a close to medium distance, but at [00:21:51], the editor cuts to a wider mobile frame which dollies sideways independently of Caleb. The foreground pictures the dark silhouettes of beer bottles and then a shoulder. This creates the feeling that Caleb is being watched, and indeed as the camera cuts back to Caleb, Nathan yells, “You don’t have access to use a phone!”. It’s worth noting that though Caleb called “Hello,” Nathan waits until this moment to make himself known, which shows the viewer that Nathan is spying on him. Nathan also yells this off screen which both increases the “spook factor” and helps the viewer identify with Caleb by focusing on his reaction rather than Nathan’s delivery. By doing so, the viewer is put directly into Caleb’s shoes, frightened exactly as he is.
At this point, the editing sticks mostly to a “shot-reverse-shot” style for their conversation. The camera placement, production design, and performances in this scene are crucial to portraying Nathan as villainous and Caleb as “pure”. Although Nathan sits lower than Caleb stands, the camera is placed low on Nathan to create a domineering effect. His eye-line neither connects with Caleb or the camera, making him difficult to read. He is also underlit, and his black shirt and beard disappear into the black couch that he lies on. With it being difficult to visually resolve Nathan, the viewer similarly is unable to identify with him.
Conversely, the shots on Caleb return to the previous mobile shot, though now at a rest. This shot shows Nathan in the foreground, eerily silhouetted against the chaotic splatter painting. Caleb stands in front of the pure white wall, wearing a white shirt. Traditionally, color theory tells us that lighter colors are associated with “pureness” and darker colors with evil. By using colors and values traditionally aligned to morality, Garland plays on audience’s expectations to subconsciously tell the viewer that Caleb is the good guy and that Nathan is literally shady.
When the camera cuts in closer on Caleb, he is framed slightly off center, favoring screen-right, which is also the direction of his eye-line. This shortens his look room, which causes a feeling of trappedness for Caleb. The camera here also follows Caleb as he bends down, which subtly reminds the viewer that they are following his perspective.
Nathan’s dialogue and his performance very much indicate that he is unpredictable. He calls Caleb an “unknown,” although his behavior indicates that the “unknown” is truly himself. This makes it difficult to understand him and therefore difficult to identify with him. He first seems to be interrogating Caleb, demanding “Who you gonna call?” Just as the viewer thinks that Nathan is going to lose his temper, he interjects, “Ghostbusters?” as a joke. But even as he explains the joke, repeating, “Who you gonna call, Ghostbusters? It’s a movie, man,” he seems to deliver it angrily. This leaves both Caleb and the audience emotionally confused as to whether Nathan is legitimately angry or legitimately joking. I argue that this being unknown is even more unsettling than if Nathan were just angry. As the conversation moves on to the power cuts, Nathan, still avoiding eye contact, takes a deep breath as if to explain, and then just gives us an unsatisfying “I’m working on it.” He clearly is withholding information.
Caleb expresses concern over being trapped in his room. The camera cuts to a close-up on Nathan, emphasizing the importance of what he says and how he acts in this shot. Like before, this shot is framed from below looking up at Nathan, which gives him a powerful presence. He explains that the rooms must lockdown for proprietary safety, which is of course important information for Caleb’s plan later, but it also indicates that Caleb is likely to be trapped again, and Nathan has no concern. Nathan says, “If it happens again, relax,” but at this point in the scene the audience has been convinced not to trust him and that Caleb definitely shouldn’t relax. This is made creepier by Isaac’s dry delivery. He then says “Sweet dreams” in the same insincere voice. Again, his eyes show no care as they gaze unfocused in no particular direction.
Once Caleb leaves, the camera returns to Nathan’s close-up, and pans down to show his blurry, distorted reflection in the table, which acts as a final visual metaphor that demonstrates that Nathan may be “two faced.” According to Hulk, Caleb is similarly antagonistic to this film’s story, but Garland misleads the audience into identify with the wrong side. The scene I’ve analyzed is just one example of how Garland continuously reinforces Caleb as the hero, despite the film’s ending and theme saying differently. Hulk says this forces the audience to reconsider their own viewpoint and with whom they identify. This forces the audience realize that sometimes they “aren’t the hero” and that “we’re not always on the right side.” Scenes like this one affirm the audience’s assumptions so that later they can be challenged, which, as Hulk argues, can be far more powerful than a film spelling it out.