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Ex Machina: Who's The Protagonist Now?

By Karel Segers

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At the time of the screen adaptation of Alex Garland's THE BEACH, all eyes were on the director (Danny Boyle).  But the novelist went on to write the original script for 28 DAYS LATER, Boyle's next movie, which returned its budget tenfold. Then he adapted Ishiguro's novel NEVER LET ME GO.

With EX MACHINA, a challenging piece of low-budget genre cinema, Garland made an impressive transition to directing.

Spoilers Required [and you are warned]

Computer programmer prodigy Caleb wins an invitation to the remote mountain estate of company owner Nathan, to take part in a secretive experiment. He is to perform a Turing test on a female AI robot, Ava. If positive, it means Ava has developed consciousness.  But all doesn't end positively for our unassuming programmer, and the film didn't really appeal to the mainstream audience. 

I loved the movie, particularly during a second viewing, perhaps because I was prepared for the shock ending. But to be really prepared, you need to understand the movie's mid point reversal.

The Ava Sessions

Like the chapters of a book, the story is largely divided into sections, each starting with an "Ava Session". As the test progresses, Caleb is increasingly intrigued and impressed by Nathan's invention, to the point that he is falling for her. So there's a love story, too. But what is the movie about on a deeper level? The key to the answer lies in one scene, and one scene only.

Script vs Scene

Halfway the movie sits a deceptive scene that revealed its secrets to me only upon re-watching. Caleb tells Ava about a thought experiment called "Mary-in-the-black-and-white-room." From her response, it appears Ava understands that the story is really about her, and she doesn't like what she hears.

Much of this is unique to the finished film, and not present in the screenplay. The script has just dialogue, no big print subtext. On screen, Caleb's monologue is intercut with flashes that can really only be Ava's imagination; her internal response.

Garland's Hidden Clues

Other than the POV flashes and Ava's facial response, the scene's framing holds a massive clue. A line runs vertically straight through the middle; Ava on the left, Caleb on the right. If you were to carefully review Caleb's earlier sessions, you would have noticed that before, Caleb was positioned on the left. This is the side of the screen typically reserved for ... the main character. What Garland says by placing Ava on the left, is: Caleb has lost his protagonist status. This is confirmed when it is revealed to us that Ava has been triggering the mysterious power cuts.

Complete Story Reversal

Ava is fully in control. Not only does this AI robot have intention, she is controlling where the story goes, and to top it all off - as testify the subjective images - we have also just entered her POV.

The irony? With the Mary story, Caleb planted the seed of his own demise.

Many great movies have mid points that essentially signify a reversal of some kind. Here the reversal is complete. We shift to another main character altogether.

Storytelling at its bravest.

About Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst, script editor and producer with experience in rights acquisition, script development and production. His screenwriting classes have trained writers in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and his clients include international award-winning filmmakers as well as three Academy Award nominees. Karel is the founder of The Story Department and!, and he ranks in the world's Top 10 of most influential people for screenwriting on Twitter.


Screenwriting Article by Karel Segers

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