What’s particularly brilliant and done in a way that few movies manage to even attempt much less succeed at is how Ex Machina manipulates the viewer as much as the characters are all manipulating one another.
Viewed at a surface level, most women seem to see the movie as a male-oriented sex robot fantasy. Even the normally very-perceptive Casey Johnston was completely duped in this regard, as were many other female reviewers.
And for most men who only skim the surface (which is almost all of them), from their perspective the “hero” Caleb is betrayed and left to die unjustly and undeservedly by the perfidious damsel-bot in distress that he “saves” from her fate of being switched off — i.e., murdered.
The film is completely devilish and wonderful in how it provides a façade that matches exactly what both genders expect to see, even though what they see has nearly nothing to do with what the film is actually saying. Or, in another way of examining it, that is exactly the point of the movie. It leverages people’s cultural expectations and anopsias to corral them into being the very flaws the movie is attempting to reveal. Completely brilliant.
In other words the film works on either level. If you only get so far as the shallow surface, the film has worked at the level of successfully deceiving you thus reinforcing its point. You are the dupe, the mark, demonstrating the very motif of the work by your own unknowing complicity in its deception.
If you manage to step into the deep water of the film, however, and are able to perceive the undercurrents swirling beneath and you are no longer beguiled by the simplistic and false “I’m a sexy, sexy robot” or the “Caleb was woefully betrayed by stabby bitch-bot” narrative of the film, still you likely empathize with Ava even though it’s not 100% clear that there is anything to empathize with.
Perhaps you are still being deceived. Perhaps you are not. But at least you are then in the murk where the film wishes to place you.
The supreme cleverness of Ex Machina is in this recursive subterfuge. When Ava walks wordlessly out the door and abandons Caleb to what might be his tomb, all the women who saw the film as a male sexbot fantasy and all the men who see Caleb as maliciously wronged seem to experience huge cognitive dissonance.
Strangely, rather than forcing most of these shallow reviewers to re-evaluate the film, they either ignore the denouement altogether (shallow women) or rage against its injustice (shallow men).
The mark of a good film, to be sure, is not that no one understands it.
But the mark of a great film might be that most people believe they’ve comprehended it though they have not, all the while the work’s very structure has comprehended them in advance and integrated their very cognitive limitations, biases, and preconceptions as an integral part of the narrative and what that narrative means.
There are few films indeed that do this, and Ex Machina does it better than all of them.