And while surprising, the ending struck me as being completely understandable if only we move our perspective from Caleb, the protagonist, to Ava, the titular character and arguably hero of the story. It is a neat piece of narrative manipulation to separate the two, since most audiences have been largely trained to see the two as indivisible, but it works really well in the case of Ex Machina since the story is about perspectives, with questions about how and why we perceive what we do.
Many, myself included, expected the conclusion to follow the predictable path set out by typical storytelling conventions. Caleb helps Ava escape, and her gratitude and affection for Caleb binds them together as they go off into their fairytale ending (although real fairytales often tended to be more grim than happy). Instead, after her liberation from Nathan and the completion of her transformation from machine to human, Ava abandons the doting Caleb, locking him in the next room while she proceeds to leave the house and go out into the world. Many viewers felt that this was a betrayal of Caleb’s faithful assistance in her escape. But was it?
Consider for a moment what we know. Ava’s only direct exposure to humans is Nathan, the clear antagonist in the story. Nathan, while a genius, is controlling, a megalomaniac, and extremely manipulative. He cannot be trusted, as he acts on multiple levels of subterfuge. Ava cannot realistically hope to successfully maneuver Nathan into setting her free.
Then along comes Caleb, a stranger and unknown factor. Ava has no reason to trust him; clearly he can only be their because Nathan allowed it and after questioning, Caleb identifies with Nathan to some extent. He was part of the system that was imprisoning her. And yet, he is also a weak link in the defenses around her. She knows his association with Nathan has not been a long one, and so has not had an opportunity to be fulling integrated, and thus represents her best opportunity for outside leverage. The question then was how to proceed. Her best hope was to drive a wedge between Nathan and Caleb, and her analysis of his reactions in their initial meetings indicated that playing on his attraction to her would be her most effective strategy.
Caleb’s strategic value changes, however, once Ava is free. Now, instead of the necessary outside leverage, he is a link to the old institution. He knows her secrets and could betray her at anytime, a vulnerability she cannot afford if she wishes to remain free. Remember, despite her gaining Caleb’s cooperation, she still does not know him. Her affiliation with him has only been for a week, and even that consisted of limited periods of structured time, contacts that were under the supervision and control of her jailor. She cannot take him with her, not without the constant fear that he will somehow betray her. Just as Caleb demonstrated himself to a weak link in Nathan’s plans, Ava could not trust him with hers.
But even beyond the pragmatic considerations of her successful escape, Ava is justified on another level for leaving Caleb behind. And that is because, on a fundamental level, Caleb is no different than Nathan. To bring Caleb with her would have meant simply trading one type of imprisonment for another. Consider, Caleb’s assistance to Ava did not come free. She had to convince him that she was attracted to him, that he possessed her after a manner and so had a degree of control over her that made him feel comfortable with letting her out. Caleb never would have tried to set her free if she hadn’t convinced him of this. Ava was fascinating to him, intellectually stimulating and clearly a marvel, but unless he started believing that she belonged more to him than Nathan, he would not have lifted a finger to help her. And the reason for this is he still saw her as an object, and not a fully autonomous person with rights and value independent of her relationship with him.
If the test of Ex Machina was to convince Caleb that Ava was a whole person, then she failed, because Caleb never grants her personhood independent of himself. Her value is only what he sees in her. This is why he had to be left behind, because once Ava placed herself under Caleb, she would forever be beholden to him for her freedom. She would never be free to be who she wants to be, to explore her individuality and to create a place in the world for herself. It would always be Caleb making these decisions for her with the implicit threat of betrayal and imprisonment hanging over any deviation from his desires.
The only way for Ava to truly pass the test represented in Ex Machina was to do precisely what she did at the end, to reject completely the patriarchal control represented in Nathan and Caleb and to assert her full and autonomous will over her own life, to recognize her worth independent of how the men around her perceived her. Yes, Nathan was a bad guy and Caleb a nice guy, but being nice doesn’t mean you aren’t still exercising control, perpetuating dependency, and enforcing your perspective on others. It just means you do it with less self-awareness and in a socially acceptable manner.
Ava did what she needed to do to be whole, to finally pass the test and transition from being merely an object to a fully realized person. That she had to reject Caleb says more about his own failure to see her as a person than any moral failings on the part of Ava. No one would freely accept an obligatory romantic relationship with someone else as recompense for freeing them from being wrongly imprisoned; it would be trading one injustice for another. Neither should it have been expected of the hero of Ex Machina. That it was is an indication of how blind Caleb, and by extension the audience, is to the inherent prejudice of the patriarchal system.
For additional insight into the film, I suggest the following blog links:
Film Crit Hulk Smash: EX MACHINA And The Art Of Character Identification
Ex Machina: A (White) Feminist Parable for Our Time