It’s been five years since Ex Machina’s release and in that time its reputation has risen from indie darling to sci-fi classic. The weight of its status is evident when studio A24 releases a coffee table book about its screenplay and development, and as the myths around its creation and writer-director Alex Garland continue to to grow.
One such bit of cult lore centers on the removal of the movie’s originally more opaque ending. It’s in the Ex Machina screenplay found in that coffee table book, and we’ve known about it since Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac first teased it to Den of Geek in 2015. The excised moment occurs in the penultimate scene, after Vikander’s Ava has left Nathan (Isaac) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to their fates, but before she’s made it to civilization. With her synthetic skin and authentic sundress, the robot who’s more than proven her general artificial intelligence—that is true self-consciousness and the awareness to learn and grow like a human intellect—is faced with her first hurdle: passing for human with a helicopter pilot. The movie finally has an actual Turing test!
“What used to happen is you’d see her talking, and you wouldn’t hear, but all of a sudden it would cut to her point-of-view,” Isaac told me five years ago. “And her point-of-view is completely alien to ours. There’s no actual sound; you’d just see pulses and recognitions [when the pilot spoke], and all sorts of crazy stuff, which conceptually is very interesting. It was that moment where you think, ‘Oh she was lying!’ But maybe not, because even though she still experiences differently, it doesn’t mean that it’s not consciousness.”
So when sitting down with Garland in 2020 to discuss his thematically similar Devs, I had to ask why he removed the moment.
“I think it’s a bit cute,” Garland says. “It was like one too many breadcrumbs being laid down. I sort of felt like it was overly leading, and in fact, retrospectively I’m pretty sure I was right. Because a problem I tended to encounter with Ex Machina is people made a set of assumptions about Ava—that she was just a cold bad robot doing cold bad things, as opposed to empathizing with her as a sentient being who’s being treated unreasonably.”
Indeed, Garland has said more than once he views Ava as the true protagonist of Ex Machina, even if the film is largely told from Caleb’s vantage. At least in the creator’s mind, this is a liberation story about a new species being bent to the will of a malevolent creature who thinks itself to be godly. So it’s not necessarily the story of a robot apocalypse, despite how bitter the ending is for the two humans of the story.
“I’ve never liked the interpretation that she has no empathy,” Garland says. “It doesn’t seem right to me… She may well have empathy for the other robot [played by Sonoya Mizuno]. And that robot might have empathy for her. Just because something doesn’t have empathy for you doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of empathy.”
Garland seems satisfied with the choice of cutting the screenplay’s telltale moment about how Ava really looked at someone like poor delusional Caleb.
“I think if I put in that version of Ava’s point-of-view in the world, they would have doubled down on that, probably. It would have made her even more of a cold robot, and I really didn’t see her that way at all. Even now, I’m kind of pleased about that [decision]. We did shoot it and put in placeholder VFX but the way it looked didn’t feel right.”
Perhaps it’s fitting then that the last time we really see Ava, she is enjoying the sun instead of living in digital darkness.
Devs is available now, exclusively on FX on Hulu.