The Architecture of Ex Machina Provides a Seducing Backdrop to a Clever Sci-Fi Thriller
Nathan’s minimalist hideout plays the fourth character with eye-catching design
Ex Machina is writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut. A stylish contemporary science fiction movie where Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an accomplished coder at the world’s largest tech company, is invited to a secret mountain hideaway owned by the company’s CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb soon learns he is there to partake in an extraordinary experiment. He must interact with a beautiful android girl and test if true artificial intelligence exists. Ex Machina is a smart thriller that veers in a very different direction than that of the sci-fi movies of late. It is a deep character study craftily examining the human condition, brilliantly delving into the philosophical with sharp intelligent dialogue. In addition to this, the sets are beautiful and have a strong Danish feel to them. Not surprising given the two property locations used for the mountain hideaway are both in Norway. One is a very stylish hotel and the other is an equally sleek and contemporary house, both designed by Jensen & Skodvin Architects. Additional sets were built in Pinewood Studio in the UK.
The visually stunning independent movie was a sleeper hit, grossing over $36 million worldwide and received almost universally positive reviews and by year end still rated high on the list of best movies of 2015.
The success of Ex Machina owes a lot to production designer Mark Digby and set decorator Michelle Day, whom Alex Garland has worked with on every one of his movies. Mark Digby has said that the design team deliberately kept the scale of the kind of house we imagine a multi-billionaire might live in turned way down. So, while the house is modern, or post-modern, it is in fact quite small: no big mega-mansion behind a high security wall, just the human-sized house set in a vast, remote, rugged terrain. And while there is a lot of concrete and glass, there is also vibrant green vegetation outside: the man-made and the natural environment, reimagining the underlying themes of the movie, a symbiosis of man-made technology and the untamed natural world.
Because the movie is set just a few years into the future, the technology is merely a short step forward from what is available now. Alex Garland has described the future presented in the movie as “ten minutes from now”.
Nathan is well educated, very wealthy and has supreme taste in art, architecture and history. He can have whatever he wants. A lot of his art is collector pieces, including masks from antiquity, which speak to the idea of incomparable human and artificial intelligence. But while his home has beautiful lines surrounded by lush nature with cool mid-20th century design, the prison-like bedrooms have no windows, creating a version of the future that is foreboding but stylish and beautiful.
The sets are some of the most stunningly beautiful we’ve ever seen in movies. Wallpaper Magazine awarded Ex Machina best film set of 2015. We can see why. We loved the little subtle ‘surprises’ in the movie too. For instance, in one scene towards the end of the movie, Ava, wearing a white dress, walks past a painting of a woman in a white dress. The painting on the wall is by Gustav Klimt – this is Nathan’s art collection, after all – and is of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sister. Garland based a lot of the themes in the movie on Wittgenstein’s philosophy. According to Garland, that moment was created by Michelle Day: consistent with his anti-auteur theory, he gave her a card credit for the impact she had on the movie.
The furniture used throughout is an eclectic classic range of mid-20th century pieces. They include the Antonio Citterio Grand Repos chair, the Lem stools and even the sleek Blomos Suavo teapot in Nathan’s kitchen caught our eye. The stunning copper lights in Nathan’s living room were designed by Danish designer David Derksen. There are also some pieces from Camerich in the U.K. including the sleek Alison Plus sofa and the Venus chair.
Ex Machina is so visually stunning you could watch it with the sound down and still follow the story. Garland’s direction is done with a masterful visual flair. As well as the three leads, the house itself is a character, such that even before we meet it’s owner, we already know a lot about him from the architecture, the interiors and the design. At the end of the movie, long after the lights go up, it is the astounding house itself that lingers in the memory.
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