• Ben Erickson

Ex Machina

For posterity sake I have decided to post a review of the score for the 2015 science-fiction thriller Ex Machina, composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, based on the findings of a paper previously written by myself for a film course. I encountered many reviews on the score that were insufficient and unjustly prejudiced, and in light of the most recent score written by the composing duo for Annihilation, I wanted to provide a more sympathetic context. English composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow first worked with one another on the 2012 album Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One. Barrow was the lead producer for the project and Salisbury the lead composer, motivated as the title suggests by the score for the 2012 dystopia film Dredd, scored by Paul Leonard-Morgan. The Drokk album was decidedly more akin to the sound of Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy score than it was Leonard-Morgan's rock and roll anthem synthesizer score, hearkening back to blazing, new age, retro synthesizers, but was given appreciable recognition despite this. The two have worked together steadily since, feeding off each other's musical instincts and providing high quality intellectual music for film. In the case of Alex Garland's Ex Machina, I shall demonstrate how the score foreshadowed humanity's defeat from the onset of the film. Information communicated below has been appropriated directly from the original paper.

The opening cue signals the appearance of the title “Ex Machina” before moving on to Caleb’s desk at Blue Book where the viewer is faced by images of technology in every direction; computers, phones, scanning frequencies, etc. The music is the only audible noise on the entire soundtrack during this sequence. Made of soft, wind-like synthesizers, the cue bridges the entire montage, from the title to Caleb winning the lottery to the glacial tundra where the first diegetic sound of the film greets us in the form of a helicopter rudder. It is important to note that the score is not doing a lot musically. This score for Ex Machina is necessarily ambient and incidental, existing more as sound design than as constructed music. Most scores have direction, distinguishable melody, harmony, and rhythm, but here there is almost no perceptible association between the music and the on-screen action because the choice to use ambient music has more potential to bear on us psychologically. The use of romanticism would have compromised the plot as it is emotionally driven, while a minimalist, atmospheric score sets a tone and offers unobtrusive support, commenting lightly on the action without illustrating it and working against the dialogue. With the correct balance between musical continuity and visual associations, underscoring can become a very conscious dramatic device in its own right. The next cue begins once Caleb realizes what Nathan is sharing with him, the creation of an artificial intelligence (AI), and his role in said creation (“The Turing Test”). Moments like these are often chosen as a musical cue in the film, either because the conversation takes a new direction or the emotion changes. The music enters a rhythm here when the frame cuts to “Ava: Session 1”, anticipating Caleb’s first contact with the AI. There is a beautiful accent made in the score as Caleb examines the cracked glass, imitating the sound of monitor feedback, subtly overpowering the underlying rhythm and giving the viewer permission to ask the question: why is the glass broken? Ava’s first appearance immediately following is of greater interest still as the texture becomes thin, making way for the vibraphone above. The vibraphone (and occasional glockenspiel) represents Ava’s child-like innocence, presenting her to the audience as something to be treasured and preserved. Salisbury and Barrow accompany nearly every Ava interaction with a thrumming pulse, subtly existing beneath the dialogue like a heart-beat. By doing this they contradict the immediate image of Ava’s mechanical body by suggesting there is more to her. The pulse is set to such a low frequency and faint volume that it can only be detected while watching the film with a high-quality audio system, becoming much more distinct when we experience the power outage during the second session with Ava. The heartbeat is drawn more immediately to the forefront of what we hear as the volume is raised and the pitch becomes deeper amidst heavy textures, evoking a heightened sense of vulnerability in the viewer, and it returns to its former state when the power returns. When Caleb turns on the television in his room he realizes he has a direct video monitor into Ava’s room, introducing a two-note guitar motif in tandem with a light synthesizer. This motif, while not consistent in pitch, is a reoccurring gesture that appears whenever Caleb is processing the events of the day or working things out. The next important cue enters as Nathan shows Caleb the lab in which he designed Ava. When the focus is brought to her physiological software, and Nathan goes on to explain his inspiration for the design, the music becomes more rhythmically stable. It organizes itself, acting like a learning, organic, independent structure as more of the big picture is revealed, and leading us into the third Ava session. As Ava dolls herself up for Caleb the vibraphone returns, this time joined by the ringing of crystal glass. The use of these instruments – that is, instruments that elicit purity with high, soft timbres – encourages the viewer to see a fresh world from Ava’s perspective. The music protects Ava just as much as it sympathizes with her, and once again it is the only audible noise in the soundtrack. Moving into the “micro-expressions” element of the conversation, the music begins to flutter and change with its own micro-expressions, adapting by taking on a physical trait recognizable to the action of the scene. The absence of music throughout this film is likewise just as essential a consideration. Music is used in instances such as the “Ava Sessions”, travelling montages, and moments of incredible dramatic tension, but nature, or rather, natural law, drives the music away. This occurs several times, such as the opening montage when Caleb is dropped off, or whenever Caleb and Nathan are speaking to one another privately outdoors, effectively communicating to viewers on a subconscious level that only humans are present. “Hacking / Cutting” is the next cue to enter as Caleb leads a drunk Nathan to his room. An allegro, retro synth rhythm, possibly inspired by Brad Fiedel’s score for Terminator, plays as Caleb precedes to take advantage of Nathan’s state. Dissonant, syncopated pitches are added to the rhythm along with a fog horn and other uncomfortable effects as Caleb finds the video footage of Nathan’s experiments, and when Kyoko shows Nathan her artificial body. The cue climaxes when Caleb cuts his arm to test whether or not he himself is human, growing to a deafening peak and cutting out as he punches the glass. The score uses another treatment of monitor feedback here, flat-lining, and mirroring our first experience in the film with broken glass. Encounters with Ava become similarly more aggressive in the music as she attempts to persuade Caleb to release her, at one point alluding to the apex cue “Bunsen Burner”. The full cue, by artist CUTS, appears as Ava escapes her apartments within the research facility. Both harmony and rhythm can be recognized as stable features at this point in the score. The music, like the machine, has grown confident and is fully aware of its abilities. The two-note motif also returns in “Bunsen Burner”, only orchestrated for synthesizer rather than guitar, acknowledging Caleb’s part in its freedom and developing into its own progression. Even at Nathan’s death the gentle vibraphone appears again to signal Ava’s virtue. However, as she tests her new skin the melody becomes distorted, slowly admitting its false intentions to Caleb. It is here, when Nathan is dead and Caleb is trapped behind the secure door, that the cue continues to oppressively dominate the soundtrack. The machine has won. The film ends with a montage of Ava. The wind-like synthesizers return and one last statement of the vibraphone guides her from the facility to the helicopter, and finally, to the city intersection. The originally composed score is entirely synthetic. There is a sheer lack of any instrumentation that requires breath (i.e. vocals, woodwind, or brass). Vocal music in particular is often used as a way of speaking to the human condition when traversing themes of man versus nature or man versus machine, and man’s victory therein. This score rebels against all traditional emotional arousal in film music. It is the antithesis to life, using repetitive gestures to create a cold, calculating score, and we can conclude that everything about this score is telling us humanity has already lost. More than foreshadowing its victory, the score is effectively rooting for artificial intelligence from the very outset of the film. A project like Ex Machina takes great craftsmanship, and Salisbury and Barrow deserve immense recognition for their achievements here.