It’s been five year since Alex Garland’s mesmerizing, thought-provoking sci-fi masterpiece Ex Machina hit theaters, and we’re still turning the film over in our heads. There’s something so intoxicating about the story, which follows a programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a contest that lets him spend a week at the private estate of his boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). The prodigy CEO lives on an expansive plot of land, in a secluded and erudite mansion, that holds a cavern of mysteries. One of those mysteries: an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
The plot unfolds both methodically and anxiously. We soon learn that Caleb wasn’t brought there by chance, but that he was hand-chosen by Nathan to “test” Ava. Is the AI capable of feelings, and is Caleb capable of believing them? By the end, it’s both men who are proven fools; they’re pawns in a master plan Ava hatched to escape into the real world and live her life as a free woman—away from the imprisonment of Nathan’s mad genius antics, with Caleb an unfortunate casualty in her method of survival.
All of that is well and good, but if you’ve been on the internet at all these last five years, then you’ll best remember Ex Machina for something seemingly irrelevant to all that I just wrote. It’s not the paralyzing moral questions the film presents, but one singular moment that has truly stood the test of time. Nathan, the ever-drunk and occasionally psychopathic antagonist of Ex Machina, takes a moment out of his stressful everyday life to show off his dance moves to Caleb. He’s accompanied by another of his AI creations, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), and the two perform a disco number that truly has to be seen to be believed.
It’s such a hilarious and jarring moment that it was destined to become a meme. And what a meme it is! Gifs from the moment are frequently used, and it inspired a whole Twitter account where other music is played over the sequence—proving that Isaac and Mizuno’s moves can apply to just about anything. (Unfortunately, due to copyright, the videos have been removed and the account has been suspended. Just imagine Smash Mouth’s “All Star” playing over the scene and you’ll get the general gist.)
Ex Machina was released in 2015—January 21 in the United Kingdom, April 10 in the United States—just ahead of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the film that would truly make Oscar Isaac a breakout star. (Gleeson also appears in the new Star Wars sequel trilogy.) Although the actor first made major waves in the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013, it was the one-two punch of Ex Machina and Star Wars that gave him a different level of fame: he became known as the “ Internet’s boyfriend.”
That’s a dubious title that many before and since him have held, but it’s hard to deny the power it provides. If you weren’t looking at lip-biting Poe Dameron moments, you were watching Oscar’s hips undulate—his shirt unbuttoned, head shaved—in this clip from Ex Machina. Even people who haven’t seen the movie are probably familiar with gifs from this moment. It was all anyone could talk about in early 2015. Vanity Fair even called it “ the best scene of the year.”
But more than anything, the breakout scene feels like the perfect way of summarizing the larger themes of the film that contains it. Ex Machina is all about our relationship with technology; how the allure of something’s impressive facade distorts our perception of the thing itself. As a standalone moment, one so worshipped it became a meme—separated from the film’s emotional core, and not even that emblematic of its tone or messaging—it’s intriguing, engaging, impossible to ignore. But it’s just a dressing. The real layers are in the plot, which sneaks out and surprises us; guts us as swiftly as Ava slips a knife into her creator.
So it makes total sense that the most memorable image of Ex Machina is from something so removed from what it actually is. It’s part of the genius of the film—and a possibly intentional one, as Garland has said he included the scene to “wake up” the audience—and part of why it endures as a strange, cerebral classic on this milestone anniversary.
-Header Image: A24