Warning: This article will openly discuss plot details and twists in the film Ex Machina. If you wish the film to remain a surprise, see it before reading.
I’ll say this right away: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of the best films of the year so far. It is also, however, one of the best feminist polemics I have seen in a while. In a current criticism climate where the Black Widow is being called an anti-feminist character, and toys of female characters are being staunchly withheld from store shelves, I feel that Ex Machina, an anti-misogyny essay, should be spearheading the conversation.
Ex Machina is a moody and contemplative sci-fi film about a blustering bro-dogg supergenius internet magnate named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who has built an artificially intelligent female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan enlists the help of one of his many code monkeys, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test whether or not Ava is convincingly emulating intelligence, or is actually, truly intelligent. They refer to it as a Turing test, but they also acknowledge that it is not like a Turing test at all. We instantly note that the film is about two men who are locked in a house with a female-looking machine.
Over the course of the film, we learn that Nathan has been abusing Ava, locking her in a single room, denying her requests, and generally taking advantage of her. We, the audience, kind of empathize with Ava, but it remains difficult for us to truly see how she feels, because she is still so alien; although her face is very human, her body and legs and skull are transparent. Do we refer to Ava as a person, or as an object? Ava also begins to express some undeniably real human emotions in front of Caleb when Nathan isn’t looking. She says she is afraid, and wants to flee her prison. She also seems to be attracted to Caleb, and awkwardly flirts with him. Ava seems to (seems to) have a rich emotional life. Is she a strong woman, or is something else going on? Need I remind you that a male has created a female robot?
Many critics have been responding very positively to Garland’s movie, citing its intelligence, its performances, and its overwhelmingly creepy atmosphere. Ex Machina brings up important questions about technology that lesser films don’t address. What does it mean to truly create an intelligence? According to the Turing test, if a machine can emulate intelligence and consciousness to the point where an onlooker is fooled, that’s close enough for jazz. Ex Machina wants to take that notion further, and somehow prove that a robot can be conscious beyond merely emulating behavior.
But beneath the questions of technology and consciousness is the real heart of Ex Machina, and was no doubt the center of Garland’s thinking when he made the film: The question of gender politics. Ex Machina is a sci-fi film, but is also an essay on the nature of misogyny, very much in the vein of Neil LaBute.
Consider: Ava looks like a female. She has large breasts and a calming girlish face. She has an alien charm to her mannerisms that are off-putting, but nonetheless alluring to Caleb. We sense early on that Ava was constructed as eye candy for Nathan. That she is essentially an intelligent RealDoll, built to serve some sort of sexual need. Indeed, Nathan eventually reveals that Ava has a functioning vagina, and that her face and body were deliberately constructed after Caleb’s taste in pornography (Nathan constructs his artificial robot faces from an extrapolation of search engine terms and cell phone spy cameras).
Ava’s ultimate function is not to test new technology or to test the technological limits of consciousness, but to build the ideal woman for a selfish male who is, it is implied, kinda tired of the real thing. Not once during Ex Machina do either of the men consider the possibility of a male-shaped robot. Or a child. No, it must be a female, and it must be sexually active. Also consider Nathan’s behavior. He lifts weights, drinks like a fool, speaks like an overgrown teenager (sample dialogue: “Your mind is blown because it’s so cool!”), and treats Caleb like a dormmate more than a fellow adult. Nathan is an arrested adolescent in many, many ways, and his view of women is most certainly on the wrong side of enlightened.
It is revealed near the end of Ex Machina that Nathan’s test for artificial consciousness was essentially to construct a woman who could convince Caleb that she would need to escape her prison. If the woman could convince Caleb to aid her, especially if she displays wit, creativity, and – this is key – seduction in her escape techniques, then it would be proven she was self-conscious.
This is Nathan’s view of female-hood. Women, he has inherently assumed, need to be devious, tricky, seductive, and secretive in order to prove that they are worthy beings, that they are even alive. They need to be suspicious, manipulative harridans as their basic character trait. This is the way a misogynist views women. They are not rich, full beings, but only exist to please – and to betray – men. They are sexual objects who, in the best of circumstances, can please men physically and, in the worst of circumstances, use their in-born female evil to break hearts and backstab men.
Ex Machina looks at a tradition of male-created female love-bots that we’ve seen in sci-fi films for generations, and finally exposes the ugly woman-hating truth behind such beings. Men, these sci-fi films seems to say, want to create love slaves for themselves. A robo-harem. Real women are to ultimately be disposed of, and replaced with a more idealized version. If, however, those robot-builders want humanity in their love slaves, the only humanity they can conceive of is seductive wickedness.
In Ex Machina, Caleb and Nathan are ultimately punished for their limited view of female-hood, undone by a woman they programmed to be “perfectly” female; i.e. seductively wicked. When a misogynist creates a woman, is it any wonder that she ends up killing him? Ex Machina is not a feminist polemic, as I don’t think we’re meant to sympathize with Ava, or see her as independent, heroic, or an exemplar of complex female emotions. She is, at the end of the day, still artificial, and the audience will likely still feel her artificiality. It is, rather, one of the most powerful anti-misogynist sci-fi movies I have ever seen.
And in an age when sci-fi and genre films are constantly fighting to include more female characters (how many female-centered superheroine films are there again?), Ex Machina is a breath of fresh air.