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Bodies electric: Ex Machina twists the history of sexy robots

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The complicated gender commentary of Alex Garland's sci fi chamber thriller

A24

Before the premiere screening of Ex Machina at South by Southwest this weekend, senior programmer Jarod Neece told the audience at the Paramount Theatre in no uncertain terms, "this is one of the best films we've ever shown." And indeed, Ex Machina is excellent — gorgeously shot and designed, brain-crampingly complex in its line of questioning and gracefully efficient in its storytelling. But throw hyperbole like that at a film festival and you're bound to invite contrarians. And as soon as the credits rolled on Ex Machina, I predicted two things in its near future: near-unanimous critical praise, and a lot of hot debate about its woman problem.

Caution: some spoilers ahead.

Admittedly, in those first few hours of digesting the film I wasn't even sure if it had a woman problem or not. I certainly saw the signifiers of a woman problem in its casting and the design of the its principal AI. But both in Kwame Opam's Q&A and in the post-film discussion, Alex Garland made a point to emphasize that he's on the side of the female-presenting machines in the film, not the humans. Which is interesting, because Ex Machina is essentially a chamber play — a very conversational, human form of storytelling. We are predisposed to identify with the two humans in the conversational triangle that propels the story, while the third, nonhuman player is introduced as an object for one-way inquiry, a specimen in a glass box (more on boxes later!).

The gender roles are no accident

In Ex Machina, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a low level programmer at Google stand-in BlueBook, who wins a chance to spend a week at the remote estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac,) BlueBook's founder and CEO. Upon arriving at the compound, Nathan lets Caleb know that he didn't bring him all the way there just to bond and be bros together — he has developed what might be a game-changing AI, and he needs someone to be the human half of its Turing Test — to see if it is indistinguishable from a human by another human. Despite a formidable NDA, Caleb jumps at the opportunity, and soon is brought face to face with Ava (Alicia Vikander,) a captivatingly life-like, and as it so happens, aesthetically beautiful humanoid AI.

Ex Machina

I don't think it's an accident that the two humans are male. You could easily read this as a sly commentary on traditional blockbuster narratives: focus on the two dudes, gawk at the attractive, disposable women in the margins. It's also no accident that Nathan has decided to give Ava an attractive female form. The scientific and hedonistic reasons for this get blurred; if Ava is really to pass the Turing test, the fastest way around human logic is sex appeal. And how better to appeal to a lonely, socially awkward young man like Caleb than by handing him a very advanced RealDoll, literally a composite of his porn search history, who he can fantasize about without having to worry about her biological humanity? Conveniently for Nathan, this also means he has a bevy of perfectly formed, speechless women at his beck and call.

The AI are spoken about as objects, albeit with female pronouns

That reveal — that Ava is only the most recent of many gynoids Nathan has built, tested, and essentially fridged, is I suspect where Ex Machina might meet some detractors. There's an exploitative cruelty in the sight of a closetful of what to our eyes are naked, dead women — unlike Ava, the skinjobs that came before her are physically indistinguishable from humans. But we are told over and over again that they are machines; they are spoken about as objects, albeit with female pronouns. This puts us in nice-guy Caleb's shoes as he grapples with the philosophical ramifications of Nathan's project — is there any moral problem with these sophisticated female-appearing machines being held in captivity? Is there any harm in having a Japanese sex bot who makes you sushi and will let you verbally abuse her to your heart's content? Is it OK to stare at her boobs?

There have been a slew of prestige-television shows in recent years that involve the grotesque manipulation of female corpses — think the pilot episode of True Detective — as a catalyst for the male characters to set off on a mission to catch the bad guys. Likewise, the female form undergoes serious abuse in Ex Machina: limbs torn off, jaws removed, skin peeled and reapplied with chilling ease. We don't get to know any flesh and blood women in the film, so as far as we're concerned, the near-future of Ex Machina is a place where female bodies are abused and destroyed by men with cavalier disregard. And if Garland simply left it at that, it would be easy to write off as prurient hand-wringing.

near-future where female bodies are abused and destroyed by men with cavalier disregard

Of course, Ava's design very intentionally gives her some hefty sci-fi baggage: she and her forebears are just the most recent in a long line of sexy female robots, going from Seven of Nine to Metropolis. It's one of the more silly sci-fi tropes going; in a genre that is supposedly about the future and progress, the (overwhelmingly male) authors of these stories still can't help but fantasize about having a lady-shaped thing that doesn't have all that pesky personhood. (Ex Machina also falls into the unfortunate trap of casting an unknown in the AI role — after all, we need recognizable talent as our male leads, but the woman-thing can be anyone, as long as she's attractive.) (For the record, Vikander's performance is the most powerful of the three.) The more human-like AI appear, the more it can also inspire feelings like pity, as Caleb feels for Ava. But you can pity something and not think of it as your equal, you can lust after someone while their personhood remains abstract. If you want to be extra dark, you could say that, for a certain kind of guy, a female form might be the worst choice to pass the Turing Test.

Ex Machina

In her YouTube video "Women as Background Decoration," Anita Sarkeesian makes the important point that "Simply presenting depictions of women being abused ... does nothing to make them less objectified." Sarkeesian was talking about video game narratives in which the protagonist, like Caleb, sets out to rescue the poor, hot, exploited woman-shaped-entity — but not before we get to watch a little of that exploitation. But what makes Caleb's plight different from the games Sarkeesian highlights, and what I think ultimately makes Ex Machina a true critique of that exploitation rather than masquerading eye candy, is that his role as savior and boyfriend is rendered useless, laughable even, by the entity he has charged himself with rescuing. At risk of spoiling the ending completely, I will just say that Ex Machina will be very interesting to watch a second time, from Ava's point of view.)

AI has been used as a metaphor for slavery before; here it's a metaphor for feminism

You might notice I'm throwing around words like "woman" and "point of view" with a bit of disregard for the differentiation between a human woman and a female shaped AI; but in a film like this, which wears its imperfect gender politics on its sleeve, they essentially have similar functions. They are underestimated by men the way women all-too-frequently are, they are taken advantage of. AI rights have been used in film and television as a metaphor for slavery before; here it's a metaphor for feminism. As Garland pointed out in our Q&A, Ava could have just as easily been built into a male body, and her consciousness would have been the same — but the way the human characters relate to her would be drastically different. The story would change completely, or maybe it would just be Terminator.

Near the end of Ex Machina we linger on a shot of another one of Nathan's AIs who meets an unfortunate fate, and the sight is fascinating and repulsive — with her metal structure partially exposed, but human hair falling over her dismantled face, she is at once woman and machine, a corpse and an old broken iMac put out on the sidewalk for trash pickup. It reminded me of the final scene of last year's Under The Skin, in which a powerful, man-eating alien takes the form of Scarlett Johansson and meets a similar end. These are complex, fascinating beings who made one mistake: they got stuck with the wrong body in the wrong world.

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