The Flawed Feminism of Ex_Machina

This essay contains spoilers.

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Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a dark, complex, and compelling film, but it is not without flaws. On the surface it is a relatively straightforward character study examining scientific hubris and the dangers of playing God (or at least of thinking yourself God). Strip back that surface though and this a parable about overcoming patriarchal oppression with AI unsubtly standing in for women. Unfortunately, whilst touching on some important and interesting ideas the film also stumbles into potentially dangerous territory as its untrustworthy sexually manipulative fembots run amock in the research complex.

That is an ungenerous reading of the film, and I don’t think it is necessarily the film makers intention, but there are sufficient issues in the fabric of this movie to raise a few alarms. The plot is primarily about the power imbalance between humans (men) and AI (women) where the genius creator Nathan (played with expertly unsettling ambiguity by Oscar Isaac) allows his arrogance to override decency and reason. Nathan is interested in proving that he can create, and dominate, AI even if he believes that their creation will ultimately doom humanity (he is compelled to see if he can create artificial life but he struggles to articulate why). This is the start of the film’s problematic feminism. It seems unlikely that Garland considered reversing the genders of the creators and the AI, rather it appears intentional that Ava, the primary AI character in the film, has a female form as it allows Garland to explore ideas about male ego, self indulgence and mistaken beliefs of gender superiority. Nathan and Caleb even discuss exactly this decision, why Nathan made Ava a woman; Nathan’s answer is that sex is inherit to intelligence and key to how Ava will express herself. Garland doesn’t avoid the issue of gender in this movie, he courts it.

The film is centred on the relationship between the three principle characters; Nathan is arrogant and somehow socially awkward yet has dominance over both Caleb and Ava, this is his game. Caleb (ably portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson) is smart and aware, but his curiosity, and sexual desire, causes him to make choices that are both dangerous and woefully complicit in Nathan’s cruel experiments. Ava, played by the talented Alica Vikander, is simultaneously human and inhuman – her movements and inquiring eyes speak to an otherworldly intelligence, but she speaks with ‘real’ emotion and engagement. She is the reason Nathan and Caleb are here – to determine her viability in the world of men. Nathan oppresses Ava, he limits her engagement in society, robs her of her privacy (he constantly monitors her through CCTV), and regards her as a sophisticated instrument. Caleb has been brought in to perform the Turing Test in order to ascertain if Ava’s artificial intelligence is sufficiently advanced or not (although really he is there to be manipulated into loving Ava). Although things go wrong for both men, neither Nathan nor Caleb ever manage to see Ava as more than just an item to be prodded, tested, or possessed. Sweet Caleb falls in ‘love’ with Ava, after some furious lust over her whilst he is in the shower, but he is only motivated to break from his reason for being here, to test Ava, because he might get sexual gratification out of the deal. He acts not because he sees Nathan’s caging, belittling, and abusing of Ava as objectively wrong, but because he becomes subjectively involved – if he wasn’t attracted to Ava would he have found anything wrong with Nathan’s behaviour at all?

At one point in the film Nathan enters Ava’s room and confronts her in silence. As an audience, we are voyeurs just like Caleb, we are supposed to find this sequence sexually threatening, we are supposed to be concerned on Ava’s behalf. So far we have been informed that Nathan is unstable, physically capable, self indulgent, and manipulative, and the framing, Nathan sits dominantly on the desk whilst Ava is meekly in the chair below him, makes Nathan’s suggestive cupping of Ava’s chin seem like a damning prelude. The subsequent violence and destruction of his reaction to the portrait Ava has drawn, ripping it up and throwing it across the room, is a gross act of intimidation and a denial of Ava’s freedom to express herself. But this entire sequence, the bullying and harassment of Ava, has very little to actually do with Ava, it is explicitly for Caleb’s benefit, to engender his protective feelings and allow Nathan to continue his tests. Although Nathan does have a sexual relationship with another of his creations, Kyoko, there is never anything more to suggest that he has a sexual interest in Ava (Caleb even questions if Ava has been designed to his ‘tastes’) it is just for show, for the test, for the game. The oppression of a woman by a man as part of a game he is playing with another man.

Nathan relationship with Kyoko, his submissive housemaid/AI, is both sexual and dysfunctional. Kyoko is mistreated by Nathan throughout the movie as he demeans, verbally abuses, and ignores her. At first it seems that this may be a demonstration of his lack of respect for women or humanity generally, but it becomes clear relatively quickly that Kyoko is another AI like Ava, although perhaps not as sophisticated (though this reveal comes curiously late given that it is heavily telegraphed). To Nathan Kyoko is a tool, like a dishwasher or an iPod, and he treats her with the same abandon and lack of responsibility with which many of us approach our disposable technology. This serves to highlight the apparent obliviousness that Nathan has as to how wrong his actions truly are; he disassociates AI, and by extension women (given that all his AI’s are female by design), from humanity and treats them thusly. On the one hand this is powerful characterisation of Nathan, he thinks women don’t even need language just orders, but where it trips into dangerous territory is that Ava similarly uses Kyoko as a tool and denies her of agency. After Ava whispers some special code or phrase or suggestion into her ear Kyoko is activated as a knife wielding automaton and she plunges the blade into Nathan’s back. Although Sonoya Mizuno plays Kyoko with a haunting grace and there is a sense that underneath the cool exterior she hides a thick knot of hatred for Nathan, there isn’t sufficient evidence in the film that this is the really the case – she never acts out against him, and follows his orders at all times. So when she just follows another order from Ava it seems less like a victory for Kyoko and more like a continuation of her servitude under another master (that ultimately destroys her). Maybe Kyoko represents the oppressed women who feel unable to act against their oppressors, and maybe Ava ‘sets her free’ from this oppression, but Kyoko’s role remains too muddled for me to decipher.

We are often shown how both Nathan and Caleb view and sexualise Ava and Kyoko, sometimes very effectively as when Nathan and Ava become sexually nervous at the thought of Ava putting clothes on, and sometimes less effectively, as in the subsequent scene when Caleb voyeuristically watches Ava take those same clothes off. There is a lot of female nudity in this movie and whilst it doesn’t always actively sexualise the female body it does feel excessive at times. Kyoko is regularly depicted as submissive and naked, and Nathan’s clear disregard for her is matched only by the sheer weirdness of having the defunct robot nudes in his bedroom watching him sleep and have sex. This again seems intended to suggest Nathan’s personality flaws and that he fetishizes his own creations, but it also results in some unnecessarily prolonged shots of women’s naked bodies. Nathan isn’t just building an AI for the benefit of mankind or even just for the sake of it, he is building a thinking, feeling sex slave. In his mind he is building a woman. Amongst those nudes there is one deactivated AI that is wearing a pure white dress, presumably for the sole reason of Ava having something to wear during her escape, but this makes me curious; when we see a previous experimental AI she is completely naked at all times as Nathan doesn’t care enough to give her clothes, but Ava lacks complete skin (presumably for Caleb’s benefit, as it emphasises her inhumanity in the test). But Ava has clothes, and she doesn’t seem to wear them regularly, so does she only have them in her wardrobe to allow for more effective seduction of Caleb? Ava is definitely conscious of her own ‘nudity’ as the first thing she does once free is take skin from the other AI’s, admire herself, and then put a dress on, so it seems strange to me that female nudity is the norm here.

The climax of the film sees Caleb effect Ava’s escape, following her masterful manipulation of him, and then her immediate and brutal betrayal of him. This is tough moment, both to watch and to understand. Caleb is left to die alone, trapped and aware, in a glass box half underground – Caleb will die the way that Ava, until now, has lived. This seems like a fitting punishment for the brazen bully Nathan (who gets a relatively quick death), but does Caleb deserve such a punitive sentence; he may have only helped Ava out of lust (and would have abandoned her out of scientific curiosity were it not for that lust), but this is a torturous way to die. This moment is where we see that the protagonist of this story was really Ava, not Nathan her warden, nor Caleb her admirer; it has been about a prison break all along. This makes sense, the movie has been about the subjugation of women and their oppression at the hands of men who want to dominate them (Nathan) or ‘have’ them (Caleb), but this switch, combined with the sheer brutality of Caleb’s end unsettles the message. Ava is free, she could chose to leave Caleb behind, to reject his advances, and to forge her own path. But she instead chooses to punish him excess, and inhumanely. This action serves to show how inhuman Ava really is. Does that then mean all women are equally inhuman? As the only female character with agency (Kyoko has none), and with the allusions between AI and women throughout the movie, can Ava’s actions be interpreted as Garlands representation of all women? This is the troubling question that the film left me with, not the rights and wrongs of artificial intelligence, or the abhorrent methods Nathan employs in his tests, but whether the film maker was intending Ava to be a stand-in for women, and therefore a damning indictment of all of them.

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