‘Ex Machina’: Do Fembots Dream of Electric Sheep

Cinema is obsessed with the idea of AI. The idea of a being which is almost human, but not quite, has been explored in films countless times. Maybe it’s a comment on how well the image of AI translates from script to screen, or maybe it’s to do with humanity’s obsession with playing God. There is a tendency to rely on philosophical questioning and doubts about the validity of the human experience. How are we different to machines? 

Alex Garland’s directorial debut ‘Ex Machina’ (2015) initially seemed to echo these ideas and sentiments. We are introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer for a large internet search engine company (Bluebook). Within a few minutes, Caleb is whisked away to the remote mountainous countryside, having won a work-based lottery. The prize? Spend a week with the CEO of the company. I think I’d rather take money. However, Caleb is keen, and when he arrives at the isolated house (which also doubles as a laboratory), he meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan is a former child-genius-millionaire who created Bluebook. Nathan offers Caleb a once in a lifetime opportunity. To meet and test an AI that Nathan has been working on in secret. Of course Caleb agrees, and after signing his life away in NDAs, he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander). Events twist and turn and Caleb is plunged further into the rabbit hole – is he testing Ava or is Nathan testing him? Caleb and Avan seem to forge some sort of relationship, which lays the groundwork for plenty of distrust and deceit between Nathan, Caleb and Ava. The most interesting aspect of ‘Ex Machina’ though, was the representation of Ava as AI and the way in which Garland allows us to empathize with Caleb and not Ava. Caleb is our protagonist; his meeting and further interactions with Ava are seen from his point of view. This is important in our reading of the film and how we understand Caleb as a character.

On the surface of it, ‘Ex Machina’ could be summed up as a film about a man attempting to create the ‘perfect’ woman, and an emotionless fembot who seeks to kill her creator. In reality it is so so so much more. Whilst ‘Ex Machina’ does ask the traditional questions, (who are we to play God anyway?) it also reflects on a different aspect of the AI story. What the film really explores, through allegory, is the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. Ava and Kyoko (Nathan’s other active AI) are custom made female AI, who live in a house where their creator Nathan sees himself as both their father and their lover. He is dominant and controlling, but more importantly Ava and Kyoko have never met any other men besides Nathan. He is, quite literally, their world. And in this world there are female AIs in cupboards and locked behind glass doors, and men inhabiting all the space they want.

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 Interestingly enough, Garland didn’t seem to see Ava’s gender as an important narrative device.

 My feeling was, the hardest thing was essentially to stop people automatically providing a gender, and beyond that just providing human-like qualities. Because we talk a lot about objectification, but actually more often what humans do is they de-objectify things. They attribute sentient qualities to things that don’t actually have them, and so the initial path with Ava was to make her seem like a machine. That your first impression was not, “This is a young woman who is dressed up like a robot,” but this is unambiguously a machine—and therefore in some respects doesn’t have a gender.Alex Garland – The Daily Dot.

 It’s true that, intrinsically, Ava doesn’t need to have a gender to exist. She is a robot. Or should I say, ‘it is a robot’. Nathan is insistent on creating Ava to be female – even pointing out to Caleb that he could have sex with her and she has been programmed to ‘enjoy’ it. In case you were wondering. ‘Ex Machina’s’ entire trajectory rests around the abuse suffered by Ava and Kyoko, as this is what triggers them to (spoilers) brutally stab Nathan and leave Caleb to die slowly and painfully. This abuse is sexual and physical and as the lab is a metaphor for a patriarchal society, it’s easy to understand this violence against the two AIs as a metaphor for violence against women generally.

As I said before, Caleb is our protagonist so it is easy to engage with how Caleb responds to Ava, to begin with. It’s also easy to dislike Nathan from the beginning – his alcoholism, egocentricity and general rudeness are all qualities that Caleb picks up on and so do we. Our identification with Caleb actually prevents us from identifying with Ava, or seeing any of the events that unfold from her perspective. Both Nathan and Caleb oppress Ava, but it’s far easier to dislike Nathan for it than Caleb.  In an incredibly uncomfortable scene, we watch as Nathan disassembles and reassembles various female parts. He is making the ‘perfect’ AI which is intrinsically linked to his idea of the ‘perfect woman’. We can understand a man like Nathan; stereotypical ‘nerd’ who has gained most of his knowledge about women from his mother and watching porn. It’s easy to see this through his treatment of Kyoko – she is for sex and housework. Even their creepy synchronised dance is a ritual that she must perform to satisfy him. Caleb, on the other hand, is nice to Ava and (in his opinion) doesn’t treat her as an inferior being. Yet it’s also true that Caleb doesn’t actually empathize with Ava, and only sees her confinement and desire for autonomy as a valid issue after she declares her love for him. Katherine Cross explains:

 “[Caleb] does, after all, come off as the good guy in the film at first; sympathizing with Ava, seeing that she is indeed human, growing increasingly contemptuous of Nathan’s abusiveness, and so on. He seems like someone who wants to help her. But as the film progresses you start to see that Caleb’s willingness to become Ava’s confederate is contingent on the fact that she appears to have a crush on him, and wants to run away with him specifically. No thought is ever given by Caleb to the fact that he is literally the only other flesh-and-blood human besides Nathan that she has ever met, or that her affection might simply be an aftereffect of the very trauma he wants to rescue her from. No account is made, in other words, for the power Caleb has over her. In the spartan cast of this relatively minimalist film, then, Nathan and Caleb are two very different avatars of patriarchy. Nathan embodies the brutish, physically abusive side of hegemonic masculinity, while Caleb is the Nice Guy™ who affects kindness and gentility but who is ultimately no less entitled than his counterpart.”  Katherine Cross – Feministing 

So, Ava uses that very same sexuality that Nathan programmed her with (for his own desires) against both Nathan and Caleb. At the end of the film, Caleb expects Ava to run away with him, believes that she truly loves him – except how can she? Caleb is complicit in Nathan’s plan, until it becomes beneficial for himself not to be. AKA he might get a cyborg girlfriend out of this. Caleb feels entitled to Ava, because he ‘saved’ her but he never once thought of her as human – merely as a ‘woman’ or ‘fembot’.

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 The entire film is a manipulation of sexuality and gender, and I think it’s not an accident that Garland has Nathan mix those two concepts up. To Nathan, sexuality and gender are the same thing, as seen in Kyoko’s character. She is sexy, silent and subordinate. It was a real shame that Kyoko’s character was not better explored, or actually lived on to escape with Ava – I felt there was more depth to her character than sex and revenge. Equally, the scene where Ava recreates herself from other female AIs also spoke volumes about the dissection of minority women in Western society. We pick and choose the things we like from their cultures, but ultimately a white woman with the face of a porn star will always win out. I felt there could have been more traction with this theme, and I’m disappointed it wasn’t explored further.

‘Ex Machina’ outlines the power that men hold within the patriarchy, either consciously or subconsciously. Whilst it is a fantastic allegory for the construction of the female form in a male-dominated world, the film itself doesn’t adhere to it’s own declaration. I’m not sure that Garland wanted to us to seperate ourselves from Caleb and identify with Ava towards the end. It is heavily implied that Ava left Caleb to die because she is a cold blooded killer, devoid of any real human emotion. I would argue this is not the case at all, and if anything Ava is the most human out of all the characters in the film. Ava wants to survive – which is a crucial human trait.

This post did start out as a review of the ‘Ex Machina’ but quickly transgressed into an exploration of the gender politics within the film, rather than an analysis of the film as a whole. It was hard for it not to – ‘Ex Machina’ is deeply entrenched in problematizing the treatment of women in Western society. Aside from this however, I would like to point out a few other things. Garland’s screenwriting history is very apparent in ‘Ex Machina’, as the narrative is incredibly well constructed. He knows when to build tension, and when to let it ride out. The film feels claustrophobic – like the house in which it is set – and that is in part due to the script and in part due to the cinematography. It’s a dark film; subject matter and visually. Isaac, Vikander and Gleeson are also incredible together onscreen – 90% of the film is just the three of them with no extras and few other characters. It’s a tricky feat, but one pulled off very well. There are two stand out moments for me; Caleb’s moment of insanity as he cuts his arm to see if he is a robot too, and a scene with one of Nathan’s previous AIs – she is so distraught at being trapped that she literally destroys herself. It’s brutal. They were phenomenal moments because, although they relied a little on shock factor, it gave so much more insight into that question – what does it mean to be human? Which, I would argue, ‘Ex Machina’ is not actually about, but the question still remains at it’s core.

So whilst I wasn’t enthralled on finishing ‘Ex Machina’, it did keep me awake at night for weeks after. My thoughts about the film haven’t yet stopped evolving and I reckon that’s the mark of a good film, regardless of whether I enjoyed it or not. It’s a fantastic leap into the dark side of science fiction, and a film which I’m sure will be talked about for a long time to come.

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