“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando
There are two roads into Alex Garland’s magnificent new film, Ex Machina. One is to take it on its face as a simple story of an AI evolving past its creator’s limitations — intelligence taking flight far beyond the capability of human beings. As a god metaphor with the creator (Oscar Isaac) and his Adam (Domhnall Gleeson) and the creation of Eve (Ava – Alicia Wilkander). Where would the richest and most technologically advanced human take the notion of artificial intelligence first? Well, maybe to create the ultimate high tech sex doll. Would not that be the plight of a man who can have everything? A fully compliant, intellectually stimulating mate.
Their needs are simple. A pretty face, a pair of tits, an ass, and a female voice. How easy it is to be what someone wants when you’re programmed that way. The desire for an otherworldly fantasy girl is born out of a culture that has the capabilities to custom build a person’s life for the right price. It is also born out of a culture steeped in comic book mythic females, anime, internet porn, video games – virtual living where females look how men want them to look and act the way they want them to act.
It would therefore be a reasonable goal to expect a smart scientist to build a replica of a human in the quest to design a fully customized fantasy robot. Just like with Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, and Sean Young’s Rachel, true love is best achieved when intelligence is factored in — artificial intelligence. The conflict arises, because with intelligence comes choice. Then you’re back to where you started — an unpredictable being that has to be restrained to be kept.
Ex Machina is so much about our relationship with technology, what we’ll use it for eventually, what we need, where we’re going. Each and every time sci-fi tells us that artificial intelligence is going to own our ass in the future. We’re ultimately too smart to slow down our development of it and too stupid to realize how badly we’re screwing up our world in the process. Thus, Ex Machina, like so many great sci-fi films, can be seen as a cautionary tale, a warning that we’re in over our heads.
The other way into the film is through the feminist perspective. Men are the watchers, women are watched. Ava’s lifespan exists only as long as her creator has a need for her. Then she’s discarded and another robot is brought in. A newer, fresher robot. Many women feel their usefulness worn away as they age, but especially in Hollywood now, and perhaps in America at large.
The way our civilizations have been built on a patriarchal creator, and his ongoing conflict with the man he created is the starting point here. Just as in age-old religious societies and unfortunately in present-day America (especially Hollywood) women are expected to be at the service of the males. The title Ex Machina comes from Deus ex machina (god from a machine), the classic plot device that saves the day just in the knick of time. Taking the Deus out of it really does sum up what this film is about.
How thrilling to see Garland give over the brains, compassion and progressive thinking to the females, whether they are robots or not. Schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, teenagers held captive in the basement and raped for a decade, a female social worker told to strip naked then told to run away while being shot in the back, one in four women the victim of sexual assaults, the gaming community and their misogynist hate speech, the ongoing disparaging of the potential first female president. We’ve come a long way baby.
To look at Ex Machina from a feminist perspective, however, means you do identify this robot as female, as opposed to being without a gender. We see her as female because we’re meant to. She’s designed that way. She is not, ultimately, there for the visual pleasure of male viewers though you will never run out of those who talk about how luscious and fuckable Alicia Vikander is and wouldn’t it have been great if they had sex? That would not have made logical sense once you watch the film, though. To want that would be to miss the entire point of the film. Nathan tells us who Ava is. He already knows. He’s been the one holding her against her will. He stupidly thought that all she’d want is to be given life. He thinks he can control her. He’s just that arrogant.
But Ex Machina works on multiple levels. Is it a commentary on Hollywood’s continual oppression of women as objects? You could see it that way. As a feminist I saw a solidarity in Ava’s plight and cheered her on. As a woman I longed for the love story, too. In the end I understood what had to be done and why. As a human I know I could never have done what she did because we humans aren’t defined by our intelligence alone; we’re defined by our humanity, something that Ava lacks. Therein was the problem in her creation. Nathan left out the one things that really makes us human.
That Nathan thinks he can build and outsmart and trap these high tech sex dolls feels a little too much like the way Hollywood is headed. A few films made recently crack open that illusion – Under the Skin was one. Her was one. Gone Girl was another. Women must escape the trappings of their projected identities. They become rebellious, even criminal. They lie. They kill.
Garland’s film is so beautifully made, every frame is a debate on whether what you’re watching is really happening or something dreamed up by one of the characters. Vikander is a revelation as Ava. Glass-eyed, deliberate, graceful but, like her character, quietly unpredictable. Oscar Isaac plays a really good son of a bitch — what a trio of recent performances from him, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year and now, Ex Machina. Finally, it must be said that Domhnall Gleeson gives this film its beating human heart. There isn’t a single inauthentic moment in his performance.
Ex Machina is a celebration of intelligence and its inherent need to be free. It recalls not just the way women are often limited by those who define them, but also the highly intelligent animals who are held captive for research or entertainment. Even though Ava is not a real person, we sense her intelligence and thus, we believe it is wrong to hold her prisoner. And so it goes with chimps, elephants, orcas and dolphins. Would that they had the means to plot their escapes.
Ex Machina is the best film of 2015 so far, but not because it’s a feminist film. It might not even be that, though one ought to feel free to see it that way. It is exceptional because it is thus far the high point of a wave of sci-fi filmmaking that is defining our culture in ways we won’t recognize for probably a decade. Some of them have been shunned by critics, like Cloud Atlas. Others have been noticed but not really seen much, like Sunshine or Never Let Me Go. Some are wildly popular and win Oscars, like Wall-E. In Ex Machina we see an American era well defined, a time when we are becoming increasingly isolated, locked in virtual worlds, dependent on technology, but also a time of gender redefining evolution, the breaking apart of traditional roles and male/female relationships.
Though Ex Machina probably won’t get anywhere near the Oscar race — after all, you average voter can be described as a 60-ish Eagles fan — it will be regarded, I suspect, as an era defining film, and perhaps the moment when the notion of what a woman can be begins to shift ever so slightly. Watch it close because you never know when it might up and take flight, leaving the confines of traditionalism in its wake.