Gender & Sexuality: The Unanswered Questions of Ex Machina
From scene one, Alex Garland’s experimental sci-fi film Ex Machina gives viewers a tense, high-paced experience filled with morally compelling undercurrents that cause viewers to question the nature of humanity itself–including and especially sexuality. The film follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer who works for The Blue Book, which is essentially this universe’s Google. Like most of the movie, the camera takes on a kind of voyeurism in the first scene. We watch Caleb from a distance as he learns he’s won a company-wide contest that earns him a retreat with the company’s billionaire founder. The scene is silent but for music, as if we’re watching without his knowledge.
Now with full sound, Caleb travels to a distant location to meet the company’s founder, a socially-inept, alcoholic recluse named Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Through somewhat blatant expositional dialogue, Nathan informs Caleb that his real purpose here is to be the human component in a Turing Test. (I say blatantly expositional because Caleb says, “I know what the Turing Test is,” and then proceeds to explain it to Nathan like a child hoping to receive a gold star from their teacher.) The robotic component of the test is a womanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and the sessions begin. Vikander’s training in ballet combined with her acting ability makes Ava a beautiful spectacle for us–and for Nathan, and for Caleb–to watch.
The room where the sessions take place is only one part of a huge, high-security laboratory that Nathan has hidden in the Alaskan forest. (Ironically, the “high security” measures employed is a tap-and-go key card system. This is the same security system that most colleges in the country use.) Part techlab and part bachelor pad, the facility descends down the side of a mountain and into the earth itself, with the underground living spaces like glorified prison cells and unearthed kitchen spaces like a modern condo. It reveals much about the man who has spent so much of his time here. Nathan is a mad-genius, an alcoholic, a smooth business man, an athlete, and thoroughly dead inside. This combination is made all the more compelling thanks to Isaac’s incredible acting. The set, and Nathan’s presence, evoke a sense that we, and Caleb, are being controlled every sense of the way. There are, of course, cameras everywhere.
To partake in Turing Test sessions, Caleb enters a protected glass cubicle so he can study Ava in her inescapable home. Though we know that he is testing her at Nathan’s will, most of these scenes feature Ava prowling around Caleb’s tiny cubicle. While Caleb studies Ava and Ava studies Caleb, Nathan watches from the computer setup in his own bedroom.
At one point, Caleb figures out how to project the surveillance feed of Ava onto one of the walls in his room, too, so he watches her closely when he’s not with her. This is a pretty inherently creepy idea, but Ava looks into the camera right at him several times to let us know that his voyeurism is consensual with her exhibitionism It lets the audience know that she’s okay with it–maybe she even likes it, which is an option we are very willing to believe after watching her and Caleb flirt delicately during the sessions.
The sexually charged atmosphere of these instances hint at a nature of desire that the movie tries to discuss. Garland says of the film’s sexuality: “Is sexuality a component of consciousness? It’s tricky… Embodiment–having a body–seems to be imperative to consciousness, and we don’t have an example of something that has a consciousness that doesn’t also have a sexual component. If you have created a consciousness you would want it to have the capacity for pleasurable relationships, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a machine has a sexual component. We wouldn’t demand it to be removed from a human, so why a machine?” Never mind that asexual people exist and that the sex-as-our-most-basic-animal-instinct ideology has justified more than one unhealthy practice common among straight men–in Garland’s universe, sex, bodies, and consciousness are all the same thing.
These comments seem to indicate that the movie is going to discuss general human sexuality, but in reality we’re only served some half-baked ruminations on the sexual desire of herterosexual men. Caleb learns that Nathan built Ava based on Caleb’s pornography preferences, which means she’s a perfect porcelain doll that looks not a day over 18. Nathan also brings up to Caleb quite callously that YES Ava DOES HAVE A VAGINA BY THE WAY and YES, YOU CAN HAVE SEX WITH HER, because that’s what we were all wondering. It’s pretty creepy and strange to imagine Nathan constructing the ideal vagina for the ideal woman all for the sake of a totally different man’s sexual pleasure (no homo). Furthermore, this begs the question of whether or not that delicate flirting between Caleb and Ava indicated actual romantic attraction, or if that was just an illusion and sexuality is paramount to these men.
While Ava has (sort of) some agency around how the men treat her sexually, other female-bodied AI are not so lucky. The second functional robot, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), is Nathan’s silent sex doll who plays into a few well-wrought stereotypes about Asian women being obedient and available. Every few scenes we see a nipple through her shirt or her buttcheeks beneath her skirt to remind us of this. There are haunting scenes of Nathan brutalizing naked women’s bodies on a surveillance camera–though the bodies were prototypes of the robot that eventually became Ava–and he keeps a collection of fully nude models hanging suspended, each in their own closet, like a vertical casket, in his bedroom.
The scenes of cruelty from Nathan onto the female-bodied robots is truly horrifying, and throws the dehumanization of women into an evil light. But this brutalization itself is still feels a lot like the kind of brutalization we see of women in video games, where we know that it is cruel and strange and objectifying, and still we are complicit in letting it happen. In many cases, we are allowed to enjoy our viewing of their brutalization as it’s own kind of sensational voyeurism, especially as we are watching the scenes with Caleb on a monitor, and we know that none of the women possess consciousness. And then, of course, in the end, this brutalization is justified: Nathan was right all along about Ava’s evil manipulation of Caleb, which gives the audience an easy way to justify cruelty towards the rebellious female form. The female forms presented in this movie aren’t “real”–and what’s more, they’re not even nice. But their bodies are real. The film exists within the context of a world which takes apart women’s bodies for all variety of advertisements, media, pornography, and gaming. Our current world uses and sexualizes bits and pieces of the woman for whatever necessity. These scenes of Nathan brutalizing women are a normal part of our world, and they unfortunately don’t come across as the strong condemnation of misogynistic violence Garland seems to be going for.
Even though Ava is perhaps the movie’s most compelling character (in no small measure helped by Vikander’s talent), she’s still a somewhat lazy stereotype on more than one level. The femme fatale stretches back through all manner of fairy tales, but has an especially cold place in science fiction, which has combined this with the sexbot AI at every possible chance. Beautiful women have been luring men into their witch’s lair for centuries; the only difference now is that Ava tries on multiple beautiful skins to hypnotize Caleb into trusting her. She’s a princess in a tower, she’s a manic pixie dream girl, she’s an innocent virgin, she’s whatever Caleb wants her to be, because manipulating him by whatever emotional and sexual means she has is the fastest way to get what she wants: Freedom.
“If you’re going to use a heterosexual male to test this consciousnesses, you would test it with something it could relate to,” says Garland of her sex appeal, “We have fetishized young women as objects of seduction, so in that respect, Ava is the ideal missile to fire.”
Okay, so, Ava’s supposed to be a feminist icon because she’s somehow flipping the role to work in her favor… but she’s only there because a heterosexual male is the tester of consciousness. It seems that Garland conveniently set us up with a heterosexual male (traditional lead) and a sexy young woman (traditional femme fatale) to lead his revolutionary exploration of sex and gender without remembering that, oh yeah, none of this is actually new or exceptional at all. His comment reads more as way to explain away the fact that the movie still follows Hollywood’s well worn gender tropes with an extra dose of, “But I am a feminist, trust me.”
Though there is another female robot character who could have provided some relief from this, the only interaction she and Ava have is a weird scene in which Ava touches Kyoko lightly with her fingertips just after she is released from her prison. Their faces get very close to one another, almost kissing–this scene, too, is sexually charged for some reason, even though the action itself is sort of reminiscent of the way dogs sniff each other’s assholes as a greeting tactic. There’s virutally no reason for this scene to exist, and neither character takes anything away from it. Maybe Nathan programmed his female robots to do something like this, but in a sexy way, because he’s a Man with a Male Sexuality that needs constant stimulation and it’s no secret that women touching each other is SUPER HOT (so long as they’re not actually gay and are still 100% available to men), but even that is deep, deep, deep reading and not actually textual. It’s pretty much just for the viewer to get some pretty girl-on-girl action before the film is through.
The movie is beautiful movie, but extraordinarily lazy with one of its central themes. The two hours I spent in the theater were exhilarating, and I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film. The cinematography is masterful, and the setup and execution of the story is arched really nicely–but it’s an old story told in a new way, like remaking a fairy tale. We have seen the femme fatale before. We have seen men create beautiful powerful women before. We have seen AI rise up against their human creators before. We have seen all of this, including the thin exposure of gender and sexuality, a thousand and one times before. What we haven’t seen is an actual, in-depth discussion of male sexuality, which I believe ExMachina really wanted to be able to provide–but, constrained by the status quo, Garland could only really make it work in his head.