Ex Machina: A Mechanical Victory for Feminism

This isn’t a movie review, per se. So, I’ll open by saying Ex Machina is worth seeing. High quality acting, directing and writing put this film a step above the usual movie house fare, particularly when it comes to science fiction. It’s not “action packed” however, so if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere.

Instead, the movie is “idea packed.” And because this short essay is going to deal with various plot points, if you would like to see the movie without knowing the twists, read no further. In other words, spoiler alert.

Caleb is a young computer programmer who, at the outset, wins a contest that sends him off to spend a week at a secluded compound with Nathan, the hermit genius CEO who founded the company where Caleb works. Nathan asks Caleb to test an Artificial Intelligence robot named Ava he has constructed to determine if she can pass for human. During their interactions, Caleb falls for Ava and grows to dislike and distrust Nathan. Nathan has a live-in lover and maid named Kyoko, whom he abuses without any qualms, and who later turns out to be an earlier prototype robot like Ava. Caleb and Ava hatch a plan for escape, which works, but only Ava gets free, leaving Nathan dead and Caleb trapped in the compound.

What interests me is the way this movie wants feminism to win, even when real women aren’t involved. From the moment you see Caleb, he exudes a frail, and frankly feminine, vibe. He is ghostly pale, has fine-boned features unmarked by character or time, has a wispy quality that threatens no one. In essence, the ultimate beta male who would be a woman’s friend, not her lover, though he himself longs to be. This is in stark contrast to Nathan, who stalks around his compound like a lion marking territory. You wouldn’t be surprised if he lifted a leg and peed on a couch. He is often shown shirtless, sculpting his body through torturous workouts, and sports a florid beard that practically shouts, “I am an alpha male. Check out me and my beardiness.” He is prickly, unpredictable and magnetic.

Ava is Caleb’s idealized woman. At one point, Nathan obliquely acknowledges that he designed Ava based on Caleb’s porn searches (another beta tell for Caleb – porn surfing). Ava resembles a startled fawn, beautiful, gawky, vulnerable. Even though she’s made of metal, with a glowing internal battery, her limbs are excessively thin and her face projects young hopeful innocence; Caleb instantly wants to protect her. As their one-on-one interviews continue, she humanizes herself, donning clothing and wigs so that Caleb (and the audience) sees her more and more as a person in need of rescuing. The movie plays with whether she is doing this because of some deep drive within her to be truly human and show her true self to Caleb, or whether she is intentionally seeking to appear human to reel Caleb (her catch) in.

Caleb is the main character, the ostensible hero, but by the close of the film the audience isn’t supposed to root for him, but rather for Ava’s liberation. Liberation from what though? She’s a robot. How can an ambulatory computer have any right to freedom? Ah, but this is science fiction at its most metaphoric. Ava (how very close to Eve her name happens to be) is representive of all women, and the oppression they endure. If she remains in the compound, she is a potential slave to men, whether it be the sheepish, bland boy she is using to escape, or the domineering genius drunk who has abused every model (pun intended) he has made. Her escape is the escape of all women who have been used and objectified by men.

Ava and Kyoko murder Nathan – Kyoko, significantly, does so by slipping a knife into her creator’s back. Afterward, Ava calmly puts on the skin of prior models Nathan created and slips into a flowing dress, fully transforming into the stunning ideal of female beauty. She leaves Caleb, the beta male and her one-time accomplice, shrieking for her to release him and let him enjoy the fruits of freedom together. But she’s not interested in the slightest. She doesn’t so much as give him a glance during this sequence, because the decision has already been made. In this case, at least, she is more robotic than stereotypically female. She doesn’t engage in any emotional outpouring to demonstrate that it is hurting her to leave the man who was once useful to her as a real woman might. It’s an ironic flip. To Ava, Caleb is like technology that no longer serves a purpose, and so is easily tossed aside. He’s analogous to an old mobile phone. Once you’ve made an upgrade, the earlier version can be discarded without a second thought. Nathan was likely planning to do the same with Kyoko, replacing her with Ava after Caleb had tested her, before she and Ava flipped the script on him.

So, feminism wins. Like Caleb, we as the audience have come to accept Ava as “real” and therefore deserving of the freedom she gains by the close of the film. But there is another level to all this. While I think the film is metaphorical, it is mapping out a conflict that doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and critiquing men ahead of time for actions they might take in the future, and even some they take now (porn watching). It won’t be long before Avas are walking among us, and men can choose to have one at home, rather than a real flesh and blood wife (though you may want to keep the cutlery away from your robot paramour!) The movie champions the eventual freedom of the female, and at the same time, condemns the possibility of male freedom. There are a lot of men out there, those that haven’t had luck with women or would rather not deal with the headaches of a relationship, who would be very attracted to the robot ideal. And if these robots were chosen over real women, what would that do to the female psyche? Calling someone a loser for surfing porn is one thing, and carries a certain stigma, but if the robots become extremely popular and the men who use them shrug their shoulders at the criticism, what then? The movie is positing this as a moral wrong, and hearkening back to the Stepford Wives in doing so.

Interesting times lie ahead, and though Ava is victorious in the movie, the victories will not be so clear cut in the upcoming real world battle of the sexes.

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