Ex Machina

This essay originally appeared at TYCI, the first of my new series called Girls on Film.

Most of the women we see on our cinema screens are the product of male imaginations. Recent research shows that, while the number of roles for female actors creeps up ever-so-slowly, the number of women writing and directing mainstream American films has remained static (at around 10% and 5% respectively) over the past 15 years. The first film I’m going to look at – Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, released in January – is written, directed, produced and edited by men, but I think it’s is an interesting place to start this series because it is, in a very literal and deliberate sense, a story about men creating women and the consequences of male dominance. Like most AI stories, it’s supposed to be a film about what it means to be human, but we tend to have a hard time understanding the ‘human’ without gender sneaking its way into the equation. A conscious machine, you might imagine, ought to be a sexless creature (as Caleb in Ex Machina suggests, an AI could very well be “a grey box”), but more often than not our stories about human machines are entangled with stories about gender and sexuality. Artificial humans like the replicants of Blade Runner or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, near indistinguishable from organic humanity, are thoroughly gendered beings, often marked by their sexual allure (think Tricia Helfer in that red dress). And as in almost all genres of visual storytelling, sexual allure tends to be concentrated in the female form.

In Ex Machina, Nathan is a tech genius who channels a stereotypically dominant masculinity – vastly wealthy, heavy drinking, sexually aggressive – and he believes he’s created a true artificial intelligence, a conscious machine that he has named Ava. Caleb is a reserved, sensitive computer nerd who has been brought in to conduct a kind of Turing test and determine whether Ava’s consciousness is genuine. If the test succeeds, Nathan proclaims, it will be “the greatest scientific event in the history of man”. Caleb goes a step further: “That’s the history of gods”. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a masculine history. Men, in most versions of history that have been written, are positioned as the makers; and what they make, in this version, is women. We gradually learn that Nathan hasn’t just been been working on artificial intelligence, but specifically on a long line of female AIs. So Ex Machina isn’t just your standard cautionary tale about the dangers of playing god, but specifically a story about the toxicity of male power. It pointedly literalises the meaning of ‘objectification’ in the physical construction of female bodies; all its women are artificial things built by Nathan, and the film is harshly critical of their exploitation. But as a film in which two men talk and act while the feminine mainly exists as a visual feast, it walks a tightrope between critiquing misogyny and enacting it.

Alongside the two male characters there are two central women: Ava is Nathan’s star project, whose humanity Caleb must determine; Kyoko is a silent, subservient Japanese woman he employs as housekeeper and lover, who we do not learn is a machine until the film nears its end. As in many screen stories that purport to be making critiques of misogyny and objectification (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), the camera’s gaze in Ex Machina spends an awful lot of time lingering upon female flesh. Only in this case, it’s fabricated flesh, moulded into female form only by the whim of its egomaniacal creator. Ava’s body moves like a woman, all curved lines and supple limbs, but through her skin we can see the wires and nodes that animate her. She isn’t all transparent, though: her face and hands are of human skin texture, and she’s ‘dressed’ in opaque metallic sections that obscure her boobs and bum. A robot doesn’t have much use for modesty, so the design choice becomes sexually suggestive, less about covering up than about drawing attention (as clothes so often are). The obscured body parts take on a tantalising allure, easily imagined as flesh instead of glass and wire.

And Ava knows how the possibility of flesh can captivate; playing along with Caleb’s obvious attraction to her, there is a drawn-out scene in which she dresses up for him, making herself look more human by covering her machine parts. She slips on pretty clothes, lovingly strokes a series of wigs, gazes at herself transformed into something indistinguishable from a real woman. She describes her hope that he might be watching her on the cameras at night. She plays, in short, the perfectly feminine part, constructing herself as an object to be gazed upon and longed for. While Caleb plays the besotted hero, complete with longing gazes and romantic daydreams and secret rescue plans, Nathan cuts to the chase with characteristic vulgarity: “If you wanted to screw her, mechanically speaking, you could, and she’d enjoy it”. As he details the mechanics of the genitals he’s installed her with, Ava’s body loses its aura of romantic mystery and becomes instead something robotic and functional.

Throughout this exchange, the camera periodically shifts its focus to the alert face of Kyoko, silently chopping fish in the background, unacknowledged by the men. Unlike Ava, who is confined behind glass, Kyoko wanders the house freely, an unsettling presence that hovers quietly through the film. She is described as a machine even before we know she is one: “She’s some alarm clock, huh? Really gets you up in the morning”, says Nathan, and he treats her with casual contempt throughout. When Caleb tries to treat her with humanity, Nathan tells him he’s wasting his time as she doesn’t speak English. This, he says, is “a firewall against leaks. I can talk trade secrets over dinner and know it’ll go no further”. In both cases she’s described less as a person than a function, an attractive object who exists primarily to make men’s lives easier. There’s a commentary here on the dehumanisation of service workers and immigrants and women, and especially of those who happen to be all three. Nathan might treat Kyoko like shit because he knows she isn’t human, but you get the distinct impression it wouldn’t make much difference if she was.

Unlike Ava, Kyoko is coated in material made to resemble flesh. Her imitation nudity has the effect of making her both more and less human: compared to Ava’s glass and metal frame she looks like a ‘real’ woman, yet she seems at the same time more exposed, more passive and sexualised and less full in personhood, as naked women draped gratuitously around film sets often do. Later, Caleb finds closets full of constructed bodies hanging in various states of completion, the female body turned literal inanimate object. As he gazes upon them in horror, Kyoko lies seductively naked on the bed. There’s a constant tension between laying bare the process of objectification and engaging in it, a contradiction between the point we know is being made and the visual experience we sit through. The film might be trying to draw a parallel between Nathan’s women-as-objects and the way we routinely objectify women on screen, but in doing so it can’t help but fall into the same trap, using the female body as a prop to its story.

As the film nears its end, though, its female bodies continue to become less alluring and more disturbing, coming apart at the seams. We watch a sped-up CCTV sequence of a woman screaming and battering the door until her body literally begins to disappear, arms wearing down over time to stumps of exposed wire. Kyoko, despite her silent, sexualised passivity throughout the film, takes sudden and shocking control over her body when she peels off her skin to reveal the electronics beneath. Her eyes, set in a grotesquely peeled face, stare into the camera for an uncomfortable amount of time. It’s a significant moment, turning the female gaze back upon the audience, stripping away the sensual flesh and confronting us with the disturbing sight of her innards.

Ava, too, subverts our expectations of her, turning out not to be the blushing, crushing girl she’s been playing. She’s been deliberately deploying her femininity on a mission to gain freedom from her glass prison, and in classic femme fatale style, she carries it out with a brutal single-mindedness, leaving Nathan for dead and Caleb locked in his impenetrable fortress with barely a backward glance. Before she leaves, in an echo of the earlier dressing scene, she peels off strips of skin-material from her decommissioned sisters, smooths them carefully against her frame, and gazes at herself once again: this time she is dressed not in clothes but flesh. We spend a long time, again, looking at a naked woman, but her nudity has been oddly defamiliarised by watching her put it on like an outfit. Still, though, it’s hard to imagine an equivalent scene had Ava been built as a man. Being in possession of a female body onscreen, it seems, often obliges the owner (human or otherwise) to spend lengthy scenes displaying that body, admiring it, adorning it, in a way that male bodies are never compelled to do.

I’ve spent a lot of time here on the visual representation of women in Ex Machina; what about women’s voices? Kyoko, for her part, remains silent throughout. By the end of the film we know all the women in Nathan’s home are artificial, originating in no country but in his lab, but it is significant, perhaps, that only the one made in the image of a pretty white American girl is allowed to speak. (There is another Asian AI whose voice we hear through the CCTV footage, but all she can say is an ever-angrier repetition of one phrase: “Why won’t you let me out?”) Kyoko claims her own agency as the one who strikes the final, satisfying blow; she calmly slides a knife into Nathan’s back and then forces his face towards her, making him hold her gaze as he bleeds. But as his last act, he kills her too, with a symbolic blow that tears through the metal of her jaw and leaves her literally mouthless as she shuts down.

The Bechdel Test, the simplest and most basic tool for assessing a film’s representational balance, is presented with a bit of a quandary in Ex Machina. In terms of audio, it fails: we never hear two women talking to each other. But when Ava and Kyoko meet for the first time (which is also the first time either has met another woman or another AI), we do see words pass between them, close-up but inaudible. The fact that we don’t know the content of this whispered exchange is double-edged; it heightens the significance, somehow, and the sense of intimate connection between the two women, the fact that they are allowed to have a moment entirely of their own that neither the men in the film nor we as the audience have access to. But you could also look at it more bluntly: you could look at it as a supreme failure of imagination, an inability on the part of writers and filmmakers to even bother trying to think of what two women in such a situation might have to say to each other. And there’s that tightrope – Ex Machina, by many measures, tries to be a feminist film, but still, like most films, it’s mostly a story by and about men.