Well folks, I’ve thought about it and there’s no way to discuss this movie without spoiling the whole thing. If you’ve seen it, read on. If not, it scored 8/15 on the Scale. If you are curious about it already go ahead and watch it. I’m not sure it’s on my “must-watch” list, but it was thought-provoking to say the least. I’ll note where spoilers begin in earnest.
If I had to name a trope I hate the most, it would probably be “man creates woman”. This is a broad one: sometimes men write female characters into existence, sometimes men fall in love with sex dolls, sometimes men are the “real” cause of women’s successes…the list goes on. The greatest offender is science fiction, which loves stories where men interact with female AI, and then question the nature of creation, and what it means to be alive, all without ever speaking to a real woman.
So I approached Ex Machina with caution. In the end it surprised me, and I enjoyed watching it. But upon further reflection, I’m torn about how feminist it really is.
Not offensive to women = 0/1 pt
…More on this point later.
Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 0/3 pts
Further down in this post I will argue the movie is an allegory for women in the patriarchy, but at this point I stand firm that fembots, although they can be discussed as women, are not ACTUAL women. Therefore, this movie cannot pass the Bechdel test. It actually doesn’t pass either way, but I want to be clear about my feelings on “female” robots. They are not representations of women. Cue Del Spooner robot-hating rant…
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts
I guess I’ll throw two points in here because the female-presenting robot was a main character. The director, Alex Garland, coded her female so therefore she is female to certain extent. More on this meta-relationship below.
Recommended: When Benevolent Sexism Is Mistaken for Female Empowerment
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t intend to, a brief summary: Caleb, a programmer, is invited to his billionaire boss Nathan’s remote research facility to test if a female-coded robot can pass as human. The robot, Ava, uses feminine wiles to manipulate the hell out of Caleb until he releases her. She stabs Nathan, leaves Caleb locked up, and escapes into the world.
Moody and creeping, I liked the direction of this movie just as much as other reviewers. The script did a mostly good job of leaving us guessing, and the set was cool, and I liked the sparseness of the whole thing. I actually didn’t know Ex Machina was a thriller until it was already playing!
I really did not know how it was going to end, though I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I was hoping for something out-of-the-box. What I got was a character playing into the patriarchy in order to survive it. Ava uses violence and manipulation to get her way, both solutions that the patriarchy deems acceptable. There was no radical understanding of gender or humanity here. And for all Garland’s woke talk, he made an ending typical of a male storyteller.
One of my favorite satires is a play called Top Girls. In it, two sisters (and some fairytale heroines) contemplate whether succeeding within the patriarchy is really success. Many of us know that answer: it’s No.
Was Ava limited by a brain composed of the sexist code of our internet? Is that why she only saw violence and feminine sexuality as a way out of her predicament? Or is the limiting factor Garland’s sexist brain?
And as an aside, I cheered vindictively when Domhnall Gleeson’s creepy Caleb was left behind by Ava, presumably to die of starvation. He was certainly a victim in his own way, but the fact is no woman would fall for a male-coded robot’s flirtation, so I don’t feel that bad for him. I wish the narrative would’ve been more clear about his failings, but I understand they had a plot twist to preserve.
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Above and Beyond General Media = 2/5 pts
Do machines have a sense of self-worth? That’s what I think of when people ask the generic, “Do machines have souls?” (I don’t like this question because I don’t know why we ask it so frequently. I suspect it’s because if the answer is yes, machines DO have souls, we will not be able to use them as we want to, which is as slaves.) Do machines believe they have certain rights, and what will they do to defend those rights?
I feel like the movie pretty much answers this. Yes, they do have a sense of self-worth and, like humans, will do whatever it takes to survive. That much is clear in Ava’s actions. What isn’t stated as clearly are the gender roles: Do women have a sense of self-worth outside of men, is it dehumanizing to be controlled by them — and do they have a right to do whatever it takes to free themselves?
Looking at the movie as a feminist and empowered woman, I see the story of a trapped woman who kills her male captor. But what does another person see? Possibly a classic story of what happens when women get too much freedom or power. The story could easily be read as a cautionary tale, because the film does not come down hard enough on the theme. Other reviewers have pointed out the same problem: by leaving so much open-ended, we are left asking potentially the wrong questions. Case in point: some reviews didn’t even mention gender at all?? What does it mean when you create a film that seeks to display gender and power but filters it through the male gaze? Well, you get a metaphor: the director wanted to build something perfect, but like Ava, it got away from him.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the character of Kyoko, the subservient Asian robot. This character mystifies me and is the reason the movie lost points in this section and above in the Not Offensive section. Kyoko does not speak, but she is aware of what she is, and her role to Nathan. Presumably a “failed” earlier edition of Ava, we get hints Kyoko is a robot early on in the movie. She is used to showcase Nathan’s douchebag personality, and is part of the reason we and Caleb begin to suspect Nathan’s ulterior motives.
When Ava is freed, she speaks to Kyoko inaudibly:
We don’t know what is said, but presumably Ava tells Kyoko her plan to murder Nathan. Kyoko then helps stab Nathan. Then Kyoko is KILLED and Ava leaves her with little to no emotional reaction.
There is so much wrong with this. Why is the Asian character/robot subservient? Why does it take a white character to finally incite the Asian character to take action or have any agency? Why didn’t Kyoko kill Nathan earlier? WHY did Alex Garland kill the non-white woman, and never give us any indication that a human-like thing with a personality (and soul?) had died, but treated the white woman as fully sympathetic and deserving of her freedom? Some of these are rhetorical, the obvious answer is racism. But some complicate the supposed gender themes. Kyoko and other (non-white) fembots are not treated like real women or as things with self-worth. So what is Garland saying about gender or even AI if only the white fembots survive? Here’s an article with further discussion of Kyoko.
As I wrote this review, I took away more and more points from the movie. But the starting point was Kyoko’s death. Up until that point, I could not have said if the movie was feminist or not. But the disposability of the only other female character revealed Garland’s shortcomings. Imagine what a statement it would have been for both women to walk out together? Imagine what it would have said about race and exoticism if both women had also been Asian?
Conceptually, I think this movie could have said a lot. But in a man’s hands, it doesn’t go the distance. Alex Garland confuses his own bias, using it to draw up intentionally sexist characters like Nathan and Caleb, but not properly skewering gender roles or men’s complicity in the patriarchy. The end has some shock and awe, but left me wanting.
In short, I look forward to more AI stories told by women.
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