A lot of people have already talked about Ex Machina (2015), including Second Breakfast’s Chris Melville, whose review captures the brilliance and beauty of Alex Garland’s debut. Ex Machina is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time; it’s as relentlessly tense, stylish, and brainy as this year’s other genre masterclass, It Follows. Another large contingent of people have discussed the gender dynamics at play, from the full-on Patriarchy reading by Katherine Cross, to the skeptically positive analysis by Kjerstin Johnson, to the interview/analyses of Kyle Buchanan and Angela Watercutter. This reading is natural to the text, because Garland clearly separates his characters along gender lines: the men are the scientists, creators, and human beings, while the women are AI. The focus on Ava’s (Alicia Vikander) humanity or lack thereof brings into question a lot of questions along the way about more than the humanity of the AI(s). It brings into question the humanity of all the characters, and to what extent they recognize each other as human. So while I’m not exactly covering brand new territory, hopefully I’m excavating some of what has already been laid out. Also, keep in mind that nothing I’m saying is a value judgement of the film, but rather a closer look at what I think it implies with its characters and story.
SPOILERS: There will be many of them throughout this entire article. If you don’t want most of Ex Machina to be spoiled, then do not read this. At all.
If we want to look at some of the questions Garland is posing, the most obvious place to start is the central narrative. In the last third of the film—where Ava gets more screen time than the previously central Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson)—we learn that the heart of this story is not Caleb’s deciphering of Ava’s and Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) motives, but rather the attempted escape of someone who is trapped both physically and mentally. When this story develops, we realize the main character arc is Ava’s, as she’s the one who undergoes the most change. This transition reflects how we assume Caleb and Nathan are the ones that have humanity, whereas Ava needs to prove hers. The validity of these assumptions are challenged when Caleb cuts open his arm to see if he might be an AI; the assumptions are shown to be completely false when we see that Caleb and Nathan are the ones most lacking in humanity.
While the small trick that Garland plays by changing the POV character makes an important point about our assumptions, Ava’s arc itself is what fleshes out the questions being asked about gender. For much of the film, we understand Ava in terms of how she is/was constructed by Nathan. He even explicitly states that her sexual orientation and desire are programmed by him. Her physical appearance is revealed to be developed around Caleb’s pornography searches. Nothing about her is considered on its own; her traits are defined in the context of the male characters. The male characters’ roles, then, are important to consider. Nathan is a paragon of power and masculinity. When we first meet him, he’s hitting a punching bag. He talks about invading the privacy of the entire world and implicitly blackmailing CEOs of major companies as though such actions are trivialities. He’s confident, manipulative, and preternaturally calm.
When Ava is viewed in contrast to those characteristics, it’s clear that her gender was a deliberate decision on Nathan’s part. She was created to be subservient, an object of his sexual desire. In fact, he’s created numerous models of female androids. In one of the most brutal scenes in the entire film, Caleb watches videos of Nathan’s abusive attitude toward these androids. There’s a consistent sexual overtone, one that’s emphasized with the housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), an AI who appears to be Nathan’s sex slave. Women in Ex Machina are defined by their utility to men, and Nathan certainly reflects the negative qualities of powerful men in society.
Ava’s tale, then, is one of escape—not just from the compound, but from being the object of someone else’s story. The “reveal” (although it’s hardly a reveal) that Ava is the true protagonist reflects the fact that she needs to prove herself worthy of being a protagonist, whereas Caleb simply gets to be one. She recognizes this unfair difference when she questions why she has to be tested to see if she’s human, while Caleb just gets to be human. There’s a lingering sense that Ava is talking as much about women and men as she is talking about herself and Caleb. However, Ava does prove herself to be the protagonist, and thus seeks liberation.
Her path there, though, isn’t quite so romantic. Nathan informs Caleb that the true test was whether Ava could convince someone to help her escape. While he might be lying, this indicates that even her liberation is “part of the plan.” While she does subvert just about every scheme—she stabs Nathan, who is so shocked as to say, “Fucking unreal”; she presumably leaves Caleb to die—her entire trajectory is shaped by the mechanizations of the male characters. Her actions also have their own problems. In one of the most interesting scenes of the entire movie, Ava finds herself in a twisted “Bluebeard.” She discovers the bodies of Nathan’s previous models, and she does far more than get blood on her hands. She pulls the parts from them that she needs in order to make herself complete.
While this could definitely be viewed in terms of how women in opposition to male power systems build themselves from those that came before, the fact that the characters are all* people of color adds a decidedly unsettling tinge. Her liberation is exclusive to her, a white woman (the only other female character, Kyoko, is murdered). It’s built on the absorption of the women of color who experienced only abuse and trauma. Further, the way she escapes is by manipulating and tricking Caleb, and then leaving him to die. In essence, she has taken on the abusive and manipulative qualities of Nathan in her quest for freedom, which raises some important questions about how you overcome the powerful without simply becoming them.
Ava reflects Nathan in some frightening ways, but it’s equally important to look at how she flips the script. I mentioned before her frustration with Caleb’s assumed humanity, and her uncertain humanity. She manages to subvert and revert that injustice by performing her own Turing Test on Caleb. Her test of his humanity focuses on his ability to empathize. Caleb is initially all too happy to help her escape because he’s falling in love with her. He mistakes her undressing—which he watches longingly through a surveillance camera, an obvious reflection of the male gaze—with a call to him, an appeal to his masculinity that demands he protect her. When Nathan informs Caleb that she’s tricking him (although it’s hard not to imagine he’s also been tricking himself), he decides that it’s not worth saving her, despite the fact that she’s still going to be killed and potentially sexually abused by Nathan. When Caleb learns that Ava’s not in love with him, he almost immediately drops any desire to help her. Between Ava and Caleb, the “human being” is the least human, because he can only understand Ava’s worth in terms of himself. Whereas Nathan represents the “powerful” shade of masculinity, Caleb represents the selfish one, what is known in current discourse as “The Nice Guy.”
Ava also overcomes and twists the bounds Nathan sets by overcoming his so-called programming. She’s programmed to be heterosexual, yet there’s a distinctly erotic atmosphere in her last scene with Kyoko. They touch softly, and Ava leans in close to whisper in Kyoko’s ear. The camera lingers. Perhaps Nathan, in his unquestioned knowledge of Ava’s inner workings, does not understand Ava or sexuality as well as he thinks. Perhaps Ava has always been and will always be more than what Nathan thinks she is, because she’s more than a secondary character in his life.
For all of these interesting questions—not all of them as clear as any gender critique might want them to be—the most important aspect of the gender commentary in this film is Ava’s humanity. She is a fully-realized person, someone we see learning, changing, and feeling. Garland does more in the shot where Ava looks thoughtfully at photos of city life and (I think) Edie Sedgwick than most movies do in their entire run time. He creates a truly human character. That prevailing quality of hers reflects her victory. She is ultimately able to define herself outside of the men who wish to decide who she is and gets to be.
Ex Machina plays with gender almost relentlessly, utilizing sexuality, nudity, and signifiers of gender in a way that encourages the search for questions but doesn’t attempt to define itself around them. This lens through which we can look at the movie is just that: a lens, one of many that can help us consider all that the movie is doing, but not one that will be a thematic skeleton key. Ex Machina is a brilliant and thoughtful film because it brings in this angle explicitly and implicitly, by understanding what aspects of society would define the people in that situation. As much as I’ve maybe talked too much here, there’s still so much more that can and should be said about Garland’s debut, and hopefully we only have more to think about should he direct again.
*Having just rewatched the movie, I should not that they are not all people of color, but there’s a decided emphasis and contrast to the general whiteness of the film.