“Wait, you liked this film?” said a friend after reading an early draft of my review of Ex Machina, the new film from writer and director Alex Garland, which is ostensibly about robot consciousness. “This review is overwhelmingly negative.”
But it’s true—I enjoyed watching the small cast of characters conspire with and against one another within the confines of a chillingly beautiful and remote techno-bunker. But for a film marketed all about the potential of artificially intelligent life, it was the base humanity of the two male leads—their excess, their ego, their drinking—that ultimately drove the film and captured more about what separates man from machine than any high-minded philosophical talks of self, technology, and God. In fact, the inner lives of the female robots left me with more questions than answers.
At the beginning of Ex Machina, we quickly learn that techie Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has a won a lottery. The coveted prize is the chance to visit—Willie Wonka style—the enigmatic CEO of the company he works at, which runs the world’s most powerful search engine. Caleb is ferried via helicopter to a lush and remote location. I’m not sure if this was intentionally supposed to recall Jurassic Park, but seeing the helicopter land against an impossibly green knoll and roaring waterfall, it was impossible to not feel a sense of dread about man messing with nature.
When Caleb meets the reclusive tech founder Nathan (a sublime Oscar Isaac), the real film starts to unfold. Nathan reveals his secret project: an advanced artificial intelligence being named Ava. Over drinks, the men play conversational ping pong about the Turing Test (which measures a machine’s ability to exhibit human intelligence), big questions of consciousness, technology, and playing god, etcetera, but the real drama unfolds in their awkward attempts at camaraderie. Caleb, smart but earnest, tries his best to keep up with Nathan—who’s intimidating both physically and intellectually—but he’s no match for the master manipulator who constantly remains several steps ahead of his houseguest (with notable exception).
It’s funny because the REAL mind Nathan is messing with is CALEB’S.
Less dynamic is the relationship between Caleb and Ava (played by Alicia Vikander). Tasked with “testing” her human capacity, Caleb meets with her several times and their discussions form the basis of his assessment, although he clearly starts to fall in love with her.
Through Caleb’s eyes, Ava is a feat of nature, but also an ingénue. Despite her mature looks, she knows nothing about the outside world and is fascinated by Caleb’s presence. Often genuflecting, as if receiving a sermon, she gives off a naïve, childlike demeanor, complete with hand-drawn pictures she shows him with pride.
But her maturity is apparent in one scene where the two men discuss AI sexuality head on. Nathan reveals that he programmed Ava to be heterosexual and even built her a virtual vagina, complete with the ability to feel pleasure. (Of course since it’s Nathan, this explanation is less about cutting-edge technology and more about getting under Caleb’s skin.) In a way I appreciated this conversation—it did not just leave it as a “given” that robots are sexy women, plus it showed the limits and liberties Nathan took in building them. But as Natalie Wilson notes in her review on Bitch Flicks, the film is a far cry from Donna Haraway’s cyborgs.
As the film progresses, Caleb and Ava become closer, eventually conspiring against Nathan. Yet their familiar trajectory was that of a captive princess and her white knight. I desperately hoped the film would upset this dynamic—and it did.
The precise moment that Ex Machina passed the Bechdel Test.
The robot vagina conversation was also key to me for another reason. Eventually, Caleb hacks Nathan’s computer and discovers what we should have known all along—Nathan is a tyrant, taunting and torturing Ava and the female AI bots who came before her. I had to wonder—do these women experience trauma? Could Nathan program a capacity for pain, suffering, and trauma like he programmed in pleasure and sexuality? Trauma is a result of too much stress for an individual to cope with—but what if that individual was super human? What if they could withstand the stress?
These thoughts converged in what I call the “All About Ava” scene, where Ava seems to “self-actualize” before leaving the manor. In the scene, which hearkens back the iconic final scene of All About Eve, Ava opens the mirrored cabinets where the former, tortured AI bots have been stored. She begins to “dress” herself in their skin and stands naked in front of the mirrors, as if finally seeing the “real” Ava for the first time.
I had a few problems with this critical scene, the first being how long we saw her fully naked. Her nudity felt gratuitous, male gaze-y, and made me uncomfortable. (By the way, I think there should be another “rule” à la Bechdel test about naked women in film—how long are they naked? For whose pleasure are the shots? Is she a corpse, yes/no?) But more to the point, the scene was shot with warm light and soaring, swelling, hopeful music. We are supposed to be happy for her, to see this as her moment of liberation. But I couldn’t help but think of the psychological trauma these female bots had experienced. In order to be free, Ava had to literally skin her AI sisters and leave them behind. Is Ava aware of the mental and sexual torture they had all been through? Is she as sickened by the sight of these mangled, naked female bodies as I was? I’m not sure these questions of consciousness or embodiment are ones that crossed the minds of Caleb or Nathan—or director/writer Alex Garland, for that matter.
A more elusive element of the film was in its treatment of Kyoko, a second AI bot in the house who’s played by British-Japanese actress (and ballerina!) Sonoya Mizuno. We’re introduced to Kyoko as a sort of live-in maidservant, though from the beginning her silent presence is unsettling.
“A-ha, she’s the Turing Test,” I thought, congratulating myself on figuring on the film so early. But the truth turned out to be more complex, much like Kyoko herself.
Unlike Ava, we don’t really get a full understanding of how much consciousness Kyoko has. Occasionally, and pointedly, the camera lingers on her face, indicating to the viewer that she knows more than she lets on. At other times it appears like she has little agency at all, compulsorily performing as the sexual object she was programmed to be—literally at the flick of a switch.
“Sorry, what was that? Can you say it one more time into my SUPERIOR ROBOT BRAIN.”
One telling shot comes when Kyoko “reveals” her AI self to Caleb, peeling back her flawless skin to reveal her fiber-optic innards. On one level, you get the feeling this is a chance for the viewer (slash Caleb) to feel Weird Male Feelings about being both attracted to and repulsed by such a hybrid creature. But viewed from another angle, Kyoko is making a feminist joke: “Oh you like how I danced? Well check out this move where I PEEL MY FACE LIKE A BANANA.”
Later, she allies herself with Ava. But unlike Ava, she is not granted the same liberation and escape. She is killed easily and inexplicably, what I see as the film’s own deus ex machina.
In addition, Kyoko’s character embodies problematic and long-standing stereotypes of Asian women—sexy, servile, and self-sacrificing (see “The Madame Butterfly Effect”). We can blame scumbag Nathan for building her this way, but it doesn’t explain how she was utilized in the film itself—a foil to the white female lead.
While I enjoyed the film and found it clever, ultimately it’s not much more than a series of characters outsmarting one another. It’s Kyoko whose complexity and identity introduces more meaningful conversations of consciousness and agency than the grandstanding chats between Caleb and Nathan.
Would it have been too much if the final scene was Ava standing on that busy street corner she always dreamed of, pumping her mechanical fist to sky and screaming, “This is for you, Kyoko!!” Maybe. But to me it would have drawn together all the strands left dangling about robot consciousness, self, and yes, community—even among a bunch of bots.
Related Reading: In Video Games, Women are the Voice of Artifical Intelligence.
Kjerstin Johnson is Bitch magazine’s editor in chief.