Ex Machina: More than A.I.

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I’ve been looking forward to seeing Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. The trailer was intriguing, and after Dredd and some of Garland’s other work, I felt pretty positive that he wouldn’t go somewhere easy or predictable with it. I’m happy to say the advance buzz on the movie was well-deserved. The movie is, to me, pretty close to instant-classic sci-fi, something that is rare indeed.

There have been plenty of movies that have dealt with artificial intelligence and the complexities and dangers when man tries to create in his own image. Ex Machina echoes the famous Voight-Kampff test scene in Blade Runner at one point, just to name one. But, Ex Machina delves into other areas as well, which I think gives the movie a lot more resonance beyond than the well-done claustrophobic thriller that it is.

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Ex Machina concept art by Jock

The film certainly looks gorgeous. I am intrigued to find out whether the house in the film was composed entirely of sets or (as I suspect) an actual house of the kind you see sometimes in architectural magazines. In any case, the location is great. It feels beautiful, elegant, isolated and a bit cold.

Spoilers to follow…

This feels entirely appropriate considering the critique on modern tech culture the film provides, where the sleek elegance of our favorite handheld may hold a messy rat’s nest of issues to consider. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan as a total bro who just wants to be your friend, bro. But of course there’s a menace and intensity to everything he does. He spends the movie in various states of disheveled undress mostly working out, drinking and staring at screens. He acts as though he admires honesty, and wants to cut through the bullshit, which is only a cover so he can feed Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) nothing but bullshit. It’s hard not to see some echoes of modern tech companies and the way they present themselves. If this is too subtle, Nathan reveals that he’s been hacking everyone’s camera phones to data-mine their expressions and interactions to feed into Ava (a superb performance by Alicia Vikander.) Oh, and the only reason his competitors don’t stop his hacking is that they are doing it, too.

The notion that the secret to unlocking a fully functional AI lie in search engines is interesting. Working in Marketing, I’ve certainly heard about the profiles that companies can build based on search-engine preferences. If a company can use that data to build a (sometime scarily accurate) portrait of the user on the other and, is it so farfetched to think of someone taking all that data from everyone and sort of reverse-engineering it into a unique consciousness? It’s a leap, but it’s a fun and interesting touch.

But all of that feels secondary to the main source of intrigue in Ex Machina. It feels impossible for me to not view it through a feminist lens. I don’t generally like to do a lot of research on movie before seeing it. I want the movie to be the movie. But I was surprised to see some people saying (once I did read more articles about it post-movie) that the movie could not be the strikingly feminist tale it is because the female body is objectified. I certainly respect and appreciate the worry about male gaze, and I realize that being a gay man probably doesn’t give me as unbiased perspective as a I might like, but the criticism feels a bit like not being able to see the forest for the boobs.

Ex Machina doesn’t exactly feel subtle about it. Nathan is the creepy alpha-male father/wanna-be lover. Ava and her ilk are just things to be observed and perfected and secreted away. They are part experiment and part sex toy. He’s using Caleb in a game with Ava, essentially, and never suspects that he could possibly be outmatched. Caleb, on the other hand, believe he’s a the white knight, ready to sweep in and save Ava. To him she’s gorgeous, sweet, and intellectual—a wounded bird he can rescue. He’s going to sweep her off her feet and take her away from all of this, in other words. Ava’s rejection of them both—sparing neither Nathan or Caleb—is riveting and thrilling and just feels right. Obviously Caleb is much more sympathetic for most of the movie, and we believe that he’s a good person. Or, certainly, he thinks he is. But he makes the same mistake that Nathan does in not really ever thinking of Ava as a being on their level. Both Nathan and Caleb are trying to determine if Ava is a real human woman, and both of them are incredibly ill-suited for the task.

So, there is female nudity. And we are called upon to look at Ava in the nude. Whether she’s wearing human skin or not, she’s a sensual being and aesthetically pleasing. And while I understand it can be problematic when a movie has to engage in something in order to critique it, here I think it’s necessary in order to get done what the story is trying to do. We have to believe Caleb’s actions. We need him to form that bond with Ava, dramatically, so that when we learn the truth of what she’s been up to, we can be surprised or pleased or both. Would Ava have to be so conventionally attractive for this to work? Not for everyone, no. But for a certain section of the audience—perhaps the part of the audience that needs to get the message the most—I think it helps. And the movie does not exist in isolation. It feels like an examination of a well-worn cinematic idea—the sexy female robot. This goes all the way back to Maria in 1927′s Metropolis. It’s been around a long time, and I think by building on that trope, the film gains it’s power through twisting it. I mean, let’s take a look at the character of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno.) She’s the embodiment of every fucked-up white male fantasy of Asian women you can imagine. She’s obedient, she doesn’t understand what you’re saying, and she’ll fetch you your wine… and she won’t bat an eye if you lose your temper when she spills it. I mean, it’s hard not to be satisfied when the knife sinks into Nathan’s back.

But, does Ava have to be so… nude? Does she have to stare at her new human body so long and so lovingly? I think so. But maybe that’s because that scene is my favorite of the whole movie. It’s the kind of scene that only a science fiction movie can do and it’s so incredibly powerful. Ava has just killed her creator. She has told Caleb to stay. She goes to the room where Nathan keeps all the discarded prototypes of her sisters (hung like slabs of meat or trophies in a trophy case) and she literally takes parts of them, slowly assembling them into a new whole. When she’s closing the door of the cabinet that contains the woman who she takes most of her skin from, the woman’s head has turned toward her. It’s very subtle, but in that moment it felt like she was telling Ava to go forward and be what she could not be. I found that incredibly haunting.

And the contrast of this scene with the one earlier where Caleb watches Ava getting dressed is remarkable. Caleb watches her (because even after all this she’s still a thing he feels he can watch freely and that does not deserve privacy) just as he did before. But I did not feel like this is was an arousing scene for him. As the small seams between the patches of skin began to seal themselves and Ava stares at her full-realized, nude form… and then selects a white dress from another one of her lost sisters… it didn’t feel like something done to delight Caleb’s (or the male audience’s) gaze. It’s the moment when Caleb realizes how wrong he’s been. He (and the audience) is seeing her for the first time. She’s confident and powerful. And she’s more whole than either Nathan or Caleb. She doesn’t flinch or even look back as Caleb cries out as she abandons him to either death by starvation or likely being accused of Nathan’s murder.

So… there’s a lot to unpack here. And I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to wave away any criticism of male gaze in the movie. But I think all that the movie brings to the table, especially in context, should be considered. It’s a tight, well-acted thriller with an incredibly small cast. It could almost be a stage play, in some respects. And it also happens to bring new life to a sci-fi concept that’s been explored to varying degrees of success before. For all these reasons, I would love to see more of this smart kind of sci-fi in the future.

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