(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 1/3, Intro and Ava

Ex Machina Cyborg AvaThis is the first section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Since its too long to post all at once, I’m breaking it into 3 sections for this blog.

[The paper is not in a particularly polished state, but maybe someone will enjoy it anyway…]

Intro and Ava
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) are three recent films that deploy the female body as a tool for destabilizing (and redefining) what it means to be human. Released in the U.S. within a span of just over a year and running the gamut from more obscure arthouse darling (Under the Skin), to financially successful indie (Ex Machina), to major studio blockbuster (Mad Max: Fury Road), the films represent a spectrum of contemporary science fiction cinema. Despite the many differences between them, these works converge in a number of compelling, potentially productive ways. Importantly, all three feature women (of some kind) at their center. Even if these women diegetically differ in their precise form and origin, all inhabit bodies that serve as sites for working through the anxieties motivating this cluster of works. Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina, The Female (Scarlett Johansson) in Under the Skin, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road all challenge the purportedly fundamental categories of “human” and “woman” alike. In doing so, they call attention to the material nature of the body while also complicating the relationship of the body to human or emotional experience.

One way to begin disassembling the depiction of women and their bodies in these films is by considering them within the realm of the cyborg. In her widely influential “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna J. Haraway writes that the “cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 50). Though Haraway expands the term considerably, it isn’t too far removed from more limited, “dictionary” definitions of “cyborg.” Interestingly, Furiosa is the only woman in Ex Machina (EM), Under the Skin (UtS) or Mad Max: Fury Road (MMFR) who fits such an image. EM’s Ava is an incredibly advanced AI created (and imprisoned) in a billionaire’s lab; as lifelike as she often seems, there is nothing truly “organism” about her. Meanwhile The Female in UtS (she’s never given a name) is an enigmatic alien who traverses Glasgow looking for men she can seduce and destroy. Though there is nothing in her appearance that directly signals her alien nature, she is neither human, nor machine, nor any literal fusion of the two. On the other hand, MMFR’s Furiosa is a woman living under a dictator in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. With her mechanical, prosthetic left arm, Furiosa’s body merges human flesh and inhuman machine in a way that Ava and The Female do not. And yet, as I demonstrate later in this piece, Furiosa is also the least monstrous, most clearly human among them. While Miller’s heroine does push against stereotypical depictions of her gender while also calling into question what it means to be human, she does not do so as boldly (or as bleakly) as her counterparts in EM and UtS. Though their bodies don’t physically combine the organic and the mechanical as Furiosa’s does, Ava and The Female are, in a sense, more cyborgian. Furiosa’s mechanical arm is hardly incidental, but it never threatens to obliterate or fully obscure her human origins. On the other hand (and as I argue below), Ava and the Female manage to be completely human and completely inhuman all at once. Rather than represent some combination of organic and inorganic, they reject any such distinctions; instead of mixing human with other, EM and UtS each in their own way collapses all difference between them, often with disastrous results.

For Haraway and many subsequent writers, the cyborg is a transgressive figure who works to blur and to complicate distinctions between human and machine as well as between human and inhuman more generally (Haraway 52). As Anne Balsamo writes, “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious. Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). Though Balsamo and Haraway both call attention to the fusion of the human with machines (or “technology”) when discussing the cyborg, the work that their images do is much more important than the specific form they take. The cyborg is an Other, but one that cannot be cleanly or completely separated from normality or the human. Like the monster in horror films, the cyborg is a figure which blurs boundaries (Creed 5, 11). According to Haraway, “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” (Haraway 51). In part, the female-coded cyborgs of science fiction are a product of that very war; just as “the concept of the border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film,” so too is it at the heart of the cyborgian (Creed 11). Like monsters “whose bodies signify a collapse of boundaries between human” and other, the (cyborg) women in EM, UtS, and MMFR “bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability” (Creed 10-11). Considering Ava, The Female, and Furiosa in tandem demonstrates some of the breadth of “cyborg” as a category while also underscoring the connections between women, the cyborgian, and the monstrous that writers like Creed and Haraway plug into. That said, they can also be used to challenge “cyborg” itself. For, where MMFR makes a point to reestablish Furiosa’s humanity (destroying her mechanical arm in the process), EM and UtS trade the cyborg’s recombination of categories for something closer to sheer simulation.

Despite the prevalence (and importance) of the cyborg in discussion of women’s bodies in science fiction film, it may actually be more fruitful to read Ava and The Female’s bodies as simulations. Moreover, even though EM, UtS, and MMFR all leave themselves open to psychoanalytic readings of gender and the female form, such is not my primary concern. Given the presence of both violated and violent women in all three films, reading them through the likes of Freud, Mulvey, or Creed has the potential to illuminate, unite, and distinguish them. That said, a more complete understanding of these films and the women they feature requires something more. Rather than read gender in EM, UtS, and MMFR from a predominantly feminist, psychoanalytic, or even a genre studies perspective (all worthwhile pursuits that I here leave to others), I use a substantial portion of this paper to focus on the material reality of Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s bodies. In doing so, I situate them within Baudrillard’s conception of simulation as it is presented in his 1981 essay, “The Precession of Simulacra.” I also put the women (I use the term loosely) into contact with some of his ideas on prostheses as expressed in “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Furthermore, in drawing out some of the differences between Garland, Glazer, and Miller’s films, how they conceive of the human, and how they understand the (cyborg) women at their centers, I also discuss Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s (in)ability to experience emotion and to form attachments with others.

EM’s first image of Ava shows her (rather elegant, clearly feminine) silhouette in profile. Viewed this way, she could almost be a “real” human woman. She lacks hair and light shines through portions of her form, and even though she is made largely of metal mesh and circuitry, her outline is all but indistinguishable from that of the actress who plays her. Though Ava’s movements are a touch too precise to be truly organic, and though much of her machinery is in plain sight, her shape is all human. By introducing her in a way that emphasizes this fact, Garland can be seen to align Ava with Haraway’s cyborg, to situate her in a world where “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred” (Haraway 56). EM’s introduction of Ava simultaneously acknowledges and obscures her inhuman nature, thereby involving viewers in the same Turing test that her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) asks his employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to conduct on her. By the time viewers first see Ava, Nathan has already made it clear that he designed and built her, but Garland instructs viewers to remain uncertain about her all the same.

But Ava is no simple cyborg, no mere amalgamation of human machine. Rather, she can be regarded as fully machine and fully woman at the same time, which renders her all the more threatening to those who try to read her (namely, Nathan and Caleb). Early in his “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard claims that “Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Such “hyperreal” unreality can be seen in much of Ava’s form, but it is especially apparent in her face. EM’s initial silhouette images of Ava show her from a distance and obscure her face, but once her face is revealed, it only adds to the uncertainty of her being. While the surface of Vikander’s “real” body is disguised with visual effects, her “real” face (though altered slightly to took smoother and have a more uniform texture) is left more or less intact. From the neck down, Ava is mostly metal, computer, and light (her hands and feet are covered with artificial skin), but there is nothing obviously mechanical about her face. In fact, if there is anything clearly artificial about this aspect of her appearance, it’s only that her countenance is almost too beautiful, that it’s “hyperreal” (Precession 1). All that separates Ava’s face from that of a human woman’s is that it is completely without blemish. Viewed in isolation, Ava’s face looks more like some airbrushed image of femininity in a perfume ad than it does an AI made in a sexist billionaire’s basement; though she is “actually” the latter, her face works to constantly challenge, and to undermine this fact.

In addition to occupying a space of hyperreality, Ava’s face can also be read as a “model[] of a real without origin or reality,” which further emphasizes her simulative nature. According to Nathan, he designed her face using Caleb’s porn search history. Not only is she carefully crafted to appeal to the young software engineer, but she is also a replication without a single origin. In EM’s diegesis, there is no one “real” woman whose appearance Ava duplicates. Instead, her face is an average of countless faces that Caleb has objectified. Ava’s face is both singular and a representation of numerous women—it simultaneously sets her apart from all other beings and challenges any claims she might have to originality or to a coherent identity. She is a copy without an original, what Haraway calls “simulacra” (Haraway 56). A manifestation (and a translation) of Caleb’s desires, Ava “is a virtual daydream turned into some kind of flesh” (Jonsson and Velmet). Moreover, for Caleb to look at her, is for him to confront himself. On one level, she is an artificial replication of his own interiority and past experiences, which blurs the edges of both their identities. Ava is machine, she is woman, and she is something else altogether.

In having Ava simulate numerous modes of existence as she does, Garland taps into postmodern anxieties concerning not just the fragmentation of identity, but it’s total dissolution as well. As Vivian Sobchack writes in her 1987 piece “Postfuturism”:

“[…] in a culture where nearly everyone is regularly alien-nated from a direct sense of self (lived experience commonly mediated by an electronic technology that dominates both the domestic sphere and the ‘private’ or ‘personal’ realm of the Unconscious), when everyone is less conscious of existence than of its image, the once threatening SF ‘alien’ and Other become our familiars—our close relations, if not ourselves.” (Sobchack 229)

Writing on cyborgs (and on Haraway’s conception of them), Anne Balsamo declares that “the cyborg is a social construction” which “illuminates a crucial dimension of postmodern identity: the fragmentation of subjectivity” (Balsamo 153). However, while Sobchack certainly does not deny such “fragmentation,” her focus in the passage above is on something different. Concerning the “Other” in science fiction—a category which includes the enigmatic, undoubtedly “threatening” Ava—Sobchack gestures toward the complete dissolution of any distinction between human and alien (Sobchack 229). Not only does identity break apart and undergo recombination in postmodernism, it is dissolved and simulated as well. Together, both EM and UtS (which I discuss in more detail shortly) support Sobchack’s claim that many works of “postmodern” science fiction “do[] not ‘embrace the alien’ in a celebration of resemblance, but ‘erase[] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude (Sobchack 294). But, if Baudrillard and EM (as well as UtS and MMFR) are to be believed, accepting simulation—and the dissolution of identity that comes with it—is a dangerous thing to do.

Once “the sovereign difference” that once “constituted the charm of abstraction” disappears, “the murderous power of images” reaches its full potential (Precession 2, 5). Thus, simulations like Ava become “murderers of the real, murderers of their own model, as the Byzantine icons could be those of divine identity” (Precession 5). Faced with a simulation of their own creation, both men in EM come to terrible ends. Though Nathan designs builds Ava, Caleb is partially responsible for her existence as well; not only do his porn preferences shape her face, but his interactions with her also inform her (simulated) personality and emotions (which I discuss below). As numerous moments throughout the film demonstrate—including one in which he tells Caleb, “I wrote down that other line you came up with. The one about how if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness, I’m not a man, I’m a God”—Nathan thinks of himself as a sort of “divine” entity in Ava’s life (Precession 5). But that isn’t enough to save him. Within moments of leaving her room for the first time, Ava kills her creator. Once she is free of the limitations Nathan places on her existence, Ava stabs him[1] and leaves him to bleed out on the floor. Afterward, Ava ignores Caleb’s pleas for help, leaving him locked in Nathan’s compound, which is so far removed from the rest of society that there is little chance anyone will find him before he dies.

“‘Eras[ing] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude” results in the contemporaneous emphasis on and “absence” of “otherness,” which my reading of Ava has thus far worked to call attention to; but as Baudrillard writes, “the absence of otherness secretes another, intangible otherness: the absolute virus” (Sobchack 294; Prophylaxis 37). After stabbing Nathan and leaving Caleb to die, Ava puts on skin and clothes from Nathan’s older AI models (which he displays in closets like some sort of techno-Bluebeard). Fully clothed—and with her mechanical nature fully obscured—Ava then exits Nathan’s compound. Once outside, she boards the helicopter that Nathan originally sent for Caleb. In doing so, Ava, a simulation of a “real” woman, destroys and obscures her own origins. More importantly, she is not content merely to kill those who made her; she replaces them as well. By the end of EM, Ava is the only character left for viewers to identify with—real or not, she is all they have, and both the narrative and visual centers of the film belong solely to her; to help further illustrate the significance of this fact, I turn once again to Baudrillard:

“[…] the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials—worse: with their artificial resurrection in the system of signs, a material more malleable than meaning in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all signs of the real and short-circuits its vicissitudes.” (Precession 2)

In deceiving and manipulating Caleb to secure her escape, and in killing both men and going out into the world as a “real” woman, Ava “short-circuits” the system that created her.

In reading Ava as a character who embodies simulation while extending beyond more straightforward definitions of the cyborg, it’s also illuminating to consider that her entire body—indeed, her entire being—can be regarded as prosthetic. With Haraway’s cyborg “mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms,” but with Ava, it’s all but impossible to determine where “tool” ends and where “mind” and “body” begin (Haraway 56). There is a material unity to Ava that transcends the cyborg, a “hybrid” image built on the intersection of “technology […] with the body” (Haraway 50; Doane 110). Cyborgs are part human and part technology, and thus they can be understood as one of many “postmodernist strategies” that “subvert myriad organic wholes” (Haraway 52). However, there is nothing in Ava’s physical makeup that is part human—she is not a combination of flesh and tech; rather, she is a machine that appears to be a woman and a woman that appears to be a machine. Her form doesn’t fuse a “real” woman with cybernetic enhancement or technological prosthetic; instead, she is composed only of prosthetic—of a purely mechanical, manufactured body made to give shape to the artificial intelligence that Nathan develops. Importantly, Ava’s status as pure prostheses (much like her simulative nature) renders her all the more dangerous to the people and to the existing order that surround her. As Baudrillard claims, “the biological body, loses its natural defences in precise proportion to the growing sophistication of its prostheses” (Prophylaxis 35). Faced with a body that is entirely prostheses, the physically “biological” Nathan and Caleb don’t stand a chance.

Just before signaling the danger of advanced prostheses, Baudrillard also writes that “In a hyperprotected space the body loses all its defences. So sterile are operating rooms that no germ or bacteria can survive there. Yet this is the very place where mysterious, anomalous viral disease make their appearance” (Prophylaxis 35). In EM, Nathan’s compound serves as such a “sterile,” “hyperprotected” space. Not only does Nathan’s combination home, library, and AI prison exist in an isolated location far from prying eyes, but it is also largely windowless and virtually impenetrable. The rather empty, incredibly clean building is also crawling with surveillance cameras, which increase Nathan’s sense of control. And yet, under his very nose—from a glass room in which she is always visible to Nathan—Ava devises her creator’s destruction. No unwanted “germ or bacteria” could ever enter Nathan’s compound (not in the form of another person, anyway), but the place still gives birth to an “anomalous” AI, to a simulation with the power to reduce everything Nathan has worked to build there to rubble. At the very beginning of “Prophylaxis and Virulence,” Baudrillard writes that “The growing cerebrality of machines must logically be expected to occasion a technological purification of bodies. Inasmuch bodies are less and less able to count on their own antibodies, they are more and more in need of protection from the outside” (Prophylaxis 34). Even if Ava is miles away from anything Baudrillard had in mind while writing this, it remains useful for exploring EM all he same. In choosing to develop incredibly advanced AIs and in almost total isolation, Nathan precipitates his own destruction. With EM, Garland reenvisions Baudrillard’s “technological purification of bodies” as a destruction of bodies by the simulation of a body—by a machine so cerebral she exceeds “human” and “technological” alike.

In her “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine,” Mary Ann Doane describes cinema as sort of “prosthetic device […] a technological extension of the human body” that gives viewers access to vision and perception that they could never experience with their bodies alone (Doane 113). In EM, Ava too is a “prosthetic device,” but she is not an “extension” of any “human body”; instead, she renders all human bodies obsolete. Several days before Ava kills them both, Nathan and Caleb have a conversation that testifies to this fact. While discussing his work with Nathan, Caleb says “One day, the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Later in EM, Ava regards her creator with clear disdain saying, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?”; but as her constant simulation, her completely prosthetic form, and the end of the film all indicate, she may as well have replaced “hates” with “can stand in for.” In the presence of simulation, it is “impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real” (Precession 211, emphasis in original). The Turing test that Nathan asks Caleb to conduct is doomed from the start. Ava is far too sophisticated to be contained on either side of any “human”/“inhuman” divide, for she represents a perfection of simulacra in which, “Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” (Precession 19).

Before turning to The Female at the heart of UtS, (and then to Furiosa in MMFR) I’d like to add just a touch more dimension to my reading of Ava by briefly considering her relation to the realm of emotion. Throughout EM, Nathan repeatedly emphasizes the importance of feelings in Caleb’s interactions with Ava. For instance, when Caleb points out the nontraditional nature of Nathan’s Turing test, the genius-billionaire offers the following: “If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” Later, after one of Caleb’s “sessions” with Ava, Nathan grows frustrated with Caleb’s careful responses to his queries saying, “The answer is, how do you feel about her? Nothing analytical, just how you feel.” Then, after the next session, Nathan reiterates his interest in emotion yet again: “Yesterday I asked you how you felt about her, and you gave me a great answer. Now the question is, ‘How does she feel about you?’” And yet, Nathan’s intense concern for Ava’s ability both to perform and to impact feelings may also set him up for failure. As Joelle Renstrom writes, “Ex Machina demonstrates why there can be no Turing test for emotions. Once a robot is advanced enough, it will be nearly impossible to discern whether it is an emotional actor or an emotional being” (Renstrom, emphasis in original). Interestingly, such (even if faintly) echoes Baudrillard’s description of the impossibility of simulating a crime convincingly, in which he writes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements […] in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real—that is, to the established order itself” (Precession 20). Under simulation, the difference between “real” and otherwise collapses in on itself, making clear distinction between the two all but impossible. Thus, Caleb isn’t capable of making sure determinations concerning Ava’s emotions, as is seen in the way she manipulates his feelings to get him to help her escape. Such can also be seen to explain why exposure to Ava, the AI bodies in Nathan’s room, and Kyoko’s mechanical interior all cause Caleb to have a breakdown that ends with him cutting into his own flesh; according to Marysia Jonsson and Aro Velmet, Caleb’s self-injury is the result of him doubting “his own ‘authenticity’” (Jonsson and Velmet). He doubts “his ‘own authenticity,’” because Nathan’s AI women disregard the certain and the authentic entirely.

Just as it’s impossible to simulate crime under Baudrillard’s framework, so too is it “impossible to prove” whether an AI does or doesn’t “have genuine emotional experiences” (Renstrom). Even if AIs “don’t actually feel,” “they can appear as though they do,” and as Ava’s victory demonstrates, any difference between the two hardly matters as far as the simulation itself is concerned (Renstrom). “Simulating is not pretending”—“it is more complicated” and more treacherous (Precession 3). Ava’s “gender” and her behavior more generally both stem from “adaptation,” for it is “through her meetings with Caleb [that] she comes to understand the effects her feminine form has on him. Nathan’s problem however, is that he underestimates the power of her adaptation” (Jonsson and Velmet). Ava reads those she interacts with like a book, and she can decode faces so expertly that it is essentially impossible for anyone to lie to her without her noticing. That said, she herself is under no compulsion to reveal when she catches a lie, nor is she incapable of lying herself. Through the simulation of emotion, Ava gains a clear advantage over the people she interacts with. And yet, they also teach her how to perform those emotions in the first place. Writing on EM, Renstrom notes:

“For now, robots’ emotional capabilities are in the hands of everyone who interacts with them. Our relations with robots determine their emotional potency. If we relate to robots socially, not to mention romantically or sexually, then their emotional capabilities are a reflection of us. If robots can learn emotions through experience, then we will be their emotional guides—both a comforting and a terrifying thought.” (Renstrom)

Ava reflects Caleb and Nathan, and her actions are a direct result of the way they treat her. While simulation is at the heart of their shared demise, they are as much to blame for their deaths as Ava is. In EM, emotional interaction with simulation opens one up to manipulation and leaves one both internally and externally vulnerable to violent destruction.

[1] Another AI, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), actually stabs Nathan first, but she is promptly struck down and is more or less abandoned by the narrative. Largely out of consideration for length, I do not focus on Kyoko here, but she is an important figure in the film all the same. It’s also worth noting that, unlike Ava, Kyoko is initially presented to viewers (and to Caleb) as a human woman, which further complicates her relation to simulation and reality alike.

Until Next Time
Parts 2 and 3.

[Previous pieces on Ex Machina can be found here and here.]


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Gender and Feminism in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina


I most recently wrote about Alex Garland’s directorial debut when I included it among my top 10 films of 2015. I also reviewed Ex Machina back in April. In both posts, I praise the film for a number of reasons, but that’s not why I’m here today. This post isn’t about how good Ex Machina is; it’s about some of the ways in which it uses and represents women and gender.

**the rest of the this post contains spoilers**

Ex Machina repeatedly makes it clear that it has an interest in sexuality and control, but those interests are merely a symptom of its larger concern with questions of gender. When I went to watch the film, I expected to see a compelling piece of science fiction, and I did. What I did not expect was for Ex Machina to also be an intelligent feminist film, but it most certainly is that as well. Garland’s film may look like it’s about artificial intelligence and technology, but its heart also contains deep thematic concern for the ways in which women are so frequently silenced and controlled by a society—and a film industry—dominated by men.

Though it may seem obvious, the fact that the only women in Ex Machina are AIs created by Nathan is integral to its depiction of gender and of the power and representational imbalances that women suffer. There are only 3 named characters in the film who speak: Nathan the tech genius, Caleb the ordinary man, and Ava the imprisoned AI. The film also has a 4th character, a silent AI named Kyoko, who is effectively Nathan’s sex and house slave.

In Ex Machina, the men move and interact as they see fit, but the women are systematically silenced and controlled. Whereas Caleb and Nathan talk with each other (and to the AIs) freely and regularly, Kyoko and Ava are never allowed to see each other (let alone speak to each other, since Nathan deliberately created Kyoko without a voice). On top of that, Ava only ever talks to one man at time and only when that man comes to her cell. Unlike Nathan and Caleb, Ava—as Ex Machina’s primary woman—has no say in where she goes or in who she speaks to and when. Ava is a prisoner, and when she isn’t talking to someone who sees her as a sexual object, she effectively has no voice at all.

The fact that Ava is constantly objectified and silenced by men is further highlighted by the video feed that Caleb has in his room. Whenever he is in his room alone, Caleb can and does watch Ava, and he does so without her permission. Moreover, Nathan deliberately designed the video feed not to allow Caleb to hear Ava; the feed has no audio, and thus, it too silences and controls her. It’s also worth noting that Nathan designed Ava’s face based on information he gathered from Caleb’s porn-watching habits. In part, Ava was created to arouse Caleb sexually. Therefore, whenever Caleb watches Ava on the screen in his room, he might as well be watching porn, and Ava herself can’t do a thing about it as long as Nathan and his sexism hold her captive.  

Though Ava’s imprisonment is made clear relatively early in the film, Kyoko’s may be harder for some viewers to see. For most of Ex Machina, Kyoko is presented as a human woman who does whatever Nathan wants, who is willing to take her clothes off at the drop of a hat, and who does not speak English. She is beautiful, she is silent, and she does what a man (Nathan) says (and nothing else); and yet Ex Machina—like so many films—asks viewers to accept her reality as a woman nonetheless. However, unlike so many other films, Ex Machina takes its viewer’s willingness to accept its initial representation of Kyoko and turns it against them.

Once Kyoko—who has apparently been programmed to undress whenever she’s alone with a man—pulls back her skin to reveal that she is an AI, viewers are forced to consider all of her previous behavior in a new and unsettling light. Kyoko isn’t a maid who doesn’t speak English, who never expresses herself, and who just happens to make herself sexually available to men; rather, she’s a slave to Nathan’s idea of what a woman should be (and the two are not so different). Nathan sexism, his tendency to objectify women, and his intense desire to control allow him to serve as Ex Machina’s primary stand-in for patriarchal society. Thus, if Kyoko is an AI that he created to bring him dinner, clean his house, pleasure him sexually, and keep her mouth shut, then she can also be understood as an example of the ways in which women are controlled, abused, and misrepresented by male-dominated society and its movies. Kyoko isn’t just any woman, she’s a slave, and if viewers don’t realize this immediately, it’s because so many other films have conditioned them not too.

By presenting only one woman who has a voice, by keeping its two women separate for most of the film, and by never allowing two women to have a conversation, Ex Machina clearly eschews the Bechdel test (even when Ava and Kyoko finally do come into contact with each other, viewers are not allowed to hear whatever it is that Ava whispers). In doing so, the film also condemns those who accept the underrepresentation of women as the norm. Though the source of their imprisonment, the fact of their objectification, and the degree of their silence may be more pronounced than usual, Ava and Kyoko aren’t treated any differently than countless other women on film. In fact, for most of its running time, Ex Machina mirrors and calls attention to the oppressive and unequal manner in which women are typically represented in Hollywood. However, where the film industry more generally should be challenged and criticized for its insistence on prioritizing the stories of men while reducing women to their capacity to serve and support male characters, Ex Machina should not. For, before Garland’s film ends, he makes sure to turn its structure of gender-based power dynamics on its head, and he does so in spectacular fashion.

With its final section, Ex Machina declares that it has little sympathy for men who like to think of themselves as gods among women. The film could have easily ended with Ava still in locked in her room. That said, a more typical ending would have seen her both saved by and romantically attached to Caleb. Fortunately, Garland goes with a rather different 3rd option, for at its end, Ex Machina destroys any possibility for sex and romance, abandons Nathan and Caleb for Ava, and makes it clear that Ava—even when confined to a cell—is just as capable as any man.
Get Ex Machina on Blu-ray.

The first stage in Ava’s ultimate escape from Nathan’s compound involves her manipulation of Caleb. Whether Ava ever has any feelings for Caleb is irrelevant (and is open to interpretation); what matters is that she uses his attraction toward her—which stems at least in part, from the fact that her face is an amalgam of his porn searches—against him. Ava’s existence is characterized by two things: confinement and objectification. Before the film is over, she finds a way to use the objectification (in the form of Caleb’s infatuation for her) to end her confinement. In doing so, she—the only speaking woman in the film—turns one of patriarchy’s main weapons against it (Nathan and Caleb are the only male characters in the film, and neither of them can leave Nathan’s compound alive after Ava is set free).

Within moments of leaving her room for the first time (thanks to Caleb’s recoding of the doors), Ava kills the man who trapped her there. As soon as Ava is free from the confines of Nathan’s possessive and controlling sexism, and as soon as she has an opportunity to interact with another like her, she destroys Nathan with relative ease. She was always capable of killing her creator—she just needed to exist outside of the rules he set for her first. (Perhaps if more films were to free women from the limitations that arise when they don’t even attempt to pass the low bar that is the Bechdel test, Hollywood would realize that women characters are just as capable of leading compelling stories as men are.)

What Ava does after stabbing Nathan is also crucial to Ex Machina’s depiction of gender. As Nathan bleeds out on the floor and as Ava prepares to escape his compound once and for all, she doesn’t return to her cell to put on clothes and a wig from her own closet. Instead, she goes to Nathan’s room. There, she puts on the skin of the women that came before her. She puts on their clothes. She puts on their hair. Kyoko helps Ava defeat Nathan, and all the other AIs he imprisoned and reduced to silent bodies go with her with she leaves. In this way, Garland makes it clear that Ava is the film’s representative for women more generally. Thus, by allowing Ava to survive and escape Nathan’s prison, Ex Machina also declares that women deserve better than cinema’s current representational status quo.  

As a representative of oppressive and damaging sexism, Nathan most certainly deserves to die at Ava’s hands. Nathan creates women to satisfy his own desires, but he does not value the women that he creates. Instead, he turns them into prisoners and, when they do not love him and their confinement, he resents them for it. Once Caleb creates a new AI woman, he removes the old one’s mind, and he stores her lifeless body Bluebeard-style in his closet. About halfway through the film, Nathan informs Caleb that he does not value Ava’s mind enough to preserve it. Instead, when he’s done with her, he’ll wipe her memories, but he’ll preserve her body. Ava’s body—which Nathan explicitly states is complete with a vagina—is far more important to Nathan than her thoughts and desires. Ava never desires Nathan’s affection, and he resents her for not wanting him. When Ava kills Nathan, she isn’t simply Frankenstein’s monster, she’s a victim seizing an opportunity to destroy her abuser.

Understandably, the way in which Ava leaves Caleb to die is one of the harder aspects of Ex Machina for many viewers to swallow. Caleb doesn’t want to be a god in the same way that Nathan does, and he is also easier to like than his boss. On top of that, Caleb does express discomfort with the way in which Nathan keeps Ava prisoner, and he is also clearly disturbed by Nathan’s collection of lifeless nude bodies. But all of that isn’t enough to free him from blame. After all, Caleb isn’t really concerned with Ava’s freedom until he begins to desire her sexually (the black and white scene in which he imagines the two of them on a date is an indication of this). It’s also important to note that Caleb never actually condemns Nathan’s collection of AI bodies (which indicate both the murder and the sexual objectification of women); instead, he expresses worry that Nathan may treat Ava the same way he treated previous creations. The distinction here is important; Caleb is far more concerned with Ava—a woman he watches on a screen in his bedroom and is sexually attracted to—than with women as a group. Nathan’s sexism may be much more pronounced than Caleb’s, but that hardly makes Caleb a saint.

That said, the most important reason why Caleb’s likely death is far from unwarranted is simpler (and larger) than all of that. Nathan may be the film’s primary representation of the patriarchal system that created and controls Ava, but as a man, Caleb still benefits from and is complicit in that system. Caleb didn’t put Ava in her cell, but that doesn’t deprive him of the benefits (narrative, representational, and otherwise) of being a man in a world dominated by men. Ava doesn’t owe Caleb anything. She doesn’t exactly kill him either. Instead, she leaves him in Nathan’s compound—that is, in the prison that the patriarchy built. If viewers find themselves upset at the fact that he will most likely die there, they should also remember that Ava didn’t put him there in the first place.

Until Next Time
I recently watched both Queen of Earth (2015) and The Squid and the Whale (2005) for the first time, but I don’t think that I’ll be reviewing either of them in depth at this point. Since that’s the case, here are few thoughts. Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is an incredibly tense and occasionally brilliant film. The psychological character study provides an uncomfortable, but undoubtedly fascinating viewing experience, and it’s most definitely worth watching (it’s also on Netflix at the moment). As for Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, well it’s a perfectly fine film, but it also failed to affect me as much as I hoped it would. Baumbach’s screenplay is well-written, and his characters are well-rounded and complex. The film, which stars Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, and Laura Linney, is also well-acted, but Frances Ha will remain my favorite of Baumbach’s films for now (for the record, I’ve only seen the two).

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you have questions or comments about this post, just leave a comment below or connect with this blog on twitter.

A Review of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina: An Engrossing and Idea-Driven Sci-Fi Drama

Ex Machina review

Film: Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Primary Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
US Release Date: 10 April 2015

I hadn’t seen a movie on a screen bigger than my laptop in forever (like 3 weeks), so I forced myself to make time for a trip to the theater last weekend. When I saw what was playing, I immediately choose to see Ex Machina. After all, Oscar Issac and Alicia Vikander have recently become some of my favorite actors, and who doesn’t love a film about a robots that blurs the line between the human and the artificial?

But, before we get to the review, I thought I’d let you know that I am now a film columnist for Side B Magazine’s blog. Side B “believes that all people have the right to read, see, and hear voices that affirm their identity,” and I am excited to be writing for them. Not everything I write here will appear on Side B, and anything I do write for Side B (including this review) will probably show up here eventually.

And Now for the Review
The following review was originally published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest at work, which gives him a chance to spend a week at the very private and strangely beautiful subterranean home of the company’s CEO, a reclusive-alcoholic-genius-billionaire named Nathan (a bearded Oscar Issac). He does not initially realize it, but in entering Nathan’s residence, Caleb also enters a sort of underworld in which he will be used, manipulated, and brought to the brink of madness; by signing an NDA agreeing not to tell anyone about whatever it is that Nathan has to show him, he also seals his own fate.

What (who?) Nathan has to show him is Ava, a strangely beautiful and incredibly captivating humanoid robot who Nathan (the brain behind the world’s largest search engine) has imbued with artificial intelligence (and possibly even sexuality). Once Caleb agrees not to share anything Nathan tells him about his work, Caleb asks the young coder to help him conduct a sort of Turing test. Conceptualized by Alan Turing, such a test requires a human to interact with a machine and is used to determine whether or not that machine can pass for human. Caleb agrees and proceeds to have daily “sessions” with Ava, which Nathan watches from another room via cctv.

In the end, it all makes for a subtly unnerving and perfectly engrossing film—which has gotten into my head unlike just about anything else that I’ve seen this year. No, this is not a heart-pounding film, and it may even bore some viewers. That said, the film is, above all, a testament to how thoroughly interesting and how human the sci-fi genre can be, especially when it’s allowed to exist independently of the chase sequences and the fight scenes that our culture has come to associate with it.

Written and directed by established novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a visually arresting, well-acted, and thought-provoking sci-fi drama that viewers will be hard-pressed to forget. Though imperfect, the film is also a wonderfully promising directorial debut from Garland, and I for one hope that he will continue to express himself on the screen as well as on the page.

One of the places where Ex Machina shines the brightest is in its layered script, which (much like Ava) manages to be elegant, alluring, and deeply unsettling all at once. The film is built on concepts and queries, not on actions, and it takes it’s time saying what it has to say. In progressing slowly, Ex Machina gives viewers time to latch on to and to truly consider the various questions that it is interested in asking. The film’s deliberately slow pace (which, come to think of it, is not at all unlike Ava’s measured and oddly graceful gait) also enhances its ability to get under the skin and gives viewers time to be affected by its blurring of various seemingly fundamental boundaries. As interesting as Ava is to look at it (the VFX that bring her to life are incredible), Ex Machina is not a film that’s built on spectacle, and it doesn’t feel quite right to call it a thriller either. It’s an idea-driven sci-fi drama, and it’s a pretty damn good one at that.

In addition to the line between man and machine—and, more importantly, what defines the human—the film is also interested in questions of gender, of sexuality, and of privacy. While much of the drama in the film includes Caleb’s interactions with Ava, Ex Machina is also interested in the ways that humans interact with more common forms of technology (cell phones, the internet, etc.) and in the ways that that technology may or may not be interacting with us.

After its script, Ex Machina’s greatest strength lies it in its performances. Alicia Vikander (who is fantastic in A Royal Affair) is excellent in the film. Her performance is the one on which Ex Machina’s success depends the most heavily, and she bears that weight beautifully. As Ava, she is gorgeous, naïve, calculating, and quietly intimidating all at once. She is fluid and she is fascinating, and she manages to convey a great deal of thought and emotion through subtle changes in her face and speech. Just as she commands Caleb’s full attention whenever she is in his sight, she also makes it just about impossible for viewers to look away from her.

Oscar Isaac (surprising no one) also does good work in the film. His performance in Ex Machina is not necessarily the most impressive one he has given, but it’s precisely what Garland’s film call for. As the often opaque Nathan (who is a sort of computer-scientist-meets-Victor-Frankenstein-meets-Bluebeard figure), he gives a complex and fully realized performance that is intense without being overblown.

While there is nothing really wrong with Domhnall Gleeson’s performance, he is somewhat overshadowed by his co-stars. Here, as in Frank, he is perfectly watchable, and he demonstrates a clear proclivity for playing everyman characters who are essentially stand-ins for the audience; but that doesn’t change the fact that Caleb is the last of Ex Machina’s characters that viewers are likely to find themselves talking about after the credits roll.

Maybe its the arresting visuals, the eerie music, the interest in sexuality, and the somewhat cold and distant tone, but Ex Machina actually feels a little bit like Under the Skin (which is both spectacular and spectacularly disturbing). No, Ex Machina isn’t as obscure as Under the Skin, nor does it rely quite as heavily on that which is below the surface, but it does possess a certain more abstract layer meaning that is never quite spoken aloud. However, even though Ex Machina may not spell everything out for its viewers, it is not esoteric either.

In fact, perhaps one way to understand the film is as certain contemporary revisiting of Frankenstein in which the monster is beautiful rather than repulsive and in which the creator is more interested in keeping his creation under his control than he is in running away from it. (Perhaps that’s what happens in a patriarchal society when the creation is female.)

It’s probably the English major in me, but I don’t think I could properly review this film without mentioning the title. “Ex machina” is typically only heard in English as part of the larger Latin phrase, “deus ex machina” (or “god from a machine”). In literature, this phrase is used to refer to a plot device (like the eagles in Tolkien), which suddenly and improbably fixes a problem that previously seemed all but impossible to resolve. By the end of Ex Machina it becomes clear that, if there is a deus ex machina in the film, it is Ava herself.

As intellectually and as aesthetically strong as the film is (it features a number of truly stunning images), Ex Machina does have a few weaknesses, which—lest I come across as an uncritical critic—I feel compelled to mention. While the patience with which the film presents its material is mostly a good thing, there are places in Ex Machina where the plot slows a bit more than it should, and the ending drags on a little longer than would be ideal. Another issue that may haunt the film is that is premise is not especially original (its presentation of that premise might be, but that’s a separate issue). As positively as I feel about Ex Machina and as mesmerizing as the film is, some are bound to be underwhelmed by it; I suspect that this will prove especially true for those who refuse to brave its depths.

Until Next Time
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear what you thought of Ex Machina. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. Come next Oscar season, this film will surely be lost in the shuffle, but, at this point, it’s one of the best of the year.