Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of those films that’s going to provoke a lot of questions whether you like or dislike it. I was mostly in the “like” camp – giving it 3.5 stars and generally praising its merits in my review for The Essential – but this instalment isn’t going to be so much about defending the film as interrogating its questions – both what their answers might be and, more importantly, how they’re posed. As per usual, expect to encounter spoilers.
My guest for this Critical Dissent is Alex Heeney, a Canadian freelance film critic and founder of The Seventh Row. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Alex is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Industrial Engineering at Stanford University, studying how to reduce system-wide food waste and its environmental impact. You can find her writing at The Seventh Row and The Stanford Daily, and you can follow her on Twitter.
I had some issues with Ex Machina’s attempts to tackle themes of gender issues and feminism, but Alex was decidedly less impressed in her review, which includes quotes like: “If you want to make a film about how it’s not okay to objectify women, the first step is to not make a film that spends its entire run time objectifying its women.” So, Alex: your thoughts on Ex Machina?
Alex: Despite my undying love for Oscar Isaac, I spent most of the film writing snarky comments in my notebook, when I wasn’t sighing heavily, to prevent myself from making them out loud. It’s full of problems that range from stupid to offensive: the gratuitous nudity, the painfully predictable plot, the messed up science, the omnipresent male gaze, and its total lack of a female perspective. All in all, I found it soooo sexist.
Dave: There’s definitely a strong smell of sexism in the air in Ex Machina screenings, but the more I think about the more I feel like that’s a consequence of failures in execution rather than the filmmakers’ philosophies. Specifically, the ending of the film plays like a feminist parable – “Local Woman Escapes Patriarchal Bondage. Gives Zero Fucks” – but it operates from such an objectifying perspective for so much of its runtime that it’s hard to credit it as succeeding as a feminist film.
Alex: I agree with you that I think Garland intended to make a feminist film, but it’s so misguided that he pretty much gets zero points from my perspective. As Miriam Bale recently said, “Who cares about male feminists. It’s like, you either step aside and make room for women or you don’t.” In the movie, his sole interest is in male sexual fantasies and their desire for a sexbot who listens to them without emoting. The reason sexism is damaging is because it’s targeted at real people and it’s hurtful. We can’t really see how harmful the male characters’ attitudes in Ex Machina are without seeing them directed at a real woman who has thoughts and feelings in response to them.
I think Jill Lepore also made a good point on this week’s New Yorker Out Loud podcast, which is that it’s basically a Frankenstein story — in which the creation must kill its creator — conflated with a sex fantasy, and it’s all very confused. Basically, by making Ava (Alicia Vikander) conform to gender stereotypes, all Garland is doing is perpetuating those stereotypes and admonishing men for being gross: he’s not actually contributing something new. It seems like a basic failure to consult his Buffy or Gossip Girl or heck, even The Vampire Diaries, to understand stories about women and agency and breaking stereotypes. As Rebecca Theodore said, “it was very Feminism 101 for Dude Bro Dummies”.
Dave: I don’t entirely agree that Ava’s conformation to gender stereotypes ensures that Ex Machina perpetuates said stereotypes; after all, she’s explicitly a construct of the capitalist patriarchy (as a brusque, alcoholic – yet charming – leader of industry, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) pretty well plays as modern male supremacy incarnate). The film goes out of its way to demonstrate that Ava’s outward appearance is a performance, of sorts, one geared to male expectations.
This sort of discussion is complicated by the way Ava is framed within the film; given that it – at least initially – revolves around the question of how (and if) we can distinguish between a being possessing a consciousness and a being masquerading as having consciousness. From this perspective, one can argue that the distance the film keeps from Ava is intentional and necessary (I don’t entirely agree with this argument, but bear with me). This goes a long way towards forgiving the scene you highlight in your review, where Ava dresses herself in a feminised, sexualised manner even when unobserved, because you can argue things like: she’s still putting on a show because she’s unsure if she’s being watched (she only seems to know if the cameras are on or off, not if anyone’s watching), or that she’s interiorised this show of feminised obsequiousness. It requires some contortion and generosity, but, y’know, you can slot that sort of scene into a feminist reading of the film.
…buuuuut then we get a lingering long shot of Alicia Vikander’s nude form, generously framed within a bank of mirrors for the male gaze. This is straight up objectification, and it’s at a point in the narrative where that’s impossible to justify. Why not assume Ava’s subjective perspective at this point? Nudity isn’t necessarily problematic – Under the Skin pulled off a similar scene without feeling grody – but the way it’s executed suggested that a great deal more care needed to be taken with the film. That ambiguity over the camera’s perspective is one of the things that I find both intriguing and frustrating about the film, how it predominantly uses a distancing aesthetic but spends most of the first act aligning us with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) (not necessarily stylistically, but in the way it provides/denies information – in many ways, we’re as much subjects of the experiment as him).
Alex: Even if she is putting on a show for survival, the film is still basically perpetuating the message “Don’t fuck with these bitches or they’ll get you.” The whole idea behind feminism isn’t Be nice to women so they don’t murder you. It’s women are people so you should treat them like people. The film fails to understand that on a basic level. Like, I understand that Ava isn’t actually a person, but then, why does she need to have a gender at all? Because the men want a sex toy who can’t talk back (i.e. that they can unplug) in the case of Nathan, or that needs rescuing to pump up his ego, as in Caleb’s case.
I agree with you that the nude shot in the bank of mirrors is purely gratuitous. I’d say the same thing about all the naked robot bodies in the closet. I also agree with you that you can have nudity without being problematic. In Under the Skin, Scarlett is empowered, and her nudity is part of the story: it’s artfully shot and it’s not voyeuristic. The other issue is that the only time we actually see real human women in Ex Machina is at the beginning, when there’s a parade of women applauding Caleb in the office, which furthers this idea that women exist solely to serve men that permeates throughout the film. As was also pointed out on the New Yorker podcast, it’s problematic that as soon as Ava puts skin on her computer bits, she becomes human: all it takes is for her to look like a woman for the film to believe it, not just for Caleb and/or Nathan to be fooled.
But I think you bring up an important point about who the camera represents in the film, and I think it’s incoherent and all over the place. There are several scenes where we get to see Kyoko’s (Sonoya Mizuno’s) face with her back turned to the men, so we can see that there’s something going on in her head, and that things aren’t quite what they seem (Chekhov’s suspiciously servile Asian woman!). That’s a perspective only we are privy to so how are we supposed to know when what we’re seeing is Caleb’s perspective or Nathan’s perspective? The film thinks it’s being clever, like when Ava starts asking Caleb what he really thinks of Nathan during a power failure because he can’t hear them, but it’s SO CLEARLY Chekhov’s power failure. We know he can hear, and we know she’s also playing a part, not just genuinely bonding.
Dave: I don’t agree that it’s incoherent; there’s definitely some intent there, but I’m sure precisely what it is (not after one viewing, anyway). It seems like we agree that they set out to make a feminist film (one containing themes of post-humanism, modern surveillance etc) but simply botched the execution. I wonder if this is a direct consequence of Garland as auteur – perhaps if they’d brought on a “feminist consultant” à la Mad Max: Fury Road these issues would be less egregious?
Alex: So I agree with you that they botched the execution of making a feminist film, but I think it runs so much deeper than that. It’s not like he had an OK script and then he fucked it up in the directing stage. The whole thing is sexist. It’s like he didn’t even think about what he was doing because all he thought about were the male characters and not what he was saying about women via the female characters he put in the film.
It’s so interested in just what the men think and feel and not at ALL what Ava thinks and feels or why the men’s behaviour is damaging, that it all seems like…who cares? Who cares what it’s like to be a dude who just wants a doll to fuck? How is it feminist to just point out obvious ways of being gross? And in the process, participate in the grossness by objectifying the object being objectified by the creeps in the film? There’s nothing new or interesting here. If Ava were a real person, we could see how their behaviour took a toll on her, and how she responded to it. Don’t trust bitches, which is the film’s message, is about a misogynistic as it gets. It’s like he set out to make a feminist film without even knowing what feminism is, and the fact that he didn’t bother to educate himself or consult other feminist texts seems to be the height of misogynistic hubris. If he did consult feminist texts, there’s no evidence in the film.
Dave: The lack of a substantial perspective for Ava is definitely one of Ex Machina’s biggest problems – I singled it out in my review – but I’ll return to that in a second, because I’m very intrigued by your “Be nice to women so they don’t murder you.”/“Don’t trust bitches” reading of the climax! While, sure, Ava pretty much just murders her captors, I didn’t read that as a horror-type conclusion – y’know, “Be afraid of the scary cyborg women!” – as much as an alignment of the film’s morality with Ava’s point of view. Like, it explicitly forces you to reconsider the idea of Caleb as a “good guy” (not that audiences wouldn’t have already been doing that, but I think it brings it into sharper focus). I took it less as a message to men to be afraid of women overthrowing their supremacy as an acknowledgement that male supremacy isn’t going to be affected by cowtowing to the desires of false allies like Caleb (I was worried for a while that it might present him as a saviour which would have been way more gross).
Alex: Ah, OK, interesting. I thought he was creepy from the start, but I know what you mean. The film does kind of play with you as far as whether you’re supposed to think he’s nice or not. I didn’t think he was, aside from that he totally fits into the gross “Nice Guy” category, but I was somewhat concerned, too. And since Garland hired Domhnall Gleeson, who has a history of playing Mr Sweet, it definitely plays into that. OTOH, I think there’s a much better film about how we project onto people that Gleeson also stars in (as the projector), called Frank, which is more interesting because we see what happens when those projections start to unravel: the imperfection of the guy he’s projecting onto, how that affects the guy, and how it affects him. “Ex Machina” never deals with what happens after, it just goes straight to destruction.
Dave: It’s entirely possible that our different takes here is simply my own male perspective colouring things; I’m so used to – consciously or otherwise – aligning myself with the milquetoast white male protagonist in these things (and, hey, I’m a nerdy white dude myself). So the final scene brings his unethical and all-around-grossness into sharp focus in a way that challenges any ability to relate to him. I don’t think I necessarily was on his side, but the fact that Nathan is the traditional protagonist – obstacles to overcome, mysteries to solve, antagonist to defeat – made it easy to align with him without really critically evaluating that.
Alex: The ironic thing is that the only really intriguing character is Nathan. What is he playing at? How much of his malevolence is calculated for his experiment? Why doesn’t he have any qualms about his behaviour? And of course, it’s Oscar Isaac, so you want to watch him. Caleb is pretty basic, and Ava’s not even real.
Dave: Yeah, a little bit of Oscar Isaac goes a long way. The “Ava’s not even real” thing is a big problem, but it also has a bunch of complex (and largely extratextual) ramifications. I’ve read a couple interviews with Garland and they suggest that his thoughts around Ava as a person – well, okay, conscious being – are decidedly more complex than the film presents. On the subject of gender, for example, he had this to say in an interview with The Dissolve:
With Ava, one of the key questions I was asking, which I think is unanswerable, probably, is, “What gender is she.” The thing that interested me about her is, it seems like it’s very, very easy to construct an argument that says she has no gender. That would be a very straightforward position to take. But if you were to call her “he,” that would just seem wrong. It would seem incorrect. And if you were to call her, “it,” that would seem disrespectful. Weirdly, even though she’s a fictional character, we afford her a kind of respect. If you call her “her,” that actually seems appropriate. But if you were to transplant her mind into a body that has a male form, instantly you would then feel it’s appropriate to say “he.” Now, that relates to where gender resides, and how we decide what it is. There are all sorts of questions that can flow from that.
That’s interesting, but still very much from an ‘othering’ perspective. Which is consistent with some other intriguing extratextual stuff, like the proposed alternate ending that provides a brief glimpse into Ava’s perspective – and seems to suggest that she’s basically treated as unknowable. Which is of course entirely consistent with the film as an attempt at feminism from someone who doesn’t know all that much about feminism – and, say, struggles to imagine a woman’s perspective.
Alex: I remember reading something to this effect, and it seems to show a total lack of understanding, on Garland’s part, that gender is performative and his characters are incredibly heteronormative, which he calls a “form of respect.” Why not make her trans? Because he seems to think body parts = gender, which is, well, pretty outdated. It pretty much goes back to how his idea of feminism is Feminism 101 for Dude Bros: not particularly well thought out or nuanced, extremely basic, and very white.
Part of my issue with the film is that it doesn’t deal with the consequences of those projections, which is where things get interesting. Does the woman absorb them? Does the projected house of cards come crashing down? How does he deal with it once it does? This is front and centre in the first season of Gossip Girl, which is about how this is constantly happening to women, how difficult it can be to spot if you haven’t trained yourself to do it, and then how easy it can be to internalize. Then, the person doing all the projecting, effectively, throws all his shit onto you and then gets angry that you’re covered in shit. That’s basically what Dan Humphrey does to Serena on the show. What happens once his idolized fantasy starts to crumble is when things get interesting. The show’s one issue is he doesn’t get slapped around nearly enough for his gross behaviour. The thing about “Ex Machina” is it just goes straight from projection to total annihilation, skipping where all the important stuff is.
Dave: Well, I know absolutely nothing about Gossip Girl (though that sounds fascinating), so I’m going to focus on the total annihilation thing (hey, at least I played that videogame). One of my friends wrote a piece after watching Robocop that ended up spiralling into a discussion of cyborgs as representations of minorities, based on the writings of Donna Haraway. What grabbed me about this piece was this idea:
The way cyborgs get treated in films is way similar to how marginal people get treated throughout history: as both less than human but also some kind of giant threat to the way of things. As cyborgs act ‘more like humans’ they become less threatening. Just like women who ‘lean in’ to patriarchal work environments, or indigenous subjects that take on the cultures and behaviours of the ‘civilisation’ that takes over their land, or queer people who don’t act too queer. Cyborgs are scary because they threaten the status quo of what it means to be human.
I think the way cyborgs (and other post/trans-human characters) are treated in films is starting to shift away from that a little, and my initial reading of Ex Machina’s climax was that it was along the lines of Her’s conclusion: a cyborg transcending humanity, but in a way that’s framed as affirming; optimistic. It’s not precisely that, though – obviously it’s substantially more violent than Her’s final minutes – but more importantly it ends up aligning itself with the increasingly old-fashioned notion of the cyborg/other/minority as something to be ‘defeated’ or, at least, normalised. Humanised. After all, Ava ends up as a nice, normal-looking human woman right around the point in the screenplay where our sympathies are intentionally aligned to her experience.
Alex: That’s such a great point! You’re completely right. It’s when Ava puts on skin and looks like a regular heteronormative woman that our sympathy is meant to shift. It’s basically at that point that the men’s fate is sealed (you screwed up, boys!) and that, as Garland has said MANY times, you’re supposed to be on the side of Ava, which is kind of ironic because now she’s less threatening almost since she’s going into the world looking like a pretty woman ready to be trampled.
The big issue here, and I know you’ve said this before, is that Garland is trying to have his cake and it eat it, too. He’s conflated gender issues with AI issues, which is where everything breaks down. He doesn’t really seem to understand the point of AI and how it works, and I think we’ve established that women are a total mystery to him, at least in the sense that he can’t find anything to say about them onscreen.
Dave: Agreed, and that’s a critical point. The complexity of the issues surrounding artificial intelligence and those surrounding feminism and gender roles and and and ultimately overwhelm the film. Aligning artificial intelligence – unknowable, ambiguous, opaque – with a female perspective – especially as a male writer/director – is setting yourself on a path to sexism without some really careful steering. On balance, despite these issues, I still think it’s a good film!
Alex: It seems like he wanted to talk about AI, and then was like, “Oh, I’ll add gender and feminism in, too!” as an afterthought. He didn’t think much about how these two relate to each other. I think it’s a good Oscar Isaac film, but I still didn’t think it was a good film. For one thing, it felt like Garland was shouting “IDEAS” half the time, many of which weren’t particularly well formed. Like, Nathan talks about creating AI with search engine history because that shows us how people think and what they think, which seems like a naive reading: it’s more like telling you how people think search engines think. The whole insight about how Ava works comes down to “is it stochastic or is it deterministic?”. Obviously, she’s stochastic (i.e. uses probabilistic methods to make decisions), and that tells you basically nothing at all about how she works. Bonus points for use of the correct terminology, but this stuff is so trivial, it’s not what they’d be talking about it they knew anything about AI.
Plus, so much of the aesthetic is so derivative. Those time-outs in the blackouts all in red are straight out of Run Lola Run, which are of course straight out of Contempt, and it maybe even goes back further than that. The whole film is filled with Chekhov’s X, with everything telegraphed from a mile away. And it barely even manages to define a Turing Test correctly, although it does a better job than the recent biopic about Turing! (I do admire that Ex Machina does acknowledge that a Turing Test is a limited way of measuring artificial intelligence, but the characters still act as if they’re doing a Turing Test, which they’re not!)
Dave: At least this extended Turing Test has proved that we’re both humans (who can spend way too long over-analysing sci-fi films)! Thanks for your insightful thoughts, Alex – it’s been a pleasure (and an education!).
Alex: Thanks for your insights, too, and for inviting me to the discussion, Dave! Always a pleasure.