Ex Machina (2015, 1 hr 48 mins)
Artificial intelligence has been debated for many years about whether it will be the downfall of humankind. Stephen Hawking has famously warned against developing A.I., citing its dangers of a total takeover of humanity. Writer Alex Garland, the mind behind Sunshine, and The Beach, gets his directorial debut with Ex Machina, where the controversy goes much further than A.I. and into the realm of misogyny and male superiority.
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder that has won a contest to work at the secret research facility of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive computer genius and mogul who has created a Google-like company called Bluebook. It is here that Caleb learns of his task: to test the artificial intelligence of Ava (Alicia Vikander), a fully functioning robot who just might be too real to handle.
This film has been getting rave reviews, and objectively, I can see why. The writing, the sets, and the acting are all top-notch, not to mention the incredible C.G.I. involved in creating Ava’s mechanics and the pulsating heartbeat-like scoring, however as a woman, and a woman of colour, I have to call foul on several points. ****(If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read any further!)*****
First, Nathan is a genius but he has no respect for women, as we see with his treatment of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), his beautiful and silent housekeeper, as well as Ava, his creation of the moment. His ego and false sense of superiority also gets way ahead of him as he manipulates all who come in contact with his world, giving the character full license to behave badly.
My second point comes from the notion of sexuality and race. In 2015, there are still many issues with race and gender, and it becomes more complex and insidious as we forge into the future. With the character of Nathan, we get an idea of his sexually dominant leanings as Caleb gets to know him. When Caleb challenges Nathan’s choice of a female robot instead of a grey box to house the A.I., implying that results would be skewed due to Caleb’s attraction to Ava, Nathan uses the example of a preference for Black women, or “chicks”, when describing nature’s ability to hardwire humans for seemingly random attractions. This example was obnoxious and kind of played out, and I wondered why Nathan didn’t use Asian women as an example instead because plot wise, that was obviously his preference.
Nathan’s odd choices for a genius would soon be illustrated with his perverse collection of A.I. dolls, where there is a distinct difference. Just in case there were some of you wondering if Ava was the only choice, never fear, because Nathan also builds Asian, Nordic looking and Africa-American prototypes, used, abused and hung up in their own little closets. What is extremely poignant to me is that the African-American robot Jasmine (Symara A. Templeman) had a beautiful body like the others, but no face, and later on, no head. To everyone else, this may not be of any interest, but to me it speaks volumes. I see it as a not so subtle knock to Black women and their standing in society; the faceless, objectified plaything that really has no merit or garners no understanding. She is just to be used and discarded. The same fate happens to the other prototypes, but they at least have faces, an identity, albeit one-dimensional.
Dear reader, if you have come this far, please stay with me for a moment longer. As a woman who has loved horror and sci-fi since I was a child, I get that it has been a mostly white male dominated genre. I get that women are objectified in many ways, and as a woman, I have to pick my battles, because there is a thing called context. I cannot feel anything but disappointed with the writer’s choices in this case because I see through them. I identify with that faceless Black robot because it is a perpetuated sexual stereotype that Black women are still seen as sexual chattel but not valued; that their opinion and intelligence is disregarded, illustrated by the robot’s missing head. Garland takes racial stereotypes further with Nathan’s Japanese housekeeper Kyoko, who is portrayed as completely subservient.
Thirdly was the amount of nudity. I am not a prude, and I have seen my fair share of nakedness and violence in horror and sci-fi films. Most of it is unnecessary and cater once again to the male heterosexual viewer, and I have come to an unfortunate and begrudging acceptance when a female body part is flashed or slashed on the screen. Nathan’s brutality with his naked creations was, however, disturbing and overdone to me, as was Ava’s transition into “flesh and blood” which seemed, without body-shaming Vikander, if that was in fact her body, creepy and a tad too pre-pubescent.
Garland’s United Nations of lady-bots was perhaps a step in the right direction, but the blatant misogyny and stereotypes, including the one of the God complex male genius whose first inclination is to make himself a robot harem, all but clobbered this viewer over the head. In the end, Ava may have cared more about her own motivations than the plight of women, (after all she isn’t real right?), and some may think that her final actions were a battle cry for feminists, but it just seemed heavy-handed, predictable and buried any accountability for the treatment of women in the film.
This story could have been much more than a mad genius working out his sexual fantasies, and I’m going to assume that many people are going to dismiss my findings as overly sensitive or they ignore the fact that Nathan made fake women; that they weren’t real and therefore gave him license to abuse and lord over them at will. I pose to those people this question: Why, in this day and age, is a film that is considered smart and a potential representation of our future, still using male dominance and misogyny as a baseline? I would hope in the realms of fantasy and science fiction we could get past that and be more progressive but obviously this is not the case, as women in technology fields still struggle to find their footing (can you say Gamergate?). Just because it looks good doesn’t mean it is. It’s truly a shame that Garland, who penned one of the greatest female characters in horror, Selena played by Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later, has come up with such a disappointing view of women masked as a dialogue on artificial intelligence.