Ex Machina and the Puppetry of the Patriarch

Published April 26, 2015 by vfdpixie


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.

18 comments on “Ex Machina and the Puppetry of the Patriarch

  • I still need to catch up with this film, but I am very intrigued to by your comments regarding the Jasmine character. I have read that the film’s portrayal of the main female robot was poor, but this is the first review I have read that has touched on the problematic racial stereotypes (let alone in a thought-provoking way).

    • Yes it was disturbing and I was surprised that the reviews I read didn’t really address the issue at all. I would love to hear your thoughts once you’ve seen it! Thanks for reading!

  • I’ve seen the movie, I heard great reviews for it but when I watched the movie all I got was all that technology and ridiculous amount of data to only make a sex machine, what a waste.

    • Yup! That was my thought as well. I wondered if I had actually seen the same movie as the critics. Not sure if you have checked out The Machine. Great British indie flick about the same thing but SO much better! Thanks for reading!

  • The critic and filmmaker actually agree. The filmmaker doesn’t agree with either of the male leads and the audience is showed how flawed they are. Just because a filmmaker shows you a character or idea doesn’t mean they agree with it. Archie Bunker is a racist and the male lead in All in The Family. The show never endorces Archie but rather displays him for scorn and ridicule. That is the same for racism and sexism in Ex Machina. The sexism and racism is clearly portrayed as a negative idea and not to be emulated.

    • I’m not saying that the filmmaker agrees with the characters. What I am saying is that he was lazy with his storytelling devices and the way he portrayed their flaws.

      I was prepared to see a dark film about artificial intelligence and robots, not a discourse on racism and sexism, so I think your example of Archie Bunker is wasted here. What I saw, as you read in my post, was one-dimensional; the use of women and race was really heavy-handed and unnecessary, and the male characters flat.

      What I do appreciate is that you did see sexism and racism in the film. I’m not sure if you are male or female, or a person of color because I wonder in terms of perspective how other women and people of color felt about the film. I am still baffled by the majority of critics raving about it when it clearly could have been a better film about A.I.

      Thank you for reading, commenting and opening up discussions!

  • RMPIXIE, Thank you for your post on this topic. I was hoping that the voiceless “asian-skinned” robots and horrific images of the “black-skinned,” headless robot were to add to the evil nature of the character Isaac, but according to quotes posted by Sharon H. Chang may indicate a greater horror: That filmmaker himself has latent issues that his arrogance is not willing to admit to: http://multiasianfamilies.blogspot.com/2015/05/how-ex-machina-abuses-women-of-color.html

    • Yes, there is definitely a strong sense of that. It’s not often that I feel uncomfortable and disgusted after a film, but this one did just that for me. I’m so glad Sharon wrote her article, and I hope more people read it! Thanks for visiting my blog!

  • Thank you RMPIXIE! I felt so sick after leaving the theater, and so many people (including my white boyfriend) finding it to be smart and ground breaking is both annoying and puzzling. Besides the constant sexism in the film, I couldn’t help but squirm at the racism and violence shown toward the female robots of color- isn’t Jasmine dragged across the floor? Garland succumbs to the same racist and sexist tropes of lesser films, and it being billed instead as a commentary on these things make it, in my opinion, even worse.

    • Thanks for reading! I at first had to let my feelings about the film simmer, and try to look at it objectively, but I ended up with the same outcome: disgust. It’s a shame because the story had promise. I’ve noticed a lot of people who are not a part of a marginalized group will not see what we see. I am glad however that fellow WoC are speaking up!

  • You seem to be missing the point of the movie. It addresses the issue of creating conscious beings for the use of the creator. Nathen is the evil genius. He creates person after person, then just discards them. 2 very important lines are the one where Nathen misinterprets Calab as calling him god, and when Ava rhetorically asks Calab if anyone can turn him of. She knows the answer, she wants him to ponder it. All the points you make are intentionally there to make you see Nathan for the user he is. Now what may really upset some people is what I think is an intentional knock on religion. When Nathan implies Calab called him god, it implies that many a religious seem to imply we exist as god’s play things. Just as in the film, the AI’s and even Calab are just Nathans play things.

    • I am aware of the points he tries to convey, but I think the religious subtext was too subtle to offend most viewers in my opinion. What is more evident is his of use women to illustrate power struggles in a sexist and racist manner. If you are not an aware male, female, or person of colour, this would not be as offensive.
      His use of dominance in the story was overly violent towards the women and unnecessary.
      The fact that I, as well as other women of colour, had an almost visceral reaction to the film is enough validation for me. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  • The racism and the sexism that you saw was precisely the point of the movie. That was *the* narrative — monstrous dehumanization of women, most notably Asian women, taken to a not-unrealistic conclusion, i.e. making them robots so that its “okay” to abuse and discard them.

    Also, I’m not sure the two clauses in this statement are compatible: “without body-shaming Vikander, if that was in fact her body, creepy and a tad too pre-pubescent.”

    Even if that wasn’t her body, i.e. a body-double, that was *someone’s* body. Is that your criticism to make, that some women are shaped differently than others? That they’re not “real women” because they have small breasts? Good lord.

    • You see small breasts. I see something a bit deeper. My critique of the android’s body was to point out that young women’s bodies are constantly being sexualized to the point where we are desensitized to the display of what society deems as a socially acceptable body shape. The director chose that representation as an ideal woman for the character Caleb who fit the bill as the typical everyman. Also, we all know that CGI can modify anything these days so that’s why I question if it was her true form. It is creepy in my opinion.

      Have you read Sharon H. Chang’s piece on the film? here is the link: http://multiasianfamilies.blogspot.ca/2015/05/how-ex-machina-abuses-women-of-color.html?m=1 You might want to before you come to the conclusion that racism and sexism was the point of the film. Garland took a wrong turn by exacerbating those two themes to the extreme.

      Thanks for reading from your very high horse.

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