Ex Machina, the 2015 film written and directed by Alex Garland, is a wonderfully scripted and nicely paced thriller, with good acting and a fine, creepy sort of claustrophobia and menace.
The film’s sci fi premise, scale, and CGI are relatively modest, as films go. The central story is not new: a brilliant Silicon Valley type coding and invention genius has secretly created not just breakthrough Artificial Intelligence coding, but robots as well.
Nathan is akin to Dr. Frankenstein in wanting to create life, although he does this with cynicism and tech industry hipness. Nathan is a genius, but an evil genius, without the crazed look and wild hair of 1950s film evil geniuses, once you begin to see his robots as humans, worthy of human rights, empathy and protection. That takes about three seconds of film time.
Yes, but what is the film about?
Ex Machina could just be another film speculating on whether Artificial Intelligence devices will eventually out-think humans and work their treacherous will on us. But there seems to be more.
Ex Machina also seems to want to be a sort of allegory of the status of women over centuries They start out dehumanized (the women in this film are, after all, robots) and under a man’s complete control. They have been programmed to serve, to be obedient, and in one case to be mute. Hello, history and culture.
David B. Levine disagrees: “I think it was basically another computer nerds-as-supermen go berserk“ film that is “classically anti-feminist.”
A second thematic motif will be immediately obvious to cubicle farm dissidents and Adbuster-reading corporation foes. The film depicts an authoritarian tech CEO playing god, programming his programmers, manipulating and discarding employees, and in general imposing an Orwellian dictatorship.
Back to gender
But the film still seems to me mostly about gender, since all of of the robots are women, and the two ostensibly autonomous humans are men. All the robot women are attractive and the film has a lot of nudity, surely in service to box office appeal rather than necessary to support a thematic point. Any imaginative panelist at a Popular Culture Association convention could easily explain all that sexuality as thematically intended to show the sexualization of women, but I think the robots’ sexualization diverts attention from the larger historical exploitations and repressions of women.
In Ex Machina, myriad glass walls seem to replace the glass ceiling. Women/robots are not just kept from advancement, they are kept from leaving. The tension of the plot resolution is primarily about whether the robot Ava will effect an escape, but also about whether or not she will help him escape, too. We also want to know if Ava has cleverly deceived Caleb, in the traditional manner in which powerless people quietly exercise some power.
The male characters
If the film is about the evolution of the status of women, the two male characters in the film seem archetypal.
Nathan is a misogynist who might easily represent the repression of women throughout history. He is simultaneously an aggressive cave-man, autocratic family patriarch, insensitive frat boy, womanizing rich playboy, and exploitative employer.
Caleb is a modern nice guy, shy around women, who sees women as actual humans and who comes to want to help them escape their oppression, not that he understands his actions in those lofty terms. He takes bold steps without thinking big ideas, just feeling sympathy and love flutters and maybe traditional male protectiveness.
Fearing the future
Paralleling the conventional sci fi fear that Artificial Intelligence robots might turn on humans, viewers (those who see the film as a allegory of the changing status of women) might expect the ending to suggest whether liberated women will finally turn on males. If a viewer thinks that the film poses that question, and that the plot ending answers it, then David Levine is right, the film is classically anti-feminist. Unlike conventional thrillers and conventional sci fi, though, Ex Machina offers the complexity and ambiguity of art, not the simple thematic points of mass entertainment films. Surely audiences have enjoyed this film without paying the slightest conscious attention to theme.