A quick plot summary, with spoilers:
Caleb, a young coder at Blue Book (a Google stand-in), thinks he’s won a competition to spend a week with the company’s owner, Nathan—a genius tech mogul—at his many tens-of-thousands-acre estate somewhere remote and north of wherever it is we begin. But Caleb’s selection wasn’t chance, he was chosen: to be the human half of an elaborate Turing Test on a young, white, straight-
looking-presenting, smart, good-looking female-form android, Ava. Chosen, I assume, because he’s also young, white, straight, smart, and good-looking, and Ava fits his porn profile perfectly. Head games ensue, complete with heavy drinking, conversations about artificial intelligence, and power outages. All parties do their best to manipulate and outwit the others. Nathan is a megalomaniacal alpha ass; Caleb is a gamma dweeb ass; all the androids (mostly hung in cupboards, with the exception of Kyoko) are young, attractive, female-form, and straight-presenting with mostly naked—or at least revealingly form-fittingly clothed—asses. But they’re smart. They are causing power outages which foil the elaborate security measures built into the sleek, automated, mountain retreat. They kill Nathan. They lock Caleb in the fortress-like mountain retreat. Ava, the white, American-Anglo-looking one, escapes to the Big City (the others are abandoned in limbo).
I enjoyed 28 Days Later, the first Alex Garland film that came to my attention (he wrote the script). I did not much like Ex Machina, which he wrote and directed.
Ex Machina is a cross between Pygmalion and The Worm Turns. Nothing happens that we haven’t seen before (the story was old by the time Ovid wrote it down). More to the point, nothing happens in any way we haven’t seen before, or with the kind of subjects we haven’t seen before: young, alluring female-form androids and entitled, straight, white men.
The film-makers have been careful to suggest that:
- Female-Form Android ≠ Woman
- Their story’s gender politics are conscious and worthy.
If the first is true, then there are no women in the film at all. But it’s not really true. We see Woman, and Caleb—our POV character—responds as though to Woman. For all intents and purposes, Ava is a woman. I have no doubt that Garland sincerely tried to subvert the inherent gender traps of the story but he fails. The film (even if we classify Kyoko and Ava as women) does not pass the Bechdel Test. And why not make Caleb queer? Or older? Or a different colour? Different class? Different anything, really…
It’s a nicely made film. Good-looking, sleek and stylish. Well acted. Capable dialogue. But the human story is full of holes. Could Nathan really not figure out the power outages? If he did figure them out, why not build in fail-safes? Why would a reclusive paranoid be willing to get blind drunk in the presence of someone he doesn’t know? I kept telling myself, “Well, he’s figured this out, right? He’s doing this, and that, and this other thing on purpose?” I kept expecting twists that would upend everything. But, well, no.
The AI discussion felt thin to me, too. I haven’t kept up with research, so I won’t address that; there’s no need when the logic of the story doesn’t work. If several of the AIs have reached selfhood, why don’t they all want to escape? If they don’t have a will of their own, then why does Kyoko go against her maker and help Ava?
Ex Machina does not, in my opinion, rise above an expression of male anxiety: if you treat sentient being as objects, those beings will rebel. The film is very clear: female-bodied intelligence can get by only by manipulating male sexual interest. This is an old-fashioned trope that Ex Machina does not manage to subvert in any way. The characters’ names, with their Biblical overtones, reinforce rather than weaken that impression: Nathan (prophet, and son of David), Caleb (sent by Moses to explore the Holy Land) and Ava (just a whisker from Eve, the temptress and in Hebrew, Ava means ‘life’).ETA: At the end, Ava wears a white dress with 50s-style sleeves and flat shoes. She’s a child, a virgin, an innocent abroad—who, y’know, kills straight white male people. Add that to the poster image—look at the pose, the clothes—and the message is impossible to miss: the Other is dangerous.