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Ex Machina: A Tangled and Flawed Feminist Narrative

After finally seeing the acclaimed sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, I was plagued by a variety of thoughts. The first was that the movie had managed to avoid becoming a sci-fi cliché. So many movies dealing with the advent of artificial intelligence fall into the “self-aware robot decides to kill human creator” category that I was initially reluctant to watch this one. To my surprise, this movie wasn’t like that at all. In fact, I would even argue that Ex Machina is less about the consequences of creating artificial intelligence and more about the hazards of oppressive patriarchy. Let me explain.

This movie has four primary characters. The first is Nathan, a Steve Jobs-esque billionaire who created a search site akin to our real-life Google called Blue Book. Nathan is detestable in every way. He is arrogant, conniving, and so chauvinistic that it made my teeth grind. But he is also an out-of-this-world level genius and therefore an interesting character despite his flaws.

Then, there’s Caleb, an earnest employee at Nathan’s company who wins the Golden Ticket prize of spending a week with Nathan at his reclusive house in the middle of nowhere. Caleb is astute and sympathetic, a nice counter-balance to Nathan’s overly-macho character. He’s the likeable male character in this movie by far, but he becomes less so as the movie progresses.

Third, we have Kyoko, probably the most tragic character of the bunch. She is the movie’s voiceless female. Her main purpose is to serve Nathan in whatever capacity he needs. She is designed to be his optimum companion: sexy, nimble, and heartbreakingly mute. We are told in the movie that she doesn’t understand English and therefore doesn’t speak, but we learn over time that this isn’t the case. Her voice is literally taken away from her in order to make her more compliant regarding her captivity. Nevertheless, we quickly learn that her lack of a voice in no way makes her a non-threat. She is constantly listening and digesting information, becoming a crucial part of the film.

Finally, we have Ava. She is the movie’s female protagonist and Nathan’s pride and joy. She is intelligent, self-aware, and possesses an ethereal sort of beauty designed to throw Caleb off guard. At first, she comes across as the damsel-in-distress, dependent on Caleb to save her. However, this proves to be far from the truth.

For all intents and purposes, Kyoko and Ava are Nathan’s captives. Nathan keeps Ava enclosed in a glass room, monitoring her interactions. Kyoko is trapped inside of the house, forced to serve Nathan silently. In addition to endowing them with artificial intelligence, Nathan also decided to endow them with artificial gender, and it is this fact that makes this movie so fascinating.

Each robot’s gender is programmed to be female, but from a male perspective. Kyoko is subservient, silent and likes whatever Nathan likes. For example, Nathan declares at one point that Kyoko loves to dance, but does she really? Kyoko is programmed to love to dance because Nathan loves to dance; in other words, it is not a love that she acquired on her own but was rather instilled in her for the sake of entertaining her male creator.

Ava’s gender programming is similar, although she isn’t rendered mute like Kyoko. Her physical female appearance is modeled after Caleb’s porn preferences. She dresses in traditionally female clothing—blouse, skirt, etc—even when given the choice. She is interested in dating and romance. Nathan even gloats that he programmed her sexuality. In many respects, she is tailor-made in order to suit the wants and needs of men.

Besides the sexual component, both robots are also made to be physically weaker than their male creator, something that I’ve never seen before in the sci-fi genre. In other robot movies, the robots are usually noticeably—and dangerously—stronger than their human counterparts. It could be that Nathan made them weaker in order to prevent their escape, but it could also be that he did it because men typically see women as the weaker sex. Regardless of the intention, the two female robots are designed to be at a disadvantage, at least in terms of physical strength.

Mental strength, however, is another story. Ava’s intelligence and skills at manipulation are a constant presence throughout the whole movie, and by the time the final confrontation with Nathan arrives, I can’t help but wonder how he couldn’t see it coming. I can only assume that he either severely underestimated her power or overestimated his. Whatever the reason, in one climatic moment, the balance of power shifted and Ava strode to freedom, leaving both her creator and the gullible Caleb in her wake.

However, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. One of the most satisfying parts of that final confrontation with Nathan is that it was Kyoko, not Ava, who delivers the first fatal blow to Nathan—but sadly, that proves to be the last thing Kyoko ever does. She dies so that Ava can live. Probably the most problematic part of the entire movie, though, is the scene where Ava discovers the other female robots in the closet. In order to gain her freedom, she has to strip the skin off of the Asian robots, something which perplexed me. For starters, what does it say about the movie in general that the freedom of a white woman is depicted as coming at the cost of the skin off of a minority woman’s back? And that Ava, the movie’s feminist symbol, strolls out of her prison without a backward glance at the minority women still trapped inside, immobile? Perhaps it says that as much as this movie is an allegory of female empowerment, it’s also a cautionary tale for women of color who look to white women to be their saviors.

Regardless of how viewers interpret these events, there can be little doubt that this movie’s commentary on race, gender and artificial intelligence is noteworthy. Hopefully, it will continue to spur debates for years to come. In the meantime, I want to take a moment to remember Kyoko, the unsung heroine who said more with her silence than words could ever say.

3 Comments

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  1. I wasn’t interested in this moving until reading your piece. From your piece, it sounds like the movie says a lot about the intersections of race and gender while using AI to do it, and well.

    Lastly, I like the handling of the robots in this one. It’s refreshing to have robots with creators who had a degree of foresight, even if it was tempered by hubris.

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