After viewing Ex Machina I sat in a bit of a daze wondering what it was I’d just seen. Stylish, well-acted, the now-expected seamless special effects, and a story with pretensions to significance.
The next day, I spoke to a good friend about it, who has also written about its flaws, and came to the conclusion that the film is not at all what it seems to want to be. In fact, it may be the perfect demonstration of style over substance.
It would be easy to see the film as a misogynistic attempt to intellectualize adolescent cluelessness, and certainly there is that in it, but perhaps that doesn’t go far enough. Misanthropic may be more accurate. It has nothing good to say about anyone or anything. The chopper pilot may be innocent, he’s just doing his job, but once Caleb lands and approaches the isolated superhouse of his employer, Nathan, sympathy for anything human vanishes and we’re treated to a narrow, pseudo-socratic disquisition on how stupid people can be, even with high I.Q.s and a lot of money.
But it is smooth, it is elegantly filmed, and the acting is convincing, and the soul-searching seems genuine, and the robot is so enticing. It feels superior. It says smart things, makes fascinating assertions, but all in the least engaging manner possible. Instead of actually dealing with the presumptive subject—strong A.I.—we are treated to a reboot of Frankenstein as The Dating Game. Bachelor Number One, how do you answer these simple questions from Bachelorette Number nth, and do you get to date her when the show is over?
Nathan is the typically clichéd billionaire genius who, instead of trying to learn how to connect with actual people, builds himself a fortress of solitude and sets about building himself a companion. Of course, since he doesn’t understand people as individuals, he keeps making sexbots that fail to meet his expectations. Partly, he excuses this (to himself) by claiming that he’s only pushing the envelope on A.I. instead of searching for a perfect fuck.
No, he never actually says that, but consider the machines. All women, all one stereotype or another of gorgeous, and he has fitted them out with sensate genitalia. Since until he ropes Caleb into the equation it’s only him interacting with them, why do this if your claim is an interest in their cognitive and self-awareness abilities? And the almost throwaway line where he reveals Ava’s sexual capabilities is about as arrogant and dismissive as can be. He wants to create self-aware machine intelligence than can mimic human but talks about them like a new car model with the latest features.
Okay, so Nathan is an asshole. Dramatically, he’s supposed to be, he’s Victor Frankenstein, whose arrogance foreshadows his doom. In this instance, the one bit of psychological nuance which could have elevated this story above the level of Weird Science (which, in the end, was a more sophisticated film than this one, despite the comedic aspects) his arrogance leads him to assume a specific “type” for women in general and he manages to create one that lives up to his expectations—she stabs him in the back and runs off.
This, in case anyone missed it, is called sexism: the complete failure to understand how one’s expectations shape circumstances to guarantee a thorough and complete misunderstanding of women as people, and then using that to dictate the terms of all interactions with females. (Note, one does not have to be a male in order to do this, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
But what about Caleb? He’s a presumptive innocent. Why is he left to starve to death, locked in the prison Nathan has built below ground?
Perhaps not so “innocent.” He is inserted into the storyline to act, ultimately, as Ava’s rescuer, but he is incapable of rescuing himself from the same set of expectations that Nathan exhibits. He doesn’t want to set her free, which is kind of undefined given the context, but to have her for himself. Nathan allows that her “design” was more or less aimed at him, so he could not help but respond in the most predictable fashion, which makes Caleb at best an adolescent who can’t tell the difference between what is and is not human, even when the difference is revealed to him at the outset. But he’s more than just a toy. He’s a rival. He’s a thief. He’s a liar.
Learning from these two examples, it might not be a surprise that Ava has turned out the way she has.
But “she” would have had to have been programmed to manipulate someone other than Nathan, who, we assume, she cannot manipulate because he knows exactly what she is. Which then suggests that such programming is inevitable in the simulation of Woman. That she can’t help but be this way from the first instance of her base code, which means that Woman is an essential something that emerges regardless of circumstance. But if that’s so, then why is the essential woman inevitably a sexually manipulative sociopath? Because that’s what Ava is. The only possible way she could have become that is by way of her initial programming, which is Nathan’s—the technobabble about using his search engine’s datamining as the source of her programming is facile; he would have to select and edit or she would simply be a collection of data with little or no organizing principle—which then would be what he has predetermined defines Woman.
Ava does not even attempt to help her predecessors.
The single facet of all this that puts the lie to Nathan’s superficial explanation as to why he made Ava female is that he could have made Ava Alvin. Or made Ava ten. Or—and this would have pushed this rat’s maze of a film out of the simplistic—made Ava homosexual or even transgendered. Push Ava out of the sex toy model she was clearly designed to be so that interaction with Nathan would produce the personally unexpected.
Even that would be a bit conservative. There are people who are asexual. Humans do not all fall into binaries. Nathan is being disingenuous. At best, he wanted Caleb to trigger in Ava a desire to choose—between him and Nathan or between either of them and an unknown. Maybe the chopper pilot. Or one of the other sexbots.
Or the gray box Nathan insists would have no reason for interaction. The final cop-out. People interact all the time without knowing each other’s gender. The initial basis of human interaction itself is not sex but Other.
Instead, we are given a treatise on the challenged expectations of a narcissist with the means to externalize his narcissism and what happens when a competitor narcissist enters the bubble to supplant him. Had the film been more honest about this, it might have been worth the time spent watching two adult adolescents compete over the rights to a masturbatory fantasy. Ava could, at a minimum, have schooled them on being adults.
There are moments that stop right at the edge of really interesting, but they are subverted constantly by all the testosterone soaking the scenery.
But it looks so good. It is done in the serious manner we might wish all science fiction were done in, and there is where the final failure is most apparent. Because obviously the makers wanted it to be taken seriously. It’s just that they managed to feed right into the pitfalls of both a Turing test exegesis and the presumed realities of gender relations based on search engine dynamics. They missed the trees for the forest and painted a sexual fantasy that reinforces stereotypes and says almost nothing about intelligence worth discussing—artificial or human.