In a world full of scientific discoveries, Artificial Intelligence still seems like a thing of the future. While there have been small achievements in recent years, most of AI is unknown; part of the reason why AI is so exciting and fascinating. In the film Ex-Machina (2014), the audience is convinced that Nathan — and his creations — represent our own scientific potential, which in some sense is true. But by combining breathtaking cinematography with the exciting possibilities of AI, Ex-Machina is able to hide the ways in which it fails to distinguish itself and actually achieve anything. Its use of voyeurism and the male gaze makes it difficult to see how heavily the film relies on the common problematic science fiction trope; female AI as the femme fatale.
The film follows Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer who works at a prominent Internet company, when he wins an office contest to spend a week with the company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Buried deep in nature, the secluded estate only consists of Nathan and his servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who, according to Nathan, doesn’t speak English. Soon after arriving, Caleb learns that he’s been selected as the human component in a Turing test, which evaluates the capabilities of Nathan’s latest breakthrough in AI: a female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). However, Ava quickly proves that she is far more advanced than both Caleb and Nathan expected.
Even though voyeurism is exclusively considered a sexual fetish used in porn and as a result often disregarded as a serious theme in cinema, it’s one of the prime devices driving Ex-Machina. Voyeurism is introduced as soon as the audience arrives at Nathan’s lab isolated deep within the woods of an unknown country. Whether it’s Caleb watching Ava or Nathan, Nathan watching both Caleb and Ava, or us the audience watching each of the characters, these layers of video surveillance and voyeurism eerily linger throughout the film. The film clearly uses voyeurism to generate conversation about the ethical issues when it comes to AI; whether AI has the ability to suffer and how we define the humane treatment of AI. But it’s not just voyeurism; oftentimes it’s the male gaze disguised as voyeurism.
Around every corner of Nathan’s elegant high-tech lab, the male gaze always manages to seep into the story. And that’s the beauty of it. Ava and Kyoko are supposed to represent the future of AI, but in reality they’re far from scientific or futuristic. Rather than challenging the current gender binary in our heteronormative society, Nathan programs Ava as a straight cisgender woman for Caleb and Kyoko as his own personal sex slave. In an interview with WIRED Magazine, Alex Garland, the writer and director of Ex-Machina, explains Ava isn’t a woman, in fact, she has no gender at all.“The things that would define gender in a man and a woman, she lacks them, except in external terms,” adds Garland. “I’m not even sure consciousness itself has a gender.” Unfortunately, Garland does very little to ensure that the film captures this genderless character. Putting the racial politics aside, both Ava and Kyoko are dehumanised and become sexual objects made to bring pleasure to their straight male counterparts Caleb, Nathan, and ultimately the straight male audience members living through them. The use of voyeurism and the male gaze make it almost impossible to see Ex-Machina’s problems — specifically with Ava.
For centuries Hollywood has fantasised the possibilities of female AI through films like Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), and Her (2013). Even the Austin Powers series (1997, 1999, 2002) has poked fun at the idea with its attractive “fembots” that have guns where their nipples should be. What each of these films have in common is their use of the 1940s femme fatale trope through their gynoids, fembots, and female AI. Popularised by the noir films of the 40s, femme fatales were mysterious women who seduced the male protagonists into “fatal” or dangerous situations. And typically in these AI films featuring androids in female form, they represent what the men in their lives imagine the perfect woman as; beautiful, thin, white, and soft spoken. In the end, each of the female androids lead to the downfall of the film’s male protagonists. By utilising the same trope with Ava, Ex-Machina proves to be no different. “Ava was a rat in a maze and I gave her one way out,” explains Nathan. “To escape she’d have to use self awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, and empathy — and she did. And if that isn’t true AI, what the fuck is?” This proves that Nathan believes Ava’s only tool is her use of sexuality; something Ex-Machina emphasises throughout the entire film.
In her article for WIRED Magazine, Angela Watercutter explores how Ex-Machina compares to other AI films featuring female androids as well as AI films featuring male androids such as The Terminator (1984), Short Circuit (1986), and Prometheus (2012).
“Think of David in Prometheus; his primary goal was assisting on the mission, not seducing Vickers,” explains Watercutter. “As a “male” AI in a film he was given an intellectual pursuit, not a romantic one. Is it possible Ava could’ve convinced Caleb she passed the test with fewer pleading glances and more analysis of world affairs? What would Ava have done to pass if she was a he?”
Watercutter makes a good point. In a film about the possibilities of AI, Ex-Machina ironically strays from anything actually intellectual and instead convinces the audience that humanity is determined by sex. While sex has a significant role in humanity, it doesn’t mean that it’s all there is. In literature alone we see how various experiences from the struggles of poverty to the horrors of war capture the essence of the complex human experience, but all that is erased by a film claiming its pushing the boundaries of life as we know it.
At the end of the film the audience watches Ava lock Caleb in Nathan’s lab and slowly dress herself as a human. The camera silently focuses on every inch of her body as she proudly admires her naked female form; yet another instance where the male gaze consumes the scene. After what Garland feels is a sufficient amount of time examining her body, the audience watches her blends seamlessly into the real world. The entire film builds up to these final moments, but the use of silence and slowing of time put viewers on edge. As the screen cuts to black, the audience is supposed to feel just helpless as Caleb and enraged by Ava’s actions. And most audience members do. After watching the film in my college English class, there was an outpour of voices commenting on Ava’s cruelty and Caleb’s misfortune. These final scenes are the film’s — and Garland’s — way of determining that our failure to reach any real scientific success is due to Ava’s gender and sexuality.
by Brianna Silva
Brianna Silva is a queer Latinx writer who loves coffee, reading and all things horror. Some of her favorite films include the Saw series, Moonstruck, The Big Blue and Pink Floyd – The Wall. You can follow her on Twitter @brisilvv.