For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MY DISCUSSION OF THESE FILMS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
TL;DR: I don’t think there’s actual feminist intent behind this movie, but defending one’s own interpretation can be a feminist act.
Ex Machina is another version of a story we’ve been telling for thousands of years – the fraught relationship between intelligence and its creator.
A computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest that sends him to the mysterious mountain laboratory/fortress of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, unrecognizable), who wants Caleb to administer a Turing test on an artificial intelligence called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Although Caleb is ostensibly the viewer surrogate, we spend a lot of time watching him through in-universe cameras – the sped-up, color-distorted footage from his work computer’s webcam and the slightly fisheyed security cams that watch him within Nathan’s fortress. His room has no windows – only a mirror that, we learn later, has another camera behind it. He talks to Ava through the walls of a glass box enveloped on three sides by her spare but spacious apartment. We are not sure who is really being evaluated, but we have an inkling of what we’ll see in all these reflective surfaces.
Between the Turing sessions, Caleb and Nathan drink, go hiking, and talk about Ava. Nathan views Ava as the next iteration of his greatest project, suitable only for parts if she doesn’t pass the test; Caleb, who is single and lonely (of course), begins to fall in love with her. When Ava tells him that she has never left her apartment in Nathan’s lab, Caleb dreams of the two of them in the surrounding forest, close enough to kiss.
The men talk about the AI’s conversational skills; Caleb asks about the programming Nathan used to help it develop language. They talk about Ava’s body, her sexuality (Nathan programmed her to be heterosexual and gave her all the right pleasure sensors). They talk about her ability to love someone – is she sincere? Is she following Nathan’s suggestions? Or is she deceptive? – the same questions men ask each other about women instead of asking the women themselves. At night Caleb watches Ava on the camera feed or explores the house. He discovers the skeletons in Nathan’s closet: failed experiments housed in the fake bodies of beautiful women, shut in mirror-fronted cabinets at the foot of his bed. Nathan’s mute servant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), reveals to Caleb that she is also a robot (which all of us already knew except for Caleb, apparently).
On Caleb’s last day, the two men confront each other about their mutual dishonesty. Caleb reveals that he has edited Nathan’s security protocols to allow Ava to escape. Nathan attempts to stop her with physical force, only to be attacked by Kyoko, who has betrayed him for Ava.
Under the gentle gaze of the obsolete fembots, Ava uses their remains to heal her wounds and dress for her first outing – and instead of going back for Caleb, she leaves him in the glass prison of Nathan’s office, rejecting the stories each man has constructed around her for a life of her own choosing.
At a busy traffic intersection – the place she told Caleb she would most like to go – we see her reflection in a pane of glass. She looks like any other young woman. And then she’s gone, beyond our gaze, where no one can control or scrutinize her anymore.