Ex Machina isn’t just misogynistic; it gets the science wrong, too.
It’s been a relatively good year for stories about scientists on film. Last year, there were two major sci-fi films, Interstellar and I Origins, that managed to get a lot right about the science they depicted and the scientific culture to which their characters belonged. Despite its many flaws, the Alan Turing war-time biopic The Imitation Game had the unique distinction of replicating, for an audience of laypeople, the excitement that comes with solving a difficult technical problem after days of troubleshooting. Big Hero 6 likened becoming an engineer to becoming a superhero, and even The Theory of Everything, which was less interested in science than romance, was a good reminder that scientists do have a life outside the lab.
The trouble is all of these films are centered around male geniuses. They feature either no female scientists, or those solely relegated to the position of sidekick. In I Origins, Brit Marling plays a brilliant Ph.D. student in biology who is the reason that her husband’s research even gets started, but halfway through the film, her career is never mentioned again: She’s become a wife and a mother, and her husband’s journey is the important one. In Interstellar, Jessica Chastain’s Murph may be a brilliant scientist, but she’s a supporting character, and we are reminded that she gets her curiosity and her smarts from her father, an engineer (Matthew McConaughey).
Enter Ex Machina, a sometimes intelligent sci-fi film, in which the lead woman is a robot (Alicia Vikander), the creation of a boy trying to make his fantasy woman. It centers around two boys — brilliant tech CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and his employee, computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) — who spend a week in a modernist cabin in the woods, playing with their toy, the female robot Ava. Or rather, it’s Nathan’s toy, that he’s devised by exploiting the data his search engine collects, and put together with his absurd wealth. He wants Caleb to have a go with her, to determine whether or not she qualifies as an intelligent being with consciousness.
Over the course of seven days — after signing a contract more audacious than the one Christian Grey proposed — Caleb will spend a few hours each day with Ava, talking to her, getting to know her, and trying to determine if he believes she’s intelligent. Nathan watches and records all of their daytime sessions, surveilling them with scrutiny. In the evenings, he bonds with Caleb over beers, planting thoughts in his head to nag at his insecurities. As Ava has the form of a beautiful woman, all she needs to do is ask Caleb a lot of personal questions, provide puzzled or pouty faces in reply, and she’s got him in her trap. He’s in love, certain he needs to rescue her from Nathan’s menacing presence: Nathan could unplug her and shut her off at any time.
The most generous reading of the film would be that Garland is deliberately pointing out the gross ways that men tend to project onto, especially beautiful, women. Caleb needs only an invitation to speak, and not to hear Ava’s thoughts, to be convinced of her intelligence. Nathan, meanwhile, is hoping that he’s created a creature who will use her wiles to manipulate Caleb to get what she wants, proving her intelligence. By keeping Nathan in the shadows, revealing information about him slowly — although honestly, most of it is telegraphed from a mile away, from Chekhov’s power failure to Chekhov’s surprisingly servile Asian woman — Garland ensures we don’t quite trust him. And by making Caleb the epitome of “gee gosh” wholesomeness, we’re meant to both like him and feel like it’s too easy to like him. Garland deliberately casts suspicion on these men.
But there’s little to indicate that Garland is able to think of women in a way that’s any more sophisticated than the men he wants you to dislike. If you want to make a film about how it’s not okay to objectify women, the first step is to not make a film that spends its entire run time objectifying its women. Of the two women in the film, one is Caleb’s servant (Sonoya Minuya) who spends the film in varying levels of undress being berated, and the other is Ava, a femme fatale, whose apparent intelligence consists solely of using her sexuality to manipulate and seduce, as Nathan had hoped and designed. The camera’s gaze doesn’t always represent Nathan’s or Caleb’s gaze, often catching its women in a private moment, which means the full frontal female nudity isn’t about showing us the male characters’ perspective. It’s just gratuitous.
In the rare scene when Ava is alone, without surveillance, she fixates on her appearance, pulling on her stockings seductively, for no audience but us. Even Ava’s appearance reminds us of what is most important about her: her face, chest, and buttocks are solid and shapely, while the rest of her, including her brain, is transparent or silver and wired. And as Nathan crassly points out, “She can fuck.” Yes, Ava’s appearance is Nathan’s creation, but Garland’s camera is just as interested in eyeing her legs as it is in watching her face emote. Casting Nathan in shadow and mystery, it’s clear Garland doesn’t expect us to like him even if we are charmed by him — it’s Oscar Isaac, after all. But it’s troubling that even in the first scene of the film, when there are real women in the background, their sole purpose is to applaud Caleb.
Just because you’re writing about sexist men, doesn’t mean that the women should be as limited as the men imagine them to be: that’s merely reinforcing what they believe. If you want to tell a story about how projecting onto women is gross, you need to see how it actually affects a real woman with feelings and agency. Listen Up Phillip and season one of Gossip Girl do this brilliantly by inviting us to get to know the women involved. It soon becomes clear that the women are so much more awesome than these men give them credit for. If the only women in the story are robots, creations of these limited men, there’s no opportunity for them to break from stereotype to reveal the errors of the men’s ways.
Then again, the script practically shouts, from every page, “LOOK AT ALL MY IDEAS!” without ever going anywhere with them. It comes closer to accurately defining a Turing Test than the recent Alan Turing biopic did, but it still has misguided ideas about how it works. I give Garland bonus points for putting the word “stochastic” in Caleb’s mouth, even though it’s an observation so obvious nobody would have said it out loud: it’s like the people on CSI explaining how they find DNA traces to each other. The whole notion of giving Ava a gender as a means of showing her consciousness suggests a lack of awareness that gender is performative. And if you can’t see where everything in the film is heading within the first twenty minutes — don’t cross these bitches or they’ll get you because they’re as base as you think — you must have missed Chekhov’s power failure and Chekhov’s helicopter in neon lights.
Ultimately, it’s the performances that make the film at all worthwhile. Vikander’s Ava is fascinating to watch, adding depth and emotion to an otherwise underdeveloped character: her movements never quite look human, but they’re always graceful. Gleeson’s Caleb is not so different from the failed musician he played in Frank — a better film about how we project onto other people — and he perfectly balances the need to be Nathan’s foil, with an underlying eeriness of “Nice Guy” creepiness.
But it’s Isaac who steals the film. As billionaire computer wunderkind Nathan, Oscar Isaac finds more ways to say “Dude” than the Inuit have words for snow. Sporting glasses, a beard, and a shaved head, the word rolls off his tongue with ease, sometimes as a term of endearment and sometimes as a threat, but always as a sign of power. Unlike Isaac’s Abel in A Most Violent Year, whose power is in his immense control and classy tailored suits, Nathan’s ability to wear sweatpants casually and still be the most important man in the room is how we know he’s made it. Isaac’s natural charisma serves Nathan perfectly, ensuring you like him even though you know you shouldn’t. And as a bonus, there’s even a brief little musical interlude where he does a dance.