EX MACHINA, Expectations and The Male Gaze

In a Guardian article to mark the release of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina at the beginning of the year, Steve Rose places the film in science fiction’s history of sexualised female androids, from Maria in Metropolis to the tongue-in-cheek fembots of Austin Powers. While Rose acknowledges that Garland does something a bit different with the trope, he still sees the movie as imaging the robotic in a way that perpetuates traditional gender dynamics:

Looking back over movie history, it is difficult to find a female robot/android/cyborg who hasn’t been created (by men, of course) in the form of an attractive young woman — and therefore played by one. This often enables the movie to raise pertinent points about consciousness and technology while also giving male viewers an eyeful of female flesh. The non-scientific term for this is “having your cake and eating it”.

The article gives good context for understanding Ex Machina and the cinematic heritage that it plays off of, but I don’t think Rose’s analysis of Garland’s film in particular really gives it its due for its willingness to deconstruct the sexy cyborg trope and related genre expectations. For me, Ex Machina isn’t as interested in A.I. technology as much as it is in issues of gender and desire — or, at least, how all of these are inescapably meshed together, so that much-lauded acts of innovation end up reinforcing older, shittier ways of thinking.

Obnoxious brogrammer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), CEO of the world’s largest search engine, has created a fully working artificial intelligence, given shapely form via mesh, chrome and Alicia Vikander’s face. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder who works for Nathan’s company, Bluebook, and is chosen, apparently via lottery, to visit his reclusive boss, who lives and works in an ultra-modernist self-contained lab, etched into the natural rock of a lush, gargantuan estate. There, Caleb learns that he is to administer the so-called ‘Turing test’ to Nathan’s cyborg, named Ava, to determine whether or not she is truly sentient and, by implication, worth saving from the scrapheap.

Caleb conducts the test via series of conversations through translucent panels, the U-shape of the room and Ava’s back-and-froth pacing suggesting a court witness box (positioning him as the one under scrutiny). The two develop a bond, joke about going on a date, and when Ava asks if he finds her attractive, his intimate micro-movements, as Ava calls them, betray his romantic excitement. He can’t help it, and Ava decodes him right away. Desire, attraction and assumptions about gender are hardwired into us like circuitry, a point explicitly made in a conversation the two men have about how limited a say we have in what turns us on:

Caleb: Did you program her to flirt with me?
Nathan: If I did, would that be cheating?
Caleb: Wouldn’t it?
Nathan: Caleb, what’s your type?
Caleb: Of girl?
Nathan: No, salad dressing. Yeah, of girl; what’s your type of girl? You know what, don’t even answer that. Let’s say its black chicks. Okay, that’s your thing. For the sake of argument, that’s your thing, okay? Why is that your thing? Because you did a detailed analysis of all racial types and you cross-referenced that analysis with a points-based system? No! You’re just attracted to black chicks. A consequence of accumulated external stimuli that you probably didn’t even register as they registered with you.
Caleb: Did you program her to like me, or not?
Nathan: I programmed her to be heterosexual, just like you were programmed to be heterosexual.
Caleb: Nobody programmed me to be straight.
Nathan: You decided to be straight? Please!

Ava is designed to be an erotic object, that much is immediately obvious: by her creator, who has installed pleasure sensors between her legs, and by the film itself, in how she is shot and framed. We get close-ups of her lips, ears and curves and we see her dressing and undressing, pulling up stockings like a showgirl starting her shift. She dresses up for Caleb in a non-threatening floral dress and pixie brunette wig, and gives him a little dressing room twirl. We repeatedly see Ava’s image through glass, screens and computer monitors, desire refracted through a network of surveillance and voyeurism.

Academic Laura Mulvey introduced the term ‘male gaze’, whose now-ubiquity hides how radical an idea it was, in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, to describe the way cinema’s economies of sight reflects and enacts society’s unconscious gender dynamics of looking and being-looked-at, where the male hero/audience projects his own desire onto the passive image of the female, ‘liv[ing] out his phantasies and obsessions […] by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning’.

In this scenario, the female figure ‘is styled accordingly’ since ‘in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-atness’. The consciously stylised Ava is an obvious candidate here. Indeed, as the story’s layers of deception unravel, we learn that Ava was designed specifically based on Caleb’s pornography search terms; he’s betrayed by the public, predictable nature of his sexual preferences. She has been constructed specifically to satisfy his visual appetite.

For Mulvey, the male gaze operates on a number of levels, including through the male hero and through audience identification with him. From the beginning we are encouraged to associate with Caleb’s point of view. He seems young, a little affable in an awkward way, but competent; he’s also very much the kind of person who would go see this movie (young single male with an interest in tech). Like an uncertain tourist, we follow his tentative exploration of Nathan’s estate. Nathan, in a perfectly calibrated douchebag touch, doesn’t greet his guest but lets him find his boss in the middle of a punch-bag workout. Caleb, like the audience, is new to Nathan’s world and his invention and we’re invited to share his curiousity and admiration. Often it’s impossible to tell if the loving slow crawls and close-ups of Ava are supposed to be his perspective, ours, or both.

In her best-of description of the film, BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore called the film ‘a Bluebeard story for the high-tech era’ but with its enclosed space and tempting creations, a literary comparison that jumped out at me was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the play Prospero is a powerful exiled magician and the autocrat ruler of a small island somewhere in the Bermudas. His daughter, the naïve Miranda, was smuggled out of Naples as an infant and has no experience of life outside the island. She falls in love with the young Ferdinand, one of the castaways thrown onto its beeches by a sudden and strange storm, the first man she’s ever seen who is not her father. ‘What is’t? A spirit?’ she wonders aloud. ‘I might call him / A thing divine, for nothing natural / I ever saw so noble.’ He is equally impressed: ‘O you wonder!’

But all is not as it seems. Behind the scenes Prospero is using his magic to shepherd the lovers together and pull the strings, a condescending master-protector who also commands the various spirits who live on the domain. Prospero uses his powers to conjure entrancing and exciting spectacles — phantom banquets and canines — but the real magic in the play is the phantasy of the mind and how it distorts the world around us. In the seductive play-space of the island, drunk court low-lifes imagine themselves as royalty of this new territory, an old fool declares the barren terrain a milk and honey dreamland, and a randy prince becomes a ‘thing divine’.

Prospero is angling his daughter for marriage into the upper classes, so he can reclaim some of his lost lift and reputation. (Underneath all this is a cynicism about the exact new-ness of New World discoveries that so fascinated the English Renaissance imagination, their breathless proclamations of a foreign paradise masking a violent colonial takeover.) Miranda goes off with Ferdinand to be a docile guarantor of a future royal bloodline, fulfilling her part in Prospero’s scheme, but Ava goes off-script and claims a future apart from the father-figure and the love interest.

This is where the film diverges from the expected narrative, and this is where it gets really interesting. Nathan reveals that he knows all about Caleb’s escape plans; he’s got the conversation on audio. In fact, the whole Turing test ploy has been a red herring. Nathan anticipated that Caleb, chosen for his essential decency, would develop feelings for Ava and want to help her avoid obsolescence; the real ‘test’ of her intelligence would be if she could detect this possibility of escape and use her various tools of empathy and eroticism to engineer it. Double-twist! Caleb guessed Nathan was listening in and so has already unlocked the doors. Triple-twist! Ava doesn’t give a shit about Caleb anymore; she kills Nathan with the help of his mute sexbot, dresses herself in artificial skin and makes her escape, leaving Caleb trapped behind a locked door.

Caleb was so sure he was the hero in the story. But all along it had been her story to tell. Now that he has opened the doors with some rogue code, he’s of no use. They’re not going to ride off into the sunset together. She’s not going to look at him with those doe eyes and tell him how thankful she is. How he’s the only one that got her. Caleb isn’t a bad person, but he’s trapped (literally) by his own presumptions about Ava’s motivations, and how she would behave towards her jailbreak accomplice: he is patriarchy’s benign mask, the counter-weight to Nathan’s brazen assholery; the good cop to his bad.

It’s a thrilling and brilliant about-turn, the distressed maiden’s sudden burst of agency forcing the viewer to re-evaluate assumptions they made about her precise role in the narrative, assumptions urged by the film’s presentation of her.

Ex Machina‘s finale places the film in this year’s pop cultural micro-trend of female captives who manage to find freedom and/or confront their male jailers (Mad Max: Fury Road, Room, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones) and also calls to mind the ending of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, also released this year. The teenage heroine Marieme (Karidja Touré) allows herself a moment of tears off camera before entering the frame, resolute and braced for the world beyond her Parisian tower block and its network of male control.

She has just rejected her boyfriend Ismael’s (Idrissa Diabate) proposal of marriage and living together, even though it would make her a ‘decent girl’ in the sexual morality of the area, and offer protection from her abusive older brother, who attacks her as punishment for her apparent looseness. Ismael is a nice guy, and he means well, but his solution is encoded with all sorts of subtext about domestic confinement and control. He can’t think outside his programming. ‘I don’t want that kind of life’ she tells him. She has to go out on her own.

Because this is a sci-fi thriller about identify and robotics, we get a scene where our hero stares into the mirror, contemplating his own subjective authenticity, and cuts himself to make sure he’s bleeding human blood. I had heard about some kind of twist, so was half-expecting Caleb to be the real subject of the Turing test, but thankfully the movie isn’t quite so literal.

Caleb is a person, sure, but he’s also operating according to his own particular programming, one which imposes limits on his empathy and ability to judge Ava accurately. He simply cannot believe that she would be playing him for a patsy; just as Nathan never thinks that his docile cybermaid would ever slip a kitchen knife into her master’s torso. Betrayed and marooned, their final expressions are ones of disbelief (with maybe a hint of admiration).

The gaze is also a kind of blindness.


Conor Smyth is editor of Northern Irish movie site BelfastFilm.