Films with positive portrayals of women are important. A great deal of sexism still exists in cinema and movies that genuinely promote equality are to be celebrated. Ex Machina, a film in which a man creates a woman, keeps her hidden away and has her tested by another man was always going to have interesting gender politics but actually by dealing with these themes in an unexpected and original way it is perhaps more important than most.
Ex Machina presents women as a male constructed artifice, there to be shown off as trophies to increase the status of the men who control them. There is also a good deal of female nudity and yet it feels like a pro-feminist story. It isn’t just about presenting the audience with a strong female figure though, it is more to do with showing the failings of men. The film oppresses women, it makes them subservient and it strips them down but in doing so it strongly condemns chauvinism and inequality.
The notion of the sexualised female robot is a well established cinematic trope. The sub genre has given us some strong females, often fighting and beating the men around them, but the positivity of this is usually undermined as their appearance is designed (by men) to totally satisfy the male gaze. Sometimes this is taken to extremes and without the slightest element of irony, as in the manga Ghost in the Shell series, and sometimes it is openly lampooned, as with Austin Power’s fembots.
Other films in this arena have tried to have their cake and eat it by making sure their tongues are firmly in their cheeks while the girls are barely in their clothes. For an example of this look to Weird Science in which the lovely Lisa is created through technological voodoo to be a teenage boys dream. There are also movies that probably don’t think they are continuing the tradition but do, like the fourth Alien picture. For such a pro women franchise it is interesting that having previously cast the distinctly non eye candy Ian Holm and Lance Henrickson as mandroids they then came to give us a lady robot in the shape of a 26 year old Winona Ryder. Of course there are films that just don’t care like Terminator 3, tight leather and bare bottoms obligatory.
Ex Machina knowingly plays with and addresses these conventions but upholds them at the same time. Arguably it goes even further in its objectification of women with images of full frontal female nudity. I can see that for many this aspect of the film is going to be a deal breaker; feminist films do not generally parade women around in the nude but you have to think about the context in which this happens. There are clearly two strong sides to this argument but the way I read it the end justifies the means. Ex Machina uses femininity to demonstrate the inadequacies of men.
The film’s title straight away provides an interesting context. The words ex machina clearly refer to the ancient theatrical term Deus Ex Machina meaning god in the machine. Here though the beginning of the expression is missing, there is literally an absence of god. The film begins to posit that this gap is filled by man but instantly shows this as an arrogant and ill conceived conceit. In the scene in question Oscar Isaac’s scientist Nathan refers to the possibility that he could be considered a god now because he has built life. If the A.I. he has constructed proves sentient then he will be hailed as the new creator. So far so Frankenstein but this is instantly contradicted by Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb who points out that this is a misinterpretation of the facts. Nathan, he says, is misquoting something he himself had said earlier and using it to give himself an elevated status. It is not hard to see the parallels between this and centuries of men twisting religious scripture to argue that they are the dominant sex. Equality 1 – Chauvinism 0.
This whole idea is strengthened when you consider the names of the characters. The young man Caleb has been invited to the home of Nathan’s ‘modern Prometheus’ to witness his vision of a new and supposedly better future. It is no coincidence, I am sure, that Caleb in the Old Testament was one of those chosen by Moses to explore the Promised Land. Nathan is also a Hebrew name meaning Gift from God. Not God then but there to do God’s work perhaps, there to facilitate the glory of the true majesty, which you could argue in this case is the woman. Also let’s not forget that the mother of all female robots, Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, took one of the names of the most deified of all women and it is impossible to think of this film without realising the debt it pays to that seminal work.
The ‘woman’ at the centre of everything here is Alicia Vikander’s Ava. (Ava – Maria, Ave Maria. I wonder if that is a coincidence.) Ava, another Hebrew name, means living one which is clearly apt. This character has no pretentions beyond simply being alive. Even leaving the religious reading aside Ava represents woman as the object of awe and wonder; a figure to be celebrated, possibly feared, but never underestimated. Of course she is also a woman who man, in the form of Nathan, attempts to own and control. He keeps her hidden away only to be revealed at a time when her existence will exalt his. Caleb on the other hand believes it is his duty to protect and save the woman but neither is an accurate or fair position. Ava is smart, formidable, strong and capable all by herself. She doesn’t need the men and they are foolish to think she does.
What then of the sexualisation of Ava and the scenes of nakedness? Can this be rationalised? One of the criteria by which I judge the representations of women in films is whether they are objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of the men. I don’t automatically have a problem with nudity as long as it is evenly shared out. Under the Skin has Scarlett Johansson in the buff but the guys were stripped down too, stripped down and stripped empty in fact. Also, even if saying it feels like a cliché now, the story demanded it.
There are no naked men in Ex Machina but actually this feels both deliberate and appropriate. The film presents its women as sexual objects to make a very clear point about how men react to this. There is nothing really to be gained from dressing the males down literally as well as figuratively. As with notions of deification the film explicitly discusses female sensuality and in doing so emphasises that with this comes a certain dominion over men. The overpowering desire to see women as sexual objects is highlighted as a flaw in man and one that makes him vulnerable. Ava is actually in total control or her own sexuality and the idea that she only exists as a desirable being because man has ‘created’ her as such is shown to be naive on their part. Significantly, in the end Ava’s victories actually have nothing to do with her looks. Her appearence may have led to the men misjudging her and trusting her but it is her intelligence and strength that give her power.
Even with this in mind there is an argument that the film goes too far. The level of nudity on show will understandably be unacceptable for some audiences. There is no denying though that the point at which women are most exposed in the film is actually the point when they are at their strongest and while the nudity in the film is neither abhorrent nor grotesque it is discomforting. There may be those who miss this point but that’s the thing about boobs, they can be distracting.
There is also some precedent for the argument that exposure of the female body can used for feminist purposes. Consider the recent cases of women who, having been the victim of revenge porn, reclaim ownership of their own bodies by posting on line their own images of themselves in an undressed state. This may not be something I am totally comfortable with but I respect it and believe that Ex Machina is setting out to do something similar. Some may not accept my argument on this, especially as I am a guy, but female nudity can be okay. As long as it is done on the women’s own terms. I know that Ex Machina is written and directed by a man, Alex Garland, and while it is not him standing there in the nuddy I see the film as a collaboration with his lead actress.
In my opinion Ex Machina is an excellent film. It is certainly tense, the storytelling is tight and the effects are fantastic (it is perhaps significant that Ava’s body most draws the eye when it looks least human). As I have attempted to argue though this film is so much more than that. In examining the nature of the sexes in a futuristic setting it analyses the traditional treatment of women, both in cinema and in life. It is a poetic parable to what it is to be a woman, the faults of man and how the battle of the sexes continues to play out in a society that stubbornly continues to cling to the remnants of patriarchal rule. That is clearly an important feminist message.