My friend Jo gave me a link to an article the other day about the ‘elaborately justified misogyny’ of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (The Conversation: The Hateful Eight and Daisy Domergue). It got me thinking about the roles of women in mainstream films and the line between marginalisation and misogyny. It was with this frame of mind that I watched Ex Machina.
Ex Machina had been recommended to me by my brother-in-law and I can see why he liked it. This is a bloke’s film just as much as The Revenant is. There are only four characters, Nathan a wealthy internet mogul whose narcissism and swarthy looks show he is a bad guy right from the start, Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who is an innocent and a good guy. There is a minor character, Kyoko, who is a voiceless slave, there for sex, entertainment and drudgery. And there is Ava who is artificial intelligence. The premise of the story is that Nathan has hired Caleb to use the Turing Test to see if Ava can pass as human. They are all securely locked away in a fortress in an isolated place – you know things won’t go well.
What is interesting to me is the characterisation of Ava. I have read some articles about the different gender characteristics of artificial intelligence in movies (see Ex Machina Has a Serious Fembot Problem and How Ex Machina Fails to be Radical). Artificial intelligence is always genderised because in the narrative, the AI is seeking to be more human and to be human in mainstream culture means to have a gender. Male artificial intelligence are usually seeking knowledge or want to conquer or explore. Think of David in Prometheus, the Terminator, the male replicants in Blade Runner. Female artificial intelligence use their sexuality to manipulate – Pris in Blade Runner, Samantha in Her.
This is true of Ava, who flirts and deceives in order to get what she wants. Ex Machina‘s marketing campaign had her turning up on Tinder. I couldn’t help wondering how different this film would have been if the gender roles were reversed. What would the dynamic have been between Nathan and Caleb if they were women? What would Ava’s motivation have been if she’d been a man? What would her power be?
Although supported by the logic of the narrative, what we see in this film is women being controlled and subjugated, being mutilated and effectively killed. We also see the feminine traits that Ava adopts, the vanity, the manipulation, the flirtation. We are voyeurs, along with the two men. The camera lingers on Ava’s naked body, when she is speaking to Kyoko we see only lips and skin and it is akin to soft pornography. Does this pass the Bechdel test? Oddly, no. Even though there are only four characters and two are recognisably female, there is no conversation that we hear, no depth to the interaction between Ava and Kyoko.
The ending implies that Ava has some power, some autonomy, but makes it clear that she also has no compassion. This is a common trope with artificial intelligence in movies, to placate our fear that machines could be better humans than us perhaps. Too much knowledge – Ava has access to limitless information – does not make us better people. There is a small amount of satisfaction in Ava’s actions at the end, although I would have ended the movie a few minutes earlier. Is Ex Machina misogynist? Ava’s fate allows her power that is not given to Daisy Domergue but it has nothing positive to say to me about being female.
Bechdel test – fail
1 star (sorry Steve)