[Major spoilers for Ex Machina]
There is so much that could be endlessly dissected and discussed in Alex Garland’s 2014 masterpiece, but one thing I particularly spent a lot of time thinking about after first watching Ex Machina was the dichotomy of it as yet another film that sexualizes its female AI, but one that uses that both explicitly and implicitly as commentary on gender and how men perceive women. The important nuance here is that the sexualization is consciously imposed on Ava by the film’s two male characters: It is never something inherent in or defining of her, but a view that the men project onto her.
The gratuitousness of the ubiquitous sexy woman robot that sci-fi has long treated as a mere male gratification object – up to and including very recent, supposedly more thoughtful takes on the genre, from Her (2013) where even an AI that is just a voice is sexualized (and unconvincingly has the ability to experience sexual pleasure) and largely exists to indulge the central male character, to Blade Runner 2049 (2017) with its completely regressive sexy hologram housewife – has always been a reflection on real world toxic male perception of women. That gender dynamics revolve around male pleasure; that our worth is in our bodies and our desirability to men; that our bodies naturally invite objectification, even sexual assault and violence, removing male responsibility and culpability therein.
The sexualization projected onto Ava happens both overtly, in Nathan’s misogynist walking embodiment of toxic masculinity thrusting this sexuality onto her, and covertly, in Caleb’s innocent nice guy interpreting her behavior as attraction to him and romanticizing her as the damsel in distress that he can rescue from Nathan. As the film engages with questions of the believability of Ava’s artificial intelligence and a Turing test to see whether she can pass as human, both men ultimately cannot separate their attitudes towards women from their attitudes towards what they know to be a machine – exposing the correlation between the otherness of the machine and the othering of women by men; the treatment of women as this mysterious thing that falls somewhere between object and person, existing to cater to men. The more Caleb “humanizes” Ava, the more he sees her through the lens of his own desires, and vice versa.
In the end, for both men their perceptions of Ava lead to their own downfall, in a turn that flips on its head the trope of a woman using her “feminine wiles” to trick/defeat a villain. Ava has only manipulated these men insofar as they have in high arrogance done so to her and each other and in turn, to themselves; nor do her actions stem from any gender tendency because she has no gender – it only exists in the form of what was projected onto her, in their minds. The lines between Caleb as hero and Nathan as villain also break down; there are no heroes in toxic masculinity, there will be no male wish fulfillment here. As Ava leaves her physical entrapment, she also leaves the metaphorical one of being defined by her capacity for male gratification.
In a sci-fi landscape where themes of existential and ethical questions and complexities around artificial intelligence have been reserved for male-coded AI characters, while their female counterparts are reduced to sexbots, Alex Garland’s masterful, subtle subverting of the sexbot trope (and many others) to expose it and expose toxic perceptions of women, gender and sexuality, while centering Ava in a deeply intricate and thrilling rumination on artificial intelligence, is a landmark feat. Ex Machina remains a small, under-watched film, and not without its faults, but it is one of the most important sci-fi films ever made. The knife Ava plunges through Nathan’s chest is a knife in this tired, backward trope, and Ex Machina holds accountable any more lazy depictions of it that follow.