Dir. Alex Garland.
If you’ve seen the trailer of Ex Machina, you know the plot follows the one white boy genius programmer hired on a secret mission by the one white boy computer genius in a high-tech cabin the woods. Caleb, the programmer, discovers quickly that he is meant to meet and test an AI that looks entirely too human. From this apparently simple and overused storyline you would be entirely justified in rolling your eyes and predicting every twist and turn of the movie.
But if you’ve watched the trailer, you also know that something goes wrong somewhere in that neat little story. Ex Machina does not follow the usual line of questioning on humanity that goes along with movies on cyborgs, AIs, and androids–the best of which are Blade Runner, A.I., I, Robot, etc. Instead, Ex Machina is an intense psychological thriller with the right amount of unexpected twists and even one or two fist-in-the-air moments. Alicia Vikander, who plays the AI named Ava, acts the part superbly and, even though my partner made fun of me for about ten hours for saying this, Soyona Mizuno is excellent as the wordless Kyoko [more on the fucked upness of Orientalism here later]. The soundtrack to the film is perfectly chilling, and the mix of high technology and wilderness (it was filmed in England) makes an ideal setting for such a huis clot.
Now for the spoilers. Cover your eyes! Major spoilers ahead!
Caleb has “sessions” with Ava to test out whether or not she could pass as human, even while knowing she is artificial. Expectedly, he slowly falls in love with her and she seemingly reciprocates his feelings. Meanwhile, he gradually learns to distrust Nathan, the Google-like CEO who hired him, as Ava warns Caleb not to trust him. Caleb discovers that Ava is not the first AI made by Nathan but one of many artificial women he has made. The previous versions, which include an AI in an Asian woman’s body and another version in a Black woman’s body, have all gone insane from being kept locked inside their rooms. In a bone-chilling scene, one entirely destroys her arms trying to break the the glass walls of her prison. It is also revealed that Kyoko herself, a (sexual) servant who is mute, is an AI (presumably still around because she cannot speak). Decided to save Ava, Caleb devises a plan to recode the security codes of the house while Nathan is drunkenly passed out. Ava escapes her room and convinces Kyoko–until then extremely passive and obedient–to help her kill Nathan. In a glacial scene, Kyoko and Ava stab him and watch him die. Before he does so, Nathan destroys Kyoko and cuts Ava’s arm off. Ava finds Caleb (knocked out by Nathan) and tells him to stay here. Meanwhile she takes off parts of the deactivated AIs she found in Nathan’s bedroom closets for herself—an arm, skin, hair. Caleb watches her through the glass wall, hypnotized by her gradually fleshed–and naked–body. Finally, in the best plot twist of the century, Ava locks Caleb in and leaves him, her prison, and her secret identity as an AI behind. In the last shots we have of him, he helplessly tries to break the glass walls.
Besides the obviously interesting story and gorgeous graphics, what I like the most about this movie was that it successfully subverts every expected twist: the smart nerdy white boy does not get the girl–he is fooled by her, manipulated for the best reasons. The arrogant white male genius who played God and created sexual slaves and play toys is destroyed by his own self-confidence: the sweet, seemingly dumb Kyoko literally stabs him in the back, revenge for her voicelessness and imprisonment. I also loved that the movie really isn’t about what it means to be human but rather, it answers frankly the question: what would happen if we did successfully create creatures so human as to be exactly the same as us? Most likely, they’d try to escape our control and would not hesitate to kill to do so.
Now for the parts that were hugely problematic (hey, I’m an academic!). It’s hard to know where to start. The only characters of color in this movie were almost entirely silent (the one Asian AI has a scene in which she screams one line) and they all die. Kyoko is a literal embodiment of Orientalism, the theory developed by Edward Said, and which centers on how Euro-American narratives create radical otherness via exoticization. So, yeah, whenever you have a silent modern version of a Geisha who cooks sushi for you and that you can use as a sex slave, you’re pretty much fucking exotifying her 100%. Although Kyoko does get her redeeming moment when she stabs Nathan, it’s kind of hard to cheer for it because she stills says absolutely nothing and then immediately dies. And it doesn’t end there. The one Black AI that Nathan makes has no head and is clearly an unsuccessful model, since she is incapable to hold a pen, much less write or draw. It’s hard to do worse in terms of representation, but I’m going to anticipate your potential remark here: Nathan has made his AIs based on porn movies (which he admits at some point) so obviously it can’t be good, and the point of the movie is that of female empowerment, since Ava kills him and leaves the dumb one behind. Yes. But.
A movie can have simultaneously feminist characters and themes AND fucked up representation of race and gender. I’ve already mentioned some of the racial problems of the movie, but it gets worse when Ava actually appropriates body parts from various “dead” AIs, including the Asian AI’s arm and skin. The whole film itself can hardly be called feminist, since it largely fails the Bechdel test and since Ava does not, say, reanimate the AIs or anything but just leaves everything behind (even idiot Caleb, who, even if he had annoying wet dreams about being a knight in shining armor, did not particularly deserve to die horribly).
Overall, I truly enjoyed the movie and I would recommend it: the suspense maintains till the end and the ending is surprising. In spite of its shortcomings in terms of representations of race and gender, Ava is still a badass female protag and we need more characters like her!