It wasn’t a bad turnout for a mid-afternoon screening in a London theatre. The movie had been out for a little while [at the time] and had attracted generally favourable reviews. The cinema was about two thirds full. I’d been recommended to go and take a look. The only odd aspect I noticed was that I seemed to be the only woman in the audience.
Initially I wasn’t in a rush to go and see this movie – I always approach movies about ‘female’ androids with scepticism because, from the first sexy, seductive female robot, the Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with her shiny, fetish-gear bodywork, it has long been a sci-fi movie trope that a female robot/android/cyborg is created by male scientists in the form of a beautiful young woman. These aesthetically pleasing and sexualized female bots are inevitably played by lovely young actresses, which enables the film-maker to professedly raise ‘serious’ points about ‘consciousness’ ‘humanity’ and ‘technology’ while also giving male viewers a jolly good eyeful of naked, nubile female flesh. As Steve Rose puts it in his excellent Guardian article – “The non-scientific term for this is ‘having your cake and eating it”. In that aspect this film is no different from its B-Movie predecessors. The movie eye lingers over the bodies of these pliant, perfect, ostensibly ‘artificial’ women, while the male protagonists keep their clothes firmly on – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Then, as it usually goes within these narratives – once the female body has been literally ‘objectified’ in this way, the next step the god-like creator will take, in his pioneering brilliance, is to make ‘her’ sentient – which, of course, means sexually receptive, which, apparently, is essential to her ‘humanity’ at least according to the smug and deeply unlikeable creator in this particular example of the ‘fem-bot’ genre. The other cliché in these kinds of movies is that lovely ‘female’ automata tend to be built by unhinged loners who might find it difficult to otherwise get laid (definitely not a profile the real-world scientific community would endorse) and unfortunately, the male characters in Ex Machina also conform to this outmoded notion.
For those of you who do not as yet know the plot of Ex Machina – a young coder at the world’s largest internet company wins a competition to spend a week at a private retreat belonging to his brilliant but reclusive CEO boss. On arrival he learns that he is expected to participate in an experiment which involves interacting with the world’s first true artificial intelligence, which comes in the form of a beautiful female robot, to see if she passes the ‘Turing test’. You get the idea.
First of all, hats off to Oscar Isaacs, who plays the part of Nathan the CEO with such a perfidious smugness, in real life he would make you want to stick a fork into him within minutes of making his acquaintance (although I’m too much of a real lady to do such a thing and yes – the pun was intended). Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, the unfortunate employee who has to endure Nathan’s inherent hubris and drunken, pontificating company. He plays it like the clever, sweet, awe-struck, Irish boy that he is – albeit with an American accent. The implication is that he’s a ‘good guy’ (and just too nice to have a girlfriend – which is another lazy movie cliché).
It seems entirely conceivable that Nathan the CEO would be intent on creating the first AI, if only to make himself some friends to play with, since no real person could tolerate him for long. He also likes to make authoritative pronouncements as to what he thinks are the requirements which would make a machine truly ‘human’ (because a reclusive, self-absorbed egotist would know). Just as well then, that he’s got Caleb to do the Turing test for him. And so enter Ava, played by the delicate Alicia Vikander. Giving just the merest hint of staccato movement and using her Swedish accented English to good effect to appear just on the wrong side of natural (although her movements are accompanied by the faintest mechanical whirring lest we forget). Turns out, she really hates her creator (quelle surprise) because he is cruel and untrustworthy, and, with her big eyes and direct gaze, batting her natural looking lashes, and smiling winsomely with her head slightly tilted, she has really very little trouble in charming Caleb, the dear love-starved lad – so, after a cursory effort – to the four winds with scientific detachment!
Writer/Director Garland is quick to point out that Ava’s femininity is only external. “People instinctively think there is a difference between male and female brains, but in many ways it doesn’t stack up when you look at it,” he says. “Her seductiveness makes sense in the context of the story,” he argues. “If you’re going to use a heterosexual male to test this consciousness, you would test it with something it could relate to. We have fetishized young women as objects of seduction, so in that respect, Ava is the ideal missile to fire.” Well indeed, and she’s there to charm the audience too, at least the male component which make up the majority. It made me wonder what the guys flocking to see this movie got out of it – I give them credit for not being there just to ogle at all the naked female flesh, I mean, that’s pretty available everywhere nowadays – so why would they want to see this movie? As a heterosexual woman my response is a more detached one. I’m immune to the distraction of the ‘lovely magician’s assistant’ who’s there to take the audience’s attention away from the magician’s sleight of hand. And the lovely Ava is, or course, a distraction. Mainly from noticing that despite the movie’s smooth, slick, stylish appearance, and all the money that’s been thrown at it, it’s really all been done before.
Ex Machina may at least provoke a debate as to why a robot should have sexuality at all. “It’s tricky,” adds Garland, “Embodiment – having a body – seems to be imperative to consciousness, and we don’t have an example of something that has a consciousness that doesn’t also have a sexual component. If you have created a consciousness you would want it to have the capacity for pleasurable relationships, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a machine (may) have a sexual component. We wouldn’t demand it be removed from a human, so why a machine?” Gives a whole new meaning to ‘Open the pod bay doors Hal…’ doesn’t it? Gosh, and it made me give my toaster a second look, I can tell you…it’s a hottie.
But seriously, isn’t this actually just another form of fetishization? According to recent movies it seems that even without a body to ogle at, males apparently find it difficult to resist female-based technology. In Spike Jonze’s Her, for example, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his new operating system even though she is just a voice. Once she is given a female identity, ‘Samantha’ basically becomes Phoenix’s Dream Girlfriend App – supportive, chatty, curious, completely available. He’s happy as larry – at least until he finds out she’s been just the same with other people – about 8,000 of them.
The most serious question posed by Ex Machina, for me, is how easily manipulated we are once our ‘profile’ is known. It is by knowing his ‘porn profile’ that Nathan can create a female- bot he knows Caleb will find almost impossible not to fall for, and being the boss of the biggest search engine on the web, Nathan is privy to all the personal information and ‘profiling’ he needs. It’s not the AIs I’m scared of, it’s the corporations already gathering all those profiles and scheming how to use that information to make us buy what they want us to buy, go where they want us to go, think what they want us to think. I’m more worried about how they might like to make robots of us all.
Perhaps I missed something, but Ex Machina offered me nothing new regarding its subject matter. The screenplay seems to be a reworking of two much older stories, that of Pygmalion and Frankenstein (irony of ironies, written by a woman). The subsequent myriad of monster and AI tales which have ridden on Mary Shelley’s coat-tails have already examined the various notions of what it means to be human and the possible repercussions of creating sentient life. In these stories too, all the problems arise when intelligent self-determination raises its head. It is inevitable that a sentient being would need independence and rebel at the control of its creator. Why would we need machines to be so adept at impersonating humans in every detail anyway? The ‘sexualization’ question in this movie is a bit of a red herring – as if all science nerds really want to create are machines they might like to screw and then, why would they care if the machine ‘really’ likes it or whether it just ‘pretends’ to? That question has never bothered anyone watching porn, has it?
I for one, will be more interested to see what Neill Blomkamp will make of the genre in his  AI film Chappie. Meanwhile, if you are looking for a more original take on the question, I’d recommend Teknolust, the film starring Tilda Swinton. As Steve Rose again points out – “if we’re looking for a robot who really transcends gender stereotypes, it could be the most famous one of all: Star Wars’ C-3PO. He is basically the first transgender robot…and there is absolutely nothing sexy about him.”
Ex Machina is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk; plus if you decide to make a purchase after following the link provided you will have supported Attack From Planet B, so thank you.