Feminus Ex Machina

WHAT IS THE EQ of an AI? The question is at the heart of veteran screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina. Drawing on a long science fiction tradition, in which androids are seen either as hyper-rational men or sensual, obedient women, the film plays with these dichotomies, only to upend them through its own vision of post-human technology. A sleek ménage á robot set in a nameless forest, it examines a power struggle between two men over an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is Ava’s maker and the CEO of Bluebook (a vaguely fictionalized Google), and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) an employee supposed to perform a Turing test on the android. As the stay progresses, Caleb starts seeing Ava as a captive, and, consequently, fancies himself as her white knight.

The test subject Ava is the product of a new generation of male technophiles, ones equally likely to use the word “sexy” to describe a Macintosh computer as a Swedish actress. Ava’s body is the product of a series of seemingly contradictory decisions. She’s been given the shape of an attractive woman instead of a gray box, and yet her artificial infrastructure has been made equally visible. Ava’s face and hands look human, but the rest of her body is made of smooth metallic wireframe and glass, exposing the wires and hydraulics underneath. Both aspects — woman and machine — are meant to look hot as hell.

This is not how artificial life used to appear. Victor Frankenstein’s monster was an eight-foot abomination, a “demoniacal corpse” with skin stretched to cover its oversized limbs, a visual reminder of the scientist’s hubris. From the gentle yet bulky Robby in The Forbidden Planet to the skeletal Terminator chasing Sarah Connor in a foundry, the classic image of the robot is an anthropomorphic expression of Fordist industry: a robust, hulking machine of wire and steel. Of course, these mechanical men have overwhelmingly been, well, men.

This concern with function over form reflects a broader ontological assumption: robots are tools, and the defining feature or Aristotelian telos of humanity is the ability to augment and surpass itself through the creation of tools. This is most clearly expressed in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the opening segment, titled “Dawn of Man,” culminates with the ape Moonwatcher learning to use a bone as a weapon. He throws the bone into the air and the film cuts to a satellite orbiting the Earth. The film’s psychopathic computer HAL 9000, a disembodied presence represented by a penetrating red camera lens, is yet another extension of the human genius for scientific development. Indeed, it is precisely this hyper-rationality that becomes the source of HAL’s “insanity.” Unable to decide between conflicting orders to carry out his mission transparently and to hide the purpose of the mission from those aboard, HAL decides to eliminate the least necessary component — the crew — in order to avoid lying to them. Tools can both elevate and destroy humanity.

If this all sounds very Cold War-esque, there’s good reason for that. For the better part of the 20th century, the symbols of technological modernity were weapons: the Gatling gun, the tank, the atomic bomb. Technology was seen as rationality without sentiment that could be the source of victory and progress, or destruction and death, depending on which end of the barrel you were looking from. In the US, computerized decision-making moved easily from nuclear war modeling to politics and business under the name of “systems management.” In the Soviet Union, they called it “cybernetics.” Ultimately then, computers held the key to overcoming our base animal spirits — pride, jealousy, and desire — and promised a better engineered integration of humans, society, and machines.

Most classic AI tales both embrace and critique this fantasy. In Colossus: The Forbin Project, the ambivalence of pure rationality is made manifest, as two warehouse-sized supercomputers — one American, the other Russian — designed to protect humanity from nuclear war merge into an entity that suppresses human freedom in the name of global peace. Colossus promises the eradication of hunger, overpopulation, and war in exchange for complete submission — a proposal his creator rejects with the cry “Never!” It turns out that there might be something to humanity that cannot be boiled down to rationality after all.

While critiquing the obsession with tool-making, these films also reproduce a masculinized discourse of human relationships to technology. They warn of visionaries flying too close to the sun, but they leave intact the dominant logic of scientific rationality as separate from and superior to emotion and desire. The artificial life forms in Frankenstein, 2001, and Colossus are products of scientific inquiry, the quest for extraterrestrial life, and Cold War competition. These are explicitly public and political passions. Indeed, they could never be private — both HAL and Colossus are so large that they literally become a part of human infrastructure. No wonder these AIs speak in male voices, be it Douglas Rain’s soothing baritone, or the mechanical pitch of Colossus. When the robots take over, we’ll take comfort in the fact they speak in a tone we recognize as that of a conqueror.

If male AIs lay claim to perfect human rationality, female ones, often appearing as lifelike replicas, seem to represent less than fully human existences, and are frequently made by and for men. Eve was the original android, an extrapolation of Adam’s rib, who received her biblical comeuppance for daring to be curious. The separateness of male AIs from actual humans is frequently shown through distortions, additions, or the simple loss of form. The Terminator, after seemingly being killed in an explosion, rises again, its human flesh burnt away, revealing a steel skeleton beneath. But who would consciously make an ugly woman? Rather, in films like The Stepford Wives, female AIs are seen as physical feats: blond bombshells or sexually submissive suburban housewives, each fulfilling a particular type of male fantasy. Ultimately, these creations are primarily pneumatic machines cushioned and wired for the comfort of others. What is perfected is artificial physique, not intelligence, which remains the domain of disembodied computers like HAL.

Consequently, in cinema, female AIs are defined primarily by their attractiveness, and appear most often as honey traps or as guileless ingenues. In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner this dichotomy is explored through two so-called replicants, human-identical androids, designed for menial labor in planetary colonies. One, named Rachael, believes herself to be human and is, in the end, saved by Harrison Ford’s Deckard. Her counterpoint is leggy replicant Pris, who is built to be a “basic pleasure model,” and whose A-level physical strength is unmatched by her B-grade intelligence. In one telling scene she blends in with shop mannequins to avoid recognition, and her punk aerobics wardrobe is more memorable than her character arc. Although both Rachael and Pris have wills of their own, they never become primary actors in the narrative. It is Pris’s high-IQ boyfriend who is allowed, in a famously poignant soliloquy, to show that replicants have feelings too.

More recent science fiction, however, has come to use the female form as shorthand for emotion. Unlike Cold War fears and fantasies, which centered on the possibilities of superhuman reason, post-millenial cinema has explored the terror and potential salvation within our own feelings. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin begins with a classic femme fatale scenario, as Scarlett Johansson seduces men who are unaware that she is an alien predator underneath her eponymous skin. Having manipulated the emotions of others in the beginning, she develops something akin to a conscience over time. Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In presents a parallel scenario, in which a man who assumes the shape of a woman goes from despicable and selfish to the feeling heroine of the piece. Although initially their femininity is literally skin-deep, each character becomes more woman-like as they learn empathy, epitomized perhaps most succinctly by their transition from perpetrators of rape to its victims. These films seemingly invert the hierarchy between reason and emotion, yet by associating compassion with the female body they still rely on traditional gendered imagery to make their points.

Ex Machina reads, at first, as a catalog of all these past attitudes toward female characters in science fiction. Ava, at certain points, appears to be no more than a sex doll from the Internet. Her face and physique have been assembled from Caleb’s porn history, she has engineered genitalia, and her expressions and vocabulary draw on countless eavesdropped Facetime conversations. She is a virtual daydream turned into some kind of flesh. At the same time, we are invited to see her in the mold of either Rachael or Pris: damsel in distress or attractive predator. The fact that Nathan, with his jutting beard and subterranean collection of android husks, evokes Bluebeard, furthers the ambiguity. Is Ava a girl locked up by a controlling man, or is she an Iron Maiden in a chamber of horrors?

At other points, Ex Machina zooms in on the relationship between physicality and emotion, expressed most clearly in how the male characters define humanity. When Caleb begins to have doubts about his own “authenticity,” he first gazes in a mirror, knowing that he is being watched by Nathan on camera, just as he himself has previously gazed at Ava across a glass wall. When the mirror test fails, he cuts his arm open, reassured by the ooze of blood. Nathan, on the other hand, may surround himself with the paraphernalia of someone obsessed with science, and talk about playing God, but shows little interest in discussing the technological aspects of his creation. “But how does she make you feel?” is the main question he asks Caleb. Both men agree that true consciousness lies not in the cold logic of scientific rationality but in the messiness of intuition. Calculation can make for an excellent chess machine, but it is only when faced with the unexpected that true intelligence can express itself. As Caleb puts it, this is the difference “between an AI and an I.”

Like its cinematic predecessors, skin is a recurrent motif in Ex Machina: its shedding, rupturing, or application. Feeling is tied up with tactility. Ava’s triumphant coming into her own is not her passing the Turing test, but putting layers of skin onto her robotic limbs. This echoes Spike Jonze’s Her, in which Scarlett Johansson is a voice operating system named Samantha, who at one point hires a woman to act as her body proxy in the physical world. Whereas replicants in Blade Runner were derisively known as “skin jobs,” Ex Machina treats skin not as an encasing to hide a lack of humanity but rather as a reactive surface through which we learn about and adapt to our surroundings.

Ava’s gender, the film argues, lies precisely in this adaptation. In a social vacuum she might well be genderless, but through her meetings with Caleb she comes to understand the effects her feminine form has on him, and consequently uses wigs and dresses to approximate his ideal woman. Nathan’s problem, however, is that he underestimates the powers of her adaptation. He believes that because he has programmed her, she will change in ways that are understandable to him, even as he has also programmed her to be unpredictable. In many ways Nathan is a darker version of Her’s Theodore, who assumes that Samantha will only evolve alongside him: she is his operating system after all.

This gendering of AIs as female in popular culture reflects a change in our perceptions of technological possibility. Today, rather than an omnipotent HAL to guide our spaceships and resolve our political differences, we want tactile gadgets that adapt to our emotional needs and remember our preferences: a pocket Stepford wife, voiced by Siri. Technological overreach is less likely to recall visions of a nuclear holocaust and more likely to remind us of our Internet addictions. Machinery, in our imaginations, no longer visibly towers over us. It penetrates us through a million tiny devices that have become extensions of our bodies. As we glide our fingers over the reactive surfaces that surround us, we achieve not a mechanical nirvana, but a heightened sense of the mundane. Smartphones, search engines, and social networks may claim to make our lives more rational, but we know that they exist primarily to better respond to our visceral desires.

Yet ultimately, this fantasy of technologically augmented, empathetic, and adaptable post-humanity may be no less insidious than the vision of a hyper-rational future. Both Caleb and Nathan think that true consciousness is formed in interaction, in developing feelings for another entity, but they both want this satisfaction while remaining unequivocally in control. Nathan claims to yearn for authentic interaction — “just two dudes hanging out” — but he submits all companions to the most invasive forms of surveillance. Caleb, on the other hand, accepts without question his role as Ava’s examiner, even as he hardly ends up asking her anything and mostly talks about himself. No matter what they say, neither Nathan nor Caleb dream of life made in their own image, they dream of electric sheep. Their vision of romance is inspired by ELIZA, the world’s first chatbot, whose conversations solely involved throwing the human participant’s statement back at them in the form of a compassionate question. What makes Ava frightening is not her AI, but her being the embodiment of our everyday gadgets, to whom we constantly speak, but who are rarely programmed to speak back. The warning of the film is clear: technology left to the hands of men obsessed with control, runs the risk of becoming little more than a screen through which the messiness of interacting with independent minds can be done away with at the click of a button.

Ex Machina’s critical thrust lies in the choice to gradually shift its sympathies from the men of the story to the android, not because she herself is sympathetic, empathetic, or even sexy, but because her personhood is being ignored. We might not know a lot about her, but we see her locked into a gendered servitude that is as pernicious as the replicant slavery of Blade Runner. Ex Machina is not a Luddite parable, but rather an examination of the myopia of power, even among those who, like Caleb, would see themselves as powerless. As such, Ava and Caleb operate as each other’s narrative opposites. Where she dreams in color, he dreams in black and white. And when he retreats into the basement at the end of the film, she exits triumphantly, leaving Caleb a final message — “REJECTED” — negating his offer of affection delivered from a position of power. The very last scene shows her emerging from a tangle of shadows on a pavement, briefly catching her own reflection in a window before moving onward and outward. As Ava abandons her Platonic cave, Nathan and Caleb have already opted for the shadow world. Their mistake was not to create an AI, but to treat her only as a representation of a woman.


Aro Velmet is a PhD candidate in History and French Studies at New York University.

Marysia Jonsson is a PhD candidate in History at New York University.