The Sexual Provocations of ‘Ex Machina’

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Ex Machina provocations
Sonoya Mizuno and Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina
Photo: A24

“Are women necessary? Not with Ava around” ~ Maureen Dowd

The quote above comes from Maureen Dowd‘s April 25 piece in the New York Times and it’s a quote used in A24‘s latest red band trailer (see bottom of this post) for writer/director Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina, telling a story of Ava (Alicia Vikander) a near-convincingly “human”, artificially intelligent robot. It’s a quote every bit as provocative as the film itself. In fact, coupled with another quote from “The New York Times'” Manohla Dargis it’s about time we actually dig a little deeper in what is the best film of the year so far.

“[A] smart, sleek movie about men and the machines they make, but it’s also about men and the women they dream up,” writes Dargis in her review and I’m also drawn to a comment one of my readers brought up to me on Twitter back in late April.

“[T]he bots in Ex Machina are like Michelangelo statues if you used Michelangelo statues as sex dolls…” she wrote to me adding, “I also take issue with the fact that most of the sex dolls were ethnic and the white woman is the one with intellect and drive.” For the latter point, I really have nothing to add other than to say she’s absolutely right. Is it a problem with the film? I don’t know if there’s an answer to that, though I’m open to hearing opinions. She, however, also refers to the robots in the film as “sex dolls” and it’s here that I’d like to start digging a little deeper…

Ex Machina

Firstly, it must be noted, these quotes come from women and that I didn’t once think of the robots as sex dolls, but clearly all three of these women did and in that there is something important. Let’s look at the opening of Dowd’s piece in full as it delves even further into the topic at hand:

Are women necessary? Not with Ava around. Even without hair on her head or flesh on her legs, Ava has enough allure and cunning to become a classic film noir robot vixen. Despite being a plastic and mesh gizmo locked in a glass cell, she can enmesh men with frightening ease. […]

Critics are divided over whether “Ex Machina” is a feminist fable or misogynistic nightmare. Like Quentin Tarantino with violence, Garland has it both ways: He offers a mocking meditation on the male obsession with man-pleasing female sex robots while showing off an array of man-pleasing female sex robots.

Personally, when I saw the Dargis and Dowd quotes in this new Ex Machina trailer I was a bit shocked A24 would choose to include them. Here’s a movie that’s receiving praise, but these quotes almost seem to come as backhanded compliments, though incredibly provocative, which, I guess, is the best way to describe virtually all facets of Ex Machina.

Ex Machina provocations
Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina
Photo: A24

I don’t mind saying, for as much as I love Ex Machina, I was more fascinated by the ramifications of Nathan’s (Oscar Issac) creation and what it would mean for humanity than I was compelled to look at Ava as a sex robot. Being a white male, I also didn’t even think to notice the failed robots were largely non-white models while Ava, the perceived success, was white. These things didn’t click for me, and then to see Dowd suggest the film is either “a feminist fable or misogynistic nightmare” makes me wonder, Does it really have to be one of those options?

As much as I wish I’d caught it the first time around, I think these comments make Ex Machina even more provocative than even I gave it credit. I was so narrowly focused on what the idea of a thinking A.I. would mean for the future of humanity that I never quite looked at the gender ramifications of the story. I just looked at Ava as an artificially intelligent robot using what she was given to gain an advantage. We even learn what advantages she had over Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) once Nathan reveals how he designed her, most specifically using Caleb’s porn habits to create her physical attributes. So, yes, Ava uses sexuality to her advantage, but does that mean she’s merely a sex robot?

Dowd acknowledges Ava is “far more than a ‘basic pleasure model,’ as some female replicants in Blade Runner are known” and “has wiles that are a lot more potent than the weaponized breasts of Austin Powers’s fembots,” but this almost seems to suggest she’s on the same level. She’s not, she’s well above, and, in fact, it might not even be right to call “it” a “her” or “she”.

I won’t for a second deny the sexual nature of Ex Machina, sex is oozing out of most every scene, but I guess I begin to wonder if boiling Ava down to the idea that she’s nothing more than a sex robot is to almost diminish the technological advancement on display and the reason why sex is so necessary for the story. But if I believe this, is it somehow diminishing of the role gender plays in the film overall? Is Ex Machina really either a feminist fable or misogynistic nightmare? Is it possible it’s only one of those two things, or either of them for that matter?

Dowd says she asks Garland “if the movie will enhance the fear of some women that guys are more into the porn stars on their phones than the girls on their arms.” I guess I could argue the opposite, at least based on my attraction to Ava, which was not her physical features, but more her mind and how it works. Can Ava really feel? Can she think? Is she rational? If this was real life how would I, as a human, perceive her existence?

Garland tells Dowd, “There could be an A.I. president.” Could there really? Humans have always been around to fix technology, my personal fear comes in when technology is suddenly fixing itself and grown so powerful that even a malfunction can’t stop it. Of course, would any of us say humans are infallible. And what if the president gets sick or has a headache, a doctor “fixes” him/her, but is he/she fully healed and ready to govern immediately? That’s a minor case, sure, but president’s have dealt with worse.

During a Q&A I hosted with Garland here in Seattle he referred to Ava as a child of humanity, the next step. If we, as humans, fear the possibility of such a “species” we must ask ourselves Why? Is it their immortality? Is it their intelligence? Don’t we want our children to be smarter than us, outlive us?

Perhaps we’ve entered an age where it’s no longer a space race to the moon, but a race for true artificial intelligence. Then again, if the singularity arrives in the same fashion as Ava, would any of us really know before it’s too late?

While I think Dowd’s piece looks at Ex Machina in terms that are a little too black-and-white, I think she, and along with the other comments I brought up, explore some wonderful ideas, ideas that add even more layers to a film I already love.