Review: Ex Machina, The Dangerous Desire to Possess Woman

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Man’s ambitions to play God are enduring and timeless. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina transposes this concept—the urges to dominate and control technology, nature, and women—into a sci-fi narrative about Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a seemingly narcissistic (or is he?), reclusive genius who creates what he hopes is the first true A.I., a robot with real consciousness, emotions, opinions and humanity. That his creation is female is hardly coincidental.

Nathan invites Kaleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer from his internet empire, to his vast, hidden estate under the auspices of a chance to meet the company’s brilliant founder. Really, Kaleb is there to perform a Turing test on Ava, Nathan’s invention, to discover if she’s truly conscious. From their first session, the film presents the question of what consciousness really is. As Kaleb describes, you can ascertain if a computer plays chess well, if it knows the best moves to make, but does it know that it’s playing chess, or what chess really is?

These questions open a thematic can of worms, as Ex Machina explores not only consciousness and humanity, but the divide between man and woman. Nathan is a timely societal proxy for the reclusive male stereotype, hiding behind his computer to obscure his identity. The type of man who retaliates against women who speak their minds and establish themselves as wholly individual entities that can and do exist without men. By engineering Ava, Nathan not only makes himself a deity responsible for creation, but fosters the notion that woman cannot exist without man. The creation myth insists this to be true, that woman was created from the rib of man. By creating Ava, Nathan has transferred his own sense of self, his ideals, the very essence of his effort and will. He has given her a part of him, just as Adam sacrificed a rib to Eve, ensuring and expecting her unending devotion and gratitude.

Nathan objectifies and claims ownership of Ava as intellectual property, but with consciousness comes unpredictability and the impossibility of truly knowing someone. It becomes increasingly, insidiously evident throughout that Nathan’s work is about domination, control, and, in part, loneliness. Nathan’s idealism extends beyond merely creating the perfect A.I. He wants to create the perfect woman.

Ava is not his first. His previous creations have resulted in varying degrees of success, with his only other fully functioning model engineered to serve him, both practically and sexually. Nathan tells a curious Kaleb that Ava is capable of sexual intercourse, that if you know how to manipulate the correct sensors just so, she will enjoy the experience. As her creator, he knows how to perform this function, but this is to presume consent. It’s a dark implication, one that evinces Nathan’s obsession to fully dominate a woman by not only constructing the perfect mind and body, but by being able to control that body. He ensures that Ava can take no sexual pleasure unless she is touched the way a man thinks she should be touched. Her sexuality is a construct of a male ideal and not a female biological reality.

There are parallels between Ex Machina and last year’s provocative Under the Skin. Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant film is another about what it means to be human; to empathize, to take agency as a woman in a world where your body was created for man’s pleasure, in which your body feels alien and not your own. In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson’s She tries to claim the body she was given, struggling with the concept of agency in a world where men take advantage of what they perceive as the weaker sex. One of the most beautiful and sorrowful sequences then is when She discovers that this body was not created for her pleasure, but for the satisfaction of men.

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Similarly, Ava is engineered to satisfy Nathan’s narcissistic God complex, to be the perfect woman with real consciousness, a woman who can and will consent to his desires while also having the awareness to construct her own thoughts and feelings…as long as those feelings are in keeping with Nathan’s ideals of who and what she should be. The biggest conflict in any relationship arises from the frustration that our significant others are not behaving or reacting in the ways we feel they should— when our feelings and personalities do not perfectly align. It’s almost as if we are merely searching for the male and female versions of ourselves, people who will never counter, but only complement our existence.

But with consciousness comes agency, and both Nathan and Kaleb underestimate Ava, just as men often underestimate women. She was, after all, created with an impossibly bright mind, one that is constantly evolving as it processes a vast network of information fed to her through the internet. Technology is duplicitous, just as all women can be, and to underestimate our relentless capacity to take and enact agency is to reinforce inequality.

Ava was made to be attractive, and that very attractiveness exudes sexuality. It is an essential function of her existence, designed by Nathan and viewed by man as something which belongs to him because it pleases him so. That possessive view allows for women to easily use their sexuality against men, to transform that which is gratifying or pleasurable into something painful, on emotional and egotistical levels.

In another striking similarity to Under the Skin, Ava takes the time to examine her naked body in a mirror; a body that, like Johansson’s She, was carefully selected (or in Ava’s case, engineered) for the purpose of attraction and male enjoyment. Both women behold their naked form and try to discern its capabilities and purpose. Where She explores her body in a childlike and wholly unsexual manner, Ava is appreciating her self-serving womanhood, using the incorporation of an anatomically correct form to firmly establish a sense of agency, to make her outer and inner selves whole.

Nathan’s creation of true A.I. engenders a new step in evolution and enlightenment: a superior being who exists above the human flaws of insecurity. Those which provoke our need to create something immortal, through which we can then achieve our own immortality. Above and beyond the technological and existential implications lies one far more insidious: the idea that a woman and her sexuality belongs to and exists for man.

Ex Machina is a horrific, unnerving cautionary tale about the dangers of possessing and dominating women, the contradiction of desiring a woman who functions as both independent and ideally submissive. She can make her own choices, as long as those choices are in keeping with those of a self-exalted male who perceives himself as deity, harbinger of creation, and gatekeeper of all life. The male desire to dominate is scarily innate. Through years of evolution, it has not been shaken.  

Britt Hayes is an editor and contributor for ScreenCrush and a contributor for Badass Digest. She is a writer, professional slacker, and respectable lady person who currently lives in Austin, Texas. You can follow her on Twitter @MissBrittHayes.

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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