By Sennah Yee
Ex Machina is shiny and sexy, but also transparent: build a male robot to find out the meaning of humanity; build a female robot to fuck her AI out.
The film follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer who wins a company lottery to spend a week at the gorgeous retreat of his secretive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac’s amazing beard). Nathan’s built a robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), and wants Caleb to take part in Q&A sessions with her in order to find out if she can demonstrates artificial intelligence.
The film’s main materials are glass, silicone, and chrome. Glass separates Caleb from Ava during their sessions, Ava from the rest of the compound, and the compound from the lush green landscapes outside. Transparent, ever-present, surprisingly stifling. Silicone makes up the exposed skin of the women in the film, of which there are technically none, but if we’re going to talk technicalities: chrome lurks beneath all their skin, its gleam leaking from their eye sockets and peeking from under clothing cuffs. Opaque, concealed, clean.
Nathan shows us how totally rad science can be: not only did he make her fuckable (“Sex is fun, man!”), he constructed her appearance from the porn in Caleb’s browser history (super white and barely legal). Ava is doe-like, so sleek, smooth and sweet it’s jarring.
What would your porn-history-bot look like? I’m not sure if I’d want to fuck mine. I think an amalgamation of o-faces, bouncy boobs, just enough stubble to hurt but not leave a mark, pillow lips, and perfectly-arched-dicks would just result in something so fuckable it’d be unfuckable. Uncanny. Sexless.
When Ava puts on clothing for the first time, it’s like a semi-reverse strip-tease as we watch her cover up her chrome parts with sleeves and stockings, limb by limb. In the end, all she leaves visible is her silicone skin. The tease is amplified and satisfied later, when Ava assembles her own body from the parts of Nathan’s previous prototypes, hanging like animals in a butcher shop window, and conceals her chrome completely with flesh untilshe is stark-naked. Although at this point in the film Ava is free and Caleb’s the one stuck behind glass, we are invited to gawk at her transformation along with him like it were still the other way around?
As I watched Ava assemble herself, I couldn’t help but to think about how she had such slim pickings for her look—all gorgeous but all Nathan's failed fantasies, and all dead. I wonder if Ava really wanted long brown hair, breasts, a lace dress and white heels in order to feel truly human, like a natural woman. Or did she simply want to pass as one in order to fit in? I should ask this to myself, too. Given the chance to re-assemble my body piece by piece from closets of beautiful, rejected sisters, I’m sure I would choose the same things: huge eyes, freckles, pink nipples, pale silicone.
While Ava goes from chrome to flesh, Nathan’s housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) goes from flesh to chrome. In a scene that combines the feminine with the monstrous, Kyoko, lounging on Nathan’s bed naked, peels the skin off of her face, revealing a metallic chrome finish underneath her cheek and a Terminator-like eyeball, whirring in its socket. I was rooting for Kyoko, but her arc broke my heart. She's introduced as a mute Asian sidekick who serves sushi on command, fucks on command, and dances on command. When she tries help the white woman break free, she is killed by her male maker. She’s a shiny, fleshy ornament for both Nathan and the audience, from the beginning of the film through to the end; her skin shattered and her chrome interiors on display for us to marvel at like magpies.
Ex Machina is less about the robots themselves and more about their male makers’ fantasies. The film gazes at the robots but looks no further. It suffers from the same issue I had with Her: the film ends right where it should have began, when the female AI was liberated. I’m over watching lonely men play God or play house (or both). I’m too busy dreaming of what their female AIs did once they were free. Did Her’s Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) become BFFs with other OS? Did Ava get to chat up any of those she saw while people-watching? Did she get to shop for her own clothes, instead of wearing those Nathan-picked, baby-doll dresses forever? Did she orchestrate a cyborg revolt?
We only get to watch female AIs suffer or seduce, or sometimes both at once. We want to see what makes male AIs tick, but we only want to see what makes female AIs come. Never do we gain any access to their thoughts on their own terms; their sexuality and desires are continually mined by men seeking to conquer their feminine truths for what else, but “for science.” Yeah, science is fun, man, but only if you’re a man.
There is a single shot in the film that is from Ava’s POV: she imagines herself free, walking in the forest, looking up at the sunlight seeping through the tall trees. The shot is repeated at the end of the film after Ava has actually escaped, but the final perspective is once again outside of her own. As we watch Ava watch the world go by, we’re still left gazing at her exposed silicone and concealed chrome through what else, but a glass window; forever something to be examined.