What is the film Ex Machina about?
What if what it is about could be possessed? A work to love, worship, own, admire and grasp?
Why did Nathan create Ava? Has an Ava been attempted before now?
In 1886, the French symbolist writer Villiers de l’Isle Adam – who popularized the term ‘android’ – created Hadaly, an “electromagnetic thing, a being in limbo, a possibility”. Eve Future means Tomorrow’s Eve because she was futuristic in 1886. A fictionalized Edison in the novel created Hadaly in an effort to overcome the flaws and artificiality of real women and create a perfect and natural woman who could bring a man true happiness. Hadaly moved, talked, breathed and bathed, and her [robotic] needs were natural and normal, similar to human actions and functions. Hadaly was a sight for Ewald’s sore eyes; he was about to commit suicide due to sheer frustration with Alicia, who was a beautiful but dumb woman. But when he saw Hadaly whose beauty was so striking he forgot his despair with the opposite sex.
Lord Ewald exclaimed upon seeing Hadaly: “You, born of a woman, you can reproduce the identity of a woman!” “Certainly and what is more, the reproduction will be more identical than the woman herself…” Ava is not Hadaly; she’s not a possibility, but a robot capable of “holding memory, shifting in thought, like a real woman” according to Nathan. She is today’s Eve, like a perfect real woman, the quintessential female cyborg [half machine half woman].
Not only is Ava like Hadaly, but Caleb is today’s Ewald. Ava was created after Caleb’s own design and heart; programmed according to Caleb’s porn preferences. She is a perfect but scary example of technology companies which lure us into divulging our lives: the thing desired and craved for can be shaped into exactly the way we want it. From Hadaly to Ava something scary and unstoppable is created, a robot purely external, neither male nor female, no matter how much of the body is simulated. Ava’s attractiveness and sentience makes her real even if her femininity is purely external.
Ava is therefore a meditation on the male obsession of man-pleasing sex robots which is built with an array of man pleasing female parts. When Caleb and Ava open the closets they discover many female sex robots in every cupboard, of all races of women, but of the same body type: slender, small breasted, every one of them like Ava and Kyoko [Nathan’s own sex robot]:
This frightening scene goes beyond any techno-determinism, beyond controlled public or private fantasies and opens up a fantasmatic zone to create the female identity, Ava.
The construction of bodies and genders has always been technological, but this film opens up some other questions: Why are so many thinking machines female? Why does A.I. need a body? And a sexualized body? These A.I. certainly can’t reproduce biological entities, or can they? And if they were designed to complete tasks, the question begs “what tasks” with all their female sexualized body parts. They could be flat chested or straight-shaped or given any number of neutral sexless or genderless traits, but they’re not. Ava is not as an outside identity, but very much has her own identity.
The film cast is entirely masculine: two men trying to figure out Ava. It is not about women’s experience, and not how Ava might feel as a woman, but how the two males view her as a woman in flesh. Ava is the lens through which male attitude is refracted. From Metropolis until now robots have become sleeker and sleeker and better and better. The virtual woman has become the “real” for Caleb, Nathan and many other online and offline people. Before Ava, it was a lifeless doll in Lars and the Real Girl. Yet, emotions and feeling were projected onto this doll. The conflation of sexuality and disturbing reaches a climax when we see female sexualized robots hanging like meat in every closet in Ex Machina. Do we care that the vessels beneath the female skin and sensuality cannot share our insecurities and emotions? Nathan’s robot Kyoko cannot speak, but only perform what she is asked. She can dance and is programmed to seduce Caleb and have sex with Nathan because she is built with a vagina. Why make a robot with a vagina if it is only about science and art?
Ex Machina is a cinema that is not only about technology, but the technology of gender. The transformer robots OR the autobots or Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron are not gendered or marked by their gender or body. But female robots or creatures (such as the one in Splice [Vincenzo Natali, 2009]) are marked by their anatomy, which are strikingly visual and sexualized. Whether it is a Metropolis robot, or the many female robots and androids encountered in Captain Kirk’s lives, or bionic women, or the Ava robot, female robots are not sexless. They are often portrayed as sensual, seductress, mysterious, beautiful, and young – not “old” – feminine creations of men, even if all they are supposed to possess is artificial intelligence. Note how the camera angles and compositions frame Ava as a real, sensual and sexual:
Ava is the incarnation of the OS [operating system] – Samantha – whom we only hear in Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) when she? it? speaks to Theodore, and even though Samantha has a body in the end it is not on display throughout the film as Ava’s body is. Ava is a real, living, existing actual body for Caleb and Nathan whose technology extends far beyond any voice. In the end, Ava outsmarts the two males because they see her as a [silicone] femme fatale and they slip up because they process or think with feelings. Ava however, thinks with logic that is programmed into her operating system, into her artful Brancusi-inspired female body behind which lies its possession. Caleb and Nathan forget that she is an A.I. when they look at her. No matter how scientific the film wants us to think- and it does this brilliantly well – female robots are inseparable from their anatomy, echoing what Judith Butler once said: is this a glimpse of the coming takeover of robots?