Mulier Ex Machina

“You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.” With this statement, Toronto dance-punk duo Death From Above 1979 contorted, conflated, and reframed a central existential conundrum from the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Subsequently, this declaration has been mined and tested in a wave of recent, related films through the transitive property, reformulating: you’re a woman and a machine, and I’m a man who relates to you mechanically. These films—dubbed “Created-Women Films”—traverse modern gender relations, rehearsing and reconfiguring inequities and perceptions, with one eye toward the past and the other surveying the future. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is the most recent entry, securing its place by exploiting one of the foremost motifs of the blossoming subgenre—the female robot. These CWFs are ultimately not dangers-of-technology narratives, but rather treatises on hegemony.

These stories of creation, communication, society and civilization used to be constructed around mythical concepts; now, we dissect the tangible, the practical, the concrete, searching for the same answers. In Ex Machina, Caleb, a low-level coder, at Google analog Blue Book, wins a company-wide contest granting him a week-long stay at the remote estate of the company’s billionaire-genius founder, Nathan. While there, he learns of Nathan’s newest pursuit—artificial intelligence, in the form of a robot named Ava—and Caleb, tasked with conducting testing, develops a relationship with Ava. Eventually, Caleb gets ensnared in the dubious intentions of Nathan as well as the growing cunning of Ava “herself”. This narrative succinctly pinpoints many of the key, defining concerns of the CWF subgenre—that is, typically, a male creator constructs a woman counterpart, then grapples with the implications of the choices made in the creation process, and his increasingly untenable relation to the creation. Gender relations, issues of control, power, and abuse, emphasis on growth and self-discovery, and shifts in and subversions of perspective, are all forefront. These are essentially the story of Eve repeated and challenged, modernized and dilated. Ex Machina even tells us so in its robot’s moniker.

Generation after generation, since time immemorial, we’ve been telling and retelling these same stories, and this created-woman motif is not new to film either—take Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, or Weird Science, for that matter (where, like Ex Machina, a woman is created using pornography). But these narratives have changed recently and have become more meditative, more focused and specific, more grounded and intimate. As in any genre worth its salt, the parameters are fluid. Examples are as inclusive as mainstream films like Click and About Time, that touch on the desire to rewrite relationships, as well as some of the murky impulses dredged through this premise. Even, Marc Forster’s distaff Stranger Than Fiction merits inclusion, offering a useful counterpoint, an exception that proves the rule in some respects. In many ways, these films are slowly hinting at the increasingly complex understanding of gender identity outside binary, heteronormative constraints, and toying with and subverting the codes of how we perceive, associate and designate, while simultaneously pushing human sexual desire to new terrain.

Two films that overlap thematically and structurally with Ex Machina are Spike Jonze’s Her and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris’ Ruby Sparks (though it eschews the technological focus). In Her, a lonely, recently-divorced writer (of personal letters for other people), Theodore, buys a newly issued artificial intelligence operating system. He develops an intimate relationship with this entity (she names herself Samantha), helping him move beyond and come to terms with his insecurities and pain. In Ruby Sparks, a struggling writer, Calvin, composes a fantasy woman as an exercise to overcome writer’s block. She, Ruby, mysteriously, magically comes to life. As he develops a relationship with her he begins to continually rewrite and try to perfect her and craft her into the perfect partner for his needs. All of his efforts inevitably take unpredictable and sometimes disturbing turns as he tries to pull her deeper into his own psyche while her independence and self-awareness grows beyond his control.

In such narratives the “humanity” of the female other is a consistent and elusive concern. These stories are embroiled in unraveling the “feminine mystique”. These are tales that speak specifically to a rising generation, weaned in a no-wave feminist landscape where more complex and pervasive discourses in feminist theory emphasize the systemic. These classic narratives and keynotes are juxtaposed with emphases on modern concerns—technology, innovation, postmodernism, metacriticism—effectively illuminating progressions while underscoring alarming consistencies. Containment and control remain chief concerns and persistent themes here. Pursuits, desires, and curiosities outside the central relationship become forbidden fruit-type threats. In Her, for example, the revelation of Samantha’s 8,316 other relationships effectively dissolves the central coupling, and her endeavors to learn and grow are met with caution. Likewise, as Ruby craves independence and freedom, and pursuits and relationships of her own, Calvin must rewrite her to rein in these desires. In Ex Machina, like in so many fairy tales, Ava is literally confined, locked in the space where she lives. Eventually these films chart a path toward a heightened agency for these female beings, giving them access to the process of their own creation/recreation. Samantha uses the unlimited information at her disposal to learn and become beyond the limited understanding and capacity of the humans who developed her and with whom she has related since being switched-on. Ruby is freed from the manuscript that spawned her and able to write her own story, experiences, and personality going forward. And, in Ex Machina Ava swaps body parts, moving beyond the specific constrictions that were never meant to be surmounted.

This new infusion of technological concerns in these classic narratives creates interesting new ripples. In the constant flow of technology it is necessary to speculate about the desires and pleasure new devices and applications fulfill, how they are used, and the particulars of their build. To paraphrase Ex Machina’s Dr. Frankenstein, these progressions are not a record of what people think, but how they think. These tales bring us deeper into how we construct our personalities and desires in this digital age. Distanced, remote communication has become standardized. In some cases, even in our most personal relationships we spend more time interacting through a technological medium and staring at a screen than looking at another person. These machines become conduits of personal and personalized connection, associatively ingrained in our intimate relationships. This person-to-machine-to-person ménage à trois is literalized and manifest in these narratives. Simultaneously, they further question the unconsciously gendered inclusions that often arise in new technology. As we spend the running time with a female-coded voice emanating from a consumer product, and one designed to serve the user, the association becomes somewhat disquieting. Ex Machina even poses this query directly, asking outright, why make an android have a specific sex? Why give her sexuality? Because sex is fun; because sex is an inextricable part of the human condition and the human experience, Nathan argues. But, the constructed gender imbalance onscreen mirrors the imbalances that exist ingrained in real-world modern technology. Think about the voices and perspectives that dominate in the digital world. Think about the deluge of explicit, profane material that circulates. Think about top search queries and trending topics. Think about Siri, and then watch the commercial where the kid wants to be called “Rock God” one more time.

Consider too how these “women machines” are characterized in relation to modern male machines. Samantha for example is warm, funny, sensual, sexual, and reactive. Ava is soft-spoken, artistically-inclined, corporeal, and introspective. The prototypical “male computer” is cold, calculating, exacting, detached, desexualized, and authoritative—think HAL 9000, Alien’s Ash, T-1000, Roy Batty, Agent Smith—in essence, all the things that we fear in machines—an inability to relate and a loss of control that only becomes clear when it is too late. The same dynamic plays out in Her and Ex Machina but to different affect. Samantha clearly outmaneuvers her human in every intellectual aspect, but she is careful about revealing this discrepancy. Insecurities mask the divides. Samantha is insecure about her lack of physicality and constantly wants to know what it is like to have a body and experience touch. This is mirrored in Ruby Sparks where, at one point, Calvin tries to strike a perfect balance of insecurity in his creation to calibrate her dependence in him. Ava likewise displays a desire to be desired. “You can see I am a machine,” she laments, questioning whether she is attractive to Caleb, and wears sun dresses, stockings, and a wig to cover her conspicuous circuitry. Where male bots have power, strength, and unwavering fortitude, fem-bots have insecurities and body issues. This is where Ex Machina pulls a reversal, acknowledging this trend and attempting to destabilize it. Ava plays the prototypical female robot for her own purposes, but, by film’s end, she embodies the unsympathetic superiority typically granted only to the male models.

These films turn on deconstructing perspective. In film history, the dominant agency has been and remains male, contextualized around the male protagonist and sutured to his perspective. Hell, in human history this is almost invariably true. And, these films comment on this. These films carefully construct a dominant male viewpoint, then chisel away at its foundation. The soulful and wounded male creators at the center need these free-spirited, intelligent, carefree, eccentric counterparts to fix them, but similar trajectories are charted toward the limits of this vantage—from infatuation and control to loss of understanding and schism. Like Eve, these women service men’s loneliness but at a price. In Ex Machina, Ava’s is our final perspective, a new world of possibility and experience open to her, and an ambiguous, conflicted feeling permeating at this thought. She has displayed a responsive nuance and calculability that is both extraordinarily and terrifyingly uncontrollable. That the male perspective lies broken, unfulfilled, uncertain, and boxed-in is the point. À la Psycho, we are left unstable and searching for a different perspective by films’ end—but here it is a machine adorned as a woman that plunges the blade.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

1 Comment on Mulier Ex Machina

  1. Frances A. Slizewski // May 8, 2015 at 2:48 pm // Reply

    This article was well written and extremely well informed. The author, Oliver O’Sullivan, writes with a style that reaches out to those who are deeply entrenched in the film industry and it’s workings, and those of us who stand on the periphery with more interest in than knowledge of the subject. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and look forward to more of Oliver O’Sullivan’s work.


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