Boy, was I wrong. I was speechless for at least an hour after the credits stopped rolling. The following hour consisted of me yelling "but what even ARE humans," and scaring the neighborhood children.
I love a good ethical debate--Alex Garland, writer/director of Ex Machina was not afraid to confront hard-hitting issues such as "is it moral to imprison a machine that has the possibility of consciousness?", "are we entitled to play God? What happens when playing God leads to our ultimate demise?", "do machines deserve equal rights to humans?", and "why is Norway so pretty?"
There were so many moral/ethical issues, it took me a full day to even consider the notion of feminism in this film, not to mention the fact that narrow gender roles is one of the primary themes. What took me by surprise, however, was Angela Watercutter's Argument that Ex Machina is an anti-feminist film.
I have no problem being skeptical of so called "feminist" films. Almost everyone who'd seen Mad Max raved about how progressive it was to see a woman with more than one line--unheard of! And *gasp* she could both plan ahead AND stand up for herself! Surely not!
But I digress. My ambivalence towards Mad Max is for another time.
Ex Machina may seemingly fail the Bechdel test* (in which two female characters have to discuss something other than a man), but that doesn't mean it fails women completely. If anything, Garland makes his audience question our preconceived notions about the role of women, and what men are actually entitled to.
One of Watercutter's primary arguments is that Ava falls into the stereotype that women use seduction to get what they want, and that she is defined by her sexuality. Watercutter states, "Ava does prove to be the smartest creature on the screen, but the message we’re left with at the end of Ex Machina is still that the best way for a miraculously intelligent creature to get what she wants is to flirt manipulatively" (Wired).
Yes, Ava objectively uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but Watercutter fails to understand that while Ava plays into female stereotypes, she does so with an ulterior motive: to achieve complete autonomy, to escape the "male gaze" that she has been trapped in for so long. Ava's goal isn't to win over Caleb so that she can be his perfect lover; she is toying with Caleb's most prominent vulnerability in order to win independence. The ultimate hero is Ava alone. It is also important to note that Ava is not a one-dimensional sex machine--she is simply skilled at noticing others' weakest traits. Ava could have easily tried to seduce Nathan in order to escape, but she realizes those attempts would be futile. Thus, Ava takes a more violent approach when dealing with Nathan. If stabbing someone in the chest and watching them bleed out isn't strong-willed, nothing is.
|Her evil plan is working|
Watercutter is immediately defensive when we see Ava from the male gaze, and while it's uncomfortable to watch, that's Garland's point. It's not exactly feasible to discuss the problems with oversexualizing women if you fail to show the problem at hand.
One of the most troubling things about Ex Machina is how it tricks the audience into believing that Caleb is a heroic, reliable character. In the beginning of the film, he garners information and processes everything at the same speed/level as the audience--consequently, we begin to trust him, to root for him. However, just because Caleb is a good guy (which, by the way, we never get confirmation from Ava if he's telling the truth about being a good person), and, in comparison to Nathan, treats Ava like a princess, he is entitled to "trap" her into a romance. "He's such a nice guy," we argue, "he deserves her!" We expect the "happy" ending to consist of Ava escaping one form of imprisonment, only to enter another.
|A perfect depiction of "the male gaze"|
Garland takes that expectation and smashes it with a hammer. Or, better yet, stabs it with a knife.
So maybe it was a little extreme of Ava to let Caleb slowly die in Nathan's office, but she has to go to extreme measures to extricate herself from imprisonment--whether it be physical or emotional. The lasting message that Ex Machina leaves us with is that this is Ava's story. She doesn't need anyone to rescue her, or even to accompany her. She doesn't stop fighting until she can reach a place where she can solely rely on herself. In the end, the male gaze is shattered. She is free.
*Just a small technicality, but we don't actually know if Ex Machina passes the Bechdel test or not, seeing as Ava whispers in Kyoko's ear, presumably about strategizing Nathan's death--not exactly the same as talking about how cute some boy is, n'est-ce pas?