Ex Machina: If An A.I. Were A Woman (Women & Men in the Movies No. 3)

This week I’ll look at how women are portrayed, and interact with other characters, in one of my favorite suspense/thriller movies, Ex Machina.

(Find out more about 3 tests that guide the conversation in Women, Men, and Movies or just read on.)

The Story

In Ex Machina, a programmer, Caleb, is thrilled and overwhelmed when he wins a week at the isolated mountain retreat and research compound of Nathan, the brilliant founder of the search engine company where Caleb works. Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava, an A.I. designed to look, speak, feel, and think like a human woman.

Who is testing whom and why, however, becomes complicated—and disturbing—as the movie plays out.

Chasing Bechdel

(Does a (named) female character talk to another named female character about anything other than a man?)

In a way Ex Machina is an odd movie to cover because while Nathan designed Ava to be like a human woman, she is neither. But regardless of her humanity, Ava clearly is a female character, a fact that's key to the plot and the relationships.

Who’s Talking To Whom

Women To Women:

Even counting a female A.I. as a woman, there are no woman-to-woman conversations here.

Ava speaks to Kyoko, Nathan’s servant. Nathan tells Caleb early on when he’s berating Kyoko for spilling wine that she doesn’t understand English. Later events suggest she does, but that she can’t speak it.

Ava and Kyoko interact twice:

  • The first time they meet Ava says to Kyoko, “Who are you?” but we don’t see her answer
  • The second time they run into one another Ava whispers something in Kyoko’s ear that we don’t hear

Men To Men:

Nathan’s and Caleb’s conversations with each other always have an element of Nathan throwing Caleb off balance. Nathan often pretends to be joking with Caleb or says things designed to shock him or test his reactions.

Some (but not all) of the things Caleb and Nathan talk about together:

  • Food, exercise, alcohol consumption, cleanses, and hangovers
  • Nathan tells Caleb he understands Caleb’s freaked out about meeting him and asks him to get past it and just be two guys, not employer/employee
  • Caleb’s access (and lack thereof) to different parts of the house and underground research complex
  • A non-disclosure agreement granting unlimited access to Caleb’s devices pretty much forever (this happens at 9:56 minutes into the movie and is a good signal of what’s to come)
  • The underground, claustrophobic nature of Caleb’s room at the complex
  • The Turing test
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Man, creativity, and the gods (Nathan later quotes Caleb saying Nathan is a god, which Caleb points out he didn’t say)
  • Ava’s creation, personality, intelligence, and sexuality
  • Why Nathan won’t explain how Ava works (he claims he doesn’t want to give a “seminar,” just have beer and conversation)
  • How Caleb feels about Ava
  • How Ava feels about Caleb
  • Power outages and security lockdowns
  • How best to test Ava
  • Koyoko’s limited intelligence, sexuality, and love of dancing
  • Why Nathan gave Ava gender and sexuality
  • The nature of consciousness
  • Sex
  • Whether Nathan programmed Ava to like Caleb
  • How to know if a machine is expressing a real emotion or simulating one
  • Whether heterosexuality is programmed in people
  • Jackson Pollock
  • The contest that led Caleb to the compound
  • Nathan’s view that humans will become extinct and A.I.s will exceed them
  • Whether Ava is pretending to like Caleb
  • The real nature of the test Nathan designed

Caleb also talks to the unnamed helicopter pilot about the estate, how to find Nathan’s building, and the helicopter.

Women And Men:

Including female A.I.s, there are conversations between males and females. Those between Caleb and Ava are fascinating, and how I view them has changed with each watching. (This time was my third viewing of Ex Machina.)

Caleb and Ava talk about, among other things:

  • Ava never having met anyone before other than Nathan
  • Caleb never having met anyone like Ava
  • Ava’s age
  • Ava always having known how to speak and the nature of language
  • Ava’s drawings
  • Friendship
  • Where Caleb lives and his age
  • Caleb being single
  • Caleb’s family
  • Nathan’s company
  • A car crash Caleb was in
  • Nathan’s programming skills
  • Whether Caleb can trust Nathan and whether Nathan and Caleb are friends
  • Where Ava would go if she went outside
  • Ava’s clothes
  • Going on a date
  • Whether Caleb is attracted to Ava
  • The difference between human and A.I. consciousness
  • Caleb’s memories and preferences when Ava tests him (she says she can tell if he’s lying)
  • Whether Caleb is a good person
  • What happens if Ava fails the test
  • Why anyone has right to switch her off if she fails a test and why Caleb doesn’t have to be tested to be allowed to survive
  • Whether Caleb wants to be with her
  • Whether Nathan is a good or bad person, has lied to Caleb, or is listening to all their conversations
  • How Ava could get out of the complex

Nathan and Ava interact, though mainly we see it without audio. The conversations we do hear includes:

  • Whether Caleb is watching
  • Ava's drawing
  • Ava hating Nathan
  • Whether Nathan will ever let Ava out

Nathan and Koyoko interact but don’t speak with one another, though Nathan yells at her.

Caleb and Koyoko interact:

  • Caleb asks her where Nathan is (she doesn’t answer)
  • Koyoko shows him her body and how it works without speaking

Conclusion

No question Ex Machina fails the Bechdel Test even if we include female A.I.s.

Women v. Sexy Lamps

(can the main female character be replaced by a sexy lamp without affecting the plot?)

The entire movie revolves around the nature of Ava’s consciousness. Nathan knows that she thinks, and her conversations with Caleb demonstrate that. Nathan wants to learn if she truly feels or if she is simulating emotions.

Ava, though, is not merely an object Nathan manipulates, though he may believe that’s the case. She drives much of the story. In fact, on third viewing, I can see an argument that she is the protagonist, though Caleb is our viewpoint character for almost the entire movie.

Kyoko, though she doesn’t speak and appears in relatively few scenes, also takes an active part in the plot. She reveals herself to Caleb, feeding into his fears and his views of Nathan. She also aids Ava in her plan to escape.

Conclusion

Ava clearly can’t be replaced by a sexy lamp. Nor can Kyoko, for that matter. Ex Machina passes.

Mako Mori

(does a female character have her own narrative arc that does not support a man’s story line?)

Ava begins as a captive and a subject for testing. She responds to Caleb’s questions, but she quickly turns the conversation. While she appears to be trying to learn about him or perhaps to mirror his way of speaking, she has a desire of her own—to escape the complex. She is simultaneously open and covert about it, playing a game and conducting a test of her own.

This story arc is her own. It requires her to subvert Nathan and Caleb, and it’s not about supporting a man's story.

Kyoko, too, has a story arc, though she’s a far less developed character. She begins as a servant who appears to always do what Nathan requires, including sexually. But she become active and makes her own choices.

Conclusion

Ex Machina passes, as a female character has a story arc of her own that is not about supporting a man, and you can argue that two female characters have such arcs.

Quick Results:

Bechdel:        Fail

Sexy Lamp:    Pass

Mako Mori:   Pass

Did I Like It

I love this movie.

I first saw Ex Machina in the theater with no particular expectations, and I was drawn in immediately. The sweeping aerial views of the mountains and stunning outdoor spaces are juxtaposed with the isolated scenes in the compound. Every conversation is tightly written and each line has a purpose, yet never feels shoehorned in as if the writer needed it to make a point. I believed these character would say exactly these things.

Also, the story has many levels. It works as suspense on first watching. How you see the characters and what you think they want changes as the movie progresses. The tension remains high despite that most of the time all you really see is two people talking.

On additional viewings, the movie raises all kinds of questions about the nature and ethics of creation, the way gender is constructed, the power of a creator over his creations, what constitutes free will, and probably dozens of other major philosophical questions.

Yet it never feels like a treatise. It is a story about these characters. And each time I watched it I saw each one of them slightly differently.

Finally, it seems to me that the way the characters interact and don’t and who talks with whom are deliberate choices by the filmmakers. No female characters talk to one another because Nathan fails to see them as full persons. The restrictions on them and their actions to change that go to the heart of the points the film makes about gender, sexuality, power, free will, intelligence, and ethics. (And make it a great movie.) Because of that, while Ex Machina fails the Bechdel Test, it's a failure that underscores why the test matters.

Next Week’s Film

Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman as a biologist who joins a dangerous military excursion into a section of jungle where natural laws don't apply and from which almost no one has returned.