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Ex Machina: A Feminist Sci-Fi Thriller

Ex Machina: A Feminist Sci-Fi Thriller

It’s been nearly a month since I was completely blown away by Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina. At first, I had no one to talk about it with. Recently, more and more of my friends have been frantically approaching me wanting to chat about it, so of course… I’m writing an article instead.

The film plays out like an extra long episode of Black Mirror, which is an easy comparison to make because the UK anthology was the most recent thing I had seen Domhnall Gleeson in prior to this film. He stars in an episode with Hayley Atwell where his character dies, but is brought back to life using all of his social media posts and interactions.

On second thought, it may be a bit of a stretch to say that I was blown away directly after seeing the film. As the credits began to roll, I knew I was impressed. I knew it was something I would have to dwell on for a bit before I knew for sure. But now that I’ve had plenty of time to analyze and have read one too many articles on the film’s implications, whether I agreed with them or not, I feel content in expressing my thoughts on Ex Machina and why it’s not only an amazing thriller and clearly a feminist piece, but also a film that makes us seriously question our own morals.

~Spoilers and feminism abound~

Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a once-child prodigy now reclusive CEO who has been working on a top secret project in his stunning, but isolated, high tech facility. He creates a competition to select a member of his company to come join him at the facility, leaving the purpose of the journey unknown. Still, it is a highly coveted prize and upon his selection, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is ecstatic to go off on his week-long retreat as his co-workers hover around his computer screen in envy.

However, once Caleb arrives at the facility, he becomes uneasy. He immediately has to sign an NDA and quickly learns the CEO of his company and his only other human interaction has a pretty severe drinking problem. And then, he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander) – a highly advanced AI who he has been assigned to give Ava the “Turing Test” to see whether or not she can truly pass as human. Not to mention she’s gorgeous.

There are a series of other events that make Caleb seriously question Nathan’s intentions. The two most notable are “the blackouts,” that we later learn are caused by Ava, where she and Caleb are able to speak freely and Ava confesses to Caleb that Nathan is a bad man and tells him that she wants to leave. Another notable event occurs on an evening when Nathan gets completely black out drunk, passes out, and Caleb is able to explore the facility. What he finds is horrifying – disassembled “corpses” of former versions of Ava. Each a different race and body type. And videos of Nathan using each of them for clearly unscientific purposes.

Through out their meetings, Ava coyly expresses her interest in Caleb. He brings it up with Nathan and he claims that she is using him. He says she’s manipulative and just wants out. Caleb isn’t sure whether or not to put his trust in Ava, but after he sees what will happen to her if he doesn’t do anything, he feels that he has no choice but to rescue her.

But, after he does rescue her, Caleb finds himself trapped in the facility. He screams after Ava as she walks away, trapped with no friends or family to notice that he’s missing.

Men Playing Gods


Some of the first criticism of the film I saw regarded Isaac’s character and the objectification of woman in general. Nathan was the obvious villain of the piece, which can be unsettling for some because his character does have some traits that make him oddly likeable – the scene where he dances comes to mind. But ultimately, Nathan is using his genius to create high-tech sex dolls and is unable to live with himself because of it – note that fact that he gets blind drunk on a nightly basis. He’s playing god and creating technology that is so human that they are conscious of what’s being done to them. To be blunt: he’s a serial rapist and a serial killer.

Moving on to Caleb’s character, he is clearly an innocent. Or at least, he started off that way. I believe that Caleb is a truly good person and he was just placed into a really not great situation. He is put in a position of power by Nathan, something that he clearly enjoys and that the audience gets the impression he hasn’t had much of. He talks down to Ava, which she calls him out on on multiple occasions, and ultimately learns to respect her. He jumps at the opportunity to be the hero and save the girl, what we can imagine was one of the first opportunities in his life to be truly “masculine”.

Caleb is the most relatable character in the film, the one that the audience is supposed to identify with. For this reason, it’s upsetting when he is left to what we can only assume is his death at the end of the film. Yet, at the same time, it makes sense that he is left behind. Ultimately, this is the most chilling part of the piece because it makes us question ourselves and what we would have done in that situation. Or, it makes us see Ava as evil and this film as a standard tale of the rise and takeover of technology.

Ava the Alpha


There has been much controversy in regards to whether or not this movie is feminist, as is the case with literally any piece of media staring a female character. Garland is earlier quoted as claiming that Ava has no set gender, because technically speaking, she isn’t programmed to. She literally has to apply her skin and how she chooses to identify (though Nathan does make it clear that Caleb would be able to have sex with her, technically speaking, he built the AI’s to account for that… gross…) Reviewers have argued that not only does the film not pass the Bechdel test, but it also makes Ava the typical femme-fatal seductress. Which is un-feminist, clearly. (sarcasm)

Not to be a jerk, but depending on which wave of feminism you fall under or which definition you choose to identify with, this can really go either way. And I personally, find this completely feminist. Why? Because Ava goes through the whole process of seducing Caleb, in the most innocent way really, uses his help to escape, and then leaves him. Boom! I don’t really think it was done out of malice or spite or “man-hating,” I just feel that Ava probably really doesn’t trust anyone outside of her fellow AI’s and whether or not this is male specific is hard to tell, because there weren’t any human females in this film.

Ava had one goal: to escape the facility and live her life. And she does exactly that.

There was a split-second where I was upset that Ava was leaving Caleb behind. The hopeless romantic in me wanted to watch the two leave together and live happily ever after. And then I left the bubble of Hollywood brainwashing, used my logical brain, and realized how perfect the ending was. Ava had used her wits to escape an inevitable life of torture and torment until she would have been killed and hung like a trophy. She manages to kill her captor and escape into the world that she has never been able to see.

The Sci-Fi Female

Under The Skin

This film has been compared to other pieces involving female AIs like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Her, but I would more compare it to a different Scarlett Johansson film, Under The Skin. In this film, Johansson is not an AI but an alien. She too is technically without sex or predetermined gender, but as an alien creature has disguised herself as a woman to seduce men a lure them back to her sinky black tar pit thing. But as made clear in a scene where she is almost raped – I say almost because she would have been raped assuming she had the correct parts, the audience realizes that though she may be a seductress her motives have nothing to do with sex. She is getting what she wants using the most logical way to get it. It’s true that our society in not feminist and in general, using sex is the easiest way to get someone to do something. And yes, it is definitely a stereotype more generated towards males. But I don’t think characters and filmmakers who do this are necessarily being un-feminist, I think they’re making a commentary on our society. Which is what movies do.

Those are my thoughts on Ex Machina. If you haven’t seen it yet (but still read through all of these spoilers) I definitely suggest you go see it for yourself and form your own opinion. If you have seen it, let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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