She’s Just Not That Into You: “Ex Machina” and Feminism in Sci-Fi

“Ex Machina” is a successful science fiction film currently in wide release about feminism. And that is really, really, really important.

The basic premise of the film is that reclusive genius Nathan (played by the brilliant Oscar Isaac) invites Caleb to his mountaintop house/lab, where Nathan convinces him to conduct tests with Ava, an artificially intelligent female.

Stills from "Ex Machina." Photo Credit: rottentomatoes.com
Stills from “Ex Machina.”
Photo Credit: rottentomatoes.com

The film is written and directed by a very talented man named Alex Garland, which some might hail as a red flag. It’s risky for a man to make a film about women, especially when it’s getting a release for the masses and would require a decently sized budget. Yet Garland incorporates his message seamlessly and necessarily into the story.

By turning the film’s premise on its head over the course of two hours, “Ex Machina” changes from male power fantasy – there are plenty of allusions to the male characters as God, right down to the title – to a story about humanizing females without ever turning it into a revenge fantasy.

Garland also manages to pull off a rather impressive feat; instead of just resigning the male characters in the film caricatures, he creates empathy for them from the audience, which he uses to propel the story along for much of the film. By framing the audience within the mindset of two characters who in their own surprising and subtle ways both objectify Ava.

“Ex Machina” has been accused of “third-act problems,” and the film’s finale isn’t exactly surprising. But honestly, it shouldn’t be. The themes of humanity and feeling versus mechanics and calculation are set up so brilliantly, from the sessions between Caleb and Ava to the spontaneous dance number in the middle of the film. The latter might just end up one of the best scenes in any film this year. When the ending rolls around, what might have been an ordinary machines against creators fables take on an added dimension, as it becomes clear that the creators are geeky insecure misogynist men and the machines are the women they’ve been stuffing into my outdated, selfish, dehumanizing gender roles.

When the film is then placed within the context of science fiction, a genre which had previously relegated females to reductive character tropes (i.e. damsel in distress, virgin whore, machine) under the guise of “droids” and other mechanical terms, “Ex Machina” becomes groundbreaking. The cruel joke of misogynistic science fiction is that female artificial intelligence operates often as a fantasy for men who wish that women were calculated, definable, and universally categorizable. Of course, true artificial intelligence, like women, can’t be sorted numerically, through algorithms and data processes.

Consciousness and humanity are unpredictable and are almost impossible to oppress, try as hard as some might. When “Ex Machina” turns the tables by following exactly the same story beats as so many science fiction stories before it, the film is actually just subverting every horrid ideology that underlines the worst of the genre.

Stills from "Ex Machina." Photo Credit: rottentomatoes.com
Stills from “Ex Machina.”
Photo Credit: rottentomatoes.com

In the light of GamerGate, the genuinely toxic movement to allow sexism in video games and comic books, “Ex Machina” is a ray of hope. Here is a film that’s brutally intelligent, visually stunning, with interesting characters and a well-built world and consistent “reality” within that world. It’s everything that fans love about science fiction.

It’s also a nuanced and subversive film around feminism written and directed by a man who not only crafts an all around flawless film on the most tangible level. It’s all pieced together to create a piece of entertainment with a strong social message that is neither heavy-handed or propagandic. In other words, “Ex Machina” is a masterpiece.