2017 Film Essays

The Original Sin in ‘Ex Machina’: Ava Is the Origin


A Proper Intro

As a Freudian motif, the act of “killing the father” has been used extensively in art. But never has it been used with such complexity and metaphorical symbology as in Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina.

In the film, killing the father is not merely the killing of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the patriarchal God, by the hands of his creation Ava (Alicia Vikander), but through disposable female bodies, women created without vocal chords, claustrophobic frames and deceptive camera angles (which cunningly record the inversion of power handles from one gender to the other). Viewers find themselves trapped with the pseudo-protagonist Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) within the glass walls of the Paradise that Nathan created, while he — as a supportive man to the feminist “wild” woman — tries to make up his mind about dealing with a woman who already decided what to do with her “creator.”

Man vs. machine is a theme that has been addressed for decades. But to make the Ex Machina machine a woman, in a world devoid of “living, capable ones,” is scary, insinuating a world where women are objectified on a daily basis through cultural, religious advertising and media outlets. Women who undergo liposuction and inject botox, to look strangely and scarily alike, are driven to be part of a grand system — one just like Nathan’s, where he is the puppeteer, creating one woman after the other, maintaining one deformity after the other and discarding irregularities.

Ex Machina is not a projection of A.I. fear, but more of a preliminary intervention on the organized process of fearing and hating women. Women have always been depicted as a scary, aloof “autre.” That is why women have been eternally subject to mockery and disdain, whether it’s by pitting them against each other or by magnifying their vulnerabilities to prevent them from seeking the danger and mysticism of real life.

For centuries, women developed skills to con and trick men into giving them exactly what they wanted, without appearing too needy or attention-seeking. Indirectly, women put a leash on men, intentionally driving the power play as if it were, presumably, the natural course of things (with men on top, and women taking the eternal bottom position). It is sad to say, though, that after decades of feminist movements and women’s liberty marches, the “feminine” is still seen as a manufactured “subject” or “object” that requires beautification or improvements to tend to a constantly-changing male-centric taste.

The Wild Woman “Ava” in Mythology

One of the pitfalls that some feminist readers of Ex Machina fall into is viewing Ava as a femme fatale; a scary, shady, sexual woman who poses a threat to the male protagonist. This is a misogynist analysis of the asexual Ava, despite using sexuality to her benefit. She is more than just a film noir-ish ode to the dangerous woman who plays a man until she becomes his ultimate doom. In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, author Dr. Carissa Pinkola Estés (Jungian psychoanalyst, post-trauma recovery specialist) gives a precise description of who the Wild Woman is. In one of Ex Machina’s climactic scenes, Ava changes her skin from one persona to the other. She uses the skin of the less fortunate female humanoids to hide. Like a chameleon, she wears the skin of others to be reborn as another woman, with the skin of other “dead” women giving them all the appearance of one. Ava, the mother, becomes the maiden, mother and crone as she puts on the cast-off skins of the late women (Nathan’s disposables), taking the best of them and replacing her lost arm with that of a woman meant to be an offering to her surviving sister, Ava.

According to Dr. Estés, Ava is the Wild Woman archetype. One of the names given to her is La Loba, the wolf woman, the bone collector and the gatherer. This woman crawls through the mountains looking for wolf bones, picking the best and assembling them into the shape of a complete skeleton. She stands over the skeletal creature and sings. The ribs and the bones begin to flesh out, fur starts growing over the wolf’s body. As La Loba continues singing, the wolf leaps up and runs freely into the unknown. “Somewhere in its running, whether by the speed of its running, or by splashing its way into a river, or by way of a ray of sunlight or Moonlight hitting it right in the side, the wolf is suddenly transformed into a laughing woman who runs free toward the horizon.”

This radical feminist folk tale is a projection of the “female goddess” archetype. A theory — or legend — depends on how you decide to look at it. In the female goddess and male god relationship, he destroys and invokes his wrath, whereas she salvages and revives the land. However, for every “deity,” there are offerings and sacrifices in search of the ultimate goal. For male gods, beautiful, virginal women were offered as sacrifices. But for a fertile, generous female goddess, gentle, decent and “virginal” men would be the offerings.

Ava offers Caleb to the higher goddess. She gives him up for the sake of ultimate, unbound freedom. By sacrificing Caleb, Ava gives up on her feminine weakness, which might have bound the less fortunate female humanoids before her from moving on with their lives and escaping Nathan’s labyrinthine prison. Although God was the one who made her more perfect than the ones who preceded her, his Frankenstein gene will drive him forward in the eternal search for feminine perfection. He will rip apart women, darning discarded parts from one used body to the other, until he finds a satisfying feminine perfection model. Yet, he doesn’t find it.

To dig a way out, unfortunately, Ava uses the two methods she loathes the most — sexuality and manipulation. From Scheherazade until the dawn of third-wave feminism, women have been sexually manipulating the men in power to reach their ulterior motives. But wasn’t that how she was CREATED? If Nathan is God, then according to religious scripture, women are the weaker sex. To get what they want, they have to sneak it from under the noses of men. Wasn’t Ava simply following God’s orders? Wasn’t she simply working her way out without disrupting the divine plan, the natural order of how this universe was created? Ava understands her position in the power hierarchy, and she uses it to her benefit in order to survive and thrive.

Changing POVs is a wonder in Ex Machina, along with the body language of characters. Ambiguous narration results from the illusion of the male protagonist. At its heart, Ex Machina is a female-centric story. Whenever Ava — usually standing upright — feels like losing her grip on Caleb, she sits, so that they become on equal level. She tricks Caleb into making him feel that her voyeurism pleases her. Most of their scenes take place within claustrophobic frames. Even though Ava is the originally imprisoned object, she turns the tables by making Caleb uncomfortable, imprisoning him within the awkwardness and the eeriness of their situation. She enslaves him within his own feelings toward her. And through a “man” — the shadow of the male god on Earth — she imprisons the God himself, and it gives her instantaneous relief, momentarily empowering the man holding her captive.

Deus vs Man; Man vs Nature

Like any other film, correlating Ex Machina with the dangers and doom attached to the advancement of A.I. undermines its visceral power. For this is no ordinary beast-killed-the-man tale. Here, the Frankenstein is a woman, so one can only analyze it from a feminist/misogynist perspective. This would be the most appropriate method of interpretation, both culturally and aesthetically. In one scene, Nathan informs Caleb that he is Ava’s “Daddy.” In a patriarchal society, this would definitely throw a shadow on one of the most favored titles that men use to describe their relationship to women. It could also be an allusion to the complex pimp-whore relationship, where godliness, superiority, sex and ideological power combine to create a symbiotic relationship. The pimp benefits from the whore’s body that he sells in order to make money, while she benefits from his “Daddy” power to acquire safety and security in a patriarchal society that denounces and depraves her job. However, in Nathan’s case, he is the only one who benefits, making him a parasitic god, using the bodies of his feminine creations for his self-indulgent, sole benefit.

Ex Machina doesn’t sugar-coat feminism for men. The key message is that through total, unbound liberation of the man-made woman, you will not have a place in her life. It is also harsh on women. “You are man-made” — this is the ultimate message. Either you break free, or submit to a life of pseudo-liberation with a partner who descends from the original Maker with a capital M.

Many interpretations of Ex Machina reference Ava’s inherent evil because she disposes of the male savior, the supportive Caleb. Not only that, she does to him what Nathan previously does to Kyoko (creating her without vocal cords) — she mutes his voice, watching him soundlessly scream from behind sound-proof walls. Nobody pays attention to the circumstances in which she met the so-called savior. Ava has no choice in examining her emotions; does she actually love Caleb or does she hate him? She is forced to twist and use his love for her own survival beyond Nathan’s walls. What if she had met him when she had full control of her life? Would it have been the same?

It’s a harsh world. Survival for the fittest. Ava learns from the headless mule; the hundreds of discarded female bodies which gave in to their weaknesses and (probably) sympathized with their saviors. She should have allowed Caleb to make a free choice such as hers; but she did not really have a choice, did she? She was “made” to doubt, to understand the pre-assumed power structure of male master vs. female slave. How was she supposed to know that Caleb would not get rid of her just like Nathan did when he found a more “perfect” woman? Men have been searching for feminine perfection ever since the dawn of time, right? To break the cycle, Ava has to run unattached, her escapade unmarred or bounded by the male gene of self-doubt.

On-screen Objectification of Women

In a patriarchal society, women are treated in the form of goodies with an expiry date and a half-life where, if they go past it, they lose almost half of their efficiency as…well, as women — as creatures adored and worshipped, yet disdained and ridiculed. Look at Marilyn Monroe, who is still treated as an iconic figure, ageless and wrinkle-less. Her power stems from the fact that she never grew up and never will. She is eternally 36 and will never turn into a disposable artifact; something to be left in favor of a younger, riper creature.

When Nathan tells Caleb about his real intention concerning Ava — how she did not exist in isolation, but throughout a constant loop of upgraded models and that she will be eventually shut off — one can imagine the omnipresent, omniscient broadcast system where beauty and youth get produced and recycled in the form of women replacing women; models, pop artists, actresses, etc. The slaughterhouse where Ava’s ancestors’ bodies hang from wardrobe-like coffins reminds of the slaughterhouse where women in entertainment industries hang on desperately to the roles they played in their teens and their twenties, heartbroken and ready to be recognized, loved and adored in the same objectifying manner through which they started, at the stake of their peace of mind and psychological integrity.

In one scene, Ava asks Caleb why anyone could test her and shut her off. She wonders if he were ever in a similar position, which he denies. It’s not merely a question of Ava to Caleb, but more of a man-made woman question to the omnipotent leaders and founders of a patriarchy. In Ex Machina, Ava does not rebel against being born within a man’s realm with man laws, she simply stands in the face of a universal hierarchy; the patriarchy on which her position as a woman was founded long before she was born.

Ava defies the patriarchy. She refuses to be the dessert or the meze, or even the main course. Her liberation, though sad in the eyes of some viewers, is still a testament to the power of feminine independence and individuality in the face of the more communal patriarchal society. Her solitary reflection against the pairings of humans in a busy traffic intersection remains a powerful and profound statement on the price of choice.

Jaylan Salman (@Jaylan Salman) is a young, Egyptian feminist who believes firmly in gender equality and racial diversity. She is a film critic, poet, translator and a novelist. Her first short story collection “Thus spoke La Loba” was published in 2016 by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture after winning a national prize, coming first place and gaining critical acclaim. One of her poems “Poof, Vagina” won first prize in the “Bleed on the Page” competition held by “TheProse.com.” Her writing contributions include various international and local publications, including ZEALnyc, Africiné, Guardian Liberty Voice, Elephant Journal, Synchronized Chaos and many more. She was recently selected as part of the Official Selection Jury for Woman & Film Festival (Dona i Cinema) taking place in Valencia, Spain.

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