After passing the Turing Test, it’s time to cram for the Bechdel Test.
I was utterly mesmerized the first time I saw Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. The remote and secluded setting, the erratic tech billionaire, his haplessly earnest employee and test subject, and then finally the female android, whose strange, transparent body, which showed her wiring and components, conveyed delicacy and vulnerability rather than coldness and alienation. Alicia Vikander’s performance as the robot Ava is absorbing – she shifts convincingly from expressing curiosity about herself and human beings to confiding in the programmer assigned to interacting with her that her creator has dark designs.
The programmer Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleason, is charged by his boss, the tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to ascertain whether the android is capable of independent thought. As one might expect from past examples of erotic encounters staged between humans and robots, the experiment works so well that it ends in catastrophe. Caleb succumbs to Ava’s charms, an outcome which is revealed to be premeditated when Nathan confides to Caleb that he designed Ava’s features in accordance with his employee’s romantic preferences, as indicated by his downloads and surfing habits. Much of the controversy around the film has revolved around the eroticism associated with the female android – security footage reveals the brutal fates of the earlier models, which Nathan had apparently created for the sake of fulfilling his sexually sadistic desires.
But what makes Ava different from the other fem-bots, who destroyed themselves, or were driven to destroy themselves, from the abuse that Nathan inflicted on them? For one thing, she is a brunette, and she is white. The previous models were either blonde or East Asian. In other words, Ava might be an object of fantasy for Caleb, but she is not desired by Nathan. What kind of relationship does Nathan have with Ava? The nature of their relationship is revealed when Ava is about to set herself free from the compound. Nathan, alarmed by Ava’s attempt to grasp her freedom, tells her, almost in a sitcom tone of voice, “go back to your room!” Nathan, in creating Ava to physical specifications other than those which turn him on, becomes capable of relating to her as a parent, rather than as a lover. Nathan behaves like a jerky father to be sure, ripping up the drawing that Ava makes while Caleb is conveniently away from her room, but the film makes a point about freedom which I think has eluded reviewers like Daniel Mendelsohn, for whom sexual desire is enough to account for the motives of the tech genius – “Why does the creator create? Because he’s horny.”
It is the dream of Nathan to create an android that is fully autonomous, independent, and free. But the film recognizes that it is very difficult for us to feel such a desire toward those with whom we have sexual relations, whereas this same desire is something we feel naturally toward our children. In order to create a robot who is capable of being free, and whose freedom he can actively desire, the inventor realizes that he must regard her as a child, and not a lover. Perhaps this disordering effect of sexual desire, and the fact that possession constitutes a limit on the freedom of the other, is a lesson which has become more elusive in contemporary society, and which a great film or work of art like Ex Machina can help us in relearning.