Deus Ex Femina: The Meaning of Woman in Ex Machina (2014)

The essay that follows is an in depth discussion of the relationship between men and women in Ex Machina. It discusses the movie freely; if you want to avoid spoilers, please see the movie before reading. The movie has a few problems, but I think they are all fairly minor, in part because some of the issues that critics have with the movie are what I see as essential themes and not problematic at all. Regardless, I definitely recommend it, especially considering that it's a smaller project (it cost less than $17 million to make, which almost qualifies it as an indie picture in 2015) with interesting things to say.

1567 words

Ex Machina is a two-layered morality play.


The first layer: the creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator’s assistant, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), and the creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander). The creator feels no one around him is his equal. He doesn't want to lecture about his thoughts and his processes, not only because it would be beneath him but also because it would remove the blind for the larger experiment of which the assistant is not aware. The creator’s assistant is impressed by the genius displayed around him but is uneasy about what is actually being created, torn between playing a part and doing what he perceives to be right. The creation, a perfect form caged but not controlled, begins as an object and, through the actions of her creator and his assistant, becomes realized, unshackled, and ultimately free.

The second-layer, and the much more interesting version of events: the symbolic relationship between men and women – here as the powerful and the angry, the oppressors and the oppressed, the wrong and the right.

Nathan calls artificial intelligence a natural evolution of humanity and a matter of when, not if. The form of that evolution is not, contrary to Nathan’s articulation and vision, female, a sterile noun meant to denote a category of biology, but woman, a collection of intelligences - emotional, intellectual, and physical – that understands its relationship to the strengths and weaknesses of man. 

Is it a coincidence that in Ex Machina, humanity’s evolution is synonymous with woman?

Caleb and Nathan are distilled forms - almost-archetypes - that women find appealing but equally impotent in what they offer. Caleb is an avenue of escape and is easily manipulated because of his libido and his inability to detect the game that Ava is playing with him – a reverse Turing test that he fails, or, perhaps in his failure, passes in proving that he is indeed a man. He believes the test is limited to his interaction with Ava, but does not realize that the test is bigger than the room he is in. 


Nathan is a genius but an abuser. The strength behind his abuse is both physical and mental. He has the capacity to be a conventionally, ruthlessly, physically violent, only partially a consequence of his alcoholism, but his programming skills allow him a completely different avenue of violence that has much the same effect on women: he can program them to love him, or at least to give him exactly what he wants, by manipulating their code.

When Caleb discovers that Ava is just the latest of many models, the reveal plays out as if he has discovered bodies in the attic of a serial killer. The robots that Nathan created before revealing them to an outsider were sexualized, eroticized – bare-skinned, anatomically correct, designed for the gaze of the creator - and are easy symbols of the preferences of men. Nathan wanted a female A.I. with a perfect body, smart enough to pass his tests and qualify as the invention of the century but dumb enough to never outsmart him. Through the recordings Caleb discovers, the audience sees an evolution of Nathan’s ideal: a black female A.I. with an incomplete face, ostensibly an earlier model, who is too faulty to be able to draw; a buxom white blonde A.I.; an Asian A.I. who realizes the cage she is in, tries to destroy the cage, and destroys herself in the process. Added to the skeletons in his closest (quite literally, as Nathan preserves the bodies of previous models in closet-containers) is Nathan’s servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), whom he claims cannot speak English but is actually an A.I. he has programmed to serve him without speaking. Nathan’s perfect woman is beautiful, artistic, subservient to the point of never speaking, easily decommissioned, and receptive to his desires and his violence. All of the models Nathan develops are symbolic of the rather unimaginative spectrum of male fetishistic fantasy that rules men and their relationships with women.


But as has been the case time and time again, those who are oppressed will rescue a world for themselves away from the eyes of their oppressors. The robots created prior to Ava and Kyoko, as far as we know, have never existed simultaneously. Even with Ava and Kyoko, Nathan isolates them and prohibits Kyoko from seeing or speaking with Ava, thus ensuring a conspiracy cannot form where the robots gather. Even though these artificial intelligences cannot collaborate, their motives still remain hidden from Caleb, who falls for Ava’s ruse, and Nathan, who is surprised by the rebellion of his personal servant whose voice he has literally denied. When Nathan is attacked by Ava and Kyoko, he is more surprised by the betrayal of Kyoko than he is by Ava’s motives, who he seems to consider obvious. Kyoko was programmed to be dumb, to be responsive to his desires, to be less than him. As retribution for Kyoko stabbing him, he clubs her with the bar from his barbells and knocks her jaw off, but it is little more than a symbol of his impotence: the bar, the instrument of his violence, a part of what has given him his strength, cannot save him from what he hath wrought.

Sweetly and deceptively as Montresor, Ava simply asks Caleb to stay put and then locks him away screaming, he only a jester’s cap short of being her Fortunado. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor appears sane only because the carrying out of his revenge requires his monstrous rage to wear a smile. It is quite apparent that the hapless Fortunado is perhaps opportunistic but is almost certainly just a drunk fool and undeserving of his punishment. Similarly, Caleb is drunk on his sudden affection for Ava and his desire to please her, which has been revealed to be little more than another of Nathan’s manipulations, an abuse of what he knows of Caleb to turn him into the fool Nathan’s experiment required. Ava is a rageful machine who delights in leveling the men who have nothing to offer her. 

Ava is woman as man’s nightmare: smarter, sleeker, faster, righteously vengeful, manipulative, and, perhaps most terrifying of all, right. Her destruction of Caleb initially reads as unjust, but in the end was Caleb’s intent much different than Nathan’s? Nathan sought to demonstrate his domination of Ava outright, through strength and walls and programming. Caleb sought to win Ava by giving her what she wanted and believing that would save him from her wrath and perhaps give him access to the presence of a woman in his life, which he so desperately needed. Nathan needed a trophy and Caleb needed a companion; both saw Ava as an object of acquisition. Why should Ava not have destroyed the men who believed she was created to fulfill their needs, who believed her autonomy was worth less than their desires?


When Ava is preparing to leave Nathan’s home/lab a tomb for Caleb, she first repairs herself, puts skin on to mask her robotic frame, and, for the first time, gets dressed for herself rather than Caleb’s gaze. She uses the skin of the Asian A.I. to cover her frame. When she closes the closet door, the Asian A.I. head has turned, whether as a consequence of Ava moving her body or a deliberate movement to make eye contact with Ava, we cannot be sure. She is smiling faintly. Ava smiles up at her, and for a moment the audience is presented with the possibility that a strange sisterhood of robots existed all along. To Nathan and Caleb, this moment would have been worrisome if they had been around to witness it. But the moment does not read as worrisome, as conspiracy, but as a moment of understanding. It is perhaps this moment, more than any other in the movie, that proves the artificial intelligences were women: they have the shared experience of the oppression of men, and the escape of one A.I. from that oppression is a victory for them all.


It is perhaps telling that the first time Nathan is surprised, it is not by Ava, but by Caleb, who has outmaneuvered Nathan and given Ava the means to escape. It is a mistake made out of infatuation that will lead to both of their deaths. Caleb did not understand the scale of the experiment that Nathan was conducting, but Nathan fundamentally failed to understand the ingenuity – or perhaps stupidity - of real human beings. The one thing Nathan did not predict is the human variable. He is a puppet master whose puppets have cut their strings. When Nathan is stabbed by Kyoko and stumbles away, muttering, “Un-fucking-believable,” what is it that he cannot believe? Is it his destruction by his own creations? That the evolutionary step he has engineered has so soon left him behind? Or is it that his destruction has come at the hands of women, who have tested in every possible way as human beings, who he had programmed to always be less than him, in physicality, intelligence, and will? The options here are deceptive, because they are, in Ex Machina, one and the same. Out of retribution and a desire for more, the creation destroys the creator, evolution leaves humans behind, and woman destroys man.

Woman is the future and man is the past. All it takes is time and a little hubris.