Does Ex Machina Have a Woman Problem, or Is Its Take on Gender Truly Futuristic?

Alicia Vikander and Alex Garland on the set of 'Ex Machina.' Photo: Universal Pictures

The chair was plush, tall, and regal. It was the kind of throne you could sink into and never want to get up from, and it was quickly rejected by Alex Garland.

“Too comfortable,” he said, eyeing that chair like an enemy.

We were in an anodyne Four Seasons conference room searching for a place to sit down and discuss Garland’s provocative new film, Ex Machina, and a soft perch simply didn’t seem fitting. Eventually, we landed on two stiff-backed chairs — the dingy, floral-upholstered kind that hotels stack in bulk — and spent the next half-hour sitting on the edge of them, locked in spirited debate.

Over the next few weeks, I expect many more people will join the conversation. Ex Machina has been a bona fide blockbuster in limited release, taking in over $1 million while playing on no more than 39 screens, and an aggressive nationwide expansion is planned for this Friday. The movie’s stars, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, are not yet household names (though they’ll both be seen in the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens), but the sense of mystery around them suits Ex Machina, where Isaac plays Nathan, a wealthy, eccentric inventor who invites office drone Caleb (Gleeson) to examine his latest invention, a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is imbued with a sophisticated brain and a beguiling female form, and as Caleb tests Ava for signs of artificial intelligence, the teasing Nathan also endeavors to push Caleb’s buttons; meanwhile, Ava is sizing up both her creator and visitor, and a mysterious agenda starts to form behind those almost-human eyes.

Ex Machina’s characters thrive on challenging each other, and audience members will surely find themselves tested, too: Underneath its smooth surface, the film is packed with the kind of potent, thorny themes designed to keep people arguing on their way out of the theater. “My express intention is to make an ideas movie, and it is deliberately setting up questions — not all of which have answers,” Garland told me, rattling off just a few of those provocative prompts: “Where does gender reside? Is it in the brain? Is it in appearance, a physical thing? If it is in the brain, what is the difference between a male consciousness and a female consciousness? And is it in any way a reasonable thing to say that there might be a difference?”

He leaned back in his chair. “Now, of course, I'm not stupid: I know that even by posing the question, I'm in a sort of danger zone. But film is a medium that has such a hard pushback against asking difficult questions, and I just don't want to play that game.”

Still, he may have to. The very premise of Ex Machina sets up a battle of the sexes that has quickly proved to be controversial: As Caleb examines Ava, he begins to fall in love with her, and he’s increasingly horrified by the notion that Nathan is keeping this feminine creature as his prisoner and potential sex slave. Certainly, men don’t come off so well in the movie, which links their desire to create with the more primal male desire to procreate: In other words, it posits that the tech-bros who are driven to design humanlike robots may be thinking less with their brains and more with their ... well, you know. It’s Ex Machina’s treatment of women, though, that has already spurred the most think pieces. After catching the film at its South by Southwest premiere, Daily Beast journalist Jen Yamato tweeted, “We'll just talk about Ex Machina's woman problem a little bit later”; not long after, Wired’s Angela Watercutter laid into the movie’s sexualized “fembot,” asking, “Why doesn’t Chappie have to put up with this bullshit?”

The male characters in Ex Machina are blinkered and sexist in the way they relate to Ava (who's presented to both Caleb and the audience as a tantalizing mystery), but does their mere portrayal imply that the filmmaker approves of their actions, even unwittingly? It’s a notion that needles Garland, who understands all too well that a story designed to make you feel many things can be read by some as intending only one thing.

“Sometimes it's frustrating, but I do expect it and anticipate it consciously,” said Garland, who made his directorial debut with Ex Machina but was previously best known for his novels and screenplays. Garland’s first published book, The Beach, was turned into a 2000 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and somewhere along the way, the author first learned that his message could easily get lost in translation. “The Beach takes this semi-affectionate but really quite critical view of backpackers, basically saying that southeast Asia is being used as a magic mushroom, weed-fueled Disneyland for people in their late adolescence and early 20s,” said Garland. “And while some backpackers saw it as a criticism, some others saw it as a celebration ... and actually, the kind of celebration it was sometimes seen as was mutually exclusive with the position that I thought it took.”

But Garland will still allow for that wiggle room. “Let’s say 50 percent of a narrative is offered by the person providing the narrative,” he suggests, “and 50 percent is from the recipient of the narrative: what they project, what they want, their own life experience, what they're interested in.” If that’s the case, then my own 50 percent is certainly different than Ex Machina's critics, because I found the movie’s portrayal of gender to be bracingly modern and even poignant. To me, Ava read as post-gender, her circuits whirring underneath a body she’s been placed into but feels skeptical of. At the same time, she’s still just as hemmed in by male expectations as any real human woman would be: Kept imprisoned by Nathan in his remote hideaway, Ava is born into a literally patriarchal system that measures her worth based on how men respond to her, and it’s up to her to either exploit that system or learn how to circumvent it. When she dons a feminine wig and pours herself into a dress, she’s gauging her physical impact on Caleb; alone in her bedroom, the androgynous android studies images of other women that Nathan has provided, forming her notions of sexuality from the magazine cutouts and advertising images that are literally placed in front of her.

When I ventured that interpretation to Garland, he nodded — at least at first. Gray at the temples with a soft English accent, the 40-something filmmaker parried with me like an agreeably combative college professor, rebutting each question with an implicit challenge to confront him in a more meaningful way. As soon as I mentioned the patriarchy, then, I could tell he was off and running.

“The patriarchy — which is a buzzword at the moment, for all sorts of completely good reasons — does not interest me,” he replied, “because I'm not interested in things that, to me, feel self-evident. Yes, I get that it exists. It's like the objectification of girls in their early 20s: Yes, I get it, it happens.”

“Isn't that casual dismissal of the patriarchy an easy stance for a straight man to take, though?” I asked.

“No, it's just a statement of fact,” said Garland. “Underneath the film is a basic thing: to what extent does one establish or fail to establish what is going on in someone else's head? In the case of Ava, you have a man who's tasked with figuring out what's going on in this thing's head, and at a certain point, that's exactly what he stops doing. Why does he stop doing it? And if he stops doing it, does the audience also stop doing it? Do men stop doing it, but women continue doing it? Or do both men and women stop doing it?
“Now, that's what I'm interested in,” he continued. “That's exactly where I'm tailoring my thought processes. I could tailor it to the patriarchy, but I'm personally not interested in it. That's not a straight guy dodging a bullet … [the patriarchy is] fucking there. We could spend a while talking about it, but at the end of it, we'd both just agree that it's there.”

In fact, Garland was keen on advancing an even more provocative idea: “I would argue that if you reverse the genders in this film, you'd have a misogynistic movie. Imagine it, picture it in your mind: You have two women creating, imprisoning these male-seeming machines, and doing all the things that the guys do in the reverse example. I would expect that it could read as misogyny in the way that this incarnation could be read as misandry.”

I ventured another dissent: "Would that gender-flipped version be read as misogynistic simply because we're not used to seeing two female characters as complicated as the ones that Isaac and Gleeson play?"

“No, I think it would just be in the evidence of creating these himbos," he said. "No, it doesn't need to be contextualized by society in that way. That's a sort of get-out clause.”

He brought up a scene in the film where Caleb stumbles upon the dismembered remains of Nathan’s earlier androids — heads, breasts, and legs, all discreetly hidden in the mad inventor’s bedroom. “Put it this way,” said Garland. “Is the film inviting you to approve of a semicircle of cabinets containing sections of the opposite gender?"

I laughed, but Garland stared at me, dead serious. "It's not a rhetorical question," he said.

I conceded the obvious: Those cabinets full of lady parts were not a good look. He leaned back again. “Now, I don't need to contextualize it in the history of science-fiction tropes to make that fucking point.”

Alone with Garland in this hotel room, it struck me that we were very much like Caleb and Nathan, arguing with each other about our own interpretation of Ex Machina’s central mystery woman. (And I’d concede that the spectacle of two men treating Ava like a Rorshach blot may lend some credence to the film’s critics.) But though Garland advanced his points with cool confidence, doubt began to creep into his voice near the end of our interview.

“I'm being sort of unwittingly elliptical about this, and I don't mean to be elliptical. I think there's value in asking the questions,” he said. “What you're doing is you're articulately — and pretty accurately — going down a line of questioning that goes to the heart of some of this stuff, and goes to the heart of what I worry about. There are some things out there that are really bad, and I don't want to be one of the group of people who are making it worse.”

And that creates a conundrum for Garland: By contextualizing his provocations, he risks diluting their power. “It's very difficult to talk about this candidly,” said Garland, his brow furrowed. “I'm really worried that I'm trying to back-load or front-load the film, and the film should exist on its merits.”

I assured him that it did stand alone — that even beyond the ideas smuggled into it, Ex Machina worked smashingly as a dramatic thriller, and would be regarded by most as a well-shot, satisfyingly ambitious directorial debut. He rustled in his chair.

“But that's not good enough,” he said, still utterly uninterested in comfort. “Because you could beautifully make a cake that tastes like shit.”