The Underlying Feminist Symbolism in ‘Ex Machina’

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A most glorious Tuesday, with a highly anticipated film, half-price tickets, an assortment of munchies, and wonderful company – all while stoned out of my mind.

I pass through the doors into the darkness of the theatre, not knowing quite what to expect yet looking forward to it all the same, by virtue of the science-fiction premise and promising graphics.

The audience is introduced to three characters. Caleb Smith, the lucky lottery winner, well-versed in science and logic. Nathan, the brilliant yet eccentric founder of the world’s most powerful search engine. And Ava, the innocent yet omniscient A.I. – a stunning, doe-eyed manifestation of the Internet.

Yet they are not alone within the confines of the subterranean research facility. In the first morning, a tall and slender female of Asian ethnic background enters Caleb’s room. She places a tray of breakfast on the table, and turns and leaves with neither word nor eye contact. Mellow, cannabis-enhanced contentment is interrupted and I am left as disoriented as our protagonist, newly awake in bed: what was that about?

In the following scene, the only information we are given of the woman is that her name is Kyoko, and that she makes “some alarm clock”; a description coupled with a look heavy with sexual suggestion. Kyoko is next seen over dinner, during which we learn that she does not speak English. Her function is to bring food and to clean – all the while with bowed head and silence.

The perfect, mute housekeeper and, as we discover in a later scene, sex toy. A domestic slave with no prospects beyond the personal gratification of another and with no shared language or means of self-expression.

This is either going to perpetuate gender-specific objectification, I thought, mouth filled with chips and eyes glued to the screen, especially of visible minorities. Or somehow turn it around and make social commentary on sexism.

I believe it was the latter, and that it was delivered with exquisite finesse; an allegory of female emancipation to rival Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

From the outset of the film, we become acquainted with the seeming protagonist. Caleb the eager visitor, Caleb the orphan, Caleb the advanced coder with a self-professed penchant for high-level abstraction. Moral Caleb, who grows visibly uncomfortable with the demeaning treatment of others; sensitive Caleb, who grows to question his own humanity in the presence of anthropomorphic machines.

It is through Caleb that we experience the familiar yet extraordinary – and at times unsettling – setting. It is through his perspective that the plot’s tension is built; through his eyes that the audience feels suspicion and a sense of displacement. Whom should we trust, the erratic genius struggling within the grips of alcoholism, or the non-human?

Caleb’s choice leads to a satisfying twist, unveiling an epic battle of wits between the two men. Yet the twist in plot is further contorted as the lady love dresses in preparation for a new life – and leaves our hero behind.

Caleb is the false protagonist. He is the deus ex machina, whose unexpected appearance provides the means to resolve a seemingly impossible situation; he is Ava’s means of acquiring the ultimate form of recognition as a sapient being with a mind, with hopes and fears and desires of their own – freedom to live life on their own terms.

It was her story all along.