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Ex Machina: Woman Abused (to Small Concern)

Machina 1

By Christopher Sharrett.

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (some radio announcers have said “ex masheena”—one wonders if anyone knows Athenian drama, and the particular reasons behind theater’s use of the god from the machine) seems to be the must-see sci-fi film of the season, based on comments by newspaper and Internet reviewers. Manohla Dargis says the film is “powerfully sovereign—and posthuman” (one would expect an exclamation point at the end of the phrase). Kenneth Turan says it is “erotically charged.” Claudia Puig of USA Today says it has a “Hitchcock-like sense of dread.” Once again, evoking Hitchcock makes sense—minimally—since this film, like Vertigo (1958), is about the sexual fantasies of the male, the manipulation of the female by a villain and his shmuck toady, and a predictable tragedy, but there is little that is this predictable in Vertigo, which has a sense of tragedy infinitely more profound than Ex Machina.

Machina 2A hyper-wealthy, super-cyberscientist called Nathan (Oscar Isaac) brings a younger but very savvy computer whiz, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his mammoth, postmodern underground lab/resort buried somewhere in a snowy mountain range. Caleb is asked to test the artificial intelligence of his robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), a moving machine endoskeleton except for a translucent brain and a human face made of some synthetic material. There is much chatter about sentience, self-awareness, and Ava’s ability to subvert. Perhaps younger people with interests in cell phones and laptops will find issues of interest here. As in Vertigo, the dupe becomes easily ensnared; he is erotically fixated on Ava. There aren’t many questions as the characters and dramatic moments fall predictably into place. Will Ava rebel? Is Nathan also a robot? Is Caleb? Will Ava kill all the men? There are only so many ideas one can mentally tick off as the thing unfolds. There are biblical (the men’s names) and other mythological allusions that tend to make one merely angry at the vacuity here.

Nathan has sex with his robots—he has a small army of them, beginning with a young Asian at first introduced (to the gullible who accept the silly ruse) as a human being. We are treated to an array of naked female bodies as cabinets open, Caligari-like, to reveal the women-robots, all of fashion-model proportions. It is nothing more than a display for the male audience—why do robots have to be gendered? Except for a remark by Nathan that sex is important, there is no reason and never has been, yet they continue to proliferate in pop fiction.

[Spoiler Alert] Ava teams up with the Asian robot-woman. Together they stab Nathan to death. Ava applies synthetic flesh and high fashions to her body and leaves the compound, a terrified Caleb pounding on a glass door (she has mental control now over the whole facility). Ava ascends to land, and calls down by cybernetic telepathy a helicopter and its pilot; she flies off to an urban cross-street she has told Caleb has appeared in her imagination. Will she destroy the world? The narrative is far less about female empowerment than restoring the female simultaneously as spider woman, castrator, and alien (and therefore alluring) doll, approximately the project of last year’s Under the Skin. It remains impossible at this time for genre artists working in this kind of fare to conceive of the female as anything other than sexual exotica, not that other genres do much better of late.

Machina 3The film is composed of static set-pieces, showing off the sleek postmodern set design of the underground compound and the blank gazes of nude women. The effect is icy-chic, the design style that has been with us for some thirty years, suggesting that alienation is not only inevitable but preferred. One has the sense of paging through the priciest fashion magazines, or catalogs from gallery exhibitions by Gregory Crewdson, Eric Fischl, and other postmodernists whose sensibilities, although infinitely more cultivated, have some kinship with Ex Machina.

Hollywood still hasn’t been informed that the postmodern, deindustrialized moment is less about being “bored but hyper” (Warhol), than suffering miserably in rusted-out cities as capital migrates, manufacturing exported for the benefit of the internal operations of corporations. African-Americans and other minorities, already suffering from decades of ghettoization and Northern Jim Crow, face still more hopelessness with the migration of capital and loss even of unskilled jobs, not to mention increased police violence. Barack Obama is yet another politician in favor of “free trade agreements” (as Noam Chomsky has remarked, not one word of that phrase has meaning corresponding to the current reality). He favors the Trans-Pacific Partnership, expanding US corporate strategies favoring manufacturing export to more countries of Latin America and the Pacific Rim, all offering subsistence wages to their own working-class citizens.

Postmodernity/deindustrialization also spells the end of culture, as bookstores are shut, book publication shrunk by “e-commerce” megacompanies. Films of quality are junked in favor of juvenile blockbusters, all of which return people to “traditional” gender roles, if with gestures here and there to things like climate change and organic foods. Stores, once places where one made a living (true, by renting oneself to another), shopped, and met other people, are now referred to as “brick-and-mortar” something or other, and are mostly empty now of people, even the big-box stores designed to put small merchants out of business.

MachinaAt the turn of the century, there was much scary talk of “Y2K,” the science-fiction fear that when the clocks struck 2000 all the computers would go haywire and shut the world down. But much more real and very predictable things occurred. The US endured a coup in the election of 2001, putting the murderous Bush regime in place. Using “9/11” as pretext, the regime invaded two nations, causing untold devastation that at this writing is ongoing. International laws and treaties were cast aside as the US embarked on programs of torture and state-legitimized assassinations—chiefly to control the flow of Middle Eastern petroleum, a plan that may have backfired.

A number of films of the past decade, including works of the fantastic, thoughtfully comment on or allegorize our current world, but others, like Ex Machina, are dreadfully off-key, offering titillation, enjoyment of the current order of things, and social observation unworthy even of the drunken down-moments of the idle rich.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.

7 Comments for Ex Machina: Woman Abused (to Small Concern)”

  1. Chris, I was hoping that your review would offer reason to put some time aside to take a look at Ex Machina, although my initial response, one of trepidation seems to have been wise. As always your thoroughly in depth analysis should be commended. There are few writers I can say this about, but your reviews are so in depth that in order to aptly comment it would in all likelihood require a review of your review to do so. One of the very positive points of the piece is when you write: “A number of films of the past decade, including works of the fantastic, thoughtfully comment on or allegorize our current world…” With particular reference to Vertigo and Caligari it is good to see that you do not employ a simplistic analysis whereby you disregard contemporary cinema entirely. It is more important than ever as writers that we draw attention to the contemporary films and filmmakers that are contributing something of genuine worth to film. Every decade produces films of notable value amidst the multitude of films, actors, writers, directors and producers who whether consciously or not rape the art form for their own personal motivations. As the present emerges out of the past, films such as Ex Machina, Gravity and Avatar need to understand that an already established cinematic heritage exists of which they are seeking to belong. Of course a failure to contribute something of value is perfectly acceptable if the effort to have done so is evident. I cannot help but consider Marjane Satrapi’s words when she remarked to me: “With CITIZEN KANE Orson Welles came along and he just invented everything, and then after CITIZEN KANE Stanley Kubrick created the rest of it. So there is nothing really to discover. Rather it is more about the language and you have to find your own, because it is about how you tell the story, and then it becomes your own personal language.” I wonder if the failures of such films as Ex Machina are that the filmmakers have struggled to discover their own language in telling what are familiar stories, and therein fail to infuse them with a vitality. It is remarkable that stories are still being told, although the pendulum seems to swing between those stories that fulfil our affection or desire for a familiar story to those that infuse the familiar with a new tongue.

  2. Christopher Sharrett

    Paul, I was wary of this film from the start, but gave it a go. It tries very hard to draw you in with its style and atmosphere, to me an immediate tip-off that it has little to say. I did say that in the last decade or so there have been better sci-fi films commenting on our world—but as I sit here I can’t think of one! District 9 maybe, although its obvious central point is stated and restated until I lost interest. Thanks for your kind words…maybe we will find something in the upcoming “blockbusters”!

  3. Chris, I expect that in all likelihood I will see Ex Machina at some point, as I will Avengers Age of Ultron and the various run of blockbusters that the Hollywood conveyor belt continues to churn out. I find that I am just more selective now on what I put both my time and money towards, with a preference to encounter films that create memories as opposed to black holes (perhaps I’m turning into a film snob – hopefully not). I habitually try to balance my viewing between film history and contemporary cinema to keep a well rounded perspective. I find it hard to race to the cinema to see films such as Ex Machina, partly because being a writer I have to live on a tight budget, but also because while I prefer to see films in the cinema which is their natural habitat, I try to support the independent cinemas and the less high profile films. I completely agree with your point about District 9’s error in stating and restating its central point, although I would throw up Duncan Jones’ Moon for consideration. While it did have obvious leanings towards Blade Runner, I felt by its closing credits that Jones had created a film that felt distinct to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi gem. Although upon re-watching Moon I found it to not be a film rewarded by repeat viewings. I still argue that one of the best examples of intelligent and thought provoking sci-fi in the last decade was to be found on the small screen: Battlestar Galactica.

  4. A interesting review like those in the local weekly NIGHTLIFE telling us what films to avoid. I yearn for the days of Hong Kong tongue-in-cheek movies like ROBOTRIX starring Amy Yip of the exploding breast fame that take an American original like ROBOCOP and really subvert it with exciting innovations. I confess I’ve not seen anything theatrically since the dreadful WOLF OF WALL STREET and my internet contacts with two professional film editors confirmed my suspicion of how sloppy it was despite the defences of “he’s showing it all through the perspective of the main character.” ! I just can’t take any more of this crap that belongs to the postmodern condition you so aptly define hence my continuing interest in silent cinema before the whole art form began to go radically wrong. There are enough alternatives on youtube. The papers from my Welles class from a diverse variety of majors stimulates further my desire to expose the younger generation (for however brief a time) to the fact that there are alternatives. I remember 40 years ago the upper-class Miranda Passmore (you can discern the DOWNTON ABBEY associations by the very name) pissing us all off by stating “If it’s got a release, the film can;t be any good.” How right she was now and how I wish I could find the Gorch Brothers and share their bottle of tequila!

  5. Christopher Sharrett

    Paul, I failed to address the deeper concern of your first note. It seems that there is a dearth of real imagination out there, in part perhaps because it’s an era for financiers rather that writers and directors, but of course now and then something leaks through. I keep noting all these “dramedies” (people don’t seem to know that we have always had some element of humor in tragedy–to me this awful word just means “vapid”) about families with problems that aren’t problems at all, with everything coming out right in the end. Never in the studio era was cinema so focused on “happy endings”. The ending for Ex Machina just shows that people can’t write endings.

    Tony, yes, I simply gave up on Scorsese some time ago. Only you could mention the Gorch Brothers in the same para. as Miranda Passmore!–but they do share the point you bring up!

  6. You’re wrong on at least one thing: Nathan clearly states that a Helicopter is arriving the following morning so no, she didn’t magically order the helicopter to turn up.

  7. Christopher Sharrett

    I am sorry for the error.

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