So, I saw Ex Machina today. And it was an okay film: I’m slightly surprised by the number of people hailing at as one of the best science fiction films in recent memory, with insta-classics like Looper, District 9, and Moon on the proverbial radar, but sure, it was fine.
Following the story of twenty-someting coder Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) after he’s invited to the home of reclusive tech genius Nathan (an electric Oscar Isaac), the plot revolves around Caleb’s interactions with Nathan’s latest creation: a high-functioning robot called Ava (played by an otherworldly, nuanced, slightly calculating Alicia Vikander). Nathan encourages Caleb to conduct a kind of Turing test to establish the validity of the AI he’s created, and Caleb finds himself drawn to the intelligent and beautiful Ava. Predictable shenanigans ensue.
I don’t want to talk about the actual plot of the film, because there wasn’t much there that hasn’t been explored before. I want to talk about the gender roles present in Ex Machina, because that’s probably the most interesting part of the whole film: Isaac’s Nathan literally bulges with muscles and masculinity and sexual virility, while Gleeson is his nervous, baby-faced counterpart. And in the middle of them is Ava; half beautiful woman and half visible machine, she’s both alluring and off-putting, both an actor and the acted upon.
The film did piss me off quite a bit with the sheer amount of uncalled for female nudity shown on-screen (the award for the science-fiction movie with most landing strips goes to…) especially when compared to the amount of male nudity we got (none). There’s no doubt that writer-director Alex Garland was critiquing the male ego (Isaac sees himself as an infallible God figure who creates and literally discards women as he needs them, while Domnhall Gleeson swings in as a white-knight saviour for Ava. Both, ultimately, fail) in Ex Machina, but it begs the question: where’s the line between gratuitous and necessary nudity in a film with these kinds of gender-based themes?
By showing a bunch of female nudity, Garland puts himself in a difficult position. He’s both inviting us to question the way that these women-robots are portrayed, used and viewed by the men in the film, and inviting us to ogle them along with his leading characters. The camera lingers voyeuristically on ex-ballet dance Vikander’s naked body when she covers herself in skin for the first time, while the fully-nude bodies of other female robots- deactivated, sterile, dead- line the cupboards behind her. Kyoto, the subservient robot that Nathan keeps around the house for sex and housework, drapes herself naked on Caleb’s bed. And the problem with it isn’t that nudity should be censored entirely; it’s that, by showing this nudity, Garland isn’t actually adding much to the film. If he’d implied the nudity, it would have been just as powerful and effective. In a film without a great deal of violence but with very adult themes and ideas, nudity seems to be the go-to to earn this a “grown-up” status. If the movie had been balanced with more male nudity, it might have at least made more sense- as Russel T Davies recently pointed out, we’re kind of squeamish about films and TV shows that show penises in all their glory-but by making the nudity solely focused on female characters, it undermines some of the interesting things it has to say about gender and sexuality.
I think what it comes down to is that the nudity didn’t actually add anything to the plot. Sure, Alicia Vikander is a beautiful young woman, and her naked body is a lovely sight, but showing it didn’t bring any new dimension to her character that wasn’t already covered. And that went for all the female characters who went naked in the film: their nakedness was there, at best, to supplement character points that had been established well enough earlier on and at worst, for apparent titillation.
I’m not going to outright accuse Ex Machina of sexism, because I actually don’t think it was a sexist film; on the contrary, it had a lot of quite nuanced ideas about sexuality and how we perceive it buried amongst the standard sci-fi fare. I think the problematic side of it came down to an inability to deploy nudity in an impactful way, in a way that developed and added something to it’s characters. And nudity for nudity’s sake- in a film that was, in a lot of ways, an adult, thematically relevant, and intelligent picture- doesn’t make anyone look like more of a grown-up.
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