Ex Machina: Too many tits

I have a little note on my phone where I list noteworthy or recommended films I have been meaning to see, so that on a vegging-out evening I can go straight into Netflix and decisively click something from my list rather than scroll through thousands of Adam Sandler comedies not knowing what to cram into my tired eyes. This is how I ended up watching Ex Machina. It has incredible review scores, has won Oscars, has a very tasteful Netflix thumbnail and most importantly contains all the things I hope for from a film: robots, futuristic techy stuff, lush panoramas of natural landscapes, and British actors doing good American accents.

I guess Ex Machina deserves to be called a tour de force, or whatever. It’s a very slick, well-made film, with great acting and gorgeous cinematography and a bloody amazing futuristic house which may as well be credited as the main character in the film just in terms of sheer screen presence. The basic premise of the film, in case you haven’t seen it, is that some groovy Elon Musk type dude has invented a kind of super-advanced artificial intelligence which he now wants an ‘average Joe’ to try out to see if the AI makes a convincing human personality – a 3D Turing test, in essence. It’s a clever film about real versus simulated consciousness, human versus simulated social connection, and whether it is possible to be cruel to an artificial person. It’s clever and good. It is. It is. So why can’t I stop thinking about it with simmering annoyance?

If I had read that brief summary from the previous paragraph in any paper or on any website, I would have immediately assumed that the AI has been programmed to be a coy nubile woman personality. Because of course. Of course. In the future, films tell us, masculine robots are soldiers and assassins and occasionally hyperintelligent but completely sexless servants. But feminine robots are always coy; they always have a dinky little silicon skirt or a dominatrix kindof vibe or just cock their aluminium head to one side to ask the main character: ‘But Mr Spamberton – what is love?’ If a dude in a film is there to find out if he can get on with a super-intelligent robot, she has to be a lovely lady robot. Where would be the fun in him talking to a guy robot? Or an agender robot? Because then you wouldn’t be able to write in a hackneyed story about the man and the robot falling for each other BUT IS IT REALLY LOVE BECAUSE SHE IS ONLY PROGRAMMED TO BEHAVE THAT WAY. I guess we’re meant to find the whole thing intriguing and a bit Her but their interactions are so limp and joyless that their ‘attraction’ to each other feels awkwardly jammed into the story like a shitzu forced to wear a tiny little quilted dog-gilet. But that’s the story we got.

And then that of course means that you can fill your film chock-full of tits. Gorgeous naked women lounging around on couches or hanging up in electronics workshops or simply regarding their aureolas in a mirror with a blank expression as if their jugs are some kind of portal to human sentience. The robots don’t care that they’re naked; they’re just robots, and to them it’s the same as having a USB port or cooling fan vent on display. So it’s fine guys, it’s not voyeurism and actually it makes our film very arty and cool. But also, a little bit: phwoar.

To be fair, the film tries to absolve itself of this by making it clear that the robot maker man is a total douche who delberately makes his robots sexy women both to fulfil his own sexual fantasies but also because of some questionable existential theory that human consciousness is only convincing when shaped in some way by gender. We, the audience, are encouraged to see all these vignettes of gorgeous naked women presenting themselves to the camera as tasteful depictions of nudity brought about by the mild sexism of the film’s antagonist.

Still. Have you heard of ‘lampshading’? This is a term used to describe the pernicious way that writers get to have their cake and eat it too by including a discriminatory joke in their media and then make it clear that we are all meant to laugh at the character who made the joke for being such a racist/sexist/homophobe/etc. It is an ingenious tactic because you can still get a huge laugh for a joke that usually wouldn’t be acceptable in modern mainstream entertainment, and then you get a second laugh which also allows you and your audience to feel absolved of any guilt we might ought to feel for the first laugh because hey guys, we’re laughing at racism here. For example, character A might say ‘Honey, why do you need to buy a new pair of shoes when you only need to wear your slippers in the kitchen?!’ and character B might say ‘Oh foo, Stanley!’ and we all have a good chuckle twice. Watch this excellent video by Pop Culture Detective for a fascinating dive into lampshading in The Big Bang Theory.

You see, if you claim that all the robots are gorgeous naked women because their maker was a misogynistic perv, that may be the case in terms of the story – but the fact remains that it gives you, the filmmaker, a chance to show this stuff. To make the aesthetic of your film oscillate between sumptuous nature shots, beautiful static scenes of the fancy future house, and creepy, stalkerish footage of vulnerable-looking and/or naked women, often shown on CCTV to really amp up the voyeurism factor. However you choose to narratively excuse it, the eye sees what it sees and the viewer is given a visual treat. There are no gorgeous naked men in this film. No man is being objectified; but the women are posited as literal objects, so that’s totally fine.

It is such a demeaning, demoralising masterpiece. It is so disappointing to sit for two hours watching a woman’s physical desirability being leveraged as a plot point with the surface excuse being that it is a sharp analysis of the nature of artificial intelligence and the fragility of human uniqueness. It is so tiring to watch another film full of bland, beautiful women, the camera lovingly stroking up their thighs and neckline, while the men have discussions and fights and dinner.

And ultimately it is a huge wasted opportunity. The idea of a face-to-face human Turing test is nerd-movie GOLD and it could have been made awesomely – it could have been funny and clever and ingenious and really make people think about the new ethics we will need to consider when we start getting closer to creating simulated consciousness ourselves. But no one can make that film now, because the film that was made was this one, and it ends with a beautiful lady, now no longer a robot since she has put on a long wig and a gorgeous dress and – inexplicably – 8-inch heels, wandering outside and marvelling at the sights of the woodland and the blue sky, looking like a lady in a hayfever relief drug commercial.

I dunno guys, I guess I’m just tired. I’m aggravated that the films I watch are full of eye-candy for the men and no eye-candy for us. I’m baffled that this counts as Oscar-worthy, and my dork self is furious that we wasted a good robot film on this weak-ass plot.

Rose T

Jill of all trades: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, web designer, craft maniac

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