Editor’s note: Review contains major spoilers. Tread lightly.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina initially paints coder Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) as the film’s protagonist. He wins the opportunity to research with his employer, the self-isolated scientist Nathan (Oscar Issac). Tension centers on his role as the human component of the Turing Test, examining the consciousness of the artificial life form Ava (Alicia Viklander). However, when audiences witness unraveling realities through sensory manipulation and layered dialogue, Garland reveals his greatest illusion: that this was never Caleb’s story to tell. Ava serves as the protagonist of Ex Machina with her tale of reclaiming feminine agency. Both Caleb and Nathan’s phallocentric motivations force Ava to perform hypersexualized behavior to determine her inherent value. Her actions appear to reinforce traditional gender norms, but structured shots and dialogue indicate a subversion of this accepted reality. Ava’s story portrays a captive securing independence from the male narrative. As a result, Caleb and Nathan become the antagonists as symbols of an archaic patriarchal mindset.
Understanding gender roles in Ex Machina requires acknowledging its roots in literature. The film draws inspiration from Pygmalion, the myth of the sculptor who creates an ivory woman. This myth reveals traditional representations of feminine beauty, including sexual purity, servitude, and restricted agency. In this context, Nathan manifests both Pygmalion and Venus, creating Ava and molding her as Caleb’s love interest. Ex Machina deconstructs the myth by demonstrating Nathan’s violence on women while pursuing the typical male fantasy. Toward the film’s conclusion, Caleb reviews Nathan’s archived footage of previous prototypes, built as voluptuous women. Nathan strips these robots of their agency by detaining them naked and decommissioning them following rebellion. The lifeless bodies then hang in his bedroom closet as example of his domination. Featuring the prototypes naked exposes Nathan’s primary motivation; he does not seek technological advancement, but the fulfillment of his erotic desire. He imposes these fascinations largely on his robotic companion Kyoko. Her dress, no doubt provided by Nathan, elicit connections to the common male fantasy of the Japanese schoolgirl. Her stylized hip movements and forward gestures inform her sole function to satiate his sexual desires. Nathan further dehumanizes Kyoko by programming her as mute, leaving her unable to verbally express her restricted existence. Even if audiences question robotic consciousness, Nathan’s atrocities are unsettling to watch on screen. His actions detail entrenchment of the patriarchal mindset through direct violence against women. Misogyny taints his achievements by reducing into physical objects for erotic consumption.
With Nathan as the antagonist, Caleb becomes protagonists and savior, rescuing the beautiful Ava from potential decommission. Garland subtly shifts this perspective by paralleling Caleb’s own objectifications with Nathan’s misogyny. Caleb employs a similar power dynamic, revealed during his first session with Ava. In this scene, he witnesses Ava emerge in profile and shrouded in shadow. Dimmed lighting removes Ava’s unique features and reduces her to the feminine form. This bodily introduction intensifies when she steps into the light to reveal her synthetic skeleton. Its featureless quality echoes the ivory skin of Pygmalion’s statue, casting her within the ideal of feminine beauty. Ava’s skin echoes a blank slate for Caleb to imprint his personal desires later in the film. Despite the intention of the Turing Test to analyze artificial consciousness, Caleb becomes entranced with the body the same way Nathan lusts for Kyoko. Scenes with him watching Ava through security camera perpetuate these feelings. The camera serves as a method for Caleb to observing her at her most vulnerable. Garland positions these scenes to show Caleb looking down at Ava through the camera, physicalizing their unequal power dynamic. The film often juxtaposes shots of Ava’s undressed form and Caleb’s bodily reactions during these scenes, showcasing his growing sexual desire. In addition, Caleb’s examinations accentuate his assumed dominance over Ava. His questioning ironically strips Ava of humanity by eliciting answers within the frame of male judgment. His projection of Ava as the feminine ideal fuels a subconscious misogyny that, if left unacknowledged, becomes almost more dangerous than Nathan’s actions described above.
At this point, the film appears to reinforce traditional gender roles. This is only true if we view Caleb as the protagonist. The film reveals Ava as protagonist who overcomes her imprisonment by establishing independent agency. She displays subversion throughout the film in way of dialogue and reactions, not fully prominent until the film’s conclusion. Dialogue allows Ava to equalize the power dynamic between her and Caleb. An excellent example of verbal subversion occurs during her second session with Caleb. During their conversation, she echoes the line “I’m interested to see what you’ll choose,” in reference to her answers. Caleb mistakes her line for humor, but Ava engages in a similar act of observation. She transforms Caleb into the object of analysis, vulnerable under Ava’s perceptive gaze. Ava listens without divulging complete judgment, retaining independence by not disclosing every opinion to male judgment. In a subsequent session, Ava asks Caleb “what happens when I fail your test?” The word ‘your’ not only refers to Caleb, but also to the phallocentric examination that places priority in physical attributes. Using the word ‘your’ in the context of inclusion links Caleb with the larger atrocities conducted at Nathan’s research facility. She comprehends the grey shading of misogyny and marks this as her largest obstacle toward freedom.
Ava’s reactions to external circumstances help expose her status as captive. Some critics may point to Ava exploiting her sexuality as means of escape, emulating the femme fatale stereotype. However, this theory only holds true if Caleb remained the protagonist. The film argues Ava’s exploitation as a natural reaction for survival. Her environment, molded by Caleb and Nathan, herald the power of manipulation. She must perform for these male motivations, which the movie argues as purely physical, to ensure success and potential freedom. Unlike the femme fatale who enjoys manipulating others, Ava does not subscribe to these ideals. A key scene detailing this notion occurs when Nathan has Caleb watch a security feed of him ripping Ava’s drawing. Without sound, the feed appears as a declaration of love, but added conversation shows intent of manipulation to stage an escape. Nathan’s body language reveals him as the aggressor, despite attempting to expose Ava’s guided influence. He conquers above her at the table, reminding audiences of Nathan’s desire to enforce his patriarchal views. One important line frames Ava’s forced complicity: “is it strange to have made something that hates you.” She rejects the ideals Nathan puts forward in his ‘teachings,’ but must perform his expectations for fear of decommission. Even as a supercomputer, she understands her limited options and must discover ways to strategically position herself into dominance.
Ava finally establishes dominance in the final half hour of the film. Cinematography deconstructs the false reality of conservative gender structures that help Ava reclaim agency. The most prominent scene happens when Ava constructs her body from the skin of previous prototypes. After killing Nathan by stabbing—the penetrative action resonating his hypermasculinity—she leaves a wounded Caleb in the lab and retreats into Nathan’s bedroom. She opens the closet to find the prototypes and layers their skin onto her synthetic skeleton. Ava watches her slow composition in the mirrors surrounding her, echoing Paradise Lost with Eve looking at her reflection in the pond. The camera zooms on different parts of Ava’s body during this scene, conjuring the image of the fragmented woman in literature. Ava conducts these practices independent of the male gaze, as the camera follows her own perspective. Her naked reflection symbolizes rebirth of a body untouched by male desire. She completes her transformation by leaving Caleb locked away in the research facility. While some viewers will interpret her act as that of male hatred, this near-sighted view conceals an important message of the film, one that preaches the need to evolve beyond societal gender constructs. As she stands amongst the shadows of passing people in some unknown city, Ava can remove herself from an identity simulating an older society and engage in actively moving society forward.