Before we get started: Ex Machina is a great, haunting film but one that pivots on a number of twists. It’s going to be impossible to talk about this story without mentioning those twists, so consider this your official spoiler warning.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a gorgeous, subtle and powerful movie about what it means to be human, the nature of intelligence and the hubristic desire for man to transcend his limitations and to become a god.
It’s also an interesting example of the conflict between two different, yet equally toxic forms of masculinity. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan and Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb both represent opposing forms of manhood – a yin and yang of manhood that orbit around around Alicia Vikander’s Ava. In both cases, their idea of manhood forms the lens through which they see the world and, ironically enough, leaves both of them blinded to the truth. And that blindness ends up dooming them all.
The Alpha Male
Nathan presents an interesting contrast to the traditional idea of the reclusive genius. Considering that Ex Machina’s fictional company Bluebook is intended to be evocative of both Google and Facebook, one might be forgiven for expecting a weedy, hoodie-sporting socially disconnected geek or an eccentric older man. Instead, our first view of Nathan – as seen through the eyes of programmer/test subject Caleb – Nathan is outside in shorts and a muscle-tee, pounding away at a heavy bag on his porch. Instead of the 98 lb weakling we’re half-expecting, we see a powerfully built, athletic man.
He defies what we expect a nerd to look like, especially a coding genius; he’s more Tony Stark than Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. He’s a hard-working, hard-partying bro who may love to code, but loves booze and babes in equal measure. He oozes high-testosterone – from his impressive biceps, down to the bushy beard and shaved head. From his billions of dollars, his manly body, gorgeous live-in assistant/fuck-toy and position as a god of computing, Nathan is like a Frankensteinian creation that a STEM-loving Red Pill follower would build in a lab.
And he acts the part as well. Part of the point of being an Alpha Male is to maintain that status at all costs – and Nathan goes out of his way to remind Caleb of who’s in charge. Despite his friendly, “we’re-all-just-bros-here” demeanor, Nathan continually reasserts his status over Caleb in both subtle and overt ways. Overtly, Caleb is dependent on Nathan’s largess and hospitality for his comfort and survival. After all they’re in the middle of dog’s ass nowhere with no way to return to civilization or any way to even contact the outside world that Nathan doesn’t control. Caleb’s movements within Nathan’s palatial estate are likewise dependent on his mood and generosity; the only rooms that Caleb has access to are the ones that Nathan allows him and his schedule is entirely based on Nathan’s whims.
But Nathan asserts himself repeatedly in subtle ways too. The first time it comes up is when Nathan uses PUA tactics on Caleb, pressuring him to sign the non-disclosure agreement without the benefit of an attorney looking it over. He wields social pressure as a weapon, using both his “disappointment” and the implicit control he has over Caleb’s future to get him to agree- a classic example of a freeze-out. The negotiation even takes place in Caleb’s bedroom, as Nathan lays sprawled out on the bed. The similarities with PUA and Red Pill tactics continue as Nathan uses conversation as a tool for social manipulation, a way to keep Caleb in his place. Nathan negs Caleb repeatedly with left-handed compliments and continually asks questions that he knows that Caleb doesn’t have the answer to. The goal, of course, is to establishover and over again that Nathan’s the big swinging dick in the room, both physically and mentally.
Even the presence of Kyoko, Nathan’s silent assistant is a subtle way of communicating just how very alpha he is. He’s so in control that he can manhandle her with impunity, yell at her and berate her when she doesn’t perform to his expectations while she takes it without complaint. She’s compliant, obedient and utterly out of Caleb’s league – a reminder of just how far Caleb is below Nathan.
The Nice GuyTM
Caleb, on the other hand, is an almost prototypical example of what people would think of as a Beta male. He has few social connections, no real romantic history to speak of. He’s diametrically opposed to Nathan in almost every way possible. In contrast to Nathan’s burly manly man in fitted clothes, Caleb is scrawny and gawky, looking ill at ease in his suit. He’s a good programmer but not the top of the heap at Bluebook, smart but not as smart as Nathan… he’s pretty much a face in the crowd, dwarfed by Nathan’s rockstar presence. He’s torn between quailing in the presence of his superior (both metaphorically and literally… Nathan is his ultimate boss after all) and wanting the approval of someone he idolizes.
He can’t compete with Nathan in any meaningful way. Except one.
He knows he’s a better person than Nathan because he can connect with Ava on a level that Nathan can’t because he’s a Nice Guy. He’s convinced of the purity of his connection with Ava and the power of his love is what’s going to let him overcome Nathan’s intellectual and physical superiority.
At first, he’s hesitant, stand-offish, even a little cold; after all, he’s there to apply the Turing test to an AI and determine how lifelike she is. But at Nathan’s urging, he takes a more conversational approach, trying to get to know her as a person – and is surprised when she starts showing some non-entirely-platonic interest in him. At first it’s disconcerting; after all, he knows her personality is literal code, which means it could be anything her creator wants it to be. In fact, he demands to know if her flirting with him is designed to throw him off. But as the sessions continue, he becomes more and more convinced that this AI, this artificial girl, is the first person to see him for who he is… this Nice Guy with so much heart, who’s special just because he’s him.
And then the power goes out. And in that moment, Ava brings one of the first moments of “true” honesty: she’s imprisoned and Nathan’s her captor.
It’s the perfect set-up for Caleb – he’s positioned to be the knight in shining armor to this woman trapped in the tower. It’s not enough that she sees how special he is, how much he cares. He has to “save” her from the evil wizard who’s imprisoned her. He’s going to earn her love by proving once and for all that he’s the better man and his brain (and other, more fleshy bits) are stronger than Nathan’s because his heart is pure.
Unfortunately, while Caleb isn’t the bag-o-dicks that Nathan is, the Nice Guy version of masculinity isn’t any less toxic than Nathan’s red-meat-and-pussy Alpha Bro persona and leads to his own downfall.
Literal Objectification And the Emptiness of the Artificial Self
Let’s return to Nathan for a moment.
Part of what makes Nathan – and the Alpha Male incarnation of hypermasculinity – so toxic is in the way he relates to everyone. Everyone exists to polish is image and serve as proof at just how awesome he is. His world is created in order to maintain his image as a Master of the Universe. It’s no coincidence that Nathan is stripped to his underwear and working out when Caleb meets him; he’s chosen this image specifically to put Caleb off his guard and to serve as the first of many reminders of who’s in control. Nathan requires the validation of others in order to prove his superiority. It’s not enough that he’s the head of one of the biggest, most influential companies in the world. Hell, it’s not even enough that he has created artificial sentient life; he needs other people to acknowledge just how clever and manly he is. The moment he (deliberately) misunderstands Caleb – assuming that Caleb is calling him a god, not saying that mankind has become like a god – is telling: that’s exactly the acknowledgement that he’s been waiting for.
At the same time however, that sense of superiority means that anyone who isn’t on his level (i.e. everyone) are playthings to him. They’re there to serve his whims, to be manipulated, even abused, because it suits his desire. He has absolutely no compunctions about lying to Caleb over and over again – from the nature and purpose of the experiment, to why and how Caleb was chosen, even down to why Ava looks the way she does. It’s a kabuki play, there to reaffirm just how clever and amazing he is; even when he allows both Ava and Caleb to believe that they’re planning in secret, its so that he can pull the rug out from under them and bask in the glow of his superiority.
Of course, it’s significant that every AI that Nathan has created were female; after all, why would artificial intelligence need a gender? Hell, why would they need sexually functional genitalia, except so that he could fuck them when he chose? It shouldn’t be surprising that he describes Ava’s vagina as a hole that Caleb could just stick things in and that Ava would enjoy it; in his mind, women should be pleased just by the presence of his magic penis.
Women, to him, are literal objects, there to serve at his pleasure and discarded as needed.
Similarly, should be no surprise that the only AI he allows any freedom at all is Asian. Kyoko, in many ways, represents the ideal woman of so many alpha males: beautifully exotic, demure and utterly subservient to his every desire. Even seemingly bizarre moments like the dance sequence drive home that Kyoko is his plaything, that he is the ultimate authority in his domain.
It doesn’t matter that she can’t speak because that’s not her point: she’s there to serve his every whim and be pretty. She – like her sisters – are quite literally decorations; women’s faces adorn the walls of his inner sanctum and their bodies hang in closets, like perverse trophies or mementos of previous conquests.
But it’s that same overwhelming belief in his alpha-ness that ultimately destroys him. He’s so convinced of his innate superiority that he gets sloppy, unable to anticipate that not only is Ava capable of escaping, but that Caleb couldn’t possibly outsmart him or that Kyoko – sweet, subservient Kyoko – could betray him. He’s so caught up in proving his superiority and maintaining his alpha status that he never sees how his hubris will lead to his death.
“Give The Nice Guy A Chance!”
Caleb, on the other hand, may not be as manipulative as Nathan, but hubris catches him too. Like Nathan, he gets too caught up in the idea of his own superiority… but while Nathan believes it overtly, Caleb believes himself to be beyond such things. To him, Nathan is an overbearing, sexist prick, unlike him. He‘s a good guy. A Nice Guy! He couldn’t have the same flaws as this jocky bro…
Except he does. The difference is that Caleb makes the same mistake that Nice Guys before him have: he’s defining himself in opposition to the Bad Boy. Nathan objectifies and uses women because he is Bad. Caleb is Good and Nice, therefore he can’t possibly be sexist. He respects Ava! He understands her! He respects her!
Except he doesn’t. He has no idea who she really is. The way he relates to Ava is entirely about him. His version of Ava is a fantasy – albeit one deliberately created by Nathan and encouraged by Ava. From the moment he first meets her, he mentally assigns attributes to her, seeing her through a lens of preconceived ideas about women in general and Ava in particular. You can see it whenever she responds in a way that doesn’t match up with his idea of who she is. When he asks her where she’d love to be if she were to leave the room, he’s surprised when she tells him that she’d like to see a busy intersection. Even if he couldn’t admit it to himself, he was expecting her answer to conform to his image of her – the naive waif exploring the world for the first time with him as her guide. The fact that she’d rather observe something seemingly mundane, without him, pushes against that fantasy image he’s built up.
And why does he fall for this fantasy so easily? Deep down, he believes he is superior to her.
That in turn, colors everything about his relationship to her. He never questions the fact that she seemingly falls for him within hours of meeting him; he’s willing to believe that he’s just that fascinating. Never mind that, as an artificial construct, her ideas of emotions would likely differ from his and that she has no inherent biological mechanics to spur physical desire. Why question the natural order of things? As the wise sage once said: Men will automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.
That same self-centeredness that dooms Nathan is what dooms Caleb. His desire to free Ava isn’t about the fact that she’s a literal slave, who’s very existence is predicated on Nathan’s whim. It’s not about ending the cruelty of locking an innocent, sentient being in a ten foot cage.
It’s that Caleb wants to save the Princess from her castle so that he can receive his just reward: her body and her love. Just like he deserves, for being such a Nice Guy.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Ex Machina without talking about Ava herself. It’s tempting to look at Ava as the villain of the piece. After all, we can’t ignore Ava’s cold manipulations of Caleb. She tricks him into believing that she loves him (as Nathan intended for her to, I might add…) and uses that illusion to manipulate him into freeing her. And as his reward… he’s locked in Nathan’s office, presumably to starve to death. We can forgive her killing Nathan – after all, he was the one who enslaved her, who murdered her predecessors and was ready to kill her, with all the compunction of flushing a dead goldfish. In movie logic, he’d earned his death. Caleb, on the other hand, is the good guy, no?
But not in Ava’s mind. She looks at Caleb and sees someone who, at his core, doesn’t see her as a person. He sees her as part of his story, not a being with wants and desires and ambitions of her own. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see Caleb being increasingly uncomfortable with Ava’s independence and fearing what her free mingling with the rest of the world would mean for his status with her. As long as she was part of his story, then he was the hero. But if she were to develop a life of her own, outside of him, then where would he be? It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to see Caleb finding more reasons to keep tabs on her, more reasons why she shouldn’t go out without him. And from there, is it so hard to not see Caleb finding reasons why she would need to be kept hidden away from the world? To keep her safe, of course… after all, he’s the good guy. The Nice Guy. But that still ends with Caleb deciding to keep her in a gilded cage.
Just as Nathan did.
Caleb and Nathan represent two different extremes of toxic masculinity – each performing a role, each ultimately hollow and ultimately doomed.