An Ex Machina Tirade, Four Years Late

A few months ago I wrote extensively on twitter about Ex Machina, the movie that came out in 2015 and which was widely praised for its innovation and for the actors’ talents, and it was all I heard about for months afterward. And understandably, in many ways — it was so well done in so many ways, and everyone involved in the production deserves all the praise they’ve gotten because, well. It was beautiful, and thoughtful, and also racist.

When I say that, most often to white people, I get incredulous stares or vague “really? nahhhh” type statements. And I’m not surprised, except… I didn’t think it was subtle.

Spoilers for Ex Machina — at the climax of the film, Kyoko — an East Asian female robot, who has been voiceless through the whole movie — joins Ava (the white protagonist robot) in turning against their creator, Nathan. It’s very cool for its importance to the philosophical themes of man’s relationship to god, ect. But the way it goes is: Kyoko stabs Nathan, and he knocks her face off, killing her. And then Ava stabs him, and kneels over him as he dies, and then she gets free and there’s the whole thing about whether or not she ought to have abandoned Domhnall Gleeson. And Kyoko just… lies there, and is never acknowledged again.

Ava’s break for freedom is an inspirational masterpiece of filmmaking, and a big theme of the movie is men’s treatment of women as less than human, so Ava’s freedom represents her claiming her humanity. Here’s the problem — if Ava is human, so is Kyoko, but she doesn’t get the luxury of humanity. Instead, the white woman uses her as a stepping stone on her way to her own freedom, and when Kyoko dies — in the most dehumanizing way possible, I mean, losing her face? That’s what we do to indicate that bad guy mobs are bad guys — the film spares not a beat to mourn her. Because she’s not the point, is she?

The theme of “women are people” isn’t the only one in Ex Machina. The bit that I alluded to earlier, man’s relationship to god? That’s a theme that is beautifully worked into the film (and again, I don’t want to downplay the things this movie did well, because what it did well it did really well) in the form of god’s creations growing, learning, and eventually (as Nietzsche would put it) killing god and moving forward to self-actualization as a human. The problem is, this falls apart for Kyoko as well. She is as aware of her nature as Ava, and she is equally a part of Nathan’s death, but when the chance for escape comes, god strikes her down. God removes her humanity by removing her face. Where does that fit into Nietzche’s death of god? If Ava is human, by the logic of the movie Kyoko must be human as well. So why doesn’t Kyoko get the same self-actualization?

And if any of this was played as intentional commentary on the treatment of women of color, it would be one thing. But the movie doesn’t even both to acknowledge Kyoko’s death behind the glow of Ava’s triumph. The movie doesn’t offer a single moment of mourning or reflection on the woman who, I would argue, was even more deserving of justice than Ava.

This continues when, after the battle, Ava goes to Nathan’s closet of robot bodies and covers her exposed robot parts with synthetic skin, which she takes from what appears to be another East Asian woman. Stripping her body for parts. Again, by the logic of the film, this was another living woman — was being the operative word — and while I don’t take issue with Ava’s use of the skin (it’s kind of like being an organ donor, isn’t it?) I do have my same ongoing problem with its presentation. The movie doesn’t treat the moment as Ava winning freedom for all the abused robotic women whose humanity Nathan denied. Instead, the movie has Ava treat this as, more or less, a storeroom where she can take what she needs.

All it would have taken is a long moment where Ava offers thanks — even wordless thanks — to the women who came before. If she’d bothered to try to revive Kyoko, or even just close her eyes. But we never get that! We never get any acknowledgement that any of the other women in the movie are human. Just Ava. Just the white one.

I came out of the theater feeling irritated and anxious and I didn’t want to acknowledge it because I didn’t want to be That Guy. I just skirted around it until my friend (who is white but who also regularly analyzes films and whose opinion I trust) said “it was kind of racist, wasn’t it?” and I finally relaxed and practically shouted “IT WAS!” Because that meant it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t just too sensitive. That’s also the only time I’ve heard from anyone else that they thought the movie was racist. I had to go and look on the internet for people to agree with, and even then, there… aren’t that many. Considering how many reviews and thinkpieces were written about that movie, I’d have expected that the racism would at least warrant a mention.

One of my favorite (and most culturally thoughtful) film critics, Film Crit Hulk, wrote a review which points out, near the end, the way we are conditioned to see men as the default protagonist. He tells us his girlfriend’s response upon coming out of the theater:

“As a woman you don’t realize how often you’ve been conditioned by movies to see yourself as the boy, as Caleb, and it’s amazing how much I didn’t realize I was Ava until the end.”

It’s a great point, succinct and clear, and it really hits upon so much of what the movie did exactly right. It forces the viewer to really consider different perspectives, something that so many stories preach but aren’t able to effectively demonstrate. And in many ways, that is a triumph. Hell, any ending that gets mens’ rights activists to write essays about how Ex Machina proves that “all women are like that” for missing-the-point magazine (where people go to read about how a movie about a robot proves that women are evil) deserves praise for that alone.

But it doesn’t go far enough. If any movie’s thesis falls apart the moment it stops happening to white people, the thesis wasn’t strong enough. There are a lot of deeply interesting cultural reasons to make Kyoko East Asian, silent, and Nathan’s personal sex robot slave — the movie has so many interesting things it could have said about western culture’s consumption of East Asian women while dehumanizing us at the same time. But it doesn’t say any of those things. It doesn’t even take the simple step of humanizing Kyoko when it matters — in fact, it goes the opposite route, offering her a quick and dehumanizing death and no acknowledgement of her importance, not just by the other characters but by the movie itself. Within the structure of the movie, Kyoko didn’t matter. By the movie’s own rules and logic, I’ll say it one more time, Kyoko must be human, but the narrative, the framing, the whole film neglects to offer her that dignity. Hell, neither do the viewers.

It’s frustrating, especially since it’s a movie that got so many accolades. Again, rightfully so in a lot of ways. But for a movie that let me down so much, it just gets hard to see, especially when, three years later, I’m still hearing people talk about how brilliant it was, and how everyone should see it. I don’t want everyone to see it. I don’t want other Asian girls to see it. I don’t want other people to feel like I did while I was watching it.

Hulk’s essay quotes: “I didn’t realize I was Ava until the end.” And I remember reading that for the first time and thinking, I see you, I hear you. But I didn’t leave that theater feeling like I was Ava, I felt like Kyoko. And, three years later, that hasn’t gone away.