Bluebeardean Futures in Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015)

By Jones, Katie | Gender Forum, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Bluebeardean Futures in Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015)


Jones, Katie, Gender Forum


1A potential figure for the deconstruction of raced and gendered sexual identities, the cyborg body also acts as a site where technological patriarchy manifests itself and "conventional understandings of the feminine" are fortified (Doane 110). The male-created feminised cyborg thus serves as a reflection of fantasy. However, artificial intelligence (AI) complicates this understanding as the consciousness of the fembot develops in ways that are uncontrollable by her designer. The feminine AI thereby combines the fear of new technology - represented in films like The Matrix (1999) or iRobot (2004) - with ambivalence towards women's emancipation and the dismantling of imperialist heteronormative patriarchal values. In this way, the AI gynoid may serve as a means through which to explore female ontological concerns and the effects of male fantasy on women's bodies. In Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015), the representation of technology, surveillance and power reproduces many of the thematic elements of his earlier films and novels as well as science-fiction more generally. However, the inclusion of a series of raced and feminised AI cyborgs establishes the film as part of a SF sub-genre that combines the fascination and fear of technology with anxieties regarding the 'unruly' woman and autonomous female desire. In Ex Machina, the central gynoid figure is a 'white' model named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava's consciousness is highly regulated by spatial boundaries: she is mostly confined to a secure room without windows and kept behind a glass divider, which allows the two male characters to view and question her. This said, Ex Machina is more accurately described as an arthouse film that strategically employs generic conventions - fairy tale, SF, horror - in order to unsettle and manipulate audience response.

2The film also contains a number of dissonant strands which have ignited debates as to whether it can be viewed as a feminist work. On the one hand, as numerous critics have pointed out, it fails The Bechdel Test [1] and contains repeated and unjustified full-frontal female nudity, whereas the men remain fully-clothed (Watercutter; Rose); on the other, the emancipation of a woman objectified and confined by her position between men drives the narrative. Additionally, while the film contains scenes of nudity and victimisation that conform to the conventions of exploitation cinema, the narrative also works as a critique of such trends. Moreover, Laura Mulvey's seminal analysis of fetishized feminine aesthetics in film, "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema", exerts a significant influence on Ex Machina, and while Garland is reluctant to state that he actively made use of this theoretical framework, he acknowledges that Mulvey's thesis may inform the film (Wiliens). Garland describes Ex Machina as "a prison break movie" (qtd. in Emblidge), and Ava eventually does escape her cell; however, her identity as an emancipated subject is leftunimagined and the film's suitability as a method of critique for addressing women's objectification and disposability under patriarchy remains questionable. This article examines the aesthetics of entrapment in Ex Machina, in particular the film's intertextual use of the Bluebeard plot, which multiple critics have noted (Robinson; Perry), and Garland himself references in an interview (Opam). Specifically, I trace the components of Ex Machina that present a complex allegorical critique of mainstream porn-culture and female entrapment in the feminine sexual identities constructed in the image of hetero male fantasy. It is important to note that, while I read Garland's critique of the widespread objectification of women under patriarchy as referring to pornography and analyse scenes with the aim of teasing out this particular thread, this is just one aspect of a multi-faceted narrative. Ex Machina does not overtly criticise, condemn or condone pornography, but Garland describes his film as partly "about the objectification of women" (qtd. …

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