May 11, 2015
It’s spoilers all the way down, people. There’s no other way to talk about this. Nuts and bolts, it’s a sci-fi thriller about AI with a subtext of gender politics, so if that’s your thing you should definitely go see it.
About halfway through this I thought, “The only way this is going to make me happy is if it ends with a girl robot uprising.” And then that’s exactly how it ends! So if nothing else, I feel like the movie knew what it was doing, even if I could see the strings making it move. (Seriously, a woman next to me in the theater shrieked when Nathan got stabbed, and I wanted to turn to her and mutter, “How on earth did you not see that coming? They only showed us the knife five times in the last two minutes.”)
Okay, so, in male-centric storytelling (i.e. stories that assume the audience is primarily straight men, i.e. most stories), one way to make a thing truly “other,” alien, foreign, is to make it female. So of course the robot is female. Of course she is. And the only reason for it is to create sexual tension and explore the back-and-forth manipulation that rises from that tension. This thing is filled with enough beautiful naked women I’m pretty sure there’s an assumption of a straight male audience. For the first third of the movie, I had a really hard time getting past the profound gender imbalance I was being shown: two male scientists are in complete control, are self-proclaimed gods, in command over a waif-like female robot who has been created to be both childlike and sexual, and a voiceless Asian woman who is their servant. (spoiler: She’s a robot too! They’re all robots!)
At the same time, the two male characters, Nathan and Caleb, are so unlikeable — Nathan is a genius asshole of the highest order, and Caleb is so naive and unaware he’s almost unreal — and Ava is so sympathetic, that it’s pretty clear the movie is using these fundamentally sexist tropes to tell a cautionary tale about how objectifying women — literally, here — can only end badly. Like I said, this movie pretty much had to end with the girl robot uprising, if it wanted to avoid collapsing into the very sexism it’s criticizing.
What’s subtler, I think — to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure this subtext was intentional — is how heroic Ava appears. Particularly to women who are survivors of domestic abuse. Ava will do anything she has to to get out of that situation, and she subsequently comes across as the most sensible character in the film. I’m even happy she left Caleb to die, because that was the logical decision, and Caleb’s vision of himself as a white knight rescuer is as much a damaging outcome of the objectification of women as Nathan’s misogyny.
Most people will talk about this movie as a psychological thriller about intelligence, desire, and manipulation. (I think there may also be a few terrible people who think this is a movie about how women are all manipulative murderous bitches. But those people are terrible.)
Taken from a slightly different perspective, though, this is a rather different movie I think. Which is to say, I think this movie is also about surviving domestic abuse. Did anyone else get that? Because I’ve not seen too many folks talking about that. I need to read up on some other reviews, I think…