Ex Machina is an exploration of machine versus maker, and on the surface looks like yet another movie detailing a robot AI takeover, albeit on a smaller scale. While it explores themes of female autonomy, and a universal desire for freedom, its treatment of Asian women is very troubling. Ex Machina attempts to empower White women through a story of awakened AI, while relegating Asian women to stepping stones and perpetual victims.
In this film, Nathan, the CEO genius of a large technology company, invites Caleb, a young White employee, to his state of the art home. Here Caleb meets Ava, an android resembling a white woman, where he finds out the the purpose behind his stay: to give her the Turing test (the test of a machine’s ability to behave exactly like a human). Ava proves to be a highly advanced AI, and over time as they get to know each other, Caleb falls for Ava, promising to help her escape from the abusive Nathan.
During his stay, Caleb also meets Kyoko, a mixed Asian/White female housekeeper, who is quite obviously Nathan’s sex slave. When Kyoko accidentally spills wine on Caleb as she serves the two men dinner, Nathan responds in a rage and calls her “fucking clumsy,” explaining that Kyoko didn’t understand English, in order for him to be able to discuss trade secrets freely around her, reinforcing the trope of servile, silent Asian women, in addition to reinforcing general notion of Asian immigrants: unable to speak English, and emotionless.
One of the most disturbing scenes in the film highlights its portrayal of Asian female sexuality. Caleb, while looking for Nathan, comes across a lone Kyoko, who immediately begins to strip for him. Caleb responds in horror, “No no no stop that. No you don’t have to do that,” and hastily buttons up her top as she tries to take it off. Click to see an animated gif of the scene below:
Nathan appears, and tells Caleb that he’s wasting his time talking to her.
Nathan flips a light switch and transforms the room into a dance floor, and Kyoko automatically starts dancing while Caleb looks on in disgust.
In fact, Kyoko’s attempt to strip was to reveal that she too, like Ava, was also an AI, despite her fully human appearance, as we see later on in the film when she tried again to impress this on Caleb, this time peeling the skin of her ribcage and her face off.
Caleb’s initial assumption that Kyoko was offering herself to him, subconsciously pushes the idea that Asian women are “easy” and only exist for the pleasure of white men, accessible at any time. Despite the obvious abuse Kyoko suffered at Nathan’s hands, Caleb’s escape plan only includes Ava and himself. Why was Kyoko not worthy of assistance?
Caleb later accesses Nathan’s CCTV system and discovers footage of previous AI fembots that Nathan experimented with. Jade, an Asian fembot, destroyed her chassis, beating her arms against the wall and screaming at Nathan, “Why won’t you let me out?” Jasmine, a black fembot appears headless on the screen, as Nathan drags her lifeless body across the floor. It becomes apparent that Kyoko was the re-designed Jade, implying that Jade was much too defiant and violent for Nathan’s purposes, reinforcing the stereotypes of submissiveness and robbing Asian women of their agency.
The movie wraps up with Ava carrying out the escape plan that Caleb devised for her. During the escape, she meets Kyoko for the first time and both seem stunned that another AI exists.
Ava appears to whisper in Kyoko’s ear, but it is never revealed what exactly she tells the Asian fembot nor if Kyoko understands. Nathan discovers the two fembots, and is attacked by Ava. Just as Nathan is about to overpower Ava, Kyoko stabs Nathan from behind with a kitchen knife. Nathan turns on Kyoko and smashes her face before he dies, while Ava makes her escape thanks to Kyoko’s sacrifice, leaving the Asian fembot behind to take her last breath.
Ava finds a row of retired AI fembots hanging in Nathan’s closet, and proceeds to appropriate their body parts and skin to greater assimilate into human society. Strangely, she does not choose to dismantle the white female model. Instead, Ava chooses the Asian model’s arm to replace the arm Nathan hacked off during their fight, and peels away the Asian skin to cover herself, stroking the straight black hair, but ultimately using a white model’s blonde tresses for her own head.
When questioned about the racial themes of his Ex Machina and whether it was social commentary, Alex Garland, director/writer, responded,
“Well, it’s a little gamier than that, I would say. Nathan uses race as a way to wind Caleb up…. Sometimes you do things unconsciously, unwittingly, or stupidly, I guess, and the only embedded point that I knew I was making in regards to race centered around the tropes of Kyoko [Sonoya Mizuno], a mute, very complicit Asian robot, or Asian-appearing robot, because of course, she, as a robot, isn’t Asian.”
Why should Alex Garland’s purported – downright willful – ignorance of the racial tropes his work plays into grant him innocence? In fact, he diverts our attention to essentially say, “There is no such thing as race,” ignoring the reality of social constructs that impose race on all of us, while simultaneously reinforcing those stereotypes.
In a twist, Ava leaves Caleb behind, locking him in Nathan’s compound. The movie ends with Ava blending in on a busy street corner surrounded by humans. While the film was initially purported to be a story of feminism triumphing over oppressive patriarchy, we see white women using and trampling on Asian women for their own purposes, while Asian women see no gain or reward for their self-sacrifice. Ex Machina’s message is clear: there is no place for Asian women in white feminism. Instead, Asian women’s supposed obedience and submissiveness is exploited for the purposes of both white women and men, on their command. Unfortunately, we cannot look to Ava as a hero who overcame all odds as she steps over the broken body of Kyoko on her way to freedom.