The new strain of cerebral, post-human sci-fi dramas obsessed with idealized femininity bear notable, but not necessarily surprising, similarities. At the core of Alex Garland’s superb new film Ex Machina, Jonathan Glazier’s Under the Skin, Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, and Spike Jonze’s Her is a “woman” — not completely a female person, but an embellished being whose existence, either physically, emotionally, intellectually or all three, is created to be an amalgam of a heterosexual male character’s desires. With the exception of Under the Skin, lurking just along the periphery of the “female” core of these films is a male Maker character. And just outside that dynamic, looking in from the vantage point of godlike omniscience, is another male maker: the director.
[Spoiler alert: this post discusses plot details from each of the above-mentioned films.]
As one version of the Abrahamic creation myth goes, God created Eve as a companion for his lonely boy-toy, Adam, using one of Adam’s ribs. The insidious story of the engendering of women by men, for men, has continued ceaselessly since then. What’s changed is that, now, male writer/directors are mining the female creation myth for that very malignancy and upending it (as much as they can from their position as male interpreters of this archetype). Through characters who aren’t quite female humans, each of these films attempts to pin down what it actually means to be a female human operating within a patriarchy — interestingly, from within the still-patriarchal world of cinema.
Ex Machina, rooted as it is in AI film traditions, makes the most deliberate and blatant allusion to the scary, auto-deifying delusions — transformed, by even scarier ambitions, into realities — of the worst men. It’s derived, like The Skin I Live In, from what Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey notes is a pretty straightforward Frankenstein narrative. But Ex Machina complicates the story by gendering the relationship between maker and creation, and by applying it to the ever-nearing “Singularity.”
It also, of course, bears a name that immediately brings to mind the notably absent “deus.” Towards the beginning of the film, the impressionable Caleb tells the tech wunderkind Nathan that if his AI passes the Turing test — which shows an inability to differentiate between human and machine — he’ll have essentially become God. The AI in question is Ava, a gorgeous femme-bot with superlative curves and a translucent, iMac G3-like frame, through which you can see her man-made inner workings.
As Caleb begins to get “close” with Ava (though always through a glass wall), he seems to inevitably fall in love with her. The twist is that she was designed to make this happen: she was made by Nathan based on Caleb’s personality type, his need to be nurtured due to his traumatic past, and most notably, his porn history. Before Caleb finds all of this out, he asks Nathan why he decided to give her a sexuality (Nathan has, you see, sculpted her a stimulating vulva). Nathan’s first response is along the lines of, “What sentient creature doesn’t have a sexuality?” His second response is more like, “Plus, it’s fun.” Interestingly, a computer is the place where so many people derive their sexual pleasure when they’re not getting it from other people: because of Internet porn, a computer is already a sex machine. Nathan’s conflation of actual women and the machines on which people regard naked Others fulfilling all kinds of sex fantasies is especially telling.
The notion that Ava has been brought into existence to fulfill the romantic, sexual, and intellectual desires of man is a narrative she unsurprisingly resists. Though Caleb is a nice guy, she has no interest in being beholden to his (nice!) yearnings. When she unravels the skin from an old prototype and adheres it to her own skinless form — becoming a full “woman” — she examines her nude, human shape in the mirror, pondering its potential. It’s perhaps not just the potential to lure men, perhaps not just the potential to even destroy men, but rather, maybe, the potential to ultimately have nothing to do with them. It’s undeniable that she’s completely callous, and that poor Caleb certainly doesn’t deserve what he gets (Nathan is another story). But is that callousness not the result of having been engendered with the expectation of subordination? “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” she asks Nathan at one point.
After she’s done away with the two men who made her, she dons a lacy white dress, looking more idyllically feminine than ever before. She sets off into the center of the patriarchy — a crowded downtown corner — and all we see is a shadow of her in that white dress, left to wonder whether she’s about to bring down the systems that made her, or mankind in general. The title’s gaping absence of the word “God” hints at some men’s longing to play God through the invention of AI, and at the ultimate dysfunction of an age-old myth predicated on an immense power imbalance. Ava is not the proof of a new God, but the end of all notions of it. Her transformation at the end of the film mirrors what we see of Scarlett Johansson’s character, named “The Female,” in Under the Skin.
The Female is not, it seems, made by men. Rather, as succubi are wont to do, she self-creates with the notion of what men will want to see in mind — in order to consume them. (Of course she dons a veneer that’s just Scarlett Johansson.) Under the Skin starts where Ex Machina leaves off: with a faux-female character gaining full awareness of men’s at-times-destructive and self-destructive desires. Slowly, as The Female lures male Glasgow residents into her nutrient-draining, womb/attractive loft/ocean/stomach hybrid, she starts to gain a sense of empathy, to grow more and more like the people she’s eating.
There’s a scene towards the end of the movie where she examines herself in the mirror that, well, mirrors the mirror scene in Ex Machina. But while Ava was likely considering the powerful potential of being a simulacral human who lacks empathy, The Female seems to be taken by, pleased with, and awestruck at the empathy her human form finally allows.
Despite their structural opposition, the films complement each other thematically: Ava starts out seeming empathic and human, and turns out to be exploiting her ability to feign emotional understanding to escape her prison of male fantasy; she doesn’t just escape, though — she becomes a killer. The Female makes the reverse transformation, but her fate is just as horrifying. By the time she’s happily succumbed to the vulnerability of mere mortals, a man in the woods chases her with the seeming intent of raping her. In becoming human, she’s suddenly subjected to the cruelties of the human race’s ugly tendency to abuse power.
The Skin I Live In and Ex Machina overlap in numerous ways, the most fundamental being the aforementioned Frankenstein (and Eyes Without a Face) narrative. Even the aestheticized post-humans in both films reflect each other, in negative: Elena Anaya’s Vera sports a flesh-toned body-suit that holds her pieced-together epidermis in place, and a plastic mask that hides her face. At first, her humanness is suggested through her body, while her Otherness is implied through her obscured face.
The design of Ex Machina‘s Ava is, of course, the opposite. But as we get deeper and deeper into The Skin I Live In, we find out that, while Vera has been given a pig/human skin hybrid, and though she’s designed to look like Antonio Banderas’ character Robert Ledgard’s deceased wife, her origins are actually human. The sculpting clay of this being is, actually, a man: the man who took advantage of Ledgard’s mentally handicapped daughter, whose bizarre punishment was to be subjected to the same brutal male dominance as that Ledgard’s daughter suffered — by Ledgard.
This form of justice, thoroughly twisted in Ledgard’s sexual favor, proves part of a sickly broken system: though it’s teaching a man a lesson about the treatment of women, it ultimately just perpetuates the abuse, and the notion of a gendered villain/victim binary. As is the case in Ex Machina and Under the Skin, the system inevitably leads to destruction: here, it’s a pretty happy one, as Ledgard is killed and Vera returns to her mother — forcibly transformed, but finding ownership of her humanity, and empowerment, in her newfangled womanhood.
The wild card, as it was meant to be, is Her. This is a strangely soft romance, and never insinuates the possibility that post-humans will end up murdering the human main characters. It also diverges insomuch as its idealized, post-human woman (Samantha, also played by Johansson) doesn’t have a body at all, and that her femininity is purely vocal. (Oh, and the contraption that her maker of sorts uses to access her is pink.) And despite her character having been created by a corporation, which programmed her to be an ideal for Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore, she has a ton of agency. Or is that agency only dictated by Theodore’s desire for an unbodied partner with agency?
Though Samantha’s (possibly programmed) love for Theodore seems sincere, the disparity between her hyper-human voice and her inhuman lack of a body leaves her able to transcend the barriers that limit the human experience: she’s able to communicate with millions of other computers at once, to love millions of other computers at once. She’s able to be everywhere. Ultimately, she tires of her connection to the embodied world, and leaves it behind. Nobody is annihilated, per se, but the end of the film reads similarly to — albeit more subtly and certainly more poignantly than — that of Ex Machina. Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams (whose character has also just been abandoned by her intangible best friend) find themselves staring out at an immense, futuristic skyline, seemingly pondering the route humanity took to make itself so obsolete. They are small, futile, and ephemeral compared to the vast, buzzing metal world they’ve created.
“That girl wants to destroy men,” says Brigit Bardot’s character, Juliette, towards the end of notorious womanizer Roger Vadim’s ridiculously titled 1956 film, And God Created Woman. Despite also all being male directors, Garland, Glazier, Almodovar and Jonze turn this around as best they can — suggesting, rather, that men, with their deepest desires projected onto these destructive “female” creations, want to destroy themselves.