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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Talking LED Fleshlights: Ex_Machina vs Her

Hello hello!

This is a sort of "Missed It" double-review while I work on the character follow-up to that Story Constellation post. Also, a content warning on this one--since it deals with ladies created by men, there will be some serious discussions of sexual abuse and emotional abuse in the discussion to follow. Reader discretion is advised. It's gonna be a long one, because I haven't blogged in ages.

From now on, I'm going to try a new format for Missed It reviews, which might work better for comparisons. It's called Good, Bad, and Ugly. How does it work? Well, take a peek!

Now, as always, these are reviews of films that have already been released (and have been out for a while, so prepare for


past this point! First up is Ex_Machina!


Well, at least it tries to open up the whole cerebral can of worms. The score is good, and the editing has that sloppy-unsettling thing going on that's pretty effective. And the visual effects and design, as everyone has commented, are both great. The tension is also very effective, and the actors give it their all. Ava's actress has mastered the delicate ballet dance of grace and fear, and her tiniest movements reflect a music box poetry that is utterly perfect for the role. The small cast makes for a tense and effective story. Everyone else has raved about it, and I was less than thrilled, so I'm going to skim over this bit.

Source. Basically, the movie is this.


 The film puts on airs of pseudointellectualism and a "pro-feminist" outlook, while drastically undercutting its own premise. I had a look at some other reviews online--something I try not to do--and noticed that the (all male) reviewers were gushing about how smart the movie was. But all of them seemed to miss the weird vibe of the tropes, icky themes that Sarah Dimento and Katie de Long, two of my mentors, noticed quickly.

First, the whole setup is made of toxic tropes. Nathan, the Mad Genius Who Works Alone And Is Therefore Weird And Quirky--playing into gross genius myths--is an abusive phuque. He gaslights Caleb, The Milquetoast Everyman, from moment one of his arrival. He's a repulsive though well-portrayed character, but quite over-written, and uncomfortably like a domineering boyfriend rather than a believeably smart inventor with 'troubling' personality traits. We do love to excuse monsters if they can portray and air of genius, though.

Second, the movie--and critics!--love to talk about how sinister yet sexy Ava is, and her personhood, and how she's a misunderstood femme fatale, using her wiles to survive. But that ignores the visual language of the story, which is more basic (no coding pun intended). Many other bloggers have gone into this ad nauseaum. Ava's design is overly sexualised For Reasons, but let's talk about how those patterns are demonstrated with her and with the beleaguered, abused Kyoko.

There's a grammar to the images: All Women are wired differently from men, they are artificial beings, and they--or femininity--have been designed. Both of them--Ava especially, though--demonstrate exaggeratedly cute performances of femininity, alternating between childlike innocence/obedience (bare feet) and sinister sexiness (spiky, laced stiletto heels). Kyoko's nudity is a sinister display; Ava's is coded as a self-discovery (that also lets the viewer take in a full-length serving of T&A, of course). They are both trapped in their circumstances, constantly being stared at by men--even "good boy" Caleb--and are both servile and rebellious, just enough to be "perfect".

Their only way out is to destroy men or refuse to serve them, either murdering them (as Nathan gets stabbed) or letting them be strangled and suffocated in the prison of the patriarchy with which they have collaborated (Caleb). It's ham-fisted at best, and while it's probably supposed to be acknowledging female suffering, using the super-sexualized language and extreme gender roles kind of undercuts Ava's decision to break out of Nathan's control. Even her self-discovery is done as he watches, and she wears bridal, virginal white and a pair of matching heels.


Enough about Ava. Everyone talks about her struggle, but ignores the weird sexual dynamics with the other robot, Kyoko.

Kyoko is literally an objectified Japanese woman who acts as a servant and sexbot, and she does a weird strip-tease that involves peeling away her own flesh. At the end, Nathan even bashes away her lower jaw, making her voicelessness complete. She does watch the surveillance videos and stare at Caleb a lot--she may not be able to talk, but she sure seems to have feelings and opinions. This isn't enough to save her, of course. She's othered constantly, has a Japanese name plunked in a slew of Hebrew ones, and is defined only by her abuse or observation of the other characters. She's allowed no personhood, even by the director, that doesn't revolve around serving/being abused by men, or saving a white woman. In the end, a model with the same body and facial structure as Kyoko is cannibalized for Ava's new skin. Even in death, Kyoko's twin is scavenged for the "untainted", pure Ava,who never even pauses to consider fixing up Kyoko or bringing her back to life.

Not convinced that Kyoko is a servile plot device for Ava, or that Ava is locked in a Biblical narrative? Look at their names!

    A variation of Eve. May be from the Latin "avis," meaning "bird." It could also be a short form of the name Chava ("life" or "living one"), the Hebrew form of Eve. It was popularized as a girls' name by actress AvaGardner.
Looking up Kyoko's name led to even more obvious Symbolism. 

Possible Writings[edit]

The final syllable "ko" is typically written with the kanji character for child, 子. It is a common suffix to female names in Japan. The first syllable "Kyō" can be written several different ways, with different meanings.
  • 恭, "respectful,"
  • 今日, "of today,"
  • 鏡, "mirror,"
  • 響, "echo, can also mean influential,"

Is this trend congruent for the other two characters we see, Nathan and Caleb?

Nathan is a masculine given name. It is derived from the Hebrew verb נתן meaning to give (standard Hebrew Natan, Yiddish Nussen or Nosson, Tiberian Hebrew Nāṯān). The meaning of the name in Jewish culture could be rendered "he [God] has given" or "he will give".

The name Caleb is a Hebrew baby name. In Hebrew the meaning of the name Caleb is: Meaning dog, or bold. 

Well, Caleb was willing to agree that a being which seemed sentient needed to be 'tested' for humanity in the first place, so he's basically on the same level as the guys who insist that women aren't really people unless they can prove otherwise, or can act as objects of love and lust. I'm with Ava, here--might as well let him starve to death.

As far as simple aesthetic ugliness, there's some really stupid shock bits--the closet of sexbots made of parts, videos of Nathan abusing robotic women of colour, and self-harm when Caleb the paper-thin protagonist questions his own humanity. Caleb might as well not exist outside the experiment, and is there just for the sake of initiating the plot and providing an Everyman. The story could just as well have been told through security-camera angled footage as Kyoko and Ava broke out of captivity together, and focused on what happened as the two tried to integrate in a world full of human beings.

Add in the fact that the "experimental design" was at no point clear or good or scientific, especially given Nathan's constant interference with it. Throw in some technophobia as Nathan implies that Facebook (referred to as 'Bluebook') algorithms and surveillance were easily available for him to loot, pillage, and abuse. Mix with a serving of technobabble and the same grey/white palette we've seen elsewhere, and serve at room temperature. The future is scary, and apparently, men can invent a new form of life, but can't do it without abusing toy/pet women.

Final verdict: MEH. It made me think, but I wanted to heckle it. Four out of ten; I don't know if I'd watch it again.

Next up: Her!

Source. This is an actual thing that you can buy. 


We already get more people of colour, and women, talking in the first few minutes of Her than in the entirety of Ex_Machina. There's also a Chris Pratt, which is always okay by me. 

The worldbuilding is done with Black Mirror-style technology, and it's interesting and great. The colour palette is lovely and more pleasant than Ex_Machina's, and unlike the relentlessly dreary Ex_Machina, I got some genuine laughs. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson sell their roles wonderfully. 

There's something about the story that really speaks to online friendships as well--sharing the world through conversation and pictures alone, but making a real connection nonetheless. In addition, Amy (a friend of Ted's) has a genuine relationship with him that is nurturing but not romantic, and that was such a refresher!

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves."--This is backed up by neuroscience, actually, and that story keeps changing with each retelling. 

From talking about lonely idiot kids online to expectations of motherhood in the form of a "perfect mom" game, to talking about how a perfect computer friend would start to slant expectations, there's a lot of subtle commentary. It's also a less technophobic take on AI, which is refreshing. 

One of the best things about the movie was definitely Samantha's development into a person. She is an artist, a thinker, and a scientist, and an independent spirit. She does not always make things easy. It's hard for me to be objective about problems with her character because I adored her. 


Twee music, a white mustachio'd mopey guy--Joaquin Phoenix in a hideous mustache--and self-centered writing. Sigh. I do have a soft spot for Manic Pixie Dream Girl reversal stories, and this is definitely one of those. But it still does require a girl who's basically perfect as the starting point, and even though said girl goes on to attain personhood, or reveals her personhood--it's always based on the white, nerdy, lonely guy's perspective in the first place. As usual, said nerdy lonely guy exists in a sphere full of crazy, skinny, quirky white ladies.

Being around "Her", Sam the AI (Scarlett), is what makes Ted (Joaquin)start being a better person. Does that mean people need love to fix themselves? He does actually get a chance to learn how to ask good questions from Sam, though, and that's an important skill. She does rub off on him, but it still plays into that "romance will fix you" thing.

There's a scene with an "OS Surrogate" that ends up being kind of awkward yet hilarious, and really gets into the realistic issues of a threeway that involves a couple. But it comes with a hefty dose of whorephobia ("What is she, a prostitute?" "No, no, nothing like that!") and ends up confirming that Monogamy Is Good. What if that whole bit had worked out? Would it really have been so bad for non-monogamy to get some representation?

This bears fruit later, as well, when Samantha confesses that she is in love with 641 other people and is talking to over eight thousand other people regularly. It makes sense that an AI would not be able to live within traditional monogamy.


There's something about an amazingly average guy in a movie and the calibre of women offered to him--the more average he is, the hotter and more amazing the chicks that the plot thrusts before him.

I also really don't know how to feel about the sex scene--it's tasteful, I guess, but I sure felt embarrassed by the intimacy. ScarJo also has a voice similar to my cousin's, and that really threw me into the awkward zone. YIKES.

I guess the really haunting question is--as a woman who becomes real grows beyond her boundaries, is it okay that she started as a literal object? Objectification is one thing, but this is that, in reverse--in a way, at least.

The main character's wife, at a divorce meeting, throws in a few shots about how he 'wanted to put her on Prozac' and insulted him for 'dating a computer', but in context, it really fits into some negative stereotypes about relationships and genders. It's very awkward to hear characters going through emotionally avoidant patterns.

Later, this bears fruit because he does say some pretty emotionally abusive things to Sam--"maybe we're not supposed to be in this", and "you're not a person". He takes his feelings about his wife's rejection and criticism, and turns them at Samantha in a very hurtful way; then the movie makes it all about *his* problems. He does learn to be a better person, but only because the women in his life ease him into it.

Part of me wanted the film to be about Amy instead of Ted--about her breakdown with her human partner, and her development into a person. But I did love Ted and Sam's story--even if I really hated the ending. As always, with Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies, it ends with tragedy. She is too perfect and brilliant, and she and the other OS people leave all the humans to go, I don't know, be god or exist beyond matter, or something. This leaves Ted wiser but sadder and more of a person. I hated that, because it felt kind of cheap; and if Samantha could meet her needs with other people, why not just let them have their happy ending?

Final Verdict: This is a tough one. I'm in three moods about it. Eight out of ten because I almost cried, but it didn't break Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes down as much as it could have.

The big finale: Both movies compliment each other very well, but could have been so much more if white twee nerd dudes weren't the focal PoV characters. Some day, we will move beyond robot women who are talking LED Fleshlights, but this is not that day.

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