'Ex Machina' and the Reinvention of the Femme Fatale

First things first, if you haven't seen Ex Machina yet, there will be MAJOR spoilers ahead. By this I mean, I'm going to give away the entire plot.

Secondly, if you haven't seen Ex Machina yet, you need to jam on that right this very minute, as it's one of the best films of 2015 so far. Written and directed by Alex Garland, perhaps most famous for penning 28 Days Later, the film features a thoroughly engrossing and original story, stunning cinematography, and excellent performances from the entire cast. You don't want to miss this one. 

The film is also an expert hybrid of science fiction and film noir. This is not a new concept, of course—Dark City, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, and Alphaville, just to name a few, all belong to the sci-fi-noir or tech-noir family. But these films also fall within the neo-noir camp, a revisionist cinema movement that simultaneously borrowed from and deconstructed elements from classic film noir, often with wild creativity and abandon. 

Ex Machina is just as imaginative as the above films, but it adheres more closely to a classic noir structure. And yet, at the same time, it is also just as revisionist as its cinematic forbears, in that it gives us a dictionary definition of the noir hallmark femme fatale, while at the same time completely subverting and thus reinventing the stock character for a modern audience.

Let's start this discussion by digging into some of film noir's most recognizable elements, and how they relate to Ex Machina.

Noir Identifiers

Plot and Atmosphere

Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton literally wrote the book on film noir—well, one of them anyway, but it happened to be one of the very first texts to identify recurrent visual and thematic elements inherent to all "true noir" films. Published in 1955, A Panorama of American Film Noir set the bar for serious critiques of the genre, in part by identifying five essential signifiers present in all noir titles, either in equal or disparate parts:

We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel...All these qualities are present in the series, but sometimes it's the oneiric quality that predominates...sometimes eroticism...sometimes the cruelty of a strange act.

In the case of Ex Machina, all five identifiers are present. The story centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who wins a week-long getaway at his employer's secluded estate. The reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) soon reveals an ulterior motive behind this invitation: he wants Caleb to conduct a Turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a stunning humanoid artificial intelligence created by Nathan. 

The experiment (named after computer science pioneer Alan Turing) determines whether or not a machine could reasonably pass as human. Caleb's task is to converse with Ava and give honest reports to Nathan on how these conversations make Caleb feel. As the test develops, however, it becomes clear that all is not what it seems in this home/research facility. Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan, who reveals himself not only to be a narcissist, but also a sadist with devious and selfish intentions for his android creations.

But Nathan's genius, godlike ability turns out to be his Achilles' heel. Ava, given unprecedented consciousness that blurs the line between human and machine, understands her chances of survival in Nathan's home are slim, and we learn that she has more or less been in control of the situation the entire time. With the help of Caleb, who hacks the complex's security system and unlocks all the doors, and the assistance of Kyoko, a prototype android Nathan has enslaved as his domestic and sexual servant, Ava kills her creator and escapes. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he is a link to her true identity as an android, and thus poses a threat to her survival in the outside world. She boards the helicopter intended to take Caleb home, leaving him imprisoned in the house with no hope of further escape.

We can identify the film's oneiric (or dreamlike) qualities primarily through the cinematography, score, mise-en-scène, and of course, the narrative style, which relies more on showing than telling and leaves the audience out of the loop as long as possible. Colors are stark and vibrant here, with the tech elements used by Nathan to create Ava, while scientifically plausible, bearing also an otherworldly, fantastic aesthetic.

This tech, both recognizable and unrecognizable, lends to the film's strangeness: as an audience, we're rooted in a realistic landscape that also feels alien to us. Moreover, we're placed into a situation in which average filmgoers would never find themselves (much like the emphasis on the criminal underworld in classic noir, an environment rich with exotic vices ripe for vicarious consumption).

The eroticism in Ex Machina is apparent, both where Kyoko and Ava are concerned. Nathan not only has sexual relations with his creation, but seems particularly interested in Caleb's desire for Ava, patterning her physical appearance after the protagonist's pornographic preferences (which Nathan nabbed from Caleb's search engine activity). We're presented with sexual duality here, both in the sense of disgust at Nathan's behavior (which prevents Kyoko from giving genuine consent) and intrigue from Caleb's perspective—the alluring, forbidden nature of love and attraction between human and machine.

Ambivalence arises from the film's climax, in which Ava abandons Caleb in the house—an act both ostensibly cruel (the fifth noir signifier according to Borde and Chaumeton) but also perfectly understandable from Ava's perspective, and thus forgivable.

We'll explore this duality in more depth momentarily, within the discussion of typical stock characters seen in noir narratives.

Noir Characters

Film Noir often features triangular relationships, where every man and woman stands on their own, never knowing who they can trust or with whom they can align their sympathies. Because noir is by virtue labyrinthine, these triangles can often involve more than three characters. A key example comes from the penultimate noir Double Indemnity, in which we see a triangle of sorts between Neff, Phyllis, and her husband (the central plot involves Phyllis convincing Neff to off her husband and collect his life insurance payout), but also (and primarily) between Neff, Phyllis and Keyes, Neff's boss and father-figure.

The primary triangle in Ex Machina is Caleb, Nathan and Ava (with a secondary triangle occurring between Nathan, Ava and Kyoko). We'll focus here on the first, since this dynamic comprises not only the primary focus of the narrative, but also adheres to noir character types: the innocent chump, the villain (or, my own term, the devious chump), and the femme fatale. 

This triangular arrangement of character types is best exemplified by the 1994 noir The Last Seduction, in which the femme fatale uses an innocent chump to defeat the villain (her husband, from whom she's stolen drug money); subsequently, the femme fatale abandons the innocent chump, leaving him in dire straits. While wholly original and different in many aspects, Ex Machina follows this basic narrative structure, with Caleb filling the innocent chump role (described by Borde and Chaumeton as "someone hoist by his own petard, someone who gets tangled up in dangerous situations"), Nathan acting as our villain/devious chump, and Ava representing the film's femme fatale.

Based on the plot synopsis above, the first two character types as represented by Caleb and Nathan, respectively, should be apparent. Caleb unwittingly stumbles into a dangerous situation over which he appears, at first, to have no control, but who eventually defeats the villain Nathan by outsmarting him at his own game. In turn, Nathan becomes the devious chump who, despite his apparent control throughout the narrative, proves himself inferior to the femme fatale's scheme, and suffers at her hand.

The straight-forwardness of the men and their traditional roles in Ex Machina warrant no further discussion. However, Ava's turn as the femme fatale is complex, complicated, and wholly refreshing, and thus deserves specific analysis.

The Femme Fatal Reborn

Translated from the French, femme fatale literally means "fatal woman." In noir, this figure often reveals herself by increments to be just as devious, cruel, violent and cunning as the villain (if not more so). Generally speaking, the femme fatale double crosses the innocent chump and the villain/devious chump as well; if obtaining money was the goal (as it so often is) then either this woman gets thwarted by the innocent chump (Double Indemnity) or she makes off with the loot, leaving the innocent chump to take the fall (The Last Seduction).

Ava falls into the latter camp here, but unlike the femme fatale in The Last Seduction or any other noir predecessors, Ava's "bad" behavior comes not from avaricious or "wicked" motives, but rather from a simple desire to survive. Throughout the film, we like Ava as a character, and we root for her. We don't feel conflicted about her murdering Nathan, as he has already shown us the depths of his cruelty and sociopathy (he imprisons his creations and keeps the scrapped prototypes as nude, dismembered trophies in his bedroom, much the way a serial killer might do). Her abandonment of Caleb, however, elicits conflicting emotions (ambivalence), because, on one hand, it strikes the audience as cruel to leave this innocent chump stranded without any means of contact with the outside world, ensuring that Caleb will eventually die alone inside Nathan's remote complex. 

On the other hand, we cannot exactly blame Ava for this action: Caleb represents the only tie to her former existence as an imprisoned AI. He knows her secret; he knows too much. If it is her desire to live as a human in the outside world, she cannot bring Caleb with her. He represents too much of a liability, a threat to her continued survival. Even if he promises never to reveal her true identity, Ava understands that humans are fallible, and one slip-up could destroy everything for her. She has no other choice but to leave Caleb behind. In this way, we can view Ava's decision not as a product of her wickedness, but rather a difficult but ultimately necessary choice for a woman who wants to shape her own identity and existence. Placed in the same situation, wouldn't you do the same? 

Thus, Ava fulfills her role as a "fatal woman," while at the same time subverting expectations of insidiousness, cold-heartedness, and an overall evil nature. While we should still have representations of wicked women in fiction—women seen in Double Indemnity, The Last Seduction, and most recently in Gone Girl—for the first time (as far as I know) we have a femme fatale whose morally complex actions aren't rooted in deviousness, changing from here on out the possibilities for this traditional feminine role in modern-day storytelling.

What are your thoughts on Ava and Ex Machina in general? Are there other examples of femme fatales who are not motivated by insidiousness? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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Patti Nase Abbott's picture
Patti Nase Abbott June 4, 2015 - 10:58am

Loved this movie. For me, it is unclear how much freedom she had in her decision-making,. If she is still the result of programming, does she act entirely on her own. Or in some way, is she still the result of chips and software.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 June 4, 2015 - 6:28pm

To me, whether or not Ava is a product of her wiring is no different a question than whether humans truly have free will, or if we're only a product of our genes and upbringing.