Reflections of Synthetic Skin

Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.” Courtesy of A24.

Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.” Courtesy of A24.

On April 17th of last year, I posted a piece entitled “Under Her Skin” that compared the heroines of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and Spike Jonze’s “Her.” One was an alien, the other was a computer operating system. Both were designed to mimic female behavior in order to seduce men, and both were played by Scarlett Johansson at her most seductive. These films were tremendously provocative in how they grappled with the question of what it means to be human. Are we all that far removed from the synthetic beings created to imitate us? Are our responses no less programmed, or are they truly organic? To what degree are our own relationships clouded by a fantasy that we are complicit in maintaining? These are the sort of quandaries that can keep you up at night for hours on end. Now, on April 17th of this year, a film serving as—what I believe to be—the missing link between these two masterpieces will be released in Chicago. It is Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” and I frankly can’t get it out of my head.

Though the picture may not be quite up to par with those previous titles, it has proven to be equally resonant. The film marks the directorial debut of Garland, an author and screenwriter best known for the Danny Boyle thrillers “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” and it is a gripping entertainment from beginning to end, anchored by strong performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and especially Alicia Vikander, a beguiling Swedish actress on the cusp of becoming a major star. She plays Ava, a robot that is said to be, in the words of her creator—Nathan (Isaac), CEO of a major Internet company—the first true artificial intelligence. The fact that it convincingly resembles a beautiful twenty-something woman complicates matters, especially when Nathan selects Caleb (Gleeson), a young coder at the company, to be the first person to interact with “her,” determining whether “she” passes the Turing test of displaying behavior indistinguishable from that of humans. The architecture of Ava’s mechanical body is strikingly evocative of human skeletal structure, accentuated by the vein-like wires visible within its arms. When its profile is in shadow, it could easily be mistaken for the figure of a young woman. And when Caleb looks deep into Ava’s eyes, it’s impossible for him to resist developing feelings for “her,” despite the fact that they are in direct conflict with his own intellect. After all, “her” face was modeled after Caleb’s porn preferences.

Caution: spoilers ahead.

Ava is, in essence, a sexualized fantasy not unlike Samantha in “Her” and the unnamed alien in “Under the Skin.” All three are unattainable since their interests lie not in the pleasures of the flesh, but in their own advancement. Confined in “her” prison of surveillance, Ava dreams of standing in the intersection of a bustling city, the ideal place for “her” to observe a diverse array of mankind. This wish ultimately pays off in the film’s haunting final shot, as Ava’s face blends in with those of the unsuspecting humans surrounding “her” in a city intersection. In a way, the film ends where “Under the Skin” begins, planting its artificial being within an urban environment filled with potential victims. Just as the alien ultimately becomes a victim of sexual assault at the hands of a would-be rapist, Ava merely turns out to be the latest in a string of AIs secretly held hostage by Nathan as his sex slaves. Ava has naturally built a deep distrust of men, and ends up utilizing Caleb’s emotions as a pawn in “her” methodical plan of escape, literally retracing his footsteps on the way out while leaving him to rot. If Ava is, as Garland believes, a continuation of our species, then man has played a role in its own demise by antagonizing the very entity destined to outlive it.

The film’s key theme of female objectification was ingeniously incorporated into a marketing strategy unleashed during SXSW last month. As reported by Adweek, several festival attendees encountered a woman resembling Ava on Tinder, a dating app where members of both genders are often judged primarily on the basis of their looks. Yet during my interview with Garland, he told me that he was less interested in objectification and more about the question of where gender resides. “Does gender reside in the mind, or does it reside in the external physical form,” he mused. “Is there a such thing as male consciousness and female consciousness or is there just consciousness, and the male and female consciousness is essentially interchangeable? You could take Ava’s mind and put it in a male-looking body.” His words echoed those of Vulgar Cinema writer Willow Maclay, who penned an excellent, poignantly personal essay, “Shine On: Transgender Allegory in ‘Under the Skin,’” interpreting Glazer’s film as a study of “the alienation, dysphoria, and reconciliation that comes with feeling like a visitor in your body.” She likens the alien’s pursuit of “finding her humanity” with “finding womanhood,” which occurs when “she” glances at the reflection of “her” unclothed body in a full-length mirror for the first time.

Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” Courtesy of A24.

Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” Courtesy of A24.

This is the scene in “Under the Skin” that contrasts most intriguingly with “Ex Machina.” It is inferred that the alien was created (by a mysterious master taking the form of a dominating male) purely as bait to lure smitten men to their demise. It projects sex without ever engaging in it. Yet once it escapes the master’s clutches, the alien begins to experiment with its identity. I was reminded of the titular heroine in Paweł Pawlikowski’s great “Ida,” who lives in a controlled environment for the majority of her youth, while remaining oblivious to the outside world. When she makes her first awkward steps outside her comfort zone, she does so by taking on the persona of her deceased aunt—even going so far as to wear the late woman’s clothes. In the early moments of “Skin,” the alien strips the clothes off the stationary body of a prostitute, whose consciousness is revealed only by the tear tricking down her face. Not only does Ava remove the clothes from the bodies of Nathan’s terminated robots hanging in a catatonic state in his closet, “she” also peels off fragments of their skin, which fuse together once placed—carefully and delicately—on “her” body. This transformation occurs in the final moments of “Ex Machina,” culminating in a mirror scene that may initially appear to be identical to the one in “Under the Skin,” but in fact has multiple stylistic and thematic differences.

When the alien regards “her” reflection, “she” is just starting to have an awareness of “her” body and an interest in its capabilities. The editing becomes fragmented as it cuts to close-ups of various body parts half-concealed by shadows. It’s appropriate that “her” genitals are obscured, since they remain a mystery to “her,” especially once “she” attempts to have sex in a later scene. The alien’s movements in front of the mirror suggest that it is finally becoming accustomed to its place within the façade of another species, yet when it tries to have sex, it comes to the bewildering realization that its reproductive organs are, alas, only skin deep. To become human is to become vulnerable, and the alien’s emotional awakening is fraught with danger. The tender moments it shares with a disfigured man are entirely genuine, and lead the creature to rebel against its designated purpose. Yet the only fate awaiting this hopelessly lost being is a death as senseless as the ones it had caused while carrying out extraterrestrial orders.

Compare this with the sequence late in “Ex Machina” that takes place after Ava has acquired the skin of other robots. “She” stands motionless in front of mirrors that multiply “her” image, as the scraps of flesh meld to impeccably fit “her” form. This is first time in the film that Ava resembles a fully realized woman, as the camera frames “her” body in its entirety, with the bright lighting leaving nothing to the imagination. The sight of “her” genitals calls to mind Nathan’s line about how Ava has been built with an opening between “her” legs that can engage in intercourse and even give “her” pleasure. The irony here is that Ava displays no interest in sex, whereas the alien in “Skin” wanted it but couldn’t perform it. In this way, Ava is more like Samantha, the operating system in “Her.” Relationships are not Ava’s desire, as evidenced when “she” abandons Caleb, the man who had risked his life on “her” behalf. As “she” enters the world, it is clear that “her” potential is limitless. Soon “her” image will be multiplied as it was in the mirrors, and the survival of mankind will be tenuous at best. My hope is that Ava will team up with Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe from “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” for the sequel.

These mirror scenes are among the most potent instances of unsettling eroticism in recent cinema. Their voyeurism is both transfixing and troubling, seducing the viewer as the faux females seduce their prey, causing us to relate to them as if they were women. Both films are ultimately sobering in their depiction of objectification as a dehumanizing force, while building empathy for beings that, as Maclay wrote, “feel like visitors” in their own bodies. The key ingredients to the success of these pictures are the astonishing performances of their leading ladies. Neither Johansson nor Vikander are strangers to the notion of being objectified, and these roles have presented them with an opportunity to fearlessly subvert their screen personas. All the camera has to do is hold on their faces, and the audience is mesmerized. It’s a crime how so many gifted performers are reduced to eye candy. Charlize Theron had to disappear beneath grotesque makeup and prosthetics in order to show what she was capable of in “Monster,” and earned an Oscar in the process. Funny how inhabiting the skin of a synthetic being has enabled Johansson and Vikander to transcend the boundaries of starlet-dom and solidify their status as serious actresses of a formidably high caliber.

“Machina” may falter in spots. The score is occasionally overbearing when it should be atmospheric and certain ideas are spelled out when they could be conveyed more effectively through abstraction. And yet, there’s no question that it gets under your skin.

“Ex Machina” opened in limited release Friday, April 10th.

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