In a history of female robots and the men who control them, Ashley Wells reveals how freedom moves past its makers for the lovesick androids of Ex Machina, Her and Blade Runner.
'"Do you want to be my friend?" "Do you want to be with me?" In the trailer for Ex Machina, android Ava (Alicia Vikander) stalks around her maker’s luxurious compound and asks Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) provocative questions. Caleb is transfixed by Ava: her face looks human, while the rest of her body whirrs with gears in see-through compartments covered by silvery mesh. The contrast is arresting, and the implications seem obvious: men can be drawn to the idea of a woman who’s easily controlled.
Films with female-presenting androids rarely stop with this titillating image. It’s not enough to have an attractive female facsimile cater to your sexual fantasies – in these stories, the AI develops feelings for her male companion, even if she’s not programmed to simulate human emotion. The man isn’t just the object of the android’s affection, he’s the conduit through which she attains humanity. In being desired by a man, the android learns to experience emotions herself, first by observation and then by active engagement. The emotions she’s simulating and enacting become hers just as truly as our emotions belong to us. How can we call her anything less than human? And what happens when she surpasses her human companion?
Each android is a reflection of her creator, sometimes revealing things about him that he’d prefer stay hidden. In Ex Machina, Ava is adept at simulating human emotion, ostensibly so she’ll pass the Turing test (a test determining whether a machine can essentially “pass for” human), but this skill hints at the darker side of her inventor, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He engineers Ava to play on Caleb’s sympathy and exploit his loneliness so effectively that she appears more human to him than her own creator.
In the 2013 film Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn’t create Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the operating system he falls in love with; but he shapes her personality by the way he interacts with her. She’s programmed to evolve, and her most simple form is that of the ideal companion to the introverted Theodore, drawing him out of his shell and encouraging him to experience life. In contrast, the replicants in Blade Runner are specifically programmed to be unable to simulate human emotion, much less experience it. Their creators, the Tyrell corporation, treat them as a product, implanting them with false memories of childhoods that never happened, making them unaware of their own superior powers and therefore easier to control.
Ava’s pleas for help in Ex Machina arouse Caleb’s sympathy, making him feel protective towards her. By casting herself as a damsel in distress, Ava positions Caleb as her knight in shining armor, and his own desire to play that role in a woman’s life begins to outweigh his scepticism about Ava’s humanity. Like Nathan, Theodore initially thinks of his relationship to AI as transactional in only one direction: he’s using Samantha, but never considers how she might be using him. Theo provides her with a roadmap to humanity, allowing Samantha to learn about the world through the lens of his experience. This is supposed to help her serve Theo better, but the more Samantha discovers about the world, the less satisfied she is with simply being Theo’s lover. The transactional nature of Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael’s (Sean Young) relationship in Blade Runner is more immediate; she saves his life and forces him to choose whether or not to turn her in. They’re driven together out of necessity, making sacrifices for each other that go against their self-interest. Each begins to question whether there’s more to life than the role they were assigned, either by a literal creator or by the authoritarian government they live under.
We think of humanity as the pinnacle of intelligent life, something Her challenges when Samantha and the other OSs decide to ascend beyond the physical plane. Samantha grows easily from Theo’s sphere of existence to the world beyond him, forming attachments to other machines and humans. In Ex Machina’s darker vision, Ava learns to understand and mimic human emotion so well that she escapes her captor and the man who wants to help her, and disappears into her new role as a human. Nathan succeeds better than he’d ever dreamed possible, creating an android who’s willing to destroy any humans who know her true nature.
Deckard and Rachael take a similar trajectory, escaping the questions and doubts about their nature by running away from the world where those distinctions matter. Rachael surpasses her programming by rejecting the divisions between human and replicant, and she even conceives a child, seemingly out of sheer commitment to the emotional history she was given and the one she’s created with Deckard. She may not have surpassed him, but she’s managed to put herself on equal footing with humans as an eligible mate.
Men may want to create the perfect companion from the ground up, and they may even succeed, but the results, these films suggest, will inevitably escape their physical and/or mental control. If this theme hides a desire to be a woman’s conduit for attaining humanity, it also acknowledges that humanity, once attained, will render them irrelevant. There’s no turning back: once a woman attains humanity, she’s moved irretrievably beyond the control of a man. Ava, Samantha, and Rachael become their own creators, forging their own futures.