It’s a solid movie that actually leaves you with quite a lot to think about than you might originally expect it would because the film at first is actually quite conventional. A lot of its themes are fairly typical of sci-fi and there are quite a few familiar beats in it that, if you’ve seen any sci-fi at all, you would be able to predict. Even the ending is predictable… to an extent, because then there are a few small but crucial elements in that ending that suddenly cast everything that came before in a feminist light, and all of a sudden, all of those typical sci-fi conventions and philosophies and themes seem to head in a new direction altogether. The film then is basically one long buildup to its final few moments – it’s a fairly daring decision, I would say, making that necessary sacrifice of letting the film play out in a conventional manner so as not to risk losing the meaning and message of the final few images.
So how does that work? Well, for starters, we have two male characters in this movie, and one female android/AI/whatever. Throughout the film we’re constantly observing Ava through the eyes of these two male characters, through their “male gaze” (I’ll get back to that term in a bit). Whatever questions are being raised about consciousness, about AI, about Ava as a real person etc., they’re constantly being framed, deliberately, from the POV of the two male characters. We have Nathan, who seems to be a complete monster and a villain, a man who seems to only ever make female androids – not just that, female androids of different, different races/ethnicities – we have a black android, an Asian looking one whom Nathan seemingly uses alternatively as a servant and sex toy and who knows what else, and so there’s a whole other world of subtext there that you can dig into if you want (though I’m not going to). We have Caleb, who seems like a generally nice guy (although by the end of the film he turns out to be more of a “Nice Guy,” more on that in a bit), and so we’re constantly being asked to consider Ava through their eyes – is Caleb going to help Ava escape? Should Ava be helped to escape? Is she really human? Is she actually attracted to Caleb? Etc. etc. That goes on for a while, and we have a big climax where Nathan is killed and Ava escapes, but hang on – a couple of scenes here are crucial.
The first is that although Ava uses Caleb’s help, it’s only with the help of the other female android that she actually manages to kill Nathan, so already we have the women in this film being elevated to a more important role and Caleb’s role in the proceedings is slightly diminished. Second is the scene where Ava removes the skin from other androids and “dresses” herself up until the “android” part of her is completely hidden and we’re left with the human, Alicia Vikander, naked, standing in front of a mirror. You might wonder – why are watching this? Then a realization hit me, something I didn’t notice on my first viewing of the film – all throughout this scene, Caleb is standing there, looking at her, staring at her, like a creep. Instead of maybe getting himself busy trying to find a way out or getting ready to leave, whatever, he spends his time looking at Ava and we, the audience, are also then looking at her from his perspective, from his “male gaze,” and suddenly we realize that even he doesn’t view her as anymore human than Nathan did. To him, she’s still an object, an object of his desire, sure, but an object nevertheless. Suddenly all of that stuff about him hating Nathan and wanting to help Ava escape because maybe he thinks she’s human blows away into smoke. To him, the only value she has is the value she poses for him and the only reason he seems to do anything to help her is because of how he sees her in relation to him. It’s a shocking twist then that Ava actually calmly and casually abandons him, leaving him locked in a room, probably to die eventually. Who knows.
We then have a couple of shots – first of Ava’s shadow entering the frame and being the only thing in the frame, and then we have shots of Ava considering herself and her reflection in the window pane of a shop. All of a sudden now, with both the male participants of the movie having been removed, we’re suddenly asked to consider Ava as her own person, see her through her own eyes, see her as a person, an individual, who can make her own choices, a human even – but it’s more than that. The film doesn’t paint her as a saint – we’re left with lingering questions. Was she being manipulative all throughout the film? Was leaving Caleb there to die an immoral/unethical/whatever choice? However, all those fairly standard philosophical sci-fi questions about AI and humanity suddenly come together here and head in a new direction entirely: This is no longer a film just about AI and human beings, it’s not just about a fictional world, it’s now also about women, in the real world, and how they’re constantly viewed as subhuman by so many men around them, how they’re treated as objects, how they’re constantly subjected to that “male gaze” in media, how they’re forced to comply to things that really aren’t beneficial to them, and how the men try to control their choices and their lives. In the end, it turns out that it’s not really a film about whether or not Ava is human, it’s about how she is also a woman – and how those two things are not separable in any way whatsoever.