Mad Max vs. Ex Machina

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Although I usually restrict this blog to writing about books and writing, I’m going to break away from that for a few minutes to write about a movie….actually, two movies. Sorry for the length on this one, but there’s a lot to cover.

There’s been a lot of talk about Mad Max Fury Road and whether or not it is feminist, false-feminist, or anti-man propaganda. My husband and I loved this flick in part because it’s an awesome romp of a kick-ass movie. But also because it’s what we think of as real feminism — feminism that frees us all. Because, contrary to common misperception, feminism isn’t just about women. It’s about every gender and gender identity. Our society forces it to begin with women, but it’s about everyone.

As it happened, we saw another movie just a day later – Ex Machina. We also liked this one a lot. This movie was not at all like Max, but it got us talking about many of the same concepts. Machina also deals with feminism, but in a world with no perceived allies and that was…interesting.

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

Before I explain, let me warn you that this post is pretty much made of spoilers. I can’t stress it enough, if you have not seen these movies and do not want the plot spoiled, stop reading right now. Seriously, so many spoilers! You’ve been warned.

Mad Max takes place in a world of concentrated, toxic patriarchy. A small group of diseased men rule this world. They control water, gas, and weirdly, even breast milk. Ragged men and women grovel at the base of warlord Immortan Joe’s mountain, waiting for the stingy allotment of water he bestows upon them by carelessly dumping it on their heads. He then watches as they scramble to catch the precious fluid before the desert swallows it up. Orwellian double-think is rampant in this world where the worshiping rabble are cautioned not to become “addicted” to water lest they resent its absence. Small boys and young men are enslaved as servants or warriors and women (with the exception of war-machine driver Imperator Furiosa) are either diseased and starving or scooped up to serve as breeders in an attempt to produce children without deformities. Yeah, it’s a bad, violent place.

Ex Machina takes place pretty much in the present day United States. In a nutshell, it’s about an IT genius who invents sentient sex toys to play with. Okay…it’s not introduced to us that way. In fact, what we get is Nathan, genius computer entrepreneur rich guy and all-around dick-swinging douchebag who invites quiet, introspective Caleb (his employee) to spend a week with him locked in his fortress of solitude.

Caleb is also a coder and he is honored and thrilled to have won this opportunity with a man he admires. After psychologically batting Caleb around, intentionally keeping him off balance and making him uncomfortable and nervous, Nathan reveals that Caleb is there to assess whether the android Nathan built passes the Turing Test (i.e. is she sentient?).

As the days pass and Caleb interacts with Ava the beautiful female android, he finds that Nathan may not be the man he thought he was. Nathan’s alcoholic rants, bullying, mind games, and paranoia begin to wear on Caleb as he comes closer to believing that Ava is not only sentient, but a prisoner and a victim.

So, the feminism here for the female characters in both movies is obvious. The women in Joe’s unwilling “harem” do not like being enslaved. Ava the android does not like being kept literally under glass. Not exactly hard to understand for anyone who is a member of the human race. They want to be free.

In Max, the women convince Furiosa, to smuggle them out of the city to “The Green Place” — an idealized, oasis in their dry, brutal world. The women in this movie take matters into their own hands. They take control of their situation and fight their way free.

In Machina, Ava is far more helpless. She has literally never been out of the room she inhabits deep within Nathan’s weird forest fortress. She enlists Caleb’s help by subtly letting him know that she is in trouble and that Nathan cannot be trusted. Her escape is a much trickier thing in that she does not know Caleb. If she reveals too much and he betrays her, she knows Nathan will shut her down, essentially killing her, and she will be unable to stop him. Asking Caleb for help is incredibly risky and, although it is Ava who delivers the ultimate death blow to Nathan, initially she is entirely reliant on Caleb for help. As a side note, I’ve enjoyed few movie moments as much as I enjoyed Caleb quietly informing Nathan that he has already hacked his security. He turns the tables on the asshole genius and it is marvelous.

The interesting thing in both movies is that we see that the men are just as enslaved by the patriarchy as the women are. In Max, we meet a young man named Nux. A sickly warrior who relies on the captured Max as his “blood bag” to continually replenish his blood supply to keep him going. It’s beautifully symbolic that the men are chained together in the beginning. The chain hampers both men, making them easier to defeat.

Nux worships Immortan Joe, but Nux is a disposable warrior, waiting only for a chance to sacrifice himself for the warlord. Joe is the stereotypical unpleasable father figure who casts a cool, unfeeling eye on Nux’s attempts to fight for him, calling it a poor effort as Nux clings to a speeding vehicle with his life in peril. Nux is crushed by this rejection, but it breaks some of his indoctrination and leaves him open to the kindness he gets from the escaping women. They refuse to hurt Nux, recognizing that he is just a boy who has bought into the bullshit. They treat him with kindness, go against the established violent ways of their society and his eyes are opened.

Max himself is a great example of another type of patriarchal enslavement. He shambles through life with a terrible case of survivor guilt. He was unable to save his wife and child and thus he is the ultimate failure in his own eyes. He is a lone shell with little emotion and no connections. He begins to come back to life as a character when he joins forces with Furiosa and the escaping women. It is not all up to Max to save everyone. He has help from his equals in Nux, Furiosa, and the other women. The burden is shared and everyone is freed.

In Machina, Caleb is much like Nux. He looked up to Nathan and was thrilled to come to his attention. But the shine doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The more time Caleb spends with Nathan, the more he comes to realize that he is only a tool to his idol. Caleb begins to sympathize with Ava. He grows suspicious of what Nathan has been up to and begins to uncover the horrible truth – that Nathan has created many androids for his own messed up experimentation. He uses them and discards them knowing that they are sentient as he erases them. In fact, he even discovers that Nathan’s servant Kyoko is not a human servant who doesn’t speak English, but an android who has been robbed of speech so that Nathan can enslave her.

This of course, is what makes the ending of Machina so very sad. It’s missing the trust and mutuality we get in Max. Nathan is the only man Ava has ever known. She has only seen his manipulations and abuses. She realizes she can use Caleb to help her, but she can’t trust him. Of course, there is a whole other layer here because Ava isn’t really a “woman,” she’s a sentient machine, which separates her from Caleb on a larger level, but the basic idea is the same. She sees herself as “other” than Caleb and Nathan. Caleb helps her and she is grateful enough to leave him alive, but she can’t allow him to follow her and leaves him trapped instead. They both end up defeated to an extent (though I think Ava has only begun to kick asses once she’s out), because there can be no trust between them.

The men and women in Max band together as equals and learn to trust one another (even the initially mistrustful women of the Green Place) and they triumph. The people in Machina remain mistrustful and see each other as nothing but “other” and everyone loses. So simple…but so true to life. So the essence of feminism. It’s not about men vs. women or taking anyone’s power. It’s not a zero sum game. It’s about coming together to empower us all.