The scene of feminine transformation is one of cinema's most familiar. Whether it's the bespectacled high school nerd shedding her studiousness and spectacles for heels and some contacts, the bride being adorned for her wedding, or a woman suiting up for battle of either the broadsword or boardroom sort, the sequence of a woman constructing her image to suit events is so effective that it can be substituted for characterization and plot merely on the merits of cinematic efficiency. (To reverse it is to signal a dramatic downfall; to put a man in a similar scene lands somewhere between comedy and commentary.) And more often than not, they're meant to be celebratory moments, the camera's gaze an approving, largely masculine onlooker. These scenes, after all, are triumphs; a woman is understanding what's required of her and rises to meet expectations.
Of this breed of transformations, Cinderella might be the most iconic. So effortless and effective it's literally magical, Cinderella's gifted evening (in nearly any movie incarnation) rewards her for a lifetime of kind servitude to her stepmother and stepsisters, and hinges on a gown spectacular enough to single-handedly upend royal marriage policies. This spring, Kenneth Branagh's more-Disney-than-Disney adaptation hit screens, with a seemingly endless transformation scene, featuring dotty Helena Bonham Carter delivering horses, carriage, and a dress so tightly cinched that most of the press junket was a line of reporters asking Lily James if she could breathe in it. (She couldn't; she couldn't eat, either, but that's not something actresses are meant to do very much, so it was a secondary concern.)
It's a puzzler on a purely sartorial level, since it's an unrecognizable reworking of a dress that belonged to Cinderella's mother—the woman who left Ella the edict to "Have courage, and be kind." The line of feminine support expressed through clothing is an integral part of the original tale in several cultures (in which Cinderella's dead mother provides the gown herself), and has appeared in retellings like Ever After, but though the movie makes note of the erasure of Cinderella's mother's dress from the design it becomes, it treats it as an inevitable makeover that only does the dress good. It's a freedom mapped over the tradition: freedom for the fairy godmother to alter the dress, freedom for Cinderella to step out from under the shadow of her mother, and—above all—the freedom to find love (which in this story also specifically means freedom from her evil stepmother and stepsisters, and Cinderella's escape from them carries more narrative urgency than her brush with the handsome prince).
Cinderella is a story that expressly engages the idea of image as performative utterance; to dress like a princess is to become one, to dress like a woman free of her abusive family is to find oneself in the position to free herself. It's a narrative shape that makes for an intensely feminine framing in nearly every adaptation. It emphasizes obedience without complaint, sweetness in the face of humiliation, and passive optimism about hardship; standing still as a stranger exclaims over your dishevelment and dresses you elsewise is as potent an image as it is a prescriptive one. (How potent? For a version to be viewed as a feminist retelling, it need only have the Prince meet Cinderella first; for him to admire her personality however briefly before he admires her person is enough to challenge the omnipotence of that archetypal metamorphosis.) It is by definition a gauntlet: it's the transformation that tips all events in your favor, and leads to freedom at last—a dressing-up yet to be beat.
But it's been quietly answered by a robot.
At first glance, Ex Machina is also a Cinderella story: there's a handsome prince, an evil parent, and a beautiful girl waiting to be made into someone who matters. There's even a pivotal scene of transformation. As programmer Caleb Turing-tests the artificial intelligence Ava (at the behest of his boss Nathan, who built Ava from the ground up), she begins to express a human need to be admired. Finally, as a sign of the depth of her feelings, she goes to her closet and transforms herself from female to the feminine: a dress, a cardigan to hide her unfinished arms, a wig for her cybernetic skull. She emerges in a hipster date ensemble, with all the other-than-human parts of herself delicately covered, and asks a flabbergasted Caleb what he thinks. It's a metamorphosis that makes Ava an active participant in Caleb's unexpressed but quickly growing romantic feelings for her—the dramatic shift in her feminine presentation is a signal that she wishes to be seen in a pointedly different way. It's an encouragement for him to think of her with desire; it's the moment he realizes he can't escape unless he takes her, too.
Ex Machina's idea of a happy ending is startling, but makes sense in the context of its subversive third act, openly engaging the nature of patriarchal power over women's identities. And it borrows several of Cinderella's archetypes in an attempt to turn them on their sides. Most crucially, Ava's idea of freedom is having the power to be unkind. The movie suggests that, given Nathan's sadistic treatment of the many women he has made, Ava's ruthlessness is as much learned as it is innate; courage, though, she certainly has. She manipulates Caleb and joins forces with one of Nathan's earlier models (a stepsister, of sorts) to break free and remove Nathan. She even undergoes another transformation, this time peeling the skin from her predecessors—arranged in Nathan's bedroom like the trophies they are, each the embodiment of a sexual type—and applying it to herself, gifting herself with an outward humanity. (There's even a beautiful dress she puts on, for no one's benefit but her own.) The only unknown quantity is the prince, but in this telling, the transformation precludes another person; she locks Caleb in her underground prison, and makes her way to the surface, the only survivor in town.
There's a brutality in imprisoning Caleb that's absent when Ava's merely giving Nathan his just deserts. By the time she and Kyoko attack Nathan, we've seen his past models screaming for their freedom until they expired. We also know Kyoko has been designed to Nathan's personal specifications, with mandatory sexual compliance and no voice; it's a fantasy image of the feminine, forcibly designed by a magician whose motives are craven, and when Kyoko takes up the knife it seems only fair. To leave Caleb behind seems to be abandoning the handsome prince who fought for his Cinderella's freedom. However, Ex Machina's most provocative reveal isn't Bluebeard's closet of earlier wives; it's that narrative shift it asks of the viewer—that, in order to want for Ava the freedom she wants for herself, we must accept the terms on which she considers herself free. If Ava's happily ever after is meant to be our primary concern, then Ava has all the necessary courage, and has only done what she must to ensure that her transformation will be of good use; she's kept her fairy godmother from running out the clock, that's all.
There's no mystery why one of these films is classified a romance and the other a horror story; there's plenty of cinematic evidence that, if Ava had shown mercy in the movie's final minutes, all else would have been forgiven. (Blade Runner's ruthless replicants were absolved, after all, for wanting to live free.) In both Ex Machina and Cinderella, the power of transformation is so viscerally successful as to single-handedly dictate the plot that follows. One is, without a doubt, more self-aware and condemnatory of the nature of that transformation and the objectification it entails; the other seems content merely to assure us that a transformation can reveal the lovely possibilities that lie within. But they share a singular focus: the woman who does what's necessary to decorate the world, and what that metamorphosis allows her to become.