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2015 was the year cinematic women broke out of prison

This article discusses the plots of Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina, and Room in their entirety.

A video made the rounds last May that mashed the catchy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt theme song with footage from Mad Max: Fury Road. How funny, the video seemed to imply, that these two wildly different pieces of entertainment had so many similarities: A group of women break free from the clutches of an evil cult leader and set out to remake their lives. But it’s not just Kimmy Schmidt and Fury Road that center on women breaking out of prison. In fact, 2015 was chock-full of movies and TV shows about female escapees.

In Jessica Jones, Krysten Ritter’s superpowered detective hunts down the mind-controlling villain who kept her imprisoned in her own body. In Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac’s eccentric tech genius builds a female robot and keeps her locked behind glass. Meanwhile, Room centers on a young woman imprisoned against her will for seven years. And it’s not just men doing the jailing. Lily James’ Cinderella is kept under lock and key by her stepmother, while Shailene Woodley is subjected to tests in a familiar sci-fi glass prison by Kate Winslet’s icy autocrat in The Divergent Series: Insurgent.


The idea of women breaking out of prison was everywhere in 2015—notably more prevalent than it has been in years past. And that leads to two natural questions:

  1. Why is this theme so popular right now?
  2. To what end are filmmakers utilizing this prison imagery?

The most likely answer to the first question is that as discussions of feminism have become more mainstream over the past few years, those themes and concepts are seeping into new screenplays or influencing which stories are selected for big screen adaptations. (Room is based on a 2010 novel, for example.) Much as terrorism became a go-to subject matter for superhero stories following the 9/11 attacks, prisons seem to have become a go-to thematic touchstone for stories of female survival. These films and TV shows literalize the concept of patriarchy—a system in which women are subservient to men—by putting women behind bars.

Three of the best movies of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina, and Room, perfectly demonstrate the very different ends to which filmmakers utilized prison imagery last year. If these three films haven’t entirely swept through awards season, they’ve rightly been a large part of the conversation. (Though Ex Machina wasn’t up for Best Picture at last night’s Oscars, it’s been consistently cited as a favorite among those in the industry.) Where male-centric prison break films tend to take place in real prisons (think The Great Escape, The Shawshank Redemption, and Escape From Alcatraz), Fury Road, Ex Machina, and Room feature devious cages created by power-hungry men eager to imprison beautiful young women.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Wildly dissimilar in genre and tone, the three films even structure their escape stories differently: In his utterly insane dystopian car-chase flick, director George Miller focuses almost exclusively on the high-octane escape of Immortan Joe’s five wives, with details of their imprisonment implied only in sparse bits of exposition. Loud, noisy, and constantly in motion, Fury Road paints with a broad brush to comment on societies and how men and women function within them. In Ex Machina, meanwhile, writer-director Alex Garland ruminates on the imprisonment of a beautiful female robot, with her suspenseful escape saved for the last few minutes of the film. An intensely cerebral film, Ex Machina is interested in philosophical ideas about humanity and—I would argue—storytelling itself. And Lenny Abrahamson’s Room splits the difference, with the first half of the film charting Ma and Jack’s life in a tiny one-room prison and the second following their adjustment to life in the big, wide world. Intensely human, Room tells an intimate story that simultaneously touches on larger themes of motherhood.

Fury Road stands out as the the most overtly feminist of the three. With help from Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s Mad Max, five enslaved “wives” (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) break out of their captivity at the hands of tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and flee across the desert. Though Men’s Rights Activists were quick to read it as an attack against men, Fury Road makes a far more nuanced argument than “men are bad, women are good.” The film’s thesis is that Immortan Joe’s violent, hyper-masculine society is hurting everyone—not only the beautiful women forced into sex slavery, but the peasants denied water, the larger women forced to produce milk, and the young War Boys who are taught that the only way to live a good life is to die in one of Joe’s battles.


Fury Road asserts that healthy societies cannot function without a strong sense of empathy and nurturing—traits generally associated with women, both in the film and in real life. Having suffered at the hands of Joe, the wives adopt a nonviolent philosophy; they use their own bodies as human shields and release War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) rather than kill him. And their empathy ultimately provides a better life for everyone as they take over Joe’s kingdom: Nux finds fulfillment in caring for others; the “milk bag” women break free and give the peasants water; and the War Pups won’t have to grow up in a world that glorifies their death. Fury Road argues that freeing women from the societal chains that hold them back will create a world that is more fair and just. In other words: There’s no need to fear a feminist revolution.

Ex Machina, however, doesn’t necessarily offer such reassurances. Tech genius Nathan (Isaacs) enlists meek Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to determine whether his newly designed female AI Ava (Alicia Vikander) can pass as a human being. After befriending Ava, Caleb wrestles with the decision of whether or not to free her.

Ex Machina

As the film asks big questions about the human condition it seems to be angling toward a familiar narrative: Ava will sweet talk Caleb into helping her escape, at which point she’ll reveal whether she actually loves him, hates him, or feels sorry for manipulating him. Regardless, Caleb will have some role to play in Ava’s journey, much a Theodore Twombly had a role to play in the self-actualization of his AI girlfriend Samantha in Her. But instead Ex Machina pulls the rug out from under its audience: Rather than monologue to him about her feelings, Ava dispassionately leaves Caleb locked up as she escapes—not because she wants to punish him, but simply because she has no more use for him.


It’s a chilling ending that could easily be read as a critique of women as selfish or manipulative. But Ex Machina is intentionally subverting conventions about female coming-of-age stories. As Kelsey McKinney writes in The Atlantic, “Literary girls don’t take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men.” Ex Machina, however, eliminates men from its finale entirely. We don’t even learn what happens to Caleb as our perspective switches to Ava—a decision that caused controversy over whether the movie should have wrapped up three minutes earlier to keep the focus on its male protagonist. But Garland’s cut is intentional and intentionally jarring. In captivity Ava was defined by her male captor and male ally. Outside of prison, she is defined only by herself.

Without robots, car cashes, or genre elements to heighten the mood, Room is the most straightforward of the three films. It follows 24-year-old Ma (Brie Larson), who has been kept under lock and key in a tiny shed by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) for the past seven years. Her one reason for living is her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who believes Room makes up the entire world. The first half of the film is a story of survival. Ma, like Ava, has learned to manipulate her one connection to the outside world in order to get what few luxuries she’s allowed. But following a suspenseful escape sequence, Room goes on to explore a topic neither Fury Road nor Ex Machina have time for: recovery.


Though the most literal of the three films (loosely based on a even more horrific real-life case), Room has an allegorical edge as well. As Noel Murray puts it in his A.V. Club review, “This is to a large extent a story about how mothers and fathers spend the early years of their children’s lives trying to shelter them from the harsher realities of the world, and then find—sooner than they’d expected—that their kids haven’t been properly prepared for what awaits them beyond the bounds of their own backyard.”


But I would argue the film centers more specifically on motherhood, rather than parenthood in general. Women are still far more intensely defined by their parental status than men, and for the first five years of his life, Ma is forced to put her entire focus on Jack—quite literally never spending a moment away from him. Living exclusively for her son is both her blessing and her curse. In captivity, her identity is subsumed by Jack’s daily needs. Once they are safely outside, Ma must figure out who she actually is. Room is simultaneously a tribute to the strength of women, a critique of the societal expectations that mothers must define themselves by their children, and a celebration of the joys of parenting.

But as much as Fury Road, Ex Machina, and Room are about women, they’re also about men. Hardy’s gruff Max, Gleeson’s cautious Caleb, and Tremblay’s innocent Jack all feel obligated to help these female prisoners escape. (Jack is also helping himself escape, although he doesn’t really comprehend that he’s a prisoner.) Fury Road complicates that further by giving the traditionally male “knight in shining armor” role to Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Yet even so, the heart of the film lies with her growing friendship with Max, defined by their mutual desire to help free the wives. None of the films are particularly interested in exploring the male captors themselves (although Ex Machina comes closest), but they are interested in exploring how men and women relate to each other in situations with an inherent power balance. In social justice parlance, these men are the “allies” trying to help the disenfranchised, and in these three films they are as important, if not more so, than the female prisoners themselves.


Without making too fine a point of it, Fury Road, Ex Machina, and Room mull over issues of patriarchy, gender roles, female strength, and allyship. That the films explore similar themes in vastly different ways is a testament to Hollywood’s growing interest in female characters (women made up 22 percent of protagonists last year, a new record high). That the films center mostly on white women and were written and directed mostly by white men (Emma Donoghue adapted her own book into Room’s screenplay) is a testament to the limitations that still exist in Hollywood. But what’s especially refreshing is that these stories of female imprisonment and escape weren’t the only female stories told last year, with the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, Carol, Joy, Trainwreck, Tangerine, Inside Out, and the final Hunger Games offering very different female-centric perspectives.

Wesley Morris and James Poniewozik recently argued that diverse TV is “better TV“ because creators are forced to tell new stories. Fury Road, Ex Machina, and Room are perfect examples of the type of exhilarating storytelling that emerges when the lens is shifted toward the female experience. Perhaps Hollywood is finally realizing that not only are females strong as hell, their stories are pretty damn interesting too.


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