Brilliant re-imagining of Frankenstein myth
Horror and science-fiction have often been closely related. Science-fiction writer and critic Brain Aldiss says that the great Gothic tale Frankenstein is the first modern sf story. The Frankenstein myth has often been reused in sf films and Ex Machina is one of the best.
It has a lot to say about technology. In an early scene when Caleb arrives at Nathan’s home/laboratory (a pristine modern take on the mad scientist’s lab) OMD’s Enola Gay is playing in the background. The message is clear, when the technological genie is let out of the bottle you can’t control what will happen. Nathan is devious and manipulative, locked away from the world in a massive natural reserve. His power is to all intents and purposes, absolute. He relishes the notion of playing God. But he is constantly drinking, oblivious to the beauty that surrounds him (another intertextual nod to Mary Shelley) and we come to see his creativity as selfish. His arrogance and hubris construct him as the villain of the piece. The Bluebeard scene is particularly disturbing. The film vividly portrays through his actions that technology can both literally and metaphorically, imprison us. Images of imprisonment, entrapment and confinement continue throughout the film.
All is not what it seems. Ava, the AI who Caleb is ostensibly on hand to apply the Turing Test to, is the femme fatale (a la Bladerunner). Caleb becomes increasingly entranced by her. Is this a natural or conditioned response? Is she being used or is she the manipulator? The film runs true to the Frankenstein script, with the eventual confrontation between creator and created, but cleverly works to both fulfil and subvert audience expectations. It is no surprise that Ava passes the Turing Test. But we are left with the discomforting idea that the test shows that the key marker of being human is not empathy or self-sacrifice or some other sentimental notion – it is deception. In Hitchcockian style, viewers are manipulated – who can be trusted, what is the truth? And it doesn’t stop there. Like its famous literary forbear, Ex Machina is a trenchant critique of conventional pieties, particularly the religious. If we are made in God’s image then God is deeply, tragically flawed.
Bladerunner now has an equal as a modern sf interpretation of Shelley’s masterpiece.