Artwork by Chloe Leeson
Ex Machina is one of the greatest films in recent history and addition to the sci-fi genre. One could examine the myriad of philosophical questions the film poses, but I want to examine the film’s parallels and distinctions from the great horror classic Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The most obvious tie is both their mentions and alluding to the Prometheus myth. Another important comparison is between Nathan and Victor as creators and gods. While the future is predicated on robots and artificial intelligence, life beyond humanity, the figures in Frankenstein’s era wish to create life from former life. During Caleb and Nathan’s first conversations, Caleb remarks that creating a conscious machine is the history of the gods. Nathan is keen to fashion himself as a god, this fulfills his already overblown ego. Victor Frankenstein also believes himself to be a god, noting the creation of his monster as akin to God’s creation of Adam. Both creators have their creations turn against them.
Victor and Nathan are both selfish, isolated geniuses who will let no one and nothing get in the way of their pursuit of power and scientific breakthrough. Victor does not care if someone has to die in order for his experiment to succeed, and Nathan of course goes far to manipulate Caleb in his quest for the true Turing Test. Nathan’s true objective is to have the A.I. escape. Even if Nathan ends up dying in the process (along with Caleb) his ultimate goal has been realized, Ava will likely pass as human in the end, signalled in the ending scene where she blends in amongst the crowd. One of the greatest arguments of Frankenstein is that man, particularly Victor, is the true monster, not the hideous creature. Nathan is clearly the monster in Ex Machina, one that wields his hegemonic and violent masculinity against oppressed females.
The key difference between these two narratives is that Victor constructs a male creature and Nathan constructs a female. Nathan specifically constructs a female creature to exploit her. In Frankenstein, there is no element of patriarchal control due to their same sex. What binds the two is the notion of fatherhood, are Victor and Nathan obligated to take responsibility for their creation? In some aspects, they are their children. Nathan remarks to Caleb that Ava has taken a liking to him because he is the first man she has seen besides him, “and I’m like her dad, right?” he says. This puts an odd Oedpial spin on their relationship. My reading of Nathan and Ava’s relationship is that he has had sex with her just as he has with all of his robots. Victor enacts a different exploitation, he becomes devastated by his hideous and monstrous creation and rejects him, leaving the monster to fend for himself in a world that cannot offer him anything because of his appearance. The monster seeks Victor out for revenge- angered that he abandoned him to the cruel world where he had no means of defence. At least Victor feels anguish over his abandonment- he wrestles with it throughout the novel and feels guilty.
The monster and Ava have key differences aside from their sex. Ava is constructed to look human, she wields her female looks to escape and successfully assimilate into human society. Frankenstein’s monster is hideous looking, and cannot find comfort or safety anywhere. One wonders what the dynamics would have been if Frankenstein had created a female monster instead. Whereas Victor outright abandons the monster and leaves him to the woods, Nathan imprisons Ava, and all of his creations. We see a chilling montage of past robots who have tried to escape, pounding on the door so hard their arms break off and erode. One reviewer calls Nathan a “Jigsaw for robots”, a sadist who got off on putting these robots within the confines of their small, windowless rooms day in and day out. And if you are truly creating something indistinguishable from a human, you would know your creation would go insane living in those conditions.
Victor and Nathan must deal with the question of “what is the self?” If their creatures are not human, how do we define humanity? Both the monster and Ava can seemingly think and feel, so therefore do they have automatic rights and deserve to be treated equally? Why do we assume that they have a lesser consciousness or agency because they are created by humans as opposed to God or whatever great unknown? Nathan believes that having sex with his robots will increase their consciousness, dangerously tying sexuality to the only means of being self-aware and a personhood. Nathan argues that consciousness does not exist without a sexuality. This can be debated, and Nathan is clearly trying to defend himself for creating live-in sex dolls for himself. Victor Frankenstein’s creature holds the brain of another man, so sexuality is likely apart of him. The creature asks for a female companion; which Victor denies after a fear of the two plaguing the world with even more monstrosities.
Both Victor and Nathan manage to have their creatures feel one of the most passionate human emotions- hate. Victor and Nathan’s creations turn against them, their boastful play-acting as God falls apart. Frankenstein’s monster ends his life after his creator dies, he feels he has no reason to live now that the chase between them is over. He feels a complicated mix of emotions, anguish, anger, and perhaps guiltily, joy. Victor abandoned him when he needed him the most and the monster could not forgive that. Ava, however, enacts revenge on her oppressor, killing her creator, father, and rapist. Frankenstein draws clears parallels to Ex Machina, both deal with heavy themes of creationism, consciousness and humanity. The key difference is Ex Machina’s examination of sexism. Both stories share the horrific aftermaths of a god slighting his creations.
By Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.
Categories: Feminist Criticism