Sex, Monsters, and Today’s Frankenstein

Finding a companion film to The Bride of Frankenstein for this blog was a little tricky. While there have been plenty of Dracula, Frankenstein, mummy, and werewolf movies over the years, plus two different Guillermo del Toro takes on Black-Lagoon-esque gill-men, the pickings are slimmer when it comes to Bride.

Sure, there are homages to Elsa Lanchester’s hairstyle in the already-discussed Rocky Horror Picture Show and the to-be-discussed Young Frankenstein, to stick with just movies that are part of this blog’s work. There’s also an upcoming remake planned for Universal’s Dark Universe, assuming those plans are still on track. But the Bride’s story turns out to be rarely revisited in the context of monster movies.

The best place to look was outside of the horror genre. If I hadn’t already taken a trip to pre-Dracula Germany with Nosferatu, I might have written about Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, which is chock full of tropes that would surface again and again in later horror and sci-fi movies, including that of the woman animated by technology. I considered going to the ‘80s and watching John Hughes’ Weird Science. Ultimately, though, I settled on a more recent movie about two men and the manmade woman in the lab: Alex Garland’s 2014 Ex Machina.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

A visually striking movie, Ex Machina revolves around four main characters. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a tech genius entrepreneur who has been working on artificial intelligence at his remote estate. His current model AI is Ava (Alicia Vikander), who is the latest in a long line of robotic women including her still-active predecessor, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). To assess Ava’s quality, Nathan brings Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) to his home for a week of testing. Over the course of the week, Ava charms Caleb, whose relationship with Nathan grows increasingly strained. At the end, Nathan helps Ava escape her confined space, allowing her and Kyoko to kill Nathan and leave Caleb stranded while Ava leaves the estate. Kyoko, unfortunately, does not survive the escape attempt.

While more of a sci-fi thriller than a horror movie, Ex Machina is frighteningly relevant. Not only is the advent of AI an increasingly real economic threat to many service jobs that had previously been immune to automation (and the basis for a whole subgenre of dystopic stories like Terminator), but also the creation of sexualized robotic women is experiencing a resurgence of public attention as contemporary society grapples with the violent actions of sexually frustrated men like the self-described incels. Add that to the growing concern about tech companies and their brilliant-but-disconnected founders, and you’ve got a movie that reflects several of today’s scientific and social anxieties back at us in a way very similar to The Bride of Frankenstein’s reflection of 1930’s society’s relationship with science.

I’ll note here that I don’t think Ex Machina was actually made with many, if any, intended connection to The Bride of Frankenstein. However, it certainly has several interesting parallels and connections.

Where Bride wove religious themes in with its technological spectacle, Ex Machina focuses on the relationship between masculinity and femininity. It has fewer male characters than Bride, with Nathan combining Dr. Pretorius’s manipulative ambition and Dr. Frankenstein’s technical skill while Caleb blends Dr. Frankenstein’s qualms with the creature’s yearning for companionship. Nathan is more performatively masculine; he works out frequently, often by punching a heavy bag, and assumes he is the dominant person in every interaction. Caleb, by contrast, is skinny and easy to both impress and manipulate. His moments of triumph come from cleverness and social-emotional manipulation rather than physicality or power over the environment.

This simplicity in the presentation of its men also gives the movie the space to better develop its women, especially Ava. Alicia Vikander’s performance is compelling (and made all the more so given the amount of motion-capture gear she must have had to wear at times, but always with her face presented as itself), and Ava gets much more screen time than the Bride. She also gets actual dialogue, which is denied to Kyoko. Of all the women Nathan has created, that he keeps a silent Asian one active as a slave is a likely intentional indictment of him. That the movie’s ending involves that Asian woman sacrificing herself so that the white woman (Vikander is of Swedish and Finnish heritage) can escape (after patching the rest of her skin together from other predecessors, including several of color) is a likely unintentional problematic aspect of the movie’s resolution.

While Nathan and Caleb do have a brief conversation about why Nathan made Ava as a woman, neither character has the self-awareness necessary to articulate the broader implications of Nathan’s choices. Certainly, Nathan appears to see all other people (whether or not he created them) as disposable. He fully captures the god complex seen at times in both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein. He’s not making women because he craves acceptance. He’s making them because – since he has the power to make whoever he wants – they satisfy his appetites and flatter his ego.

Caleb, on the other hand, clearly has more insecurities about his social position. He is awed by the whole experience of traveling to meet Nathan, and his desire to be accepted and worthy leave him open to manipulation by both Nathan and Ava. Until the very end, he is the audience’s viewpoint character, which should raise questions about how each of us will react as AI becomes an increasingly real thing.

Even today, we can interrogate why so many GPS devices default to a woman’s voice, and why the almost-AI “assistants” tech companies create are coded as women. Are the ways we’re training ourselves to treat Siri, Alexa, and the nameless Google voice creating the patterns for how we’ll treat the first truly intelligent machines? And if the same people who created these disembodied women are the ones crafting the bodies for those machines, who are the first generations of AI robots going to be? When we have a chance to be Caleb, how will we react?

Ava, for her part, gets far more agency in Ex Machina than the Bride did in The Bride of Frankenstein. Despite that, most of the movie is about the man who created her and the man who’s assessing her. We get a few moments here and there where the focus is on Ava experiences herself, and we learn that she has been a major technical and social architect of her own escape. At the very end, with only her and Caleb left alive, she abandons him and becomes the viewpoint character for the last minutes of the movie. While I don’t think we’ll ever get it, a follow-up movie that keeps Ava at the center as the clear protagonist would be fascinating.

As it is, we get a movie focused on men. One embodies toxic masculinity’s obsession with physicality, dominance, and alpha status. The other spends quite a bit of time in Nice Guy™ territory, treating a woman as an object whose primary value for him is as a focus of attraction and affection. Yes, Caleb’s been told Ava’s an object (just as many men are told by aspects of today’s society that women are objects) and does eventually come to see her as a person. At the same time, he shows signs of entitlement. He feels he deserves reciprocated romantic interest in exchange for the things he does for her.

That male-centric characteristic is another telling point of connection between Ex Machina and The Bride of Frankenstein. Once again, I’m left wondering what a version of this story that’s more focused on women could look like. Suggestions (in any medium) are most welcome!

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