While most reviews of Ex Machina (2015) reference Frankenstein, none that I read unpacked the idea fully. Here I want to focus on the character of Nathan Bateman, played by Oscar Isaac, and how he compares to the archetype of the mad scientist.
Just as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Nathan isolates himself from society and hides away in his research facility. He has a sole companion and servant – though trade hunchback gravedigger Fritz for android concubine Kyoko. And he dedicates himself fully to his work, the work of gods: creating life.
Victor Frankenstein’s first words upon reanimating his monster: ‘Oh God! Now I know what it feels like to be God.’ It makes sense then that his creation is constantly compared to Adam, the first man. Nathan takes the baton from his predecessor and endows his own artificial intelligence with sexuality, creating Ava (an Anglicised version of Eve) – the first woman.
Nathan playfully alludes to his godlike status when misquoting a remark made by Caleb, employee and human component of the Turing test, “I’ll never forget it, you turned to me and said ‘You’re not a man you’re a god.'”
Nathan describes his work as Promethean: comparing himself to the Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods. Mary Shelley made this comparison of her own protagonist – the full title of her novel being Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Ex Machina takes it’s modernisation a step further, where Prometheus was sentenced to have his liver pecked out by eagles for eternity, Nathan is cursed with his own affliction of the liver – alcoholism.
Whether he sees himself as a god, or a rival to god, the implications are there. Even the title alludes to god through it’s absence, a play on words in the expression Deux Ex Machina: A God from the Machine. A folder on Nathan’s desktop is labelled with this phrase, containing a bank of all his previous research, all the development stages of the various prototypes that preceded Ava. From this computer Nathan is able to oversee the goings on around the entire facility as the all-seeing eye-in-the-sky.
More than a god – he’s normal
Aside from the obligatory god complex, Nathan is interesting in the way that he drifts from the archetypal scientist. Okay so he is white, male, egotistical and insane. Granted. But he expresses a sexual desire and has a passion for art. He has a beard and calls people ‘dude’. He drinks, fucks and dances like a pro.
Where mad scientists are usually so detached from humanity that they are incapable of love and have no apparent sexuality, Nathan would seem to against the grain. That is until we learn that his sex slave Kyoko is nothing more than a real-doll. A very-real-doll that he abuses along with Ava.
His sinister objectification is perfectly symbolised in the prototypes tucked away in the closets of his bedroom – another intertextual nod, this time to the dark fairy-tale of Bluebeard, a name very similar to Nathan’s Google-like company Blue Book. Caleb is given a key-card, modernising the key of the tale, and told which rooms he can enter. He eventually disobeys and discovers, like Bluebeard’s new wife, the bodies of all his previous women.
Nathan is a predatory genius, stocky, threatening and knowingly intelligent, relating to Caleb by saying he knows what its like to be higher than his peers. He may be smart and bespectacled, but the image of the weak, cowardly scientist is shattered by the first time we see him, hammering away at a heavy bag. Later he shows his fighting savvy when making a weapon of his dumbbell and throwing a single-blow knock-out to both Caleb and Kyoko. Typically the mad scientist relies on his brain not his brawn, but Nathan is an evolved take on the character. He is cleverer, stronger and cooler than the everyman, though certainly not without his flaws (insanity).
Just as the artificial intelligence in this film has advanced to the point of being indistinguishable from humans, it seems to apply to the scientist also – more grounded than previous representations and more likely to pass the Turing test.