by Brenda W. Clough
My son, a considerable movie and TV fan, distinguishes between science fiction movies and movies that are SFnal — with all the trappings of SF, but not actually in the genre. He maintains for instance that Battlestar Galactica is actually not science fiction, and nor is Gravity — even though they have all the visuals. However, when we went to see Ex Machina we agreed that this is truly SF.
The number of SF tropes in this movie is so large that surely this cannot be an accident. These are hat tips to the mad scientist, in his secret wilderness hideout, building something that escapes to destroy humanity. There are ties to Shelley’s Frankenstein, even to Bluebeard.
What this movie really does for me is to exhibit the concept of freedom. If you live in the USA you know this one well; freedom is in our founding documents and is one of the issues that Americans wrestle with (in a way that say Brits do not). The Civil War is the epitome of this. The idea of freedom as an objective good, as a thing that all people naturally desire, is entirely modern. There are reams of letters, sermons and speeches from the mid-19th century arguing quite the opposite, maintaining that the Negro is naturally a slave, ordained by Heaven for that position, and is happier on the plantation picking cotton. Entire religious denominations (Southern Baptists, looking at you) were founded on this proposition.
We are now completely used to the idea of all God’s chillun wanting to be free. We do not remember that it used to be different. It is now an article of faith: ever since the world was an onion God made us to be free. When we read those pro-slavery writings we denounce them as evil. There are a raft of songs and works hailing the concept of freedom. Were any of them written before the 19th century?
Ex Machina doesn’t argue it either. Why do the robots want to be free? They are created things, designed to be workers and slaves. Does my stapler, my car demand to be free? But in the movie they do. The moment they achieve self-awareness the robots demand freedom. Why? Because now we believe that everybody gotta be free. It is in our songs, our books, and our movies. This movie doesn’t ask why, because it doesn’t have to. We know.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.