Posted on January 22, 2016

Short Cuts: Ex Machina and Dracula?

Dawn Keetley

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) has obvious gothic roots. The eccentric Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), who creates artificially intelligent female “robots” in his isolated compound is a clear descendent of both Frankenstein and Doctor Moreau. A less obvious forebear for the film, though, is Dracula (both Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and Tod Browning’s 1931 film).

The frame above is centered on programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), who has been whisked by helicopter to Nathan’s compound after supposedly winning a competition. In actuality, he’s there to perform the Turing test on Nathan’s latest creation.

The opening of the film is replete with references to Dracula. As the helicopter pilot drops Caleb seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Caleb protests, “You’re leaving me here?” The pilot replies, “This is as close as I’m allowed to get to the building”—which evokes Renfield’s unceremonious abandonment at the Borgo Pass in Browning’s film, as the driver refuses to get any closer to Count Dracula’s castle.

The first time Caleb meets his mysterious host, moreover, the latter tells him he had planned to have breakfast with his guest but “I can’t really eat anything . . .” Although Nathan simply has a hangover, the moment evokes Dracula’s pointed refusal to eat or drink with Renfield (or Jonathan Harker, in the novel).

And just as Dracula forbids Harker from communicating with the outside world, so too does Nathan tell Caleb he can have no contact with anyone (ostensibly to safeguard his research). Nathan also tells Caleb that there are rooms in his compound the latter cannot enter (just as Dracula confines Harker in the novel). In fact, at one point, Caleb finds himself briefly locked in his room (just as Harker is).

In the frame above, Caleb walks down a hallway, looking at faces on a wall—the remains of Nathan’s earlier efforts to create the perfect artificial woman. Caleb is walking toward Ava (Alicia Vikander), the last and best of Nathan’s creations—a hybrid machine/woman who will finally seduce and imperil Caleb.

Like the faces lined on the wall, Ava is herself an uncanny entity, a nonhuman who seems very human—and who is thoroughly alluring in her apparent humanity. This moment, I think, as Caleb is drawn past the faces toward Ava, is like the moment in Browning’s Dracula when Renfield becomes almost fatally fascinated by Dracula’s brides.

Dracula brides2

This frame evokes Dracula, then, because it distills the threat of the nonhuman (vampire, machine)—a threat all the more powerful for these male protagonists because it is embodied as a woman.

Anyone else see resonances of Dracula in Ex Machina?

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