The latest trailer for the Ridley Scott-produced horror Morgan quadruples down on one of the biggest current trends in science fiction: Trying, and failing, to create the perfect woman.
Artificial intelligence and genetic engineering aren’t new topics in science fiction, especially over the past couple of decades. For as long as we’ve had computers and servants, we’ve been dreaming up ways where they could be combined.
In the past, we had a variety of subjects and experiences being covered in films and shows about these new forms of intelligence. A.I: Artificial Intelligence looked at whether we could manufacture childhood innocence and love, The Terminator examined the battle between creator and creation, Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man followed one android’s journey to become legally human. And of course we’ve got Blade Runner, which is basically the gold standard of films about artificial intelligence.
However, we’re starting to see the subgenre become a bit more, well, specific. A lot of the shows and movies we’re looking at have a focus on human perfection—mainly, female perfection.
We’ve got DNA perfection with Morgan, and chemically created intelligence with Lucy. With AI, there’s last year’s Ex Machina, where the first living examples of artificial intelligence created were all women. There’s the AMC show Humans, which has both male and female androids, but primarily focuses on one named Anita as she regains her true self. Plus, the first teaser trailer for HBO’s Westworld spends a lot of time on Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Dorothy, as she becomes aware of the simulation.
Of course, there are recent exceptions to the rule, in a manner of speaking. We had Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Chappie, which had male voices but not really male identities. Also, whatever Johnny Depp became in Transcendence, though I’d compare that more to Lucy than anything else. But overall, we’re really seeing a focus on the female experience when it comes to this new perfection.
There are plenty of possible reasons why the subgenre of perfect intelligence and hyper-humanity is focusing on women instead of men. The first is emotional expression. Studies have shown that while both men and women have similar emotional responses, like feeling sad at a death scene, women tend to show it more.
Visually, we need a clear indication that the artificial person is unnatural, and the best way to show that is by having them hide their emotions, which is more apparent with women. Of course, that goes into the black hole that is men hiding their emotions for seemingly no reason, but that’s a topic for another time.
For example, in Humans, you’ve got the character of Niska, a conscious synth who’s “reprogrammed” to serve as a sex slave (more on that below). When she’s pretending to be a synth versus acting like her conscious self, it feels way more pronounced than when her brother Fred does it because her natural self is more passionate, outspoken and, to be honest, expressive.
The next is the increasing demand for female representation in science fiction. It’s no secret that more people want the “babes and bullets” days of sci-fi to be over, opening the way for more diversity both in front of and behind the camera. And while we’re still far away from gender equality in science fiction, as well as equal representation with pretty much every other minority group in the United States, we are seeing growth and that appears to be reflected in this subgenre as well.
There is another reason, though, one that’s slightly more crude.
So characters can fuck them.
Pretty much every movie and show I mentioned above features the female character being hyper-sexualised, whether it’s to the android’s advantage or detriment.
In Ex-Machina, Ava uses her sexuality to trick Caleb Smith into helping her, and let’s not get into all the fuck-bots Oscar Isaac’s character engineers and then destroys. Humans features an uncomfortable scene where the husband re-programs Anita with the “18-and-over” package, plus you’ve got Niska’s stint in a robot whorehouse. Hell, Westworld opens with an image of Dorothy naked and beaten, with several allusions to the virtual world being used for sex.
Now, it would be stupid of me to assume that androids wouldn’t be used for sex. Not only is that currently happening with virtual reality, that’s been a common theme in science fiction for a long time, including Jude Law’s character in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. But it does create a dangerous precedent when all of your artificially created female characters are defined by how they use sex and how they’re used for sex.
So far, it doesn’t look like Morgan is going to go down that same path of sexualising its character- and let’s hope not, because that got really uncomfortable real fast in 2009's Splice.
In the end, the theme that’s prevalent in all of these films is that perfection is impossible. Either the characters succumb to what they see as their own human weakness, or they become something else—bigger and better than what originally spawned them. In a way, it’s sort an analogy for what it’s like to be a woman now. We’re either not good enough, or we’re robots.