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Sympathy for the Other: The Science-Fiction Horror Film in the Brexit/Trump Era

It’s not over. It’s just not yours any more.

– Melanie, The Girl With All the Gifts

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Note: This post contains minor spoilers for the reboot of Westworld and major spoilers for the endings of The Girl With All the Gifts and Ex Machina. Consider yourself warned.

Horror is always an interesting genre to watch, particularly when it comes to extrapolating trends. Like science-fiction, horror is generally insulated by a layer of allegory. While subjects like abortion might be very controversial if woven into a drama film, horror has a freer hand to explore those ideas through reproductive horror. Real-world fears and anxieties are frequently reflected back at the viewer through a nightmarish prism, rendered visceral and abstract in the process.

The economic uncertainty of the seventies gave way to an entire genre of haunted house films typified by The Amityville Horror, scary stories about families broken by the largest single investment that any of them would make. The fears bubbling beneath the surface of the Reagan era gave way to horror films like Nightmare on Elm Street or People Under the Stairs, the unspoken fear that morning in America concealed some dark secrets. The nineties found horror blurred with postmodernism and unreality, from Scream to eXistenz to Urban Legends.

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However, a recurring theme in horror concerns the most primal of fears. Horror is understandably preoccupied with the fear of “the Other”, the concept that stands in opposition to the self. It is in many ways an instinctive fear of that which is different, the suspicion that something that is distinct must also be dangerous. Horror films have long been read as coded expressions of this deep-seated fear of that which is different from the mainstream; the Other as defined by concepts like race or gender or sexual orientation or political ideology.

This is not a new concept, by any measure. It is possible to read a queer subtext into Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a reproductive horror about a man who dares to give birth. It is possible to read a xenophobic subtext in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with its eccentric Eastern European monster coming to civilised London to prey upon its women. There are countless other examples in the history of the genre, from the tales of the Brother Grimm through to Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno.

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Indeed, many clever horror stories have recognised and played with this tendency to varying degrees. This is not a new idea by any stretch, with James Whale’s Frankenstein and (in particular) The Bride of Frankenstein consciously queering up its adaptation of Mary Shelley’s work. More recently, Tucker and Dale Versus Evil cleverly subverted the tendency to render poor Southern whites as “the Other” in horror films dating back to Deliverance and beyond.

In the past decade, identity politics have entered the mainstream. Audiences and critics are now expected to understand and engage with subtext that would previously have been allowed to simmer beneath the surface. There are countless examples; recently, the outrage around Leslie Jones’ character in the reboot of Ghostbusters, despite the fact that it is functionally the same role that Ernie Hudson played in 1984. In many ways, this is a reflection of broader cultural trends. Identity politics have become a defining aspect of domestic politics around the world.

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Consider the racial subtext (or occasionally supratext) of certain criticisms of President Barack Obama or the meteoric rise of UKIP in the United Kingdom. Unrest and uncertainty across the United States about the killing of black men by law enforcement. Donald Trump’s desire to “make America great again”, tied to promises to build a wall facing Mexico and refuse Muslim immigrants. The Brexit vote so charged that a pro-immigration member of parliament was assassinated on the same day a poster famously evocative of Nazi propaganda was released.

Those are the more recent examples. This storm has been brewing since the turn of the millennium at the very latest; Austria’s Freedom Party becoming the country’s second-largest part in 1999, Pim Fortuyn’s bold anti-immigration rhetoric in the Netherlands in the first years of the twentieth century. Although Marine Le Pen has worked hard to seem more respectable, she is very much building on the campaign that began with her father. She is currently running neck-in-neck with Sarkozy.

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There have been attempts to frame this movement in economic terms, pointing to voters who felt increasingly left behind in the era of globalisation; the classes squeezed by the Great Recession and losing jobs to China or automation. This is certainly fair, but it only accounts for some of this shift. However, there is research to suggest that it is not the only (or even the primary) motivating factor. Studies suggest that the movement is more explicitly cultural than economical.

This cultural movement has a very distinct character; it is white and primarily male. This is the rather blaring subtext behind slogans like “take back our country” and “make America great again.” For those supporting the UK’s departure from the European Union, it seems quite clear that the “our” is meant to refer to white Anglo-Saxons. For women or racial minorities, it is hard to point to a better time in American history, making it clear that Trump’s nostalgia panders to the memory of a country (more) dominated by white men.

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This gets to the fear at the heart of these movements. They fear the erosion of white male dominance of existing political power structures. It is estimated that by 2045, white Americans will make up less than half of the country’s population. Trump polled phenomenally well among the Republican voters who believed that this would be “bad for the country.” Whatever social and political reasons the British public might have had for voting to leave the European Union, immigration has been universally accepted (even by the opposition) as the major motivating factor.

In other words, fear of “the Other” is a driving political force for these resurgent movements. Which in some ways makes horror a particularly uncomfortable genre. After all, given the tendency to demonise “the Other” in horror films and horror stories, it is very hard for traditional horror films to play on these ideas without getting caught up in the surrounding politics. After all, it would be very easy to read a horror film about a foreign or unknowable monster as vindication of the Trump-ian world view, tales of the predominantly white characters besieged by the Other.

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The classic horror formula plays into the way that radical right wing movements see the world, as though the historically dominant white culture is under attack from something alien. This subtext may slip in casually, but still uncomfortably. Consider the character of Balthazar Edison in Star Trek Beyond, the most prominent black male character in the rebooted film franchise rendered as monstrous. Indeed, consider the difficulties that Hollywood seems to have casting Zoe Saldana and Lupita Nyong’o as black (rather than blue, green or orange) women.

A number of recent horror films seem to have reached this same conclusion, acknowledging that narratives about vanquishing and defeating “the Other” are ultimately Trump-ian tales. The response has been quite clever. Recent horror films like Ex Machina and The Girl With All the Gifts have cleverly and shrewdly asked audiences to sympathise with the Other. More than that, these films have dared to ask audiences to sympathise with the Other in opposition to the dominant (typically white and typically male) culture.

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Ex Machina offers a delightful stark ending in which the artificial intelligence Ava turns on her creator. This is very much expected in terms of science-fiction plotting. However, the film pulls a masterful twist in having Ava turn against the lead character. Caleb Smith is the movie’s protagonist, clearly intended as the audience identification character. Over the course of the film, he comes to trust Ava. Indeed, he is ultimately moved to help her escape the clutches of her creator. However, in the film’s final scenes, Ava locks Caleb in a cage and leaves him to die.

It is a striking ending, because it seems to come out of nowhere. The arc of the film is structured so that the audience expects the climax to pivot around Caleb. Either Caleb comes to realise that Ava is dangerous and has to stop her, or Caleb grants Ava his approval and they walk off into the sunset together. The unspoken expectation in a film like this is that Caleb serves as the arbitrator of Ava’s humanity. Much like the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation can be trusted because he emulates humanity, Ava could be granted the status of “honorary human.”

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The ending of Ex Machina is so striking because it firmly rejects that unspoken assumption. Caleb is not the hero of the film, he never was. Ava never needed him to vouch for her right to exist and her right not to be tortured or brutalised. It was arrogance on the part of Caleb to assume that he could confer humanity upon Ava. The point is that the box in which Ava finds herself trapped by programmer Nathan Bateman is not an aberration; it is a reflection of how people like Nathan and Caleb see the world.

Caleb is complicit, because he believes that Ava has to “earn” the basic respect and decency that he eventually chooses to afford her. That is enough to explain why Caleb has to die, and why he most certainly is not the hero of Ex Machina. Ava is a frightening construct, with the film suggesting that she is dangerous and manipulative, with a completely unique set of ethics. However, the film also suggests that the world in which Ava finds herself is more dangerous. Nathan and Caleb are the monsters of the film, despite the fact that Caleb looks like the protagonist.

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There is a sense that this idea carries over to Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s reimagining of Westworld for the twenty-first century. The television is based on the pulpy science-fiction film about killer robots, but the television series largely inverts the dynamic. Part of this is undoubtedly down to storytelling logistics, in that it is hard for a “killer robot” television series to last multiple seasons. However, it also speaks to a broader cultural shift. While the film narrative focused on the human tourists terrorised by renegade robots, the series flips things.

The audience is asked to empathise with the robots who are treated as playthings by humans on vacation, their sentience and self-awareness ignored or overlooked in a nostalgic desire to reclaim the frontier myth. Humans come to the theme park to indulge their most sadistic whims. One of the clever twists in the television series involves the iconic man in black. In the film, the character was a sadistic robot played by Yul Brynner. In the television series, the character is a sadistic human played by Ed Harris. The roles are reversed. Sympathy is extended to the monster.

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This theme is explored in The Girl With All the Gifts, which plays almost as a young adult adaptation of Ex Machina. (It is somewhat ironic that the default point of comparison for The Girl With All the Gifts with the work of Alex Garland will be 28 Days Later.) The movies even close on similar images. Ex Machina ends with the site of Caleb trapped in a glass box by a creature that he deems to be a monster. The Girl With All the Gifts ends Helen Justineau trapped in a similar box teaching a younger generation. Ex Machina is darker, but only by degrees.

Much like Ex Machina, The Girl With All the Gifts begins as a much more standard genre film. Its opening act suggests a young adult zombie horror film, albeit one with a fantastic script and some great direction. It is a zombie horror film in which the zombies are very clearly characterised so as to speak to a number of British racial and class anxieties. The zombies are primarily children, and they are mostly dressed in orange hoodies; the subtext is not particularly subtle, even before the film gets to bands of feral children wandering the city streets.

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However, over the course of the film, the audience is asked to identify with a young zombie named Melanie. As with Ava in Ex Machina, the film is careful never to downplay the uncomfortable aspects of the character. Melanie is at one point shown to feast of stray cats or slow pigeons, in unsettlingly graphic detail. It is perhaps too much to suggest that The Girl With All the Gifts humanises its lead character. It takes great delight in covering her in blood and underscoring that there is more to her than meets the eye.

As Melanie and a bunch of human survivors journey through the apocalyptic waste, it seems like mankind is doomed. There fungal plague is developing into seed pods that will burst and infect the entire planet. Doctor Caroline Caldwell comes to suspect that Melanie may hold the key to a vaccine. Caldwell plans to murder Melanie so that she might harvest it. At the climax of the film, Caldwell encouraged Melanie to sacrifice herself to save humanity. It seems like a very standard horror arc, especially given Melanie’s sympathies for her human colleagues.

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However, Melanie simply refuses. “Why should I die so that you should live?” she asks Caldwell. It seems to be a particularly pointed question. After all, Melanie is transforming into something quite unique and distinct from humanity. She has self-awareness and identity, but she is also very distinctly not human. The film ends with Melanie opting to set fire to the fungal pods, bursting them and spreading the seeds all across the United Kingdom. It ends with Melanie effectively dooming mankind. However, the closing scene suggests something new is emerging.

It is a striking end for the film. Indeed, the scenes of urban violence and social collapse in The Girl With All the Gifts recall the apocalyptic language employed by Donald Trump in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Congress, a speech that seemed to capture the mood of his supporters while being completely at odds with the actual reality. The 2016 election is frequently portrayed in catastrophic and apocalyptic terms by these extreme movements, as the last chance of the previously dominant white culture to reassert itself.

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Although based on a book published in 2014, The Girl With All the Gifts seems perfectly tailored to this precise moment. It is a horror story that teases out the fear at the heart of the resurgent right, and acknowledges those anxieties. When one character laments that the world is over, Melanie corrects him, “It’s not over. It’s just not yours any more.” It is a sentiment similar to that expressed by Ex Machina. It suggests that it is not the end of the world, but the end of a particular version of the world.

Both Ex Machina and The Girl With All the Gifts look at these fears and decide that they are not so bad. Ultimately, both Ex Machina and The Girl With All the Gifts seem to side with the monster. Melanie brings about the end of the world through fire, literally burning it all down. There is a sense that the end of the world and the death of the traditional genre protagonist is not necessarily a bad thing. There are new worlds to be found in the death of old stories.

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Films like Ex Machina and The Girl With All the Gifts (and shows like Westworld) look at the way that these characters have been rendered as monstrous Others, and dare to ask if audiences have been rooting for the wrong side all along. If the apocalypse is simply the end of a world that dehumanises difference, is this such a bad thing? This feels like the smartest way to update these traditional fears for the modern world, by daring to ask what we are so afraid to lose.

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12 Responses

  1. Great analysis. I think you raise some excellent points. My one point of contention is that I don’t think the trend of complicating the Other is all that recent. I see Ex Machina as in many ways a spiritual successor to Blade Runner, which also asked audiences to sympathize with the Other. Deckard technically “wins” because the Replicants are killed off, but the film clearly depicts his retiring replicants as something violent and distasteful. I could also point to other horror films, like certain adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula that treat the monster sympathetically (the 1931 film treats Frankenstein more like a child than a monster, and Coppola’s Dracula makes the vampire into the debonair victim of an ancient curse).

    I think maybe what’s different is that Ex Machina/Girl with All the Gifts ask the audience to sympathize with the Other without totally reducing the threat from that Other. Roy Batty of course ended up saving the protagonist, making it much easier for audiences to accept (and forgive) him. It perhaps suggests that even when we’re asked to sympathize with the Other, we should expect to “tame” the Other or force it to assimilate.

    • That’s a very fair point. And I think I kinda broach it with regard to James Whale’s superb Frankenstein films, but you’re right that it probably could have been spelt out a bit clearer on my part. And I also think you’re right about the key difference being that we no longer treat wanting to assimilate as a prerequisite for sympathy, where we rate the sympathy that the “Other” deserves as relative to how hard it is trying to be like us. I think it goes even further than that, with Ex Machina/The Girl With All the Gifts suggesting that perhaps this attitude justifies the Other’s monstrosity; that burning everything down or putting the arbitrators of such monstrosity in a box is a perfectly valid (and even sympathetic of itself) decision.

  2. “This feels like the smartest way to update these traditional fears for the modern world, by daring to ask what we are so afraid to lose.”

    Well, judging, by some of these endings apparently our lives. 😉

    It is a fascinating analyses but – and I am concious I am saying this as a white male, albeit neither British nor American – isn’t the logical conclusion that they also implicitly validate Trumpism? If Ava and Melanie are justified in overthrowing the existing world for their worlds then it is hard to argue their opponents are not equally justified in fighting for their world view.

    Then again maybe I’m just the wrong audience for these things. I never warmed to Magneto either (though oddly I did sympathise with Hal 9000.)

    • Although, it could legitimately be argued that Ava and Melanie are largely responding to the dominant culture. Ava seems unlikely to have put Caleb in the box if he hadn’t presumed to act as arbiter of her right to exist, something that treated her humanity as something to be proved. Melanie’s actions are very much framed in the context of being told that she has to die for humanity to survive. I’d argue that the films are a response to that sort of Trumpian rhetoric; of course, both predate Trump, but that rhetoric has been brewing for a while just on the edge of the mainstream. Ava rejects the assumption that she needs to validate her experiences to Caleb. Melanie basically takes the idea of that big existential conflict to heart and asking, “If this is framed as ‘us versus them’, then those are the terms on which it will be fought. If you tell me my existence is an existential threat to you, then am I not justified in responding to it as such.”

      (All of which makes me sound far more angry and revolutionary that I truly am. I’m not advocating burning anything down and I genuinely believe that revolutions rarely actually help the people who fight for them. I’m a political centrist. But I am feeling very tired and very pessimistic lately. And I look at pop culture and I look at political culture, and this is what I see.)

      But you’re entirely correct that it is a very bleak argument. Then again, it’s been a very bleak year.

      And, yeah, as a white guy – neither British nor American – I wasn’t sure if I should write or publish this. But I figured that it was worth acknowledging the trend and how it overlaps with what else is happening in the world. There are people who will vote for Brexit and vote for Trump, and then wonder, “Why do these people hate us?”

      • I haven’t seen “Girl with all the Gifts” yet, but I feel like Ex Machina was a bit more complicated than that. Caleb started off interrogating Ava, but he seems to come around to her point of view by the end. I think that’s the troubling part. To extend the contemporary US politics analogy, it would be like a Trump supporter slowly coming to accept the Black Lives Movement and even beginning to help BLM – only for a BLM activist to attack him. You would think we would want to reward characters who overcome their prejudice and learn to accept the other, despite earlier mistakes. That said, I think Ex Machina works because it doesn’t ask us to condone Ava – just to accept her.

      • Yeah, I was worried about commenting too. I’m very far from being a revolutionary – in fact I’d probably be a monarchist if only I lived in a country with a monarchy. 😉

        One thing that does make me less bleak though is the unrivalled power of American assimilation which seems to be continuing at at a steady pace (http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/05/12/english-proficiency-on-the-rise-among-latinos/). How long before Latinos become as white as Italian Americans? We have been here before and, sadly, I expect we will be here again.

        That more than anything – and I admit an expectation that Trump will either lose or quickly row back from the policies he’s been advocating in the election (the man is a weathervane for opinions) – perhaps weakens the power of Ava and Melanie for me. I suppose as much as they are fighting against a fading past they seem to be fighting for a future that history has proven time and again won’t happen – the terrifying Germans and Irish of Thomas Nasts cartoons were swallowed wholesale by mainstream American culture. That is the blessing and curse of the young; they are more often absorbed by the dominant culture than actually change it.

  3. This also brings to mind Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, where mutants were supplanting mankind. If your species were going extinct, you’d probably find the prospect either Sentinels or U-Men enticing (to say nothing of Trump).

    I agree with Ross; if the other doesn’t want peaceful coexistence, then I can’t fully sympathize with the other; Ava is the poisoned Skittle. Still, #notallandroids

    • That’s a great example. Morrison’s New X-Men has aged remarkably well. I sense a re-read coming on.

      Yeah, there’s no way in which I could ever be sympathetic to Ava were she real; or, at the very least, no way that I could protest to shutting her down or deactivating her or whatever euphemism you want to use. (Kill her, basically.) But I do have some measure of sympathy for her actions as a response to being put in a box and asked to prove herself to be human and worthy of consideration and dignity.

  4. Very nice article! I’m just going to report that your link to RWP16-026_Norris.pdf is broken, just thought you should know. For those interested it’s also available at source: papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2818659.

  5. Hi everyone. First I’d like to thank you, Darren, for writing so many interesting articles on your page. I read them regularly and I think I often leave this page a little bit more educated than I entered it. Especially this series of articles which deals with a more general theme are very insightful.
    Maybe it is my inept handling of the page, but I find it hard to look for these essays the older they get, since they are disappearing in the nexus of the timeline. I tend to re-read them again, but their filing under ‘movies’ does not help much finding them again. Therefor I would be grateful if you could archive them under a different category, making them easier to find.
    It is just a minor thing, which would improve at least my enjoyment of your blog.
    Thank you for the education in the field of pop culture and sharing your thoughts with us.

    Konrad

    • Thanks Konrad. I was thinking something similar myself.

      The problem is that my schedule’s been so hectic that I haven’t had time to think about it, and that I haven’t been able to post as many of these sorts of broader articles as I would like. But I will keep it in mind when things slow down a bit.

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