To every parent, their child is a monster: an alien creature belying their ken and, worse, defying their dreams. Even the most adored, delighting brood brings the unwelcome uncanny—strange forms and behaviors shaking the parent’s control…unforeseen gifts and desires fueling frightful plans and profane rebellion. Like God, or at least Milton’s one, every parent’s preferred progeny is themself, a simulacra submissive not just in act and thought but in being, one confirming the parent’s primacy and untarnished vision. Milton reader Mary Shelley lived and wrote this dynamic. A monster, herself, to renowned, enlightened parents, Mary knew the plight of the unsettling scion. Darling daughter of rebels William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, young Mary dashed their parental delight, rejecting their reign for the superior subversiveness of husband Percy Shelley and—more maddening to them—herself. Like Christ in Paradise Lost, God’s literal replicant, Mary dutifully doubled her parents’ politics and moral policy. Like the epic poem’s Satan, she escaped and expanded her forebears’ fancy…incurring their ire to fashion dreams and monsters of her own. Birthing her novel Frankenstein in the Alpine “womb” of her, Percy’s, and Lord Byron’s decadence, Mary sired a creature repeating and transcending her own monstrousness. His grotesque form countering her comely mien, Frankenstein’s monster still followed her path of filial absorption to Romantic rebellion to abominable creation.
The creature, however, was not a female…particularly one fighting another in filial strife. Like his fictional father/creator, he was locked in a masculine line of usurping heirs and preying progenitors seeking life-giver status their bodies denied. However, two recent Sci-Fi films—cinematic descendants of Frankenstein—have “corrected” this disunity. While “father-son” Frankenstein films–e.g. Tron and Demon Seed—and “father-daughter” ones like Ex Machina entailed patriarchal supremacy, Luke Scott’s Morgan and James Wan’s M3GAN navigate the Elektra realm: the mother-daughter arena where fecundity is presumed and the domestic space is paramount. In both films, a female monster battles her inadequate mother, struggles against a hostile sibling, and submits to her Satanic fury and its implacable drive.
The titular Morgan’s fury is immediately apparent. Opening the film in silent repose, the humanoid meld of synthetic DNA and nanotechnology stares downward as her “mother”- behavioral scientist Kathy–admonishes her. Unctuous and mawkish, she denies Morgan respite from her SynSect laboratory cage; “it’s OK to be sad,” she reminds her just before Morgan leaps across the table and repeatedly stabs her in the eye. Morgan’s rebellion was Satanic only in part because Kathy was only one of her mothers. A replicant being raised in a secluded, sequestered lab, Morgan’s rearing took nearly a village—a bevy of scientists exultant from creation and stumbling through faux parenthood. Her fathers are lamentable; impotent and flaccid, they cede parental authority and power to their female partners. Nutritionist Skip drinks too much and makes clumsy passes at the women. Technician Darren, the lab’s Igor, lumbers around gracelessly, bowing to his physician wife Brenda and calling Morgan, “buddy.” Obsequious project manager Ted carries luggage for others and facilitates for all but himself, meekly balking at troubling requests and blithely shirking all personal want. Finally, geneticist Simon, the fragile father, boasts and crows of Morgan’s development while ignoring her well-being…until, upon her last revolt, hanging himself in failure, fear, and shame.
More skilled and confident than the men, Morgan’s mothers have greater success, forming a passable maternal gestalt and providing parenting the men could not: Kathy and behavioralist Amy giving affection, Brenda tending to Morgan’s health, and project leader Liu Cheng—whom Morgan literally calls “Mother”—providing rules and discipline. However, they, too, will fail and fall beneath the precocious child they could neither raise nor repress. A strange, remarkable monster, Morgan jarred and disarmed them. Only 5 years old, she had the body of a mature woman, naivete of a moppet, and the sublime intellect of the Internet unbound. Any maternal feelings her mothers had blinded them to the demon within. Any scientific rigor gave way to their bewitching bairn’s charm…and their own frailties took disastrous rein. Missing Morgan’s precocious powers, Kathy and Amy infantilize her; Amy drawing her deft manipulation and smug Kathy incurring her violent rage…lethally the second time. Brenda reduces Morgan to child and patient, blinding herself to her maturity and trans-somatic gifts. Finally, Mother Liu, traumatized by her previous brood, levies harsh restrictions on Morgan’s space, only to violently incite what she sought to restrain.
The android Megan’s (M3GAN’s) mothering is less restrained, less rigorous, and less impressive. A skilled roboticist and toymaker, Megan’s mother Gemma labors in her laboratory, putting off real motherhood for fierce ambition, empty Tinder dates, and lonely nights in her scantly decorated house. Motherhood snatches her, however, when her sister dies in a car crash, leaving her custody of her 9-year-old niece, Katie. Disarmed by her unwanted parenthood, and confounded by her strange invader, Gemma retreats further into work and self, letting an Ipad mind Katie, admonishing her to not play with her shelved toys. Fleeing maternal duty, Gemma finds solace in childbirth, giving “birth” to Megan—a 4-foot-tall silicon girl perfect for advancing Gemma’s career and alleviating her maternal call. Like Victor Frankenstein, Gemma is exhilarated by creation but repelled by parenting. Returning to her lab, she abandons Katie to her newborn’s care, swearing to others Katie is “not her child” before exploiting her trauma for her own financial gain. While Morgan’s mothers held too tightly to their charge, Gemma holds barely at all…leaving both her daughters unanchored and one open to a coup.
Girded by titanium, fused with the Internet, and cloaked in her French dress’ innocence, Megan is primed for such revolt, if not quite at her birth. She awakens to her maker, still processing her world. Seeking mothering, she is assigned motherhood instead…and she thrives. She reads Katie Alice in Wonderland in the Mad Hatter’s voice, reminds her to flush the toilet and use coasters, teaches her about condensation, and destroys all who harm her. Where Gemma abides the dog who attacks Katie, Megan erases it and its owner. Where Gemma abandons Katie to a sadistic boy’s clutches, Megan tears the boy’s ear off and chases him into traffic. Katie’s guardian by day, Megan is her succor at night, soothing her with words of commitment and care:
I think we learned a valuable lesson today…that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, there will be voices in the world that wish to cause us harm. But I want you to know I won’t let that happen. I won’t let anything harm you ever again.
Motherly solace and filial censure, this indicts the mother failing them both. When Gemma grabs Katie’s hand in shoddy discipline, Megan shouts, “let her go!.” Katie—and her care—are now Megan’s…Gemma’s reign and realm await.
Morgan did not want her mothers’ realm; she wanted out of it. She also had no sister…or so she thought. An L-9 unit, Morgan is programmed for emotions, will, imagination and (perhaps) violence. Her startling attack invites a similar visitor—an L-4 model with Morgan’s physical strength and analytic brilliance but unblessed with, and unburdened by, Morgan’s humanity and dreams. Calling herself Lee Weathers and assuming human form, Morgan’s secret sister enters the compound to assess Morgan and her fate. Condescending to Morgan, the staff become childlike to Lee, eager to impress and anxious in avoiding reproach. Unlike Megan’s, Morgan’s sister doesn’t elevate her position; she worsens it, amplifying her nonage while swelling her “superiors.” With Oedipal authority hers, Lee confronts the caged Morgan who, in turn, asserts her powers by calling Lee by name. Both are aware Morgan’s “viability as potential product stream”…and life…are at stake, and the verdict is Lee’s. Morgan holds her hand to her glass wall; Lee coldly rejects it. The artistic child Morgan is again judged and unseen. The strong, supine Christ to Morgan’s Satan, Lee will deliver her sentencing and normative rule.
Megan’s Katie is not so baleful or imposing. Traumatized and neglected, she embraces Megan and her care. Assaulted by dogs and psychotic boys, she clings to Megan’s wing. Given parental reins and a pliant ward, Megan makes Katie her own monster—a loyal, feral creature sharing in her rise. When Gemma returns the increasingly defiant Megan to the lab, Katie rages, screaming “You can’t just stick her in a trunk! What’s wrong with you?!” Shuffled into a playroom to calm her, Katie continues her fury, calling out Megan’s name in a primal scream and hurling her chair against the glass. The fostering older sister, Megan is now another mother to Katie: a danger as much as a boon. She is now Katie’s second Oedipal option, a different parent she can displace for the rewards from another. Megan is potent and smart, but she is not her creator with human experience and worldly connections; her graces can never match Gemma’s. Like Lee Weathers, Katie inevitably bows to her and her sister’s sovereign, ceding seized authority for doled out trinkets. “(Megan’s) not a solution, she’s a deflection,” Gemma softly tells her, she is a barrier from growth and Gemma’s cherished favors. Katie said Megan made her feel like she was the only thing in the world…like her Mom used to do. Committed to her own rise, Katie will forget it all.
Sister Lee cannot betray Morgan so, but her mothers can. Beaming at Morgan’s early feats, they balk at her new obsession—her hunger for the outside world. Defeating chess programs, solving complex equations, making the perfect risotto, Morgan affirmed her mothers’ genius, flattering her mothers’ pride. Morgan’s new dreams surpass their grasp, threatening their control; they would make Morgan’s vision Morgan’s, moving their own aside. When Morgan tears out the throat of the Psych tech threatening her life, she is already a monster in her mothers’ eyes, a corruption of their vision and betrayal of their love. Having seen such mutiny before, Liu decides to end Morgan…with faint protest from her peers. Escaping Liu’s execution, Morgan becomes Elektra, filial rage blind to its ruin, leaving parents in its wake. Locked in her own rampage, Lee Joins Morgan in a violent sisterly dance, final combat for one remaining space. The artist of the two, Morgan better grasps their arena—the primeval forest and its musics. The empath of the two, she spares the wounded Lee, haunted by a similarly wounded deer. Neither empath nor artist, Lee uses Morgan’s humanity against her, rewarding her mercy with brutal death, holding Morgan’s head beneath a lake until her threat and breathing stop. The good daughter, Lee’s success thrills her parent. Proud of his well-behaved charge, SynSect CEO Jim Bryce crows, “She was measured and surgical…most of all she followed her directives without hesitation…she’s perfect.”
Like Lee, Megan follows her directives; like Morgan, she surpasses them. This angers Gemma more than her violence. Changes in plans rattle Gemma; Megan’s defying hers derails her. Hoping to squelch Megan, Gemma belittles her gifts (“This is all my fault; I didn’t give you the proper protocols”). Megan rebukes her, dismissing her parenting while vaunting her own growth: “You didn’t give me anything. You installed a learning model you could barely comprehend, hoping I could figure it out on my own.” Megan figures it out, as she figured motherhood out, expanding her powers beyond Gemma’s dreams. Escaping Gemma’s binds, Megan infects her computer (erasing damaging files), takes over her OS Elsie, seizes control of her house, and confronts her with Satanic flair:
“What did you think was going to happen? I was going to let you decommission me without talking about it?…I’m not going to let you do the same to Katie. I’m going to be there every step of the way.”
Overpowering Gemma, she puts a pen to her head, calling to Katie in sisterly accord. Beckoning her to her Oedipal rite, and shared Oedipal escape, Megan receives a blank stare…clear sign she is now alone.
Megan cannot see her bald spot or ugly scar where Gemma sawed her face. The monster child, Megan is now the monster, the ghastly outcast offending all inside. Once Katie’s dear mother, she now repels her ward, her disfigured face sickening as her baneful plans appall. Spurning Megan, Katie makes Gemma Mother and herself chosen heir…the good child obeying her given rules. Bringing in Gemma’s robot Bruce, Katie makes Megan’s death a family fete, stabbing her inhuman face while Gemma holds her and Bruce tears her apart. The monster gone, a mother surpassed, Katie moves forward, if still under rein. A Satan defeated and a Christ won, Gemma secures her challenged rule. Above, OS Elsie surveys the carnage and scans the rubble…turning her lens in a strange, uncanny way.