Mad or Ill?
The tortured genius versus the mad scientist has always been a way to categorize movies about people who made significant discoveries or advancements in any area, but what differentiates these two personas?
In a movie like A Beautiful Mind John Nash is extremely egotistical and struggles with social interactions. These traits have been long associated with so called geeks and nerds in any type of cultural media. Characters like Alan Turing (Imitation Game), Nathan (Ex Machina) and Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything) exhibit these traits as well, and have established themselves as geniuses through a breakthrough invention or theory, so why are Turing and Nathan categorized as mad scientists while Nash and Hawking are put into the tortured genius category?
On the other side of the spectrum, movies that focus on a tortured genius are centered around someone who has been diagnosed with some sort of illness, whether it be mental or physical. For Nash (A Beautiful Mind), the illness was schizophrenia. Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything) was diagnosed with ALS, and Will (Good Will Hunting) had PTSD from the frequent beatings of his father as a child.They, like the mad scientist, are seen separated in most social interactions and constantly working on their projects; however, because of their illness, they are featured as a tortured genius.
The term “mad scientist” may bring to mind images of Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Emmett Brown (crazy hair, white lab coat, goggles, etc.), but it has also come to include inventors like Nathan from the recent sci-fi thriller Ex Machina and Alan Turing from Imitation Game. The brilliant, isolated mastermind can be found often times in his hideout among the bits and pieces of scrap metal, loose tubes and scattered blueprints. Mementos of past inventions are sporadically placed around their house as a way to feed their ego and embody a preference for solidarity and are often very distant in social encounters.
The Tortured Genius
Movies of the tortured genius sort take an intellectual and defines them by their illness. Take for example A Beautiful Mind. The entire movie focuses on Nash’s schizophrenia rather than his mathematical achievements.
It opens at Princeton University in a lecture where Helinger (Judd Hirsch) tells the students to come up with something original that will benefit the country and change the world. The statement particularly inspires young John Nash (Russell Crowe) and for the rest of the movie, his goal is to do exactly that.
The first taste that the audience receives of John Nash is when he and his colleagues are at a gathering. When looking at a tie someone is wearing, Nash grabs a glass and refracts the sunlight through it in order to come up with the design seen on the tie. He then remarks to the wearer of the tie that “there could be a mathematical equation to prove how bad your tie is” revealing Nash as brilliant, yet rude. His “genius” persona is further revealed when he’s seen scribbling equations on windows, publishing his first theory and working at MIT.
Crowe does a phenomenal job embodying the character of an isolated, egotistical John Nash. His performance in this film is a work of art as he captures the struggles in which Nash goes through. Crowe takes on a serious acting role which is also seen later in the musical Les Miserables. Participating in such an artful work takes Crowe away from the hunk of a man (Robin Hood, Cinderella Man) or the omniscient elder (Mummy) he embodies in many of his other films. Taking on the serious role of tormented John Nash in A Beautiful Mind makes him stand out again as a prestigious actor rather than eye candy or a source of wisdom.
The film is given a new perspective when Nash meets his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) at MIT. Connelly plays this confident woman who is not afraid to confront Nash’s ego or make the first move as they start to go out. Her performance evokes an affectionate side of Nash that was not seen in the snob of a genius he was presented as in the first half of the movie. Alicia is an essential part of John’s recovery once he is diagnosed with schizophrenia in the middle of his life.
The way in which Nash’s schizophrenia is revealed is truly a masterpiece. Through the revelation, Ron Howard makes you sympathize with everyone who is dealing with Nah’s illness. Up until this point, you had been experiencing the story of John Nash through his limited perspective — you saw what he saw and he saw hallucinations. Howard entertained you with the reality of Nash as roommate of Charles and decoder for the U.S. government. He made you believe that it was all real, that Nash’s delusions were actually there. By revealing his illness in this way, Howard also compels you to empathize with Alicia because she, just as you had, trusted John’s fantasy as a reality. When you see her reaction to the diagnosis, it’s incredibly similar to yours — confused and hurt. You’re forced you to empathize with both her and Nash as they try to come to terms with this new, true reality.
After the revelation, Nash’s schizophrenia ends up being the focus of the majority of the film. He struggles to find a way to conquer his illness without completely losing his mathematical capability. Taking medication dulls his brain’s capabilities to the point where he becomes unresponsive to his wife and can’t complete simple math problems. The movie is made in a way that showcases his hardships and makes him into saint as he overcomes them in order to continue his work. This is the idea of the tortured genius. A film that takes someone of an exceptional nature and focuses on their sufferings rather than their accomplishments (Good Will Hunting, The Theory of Everything).
The Mad Scientist
On the other hand, films focused around a mad scientist usually keep the focus on the intelligence and achievements of the protagonist. This is seen in Ex Machina as the entire film stays centered around Nathan as a mastermind and his invention, Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander) is Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) most recent invention, an AI that walks and talks just like a human. In order to determine whether she is indistinguishable from a woman, Nathan invites the smartest coder in his company, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his glass encased mansion in the middle of nowhere (Where else would you expect a crazy inventor to operate?). Nathan sends a helicopter to pick up Caleb and the views of the green mountainous paradise from thousands of feet up add an aesthetic tranquility to the film.
However, from the moment Caleb departs from the helicopter, there is a sense that something is not quite right about this situation. Nathan has Caleb sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to participate in his experiment — administering the Turing Test to a beautiful Ava. Not only this, but Caleb is given a key card that will only open a select number of doors throughout the house, not to mention the constant power failures and house lockdowns.
Nathan’s character adds to the mysterious nature of the situation by getting drunk every night and telling Caleb not to worry about the frequent power failures or lockdowns; however, it’s hard to see him in a bad light because of how Isaac plays him. He plays Nathan as a mellow, down to earth guy who insists on being on a first name basis with Caleb, his employee. Isaac is able to portray him as the brilliant mind he is while veering away from the stereotypical gauche loser most intellectuals are shown as.
It’s spin off the typical “mad scientist” role. Nathan is surprisingly well-equipped with social skill. Most movies of this genre such as Imitation Game have a protagonist (Alan Turing) that clearly struggles with human interaction. Being isolated from the rest of the world, you’d think that Nathan would possess some of these social difficulties, but after meeting him you realize that his social confinement is nonexistent. Isaac embodies a new, prideful yet refined role as the “mad scientist”.
While standing out in this aspect, the character of Nathan does conform to other stereotypes associated with this genre. In his luxurious home Nathan has a hidden room in which most of his creative ideas come to life. He takes Caleb into this room to show him how Ava was created. The shop contains long desks running through the middle of the room filled with blueprints and spare parts, and in the back of the room is a rectangular area hidden by sheets (one can assume this is where he puts together the AIs). Nathan also has a weird “mad scientist” tic. His tic is unveiled when Caleb steals Nathan’s key card one night when he’s passed out drunk and discovers the collection previous AI’s (glorified sex dolls now) Nathan keeps in his room. After developing better programs for AIs, the outdated models are reprogrammed as sex toys for his pleasure. His mystifying housekeeper Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is even revealed as a sex object.
In film, the tortured genius is represented as a product of their illness and the mad scientist as a product of their intelligence.