Artificial Intelligence has always been the source of groundbreaking stories. But up until lately, they’ve been deemed fiction - or “science fiction.” Until now. Are we living in the future? Have images and tales told to us in sci-fi films or philosopher’s warnings come to fruition? Often times, this is where fear settles itself. AI’s become self-aware. They seek out to destroy their creators, and humanity as a whole. Perhaps a program begins to question their own nature. Could they feel? Dream? Love? No, that would be silly. Computers can’t experience emotion. But, could they learn to do so?
For this specific subgenre of Sci-Fi films, viewers come to understand that complex systems created by man - computer programs and humanoids - are just that: complex. Killing machines and uncanny robots meant to make our lives less lonesome. They’re not all malevolent (the MCU’s Vision developed what resembles humanity, after all). And as talk of AI grows commonplace, these movies come to mean that much more. From Metropolis (1927) to Ex Machina (2014), movies centered around Artificial Intelligence all seem to have one major theme in common: these systems are a reflection of the creators themselves.
Ex Machina (2014)
From director Alex Garland, Ex Machina follows programmer Caleb Smith (Domhall Gleeson) as he participates in a study run by BlueBook CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to test the self awareness of his humanoid creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Nathan remarks in the film, “If I've invented a machine with consciousness, I'm not a man, I'm a God.”
There are two major themes presented to us in Ex Machina (amongst others). First: When man plays god, he is often undermined by his human tendencies. Second: In the story of creation, women are depicted as subservient. Perhaps when it comes to thought, the opposite is true. Throughout the course of the film, viewers come to question the nature of creation in both a biblical and technological sense.
Would you ever consider a romantic relationship with your Siri? Of course not, that would be absurd! However, that’s exactly what happens to lonely writer Theodore Thwombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in the 2013 sci-fi romance Her.
When Theodore purchases a voice-operated AI system much like Siri, he quickly forms a peculiarly psychosexual relationship with the virtual program who he names “Samantha.” Her presents uncomfortable truths about isolation, loneliness, and the toils of artifical intelligence to resolve these feelings.
As we near the 100th anniversary of Metropolis’ release, it’s hard not to compare depictions from the film with our own reality. The 1927 silent film from director Fritz Lang depicts an “urban dystopia” riddled with classism and labor exploitation. Attempting to free the workers, the city master’s son, Freder, goes below ground - and discovers a “machine human,” Maria, created to model “the workers of the future.”
There have been many suggestions over the years as to what the female robot might represent. Amongst them, it stands that Maria alludes to biblical references found in the story of Babylon (marked by corruption, sinful pleasure, and destruction at the hand of man’s hubris). Metropolis was a revolutionary production for it’s time and this legacy holds up today.
For a Disney movie, Wall-E had quite alot to say about complex issues facing humanity. When a glitch leaves the titular character experiencing personality and apparent sentience, the isolated robot struggles to understand his place in an abandoned, trash-riddled Earth.
By chance, Wall-E encounters EVE - yet another biblical reference - who is a robot programmed to uncover sustainable life on Earth. As the two robots spend more time together - one sentient, one not - their relationship grows and leaves viewers with the question: in a failing society marked by loneliness, do all we need is love?
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Long before sci-fi movies like Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey revolutionized space exploration on the big screen. In particular, it introduced the concept of sentient technology through HAL, a supercomputer assisting the fated astronauts on their journey - until the machine does the opposite.
Ultimately, HAL’s superhuman abilities became it’s downfall, as it harnessed those human emotions to conduct its job rather than what it was programmed to do in the first place. As director Stanley Kubrick stated in a 1969 interview, “[HAL] had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility.” There’s this common fear that supercomputers, AI, whatever you want to call it, will take over humankind. But according to 2001: A Space Odyssey, what if it’s the other way around?
Space is certainly the ideal setting for stories about artificial intelligence. The 2009 film, Moon, is yet another example of this. Namely, the supercomputer GERTY who serves as a companion to sole lunar explorer Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) working for a mysterious company.
Similar to HAL in many ways, GERTY is programmed to complete the mission. The interactions between the AI and Sam are the result of code and technological innovation. But as they drift alone in space for who knows how long, the two develop a relationship that is familiar; albeit artificial.
Smart House (1999)
As the title would suggest, this oft-forgotten Disney Channel Original centered around, well, a smart house. Smart House follows a classic suburban family who recently lost their mother. Thanks to a contest, the trio move into a “Smart House” which comes with PAT (Personalized Applied Technology) who controls the appliances, security, entertainment and all other aspects of the home.
What appears as something out Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress quickly turns sinister, as PAT becomes more controlling and overbearing - she’s become the mother of the household. Consider Smart House a starter sci-fi, where the dangers and benefits of artificial intelligence are presented through a narrative that children understand - Disney has done this since, with films like Pixel Perfect, for example.