Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at films about the fear of artificial intelligence. AI has been in the news lately and it’s been a longtime topic in science fiction and horror. At its root is really the meaning of what it is to be a conscious and moral being. Humans fancy themselves the peak of evolutionary progress epitomized by their self awareness and free will. Many of these films dramatize the fear of the loss of that exclusive position.
Demon Seed was based on the novel by Dean Koontz. Scientists create a supercomputer that has achieved consciousness and the computer infiltrates the home of the lead scientist and turns the automated conveniences of the house against the wife, played by Julie Christie, who is then held hostage in her own home. This isn’t a great movie but it is daring and ahead of its time. In the age of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, the core idea of Demon Seed doesn’t seem that farfetched and the movie visualizes the way our electronics and consumer goods control our lives.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is not really about artificial intelligence—it’s about much more than that—but it does include one of the most well-known AI characters. HAL 9000 is the artificially intelligent operating system that runs the Discovery One spacecraft. HAL is voiced by Douglas Rain who reads the lines with a very smooth and even delivery. It’s an extremely influential performance that’s been referenced and parodied in films as diverse as The Silence of the Lambs and WALL-E.
Deadly Friend is a riff on the Frankenstein concept. Based on a 1985 novel by Diana Henstell, Deadly Friend is about a teenage boy who uses computer technology to resurrect his girlfriend. As is usually the case in these stories, things go sideways when the reanimated girl no longer resembles who she was and acts out violently. Deadly Friend was directed by Wes Craven but the movie that exists is not the film Craven intended to make. Deadly Friend was originally envisioned as a PG-family friendly picture and it was forced to go in a darker and more violent R-rated direction by studio executives. It’s not a very good picture but it does have a cult following.
Among the most popular of the evil artificial intelligence movies is The Matrix. In a post-apocalyptic future, humanity has been enslaved by robots who keep us docile by plugging people into a simulation of life in 1999. Part of the genius of this film is that it doesn’t lead with that. The truth of the situation is revealed gradually. The Matrix sequels complicated this idea in some interesting ways. In the original Matrix the artificial intelligence is a metaphor of other aspects of contemporary society, namely corporate structures and the legal mechanisms that enforce it. In Reloaded and Revolutions the AI gradually took on a spiritual significance before returning to the corporate metaphor in Resurrections.
In the midst of a war between human beings and artificially intelligent robots, a soldier (John David Washington) is assigned to destroy a superweapon that will win the war. He discovers a robot child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) that’s capable of controlling electronic devices. This is a premise that we’ve seen before and it is done well enough here. The Creator is so dense with concepts and background ideas that it probably would have been better as a series than a feature film.
Virtually every movie taking place in a future metropolis or dealing with androids and robotic artificial intelligence owes to 1982’s Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the story is about a private detective who is hired to track down and kill a group of renegade androids who have returned to Earth from an outer space colony. In addition to the visual style, the other often imitated element of Blade Runner is its sympathetic and self-aware android characters who are searching for meaning and purpose to their lives. A belated sequel was released in 2019.
Among the films showing the influence of Blade Runner is 2004’s I, Robot. The title borrows from Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection but the story is really the responsibility of screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman. Will Smith plays a technophobic detective investigating the death of a robot designer just before the release of the newest model of servant android. This is a fairly cliché film but it’s done well and I, Robot makes for an interesting post-9/11 paranoia thriller.
Westworld was originally a 1973 science fiction film written and directed by Michael Crichton. A dry run for Jurassic Park, Westworld imagined an automated wild west-themed amusement park going haywire as the robots attack the guests. Westworld was then reimagined for HBO as a series that ran four seasons and embraced the idea of artificial intelligence. The show was quite brutal, especially in its first season, but it was also thoughtful and ironic in the way it dramatized the philosophical implications of AI and asked viewers to consider how we use and treat machines reflects who we are.
One of the most popular films released earlier this year was M3gan, a horror picture about a young girl who is gifted a prototype of an artificially intelligent doll that is programmed to be a friend and protector. Things take a violent turn with the girl and the doll becoming dangerously codependent. In addition to being a well-made thriller, M3gan was also a smart metaphor of the addictive relationship that many young people have with their mobile devices.
Child’s Play (2019)
M3gan was preceded by the 2019 remake of Child’s Play. The original 1988 film was a supernatural horror picture but the 2019 remake of Child’s Play took the concept in a different direction. It reimagined the killer toy doll Chucky as an artificially intelligent robot that is programmed to be a child’s best friend and its devotion eventually turns violent. The movie got lost when it was released in 2019 and Don Mancini, who was the creator of the original Child’s Play series and has overseen the sequels and the Chucky television show, was unhappy that it got made. But 2019’s Child’s Play was a unique remake and a very good film in its own right.
Unknown: Killer Robots
This entry in Netflix‘s Unknown documentary series explores the use of artificial intelligence in the military, explaining the development and deployment of this technology and its moral and strategic implications. The documentary does a very good job addressing how we got here, where the technology stands at this moment, and where it might go in the near future. Killer Robots doesn’t explore any of its topics very deeply it will probably have a limited shelf life as source of information. But this documentary is a useful primer about the weaponization of artificial intelligence.
Stealth applied the concept of rogue artificial intelligence to a military aircraft. Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, and Jamie Foxx play a trio of aviators who must outwit the AI pilot before it starts a war. Stealth was released in 2005 and while it isn’t a particularly good movie the concept has become increasingly relevant with the advent of drone warfare and the increasing use of AI technology in miliary weaponry. These films, although frequently silly, have served as a warning of what could go wrong when human considerations are removed from decision making.
2008’s Eagle Eye is about two strangers who get caught up in an espionage story involving an intelligent supercomputer. This isn’t a good movie but it does exemplify a trend in movies in which an artificial intelligence is put in charge of military assets. It’s a theme seen earlier in Wargames and repeated later in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning.
James Cameron’s breakout hit is one of the most popular films ever made. Nearly forty years later, The Terminator also has the distinction of being relevant to the present audience. It anticipated advancements in robotics that are now coming to fruition as well as the proliferation of computer networks and the merging of artificial intelligence with military technology and the nightmare path this might send us down. The very design of the Terminator is genius in that respect; it’s human on the outside and mechanical on the inside and its final exoskeletal appearance is a monstrous simulacrum of humanity.