“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” Or so claim the title cards thrice in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the film that initiated a long tradition of untrustworthy AIs who wage war against man, spawning HAL 9000, The Terminator and Agent Smith among others. Lang reasons a lack of ‘heart’ means artificial humans will always be evil – an idea Ridley Scott challenges in Blade Runner (1982), which not only suggests androids could develop empathy, but that they could teach humans a thing or two.
Scott wasn’t the first filmmaker to suggest AI entities could develop ‘heart’. More than 30 years prior, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) features a benevolent AI named Gort who protects its creators. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s influential miniseries World on a Wire (1973) gave us an artificial protagonist who outpaces his creator in the kindness department. Other empathetic AI films have followed, including Short Circuit (1986), Bicentennial Man (1999), AI (2001) and Wall-E (2008).
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Of course, a far greater number of sci-fi films have been negative-to-ambivalent about artificial intelligence, but in recent times there have been further signs of the distrust thawing. Ghost in the Shell (1995) conjures a world where androids and humans not only live together, but blend their capabilities via reproduction. Feelings warmed ever-more in the 2010s with Her (2013), a film about a man who falls in love with his operating system; a manic pixie dream machine who teaches her emotionally immature owner to embrace human complexity. Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man (2021) treads a similar path, but from the vantage point of a pre-enlightened protagonist.
Will the positivity last? It seems unlikely as AI becomes increasingly present, and in some cases, intrusive. The Creator, Gareth Edwards’ new sci-fi thriller about a war between humans and artificial intelligence, offers a cautionary tale about overreaching power and technological hubris at large. It’s a common theme in the films below.
The Creator is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 29 September 2023.
Director: Fritz Lang
As well as being visually stunning, Metropolis offers a fascinating reflection of Weimar Germany’s preoccupation with industrialisation, consumerism and uncertainty about the role of women in society. At the heart of Lang’s epic sits a madonna-whore story of Maria (Brigitte Helm), the saintly lover of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich); and Hel, a gynoid transformed into her likeness. Hel’s cuckolded creator Rotwang (Rudolf Kein-Rogge) kidnaps Maria and unleashes her simulacrum among the working-class underground as part of a plot to bring down the city’s ruling family (headed by his former love rival, Freder’s father). In true femme fatale fashion, the temptress locates and exploits man’s greatest weakness – demagoguery and belly dancing – to chaotic effect.
Adapted from a book written by Lang’s wife, Thea Gabriele von Harbou, Metropolis initiated a long tradition of untrustworthy androids who are either used to subjugate, subjugated themselves, or grasp power independently of their human creators. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for those lower down the food chain.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Director: Joseph Sargeant
HAL 9000 cast a long shadow. With ruthless logic, Stanley Kubrick’s supercomputer offs everyone aboard Discovery One and pings the captain into deep space. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving too much power to machines, and we’ve been afraid of them ever since.
HAL also cast a shadow over Colossus: The Forbin Project, another film about a sentient mainframe who assumes total control. Based on Dennis Feltham Jones’s 1966 thriller of the same name, Joseph Sergeant’s sci-fi came out two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey. Overshadowed by Kubrick’s masterpiece, poor Colossus slipped into relative obscurity, which is a shame: it’s an entertaining, strongly acted and competently shot satire, and a solid sci-fi yarn to boot.
Should humans be trusted to run the planet? It’s a central question of the film, to which, depending on your faith in humanity, answers may differ.
World on a Wire (1973)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
In World on a Wire, German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder imagined what it would be like to live in a virtual world within a world, using Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3 as his source material. In both the novel and the film, the protagonist (named Fred Stiller in Fassbinder’s adaptation, played by Klaus Löwitsch) is a cybernetics engineer who’s created a kind of Sim City populated with artificial humans for predicting the future. He finds himself entangled in a corporate conspiracy as strange things begin happening to him and others who worked on the project.
The concept of a world within a world wasn’t a new idea. Besides Galouye, Isaac Asimov had covered the concept in his 1956 short story ‘Jokester’, as did Philip K. Dick in his 1966 short ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ – but Fassbinder put a characteristically theatrical, dryly comic spin on things while expanding the idea to include the role of director as mad scientist, and viewer as duped simulation-dweller. It’s less about ethics and humanity than power, and you can’t help but think that Fassbinder only gave his artificial humans full emotional range so we (and he) can enjoy their existential torture all the more.
Director: Michael Crichton
In the same year World on a Wire was released, Jurassic Park creator Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld (1973), an entertaining sci-fi thriller about an adult amusement park filled with androids that begin malfunctioning. Sound familiar?
While Westworld doesn’t position the androids as superior or even equal to humans, it does hold a mirror up to humankind’s willingness to devalue a simulacrum in the name of cheap entertainment. Riffing on his The Magnificent Seven gunman image, Yul Brynner shines as a steely-eyed android run amok. As legend has it, he was one of only two actors who could shoot a gun without blinking (the other being Clint Eastwood).
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven’s riff on the Judge Dredd story explores human identity through a messianic AI figure. It was an instant hit, launching a comic book series, multiple sequels, a TV show and a reboot, as well as a crowdfunded 11-foot statue of RoboCop to be put on display in Detroit. With its themes of cybernetic augmentation, societal degradation and military tyranny, the film remains a canonical example of the cyberpunk genre.
The story follows police officer Murray (Peter Weller, chosen primarily for his chin), who’s shot to death then revived as a cybernetic law enforcement robot. While Blade Runner questions the ethics of othering an android, RoboCop focuses on the dehumanising effects of capitalism at large, and the film’s central battle ultimately becomes one of Murray regaining his humanity in a world only too willing to strip him of it, whether he’s a man or machine.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Mamoru Oshii’s anime offers a particularly balanced take on AI, with high-octane action serving as a vehicle for a more universal exploration of the nature of consciousness, humanity and identity. It’s the story of Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg-human hybrid trailing an AI hacker named The Puppet Master who, after wandering through various systems, becomes sentient and gains existential awareness. After a violent showdown, cyborg-human and AI agree to merge, birthing an entirely new techno-human. Where most films about AI define humanity in opposition to artificial intelligence, Ghost in the Shell explores duality – between old/new, organic/synthetic, mind/body – in terms of balance, achieved when two opposing forms regulate each other and gain the capabilities of each.
Despite Ghost in the Shell’s box office failure, the film has since been hailed as a masterpiece, influencing Spielberg’s AI (2001), James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), and inspiring the Wachowski sisters, who showed the film to Joel Silver, producer of The Matrix (1999), saying “We wanna do that for real.”
Summer Wars (2009)
Director: Mamoru Hosada
Hyperactive video game aesthetics meets meditative Miyazaki-style family drama in Summer Wars, a coming-of-age anime that follows a bashful 11th grade maths scholar who’s a part-time moderator in OZ, a global virtual reality world. He’s whisked off to bucolic Ueda by the older Natsuki to celebrate her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday, then wrongly implicated in a giant OZ hack that brings the entire system down.
Blending wild gaming sequences with lived-in backgrounds and the dignified weight of a Yasujiro Ozu drama, the film is at its best when meditating on the value of family life. Estrangement and death intertwine with the story of an AI turning malicious once its owner abandons it; out in the real world, we learn its creator, an illegitimate child, grew up an outsider. In this context, it seems only natural a troubled man would produce a troubled being. You get out what you put in, as the saying goes. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) covers similar ground via a gynoid tainted by toxic patriarchy.
Computer Chess (2013)
Director: Andrew Bujalski
With anthropological ruthlessness, Andrew Bujalski’s offbeat comedy takes us into the nerdy milieu of a computer chess convention held in a conference hotel some time in the 1980s. The hotel also plays temporary home to a new-age couples’ group, who nudge the socially inept nerds into human interaction, with predictably awkward results.
This isn’t an exercise in punching down. Bujalski’s warmly observed film blends gentle comedy (think cuts and framing rather than laugh-out-loud gags) with the touching idealism specific to both the 1980s, and socially maladjusted specialists so closed off from the world at-large that they fail to see how their tinkering could lead to something of global importance. The film becomes increasingly chaotic (Why are there so many cats?) as the well-intentioned geeks move from chess to accidentally birthing AI. What begins as an apparent documentary about painfully shy dorks becomes a wry meditation on the gap between artificial intelligence and human connection.
I’m Your Man (2021)
Director: Maria Schrader
I’m Your Man explores the ethical implications of allowing AI access to our most personal inner lives; specifically, the alienating effects of emotional over-reliance. Maria Shrader’s skill is in juggling heavier topics – objectification, break-ups, ageing and miscarriage – with moments of levity, giving us an odd-couple romcom with depth.
The story follows archeologist Alma (Maren Eggert), who’s agreed to live with Tom (Dan Stevens), an artificial male designed to resemble her ‘ideal man’. Early on, she twigs the lack of friction marks him all too clearly as ‘non-human’, which makes her uncomfortable. Later, she meets a man with a female AI companion who expresses no such concern. It’s gently sinister rather than sensational; a sly nod to the readiness with which men objectify women, even if it’s packaged as a feel-good story about a man finding ‘love’. An artificial human presents an all-too convenient salve for the universal fears of loneliness and death, but perhaps, the film suggests, it’s these that are so essential to the richness of life, and thus humanity itself.
After Yang (2021)
Video essayist-turned-feature director Kogonada isn’t interested in the ethics of artificial humans as companions, so much as he is in loss, care, and what it means to be alive. His soothing yet sinister film begins with the death of Yang (Justin H. Min), a Chinese-presenting ‘technosapien’ bought by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to help Mika, their adopted Chinese daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) find grounding with her native country. Yang’s ‘death’ causes melancholic ripples through the family unit and especially with Mika who, with two distracted parents, had come to rely on him as her primary caregiver.
Filled with quiet mystery, it’s an alluring world in which prejudice, surveillance and existential crisis hover just out of shot. Gliding cars, lustrous glass-filled homes and muted sounds bring a softness that shades into something chillingly oppressive, keeping viewer and character alike at a remove from a lurking darkness. Gone are the hard-edged chrome horrors of earlier cautionary tales; Kognonada slyly beckons us into a frictionless world in which human needs like love, beauty, safety and companionship are exploited with worrying ease.
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