“The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” runs the final intertitle of Metropolis (1927), and while in Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi, ‘head’ and ‘hands’ were metaphors for the ruling and working classes, a more literal version of this principle pervades Spencer Brown’s debut feature T.I.M., similarly with a robot at its centre.
The T.I.M.s (all played by a sublimely creepy Eamon Farren) are prototype Technically Integrated Manservants being rushed to market by Integrate Robotics CEO Miles Dewson (Nathaniel Parker) despite certain unresolved bugs which he believes can be fixed ‘in second generation’. Engineer Abi (Georgina Campbell) has been hired to get T.I.M.’s clumsy hands working more sensitively, meanwhile, she hopes to mend her relationship with straying husband Paul (Mark Rowley) by having a baby with him – another next-gen fix. But the T.I.M. model that has come with the couple’s ‘full integrated smart home’ quickly imprints on Abi, and just as quickly picks up on her mistrust of her own husband – and so this artificially intelligent but emotionally immature mechanical man, more head than heart, plots to displace Paul, whether by cunning stratagem, or by his now powerful hands.
In a script co-written with Sarah Govett, Brown neatly combines two discrete modes of thriller. First there is the (bunny)boiler plate of an erotic thriller in which a jealous interloper attempts to destroy a fragile marriage, graduating from manipulative subversion to actual violence – a Fatal A(.I.)ttraction, if you will, for the digital age. No matter what else it might be, T.I.M. is always a domestic love triangle, with Abi caught between two men who, for all their differences, have both at some point deceived her. Second, this is technophobic sci-fi, as Abi and Paul see the online access that they more or less reluctantly cede to T.I.M. now being weaponised against them, with their manservant controlling their wired-up house, their driverless car, and their very access to information that he is capable of fabricating in real time.
Amid increased anxiety about what the exponential growth of Artificial Intelligence might mean for the species that has programmed it, Brown’s film is a (mostly) single-location prologue to a technological singularity that looks set to end – even to a degree within this very film – with the Skynet future of The Terminator (1984).
Like the gynoid in M3GAN (2022) or the A.I. in I’ll Be Watching (2023), T.I.M. experiences ill-processed emotions half-learnt from his creators, while objectifying humans to his own ends (something, ironically, that he has learnt, given that he was constructed for humans to do the same with him). He wishes not to escape his masters, but to belong as equal or even superior, and his impossible yearning for Abi to reciprocate his love makes this a tragic romance that – like Metropolis – is concerned with class boundaries. As unnervingly smart and sinister as its insurgent android, this cautionary tale tests our evolving, inverting relationship with our own tools.
► T.I.M. is available to stream on Netflix UK now.