Nowadays we’re burned out on the idea of robots taking on a life of their own and shooting us, but fortunately in recent years sci-fi cinema has embraced an exciting time of endearing and empathetic fictional AIs (although, with Terminator Genisys on the horizon, we’ll not be short of things to sit back and zone out to, either).
Increasingly, we’re seeing films where humans and machines eek out a reluctant, turbulent existence together; live in harmony; or even work together to advance both species.
Philip Wilson takes a look at nine modern movies that made us care about robots.
Perhaps an unlikely choice, seeing as José Padilha’s remake of the classic totalitarian satire was granted a luke-warm reception upon release. However, this film is as good a place as any to highlight the pattern of a human centric narrative with violent, unstable machinations folding into the mix.
The modern retelling follows, more or less, the same exact ground as its predecessor(s), detailing not to so much the classic Machines Turned on Creator tale, as much as man and machine entering a symbiotic relationship. Joel Kinnaman does an admirable job of giving the Alex Murph character a decent helping of pathos, alongside the more cinematic hard justice that we all (secretly) love to see.
If you’ve not yet had chance to take in Duncan Jones’ directorial debut and enjoy Sam Rockwell’s superb turn – do it now. Following on from the ground covered by Robocop, Moon paints another picture of man and machine finding their place with one another in a style very obviously reminiscent of Kubrick’s HAL 9000.
The difference, this time, being that GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) isn’t a conflicted, potentially malevolent, omniscient being, but rather a roommate without anthropomorphic dimensions who shows an identifiable, warm side to hyper intelligent sci-fi artificial intelligence. This is something that never seems to get old, especially when dancing around themes of alienation and loneliness as Moon deftly does. However, there is still just enough awkwardness between these two characters to hone in on that inherent feeling of uncertainty toward a decision making robot, even if it does display cute little emoticons.
Robot & Frank (2012)
In Jake Schreier’s fresh and simply lovely Robot & Frank, Frank Langella’s dementia suffering ex-thief is gradually won round by his new, foreign automaton through a series of amusing, sentimental and moving instances, the likes of which have arguably not been seen since Silent Running.
From initial reluctance to wary caution and into a borderline saccharine story of friendship – Frank, it could be argued, is the cipher through which we as both an audience and a society relate to increasingly intelligent machines. Earlier decades saw them as the near constant villain, in contrast to the increasingly camouflaged existence they’re beginning to adopt in synchronicity with us now.
Now we can delve into the realm of truly equal human/robotic existence, wherein machines are treated with the same trust, camaraderie and general attitude that mankind shares within itself. With Christopher Nolan’s massively flawed, but no less enjoyably cinematic epic, we see a nice, stylised look at modern sci-fi machinations with TARS, CASE and KIPP respectively (evidently robots are a loud and case-sensitive race).
It’s here that humour and a magnetic sense of adventure distilled into our unconventional metal friends successfully ‘fleshes’ them out from beyond the parodical, sidekick of space adventures gone-by (cough, Lost in Space, cough) and instead gives us a modern hero that audiences can grow to care about. What’s key about Nolan’s use of machines though is the regularity of them. Bordering still on a fairly close future; advanced computers and huge shambling androids are scarcely worth a second look, which brings us nicely into the real meat of our current filmic climate.
Iron Man and Avengers (2008-2015)
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no comic book buff, but even those with zero prior experience of Tony Stark’s DIY computer system, or the upcoming Avengers plotline – which we’re led to believe loosely anchors around an automaton antagonist – will note such advanced machines existing in the present day (granted, an alternative reality).
In this universe machines are part and parcel of the everyday, which is the beauty of a well-rounded, immersive sci-fi/fantasy world; where man can slide inside of a robotic exterior, and it feels no different from watching a protagonist tie his shoes. Of course, a great deal of this magnetism and the convincing way the Marvel films display technology is centred on the impressive casts and production staff – all of whom are helping to conscientiously map out this new central theme of big screen machines.
Spike Jonze’s film may be the most pertinent contemporary example of where we’re headed in regard to our relationship with artificial intelligence – borrowing some poignant themes from the likes of Blade Runner (recently announced to be getting the hotly debated sequel treatment, as well as an upcoming re-release on the horizon).
In Jonze’s drama we see once again the usual look at solitude and emotional distance in an increasingly hi-tech society, but this time with the added sentiment of a machine’s humanity (Scarlett Johansson) evolving past that of the human element it finds itself attached to (Joaquin Phoenix). Basically – love between man and software. Rivetingly melancholic, while also hauntingly sweet, Her depicts the two-way street of computer sentience, which is all too often mistaken as a simple, one sided human affair. Props, here, should also go to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina for recently advancing a very similar, yet more philosophical theme.
Yeah, that’s right. Futurama. Alright, so it doesn’t quite count as a film (although, if we want to get pedantic, there are a handful of feature length episodes), but it’s almost the perfect example of humanity and artificial intelligence living in tandem.
Robots have full sentience: emotions, scruples, consciences, they learn, they make mistakes and they frequent prostitutes and smoke cigars… what more could you want? The poor souls even have their own Hell. It’s not all doom and gloom.
A widely berated film on the critical circuit, Transcendence may seem like another incongruous choice for the list – but there is a reason: namely that it’s one of the most recent depictions of human evolution by the proxy of advanced technology. Less a case of a machine gaining sentience, as sentience finding its way into a machine.
Working from a fairly flawed script, Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany do their best to make a convincing go of the concept (with Morgan Freeman doing his didactic Morgan Freeman thing), but it never seems to get off the ground in any exhilarating way. Regardless, the idea that comes through with this film is one we’re increasingly likely to see in the next few years, if not decades, as the idea of life through technology becomes all the more relevant.
First – let’s ask ourselves: what constitutes machines as characters in the majority of sci-fi cinema? Cold calculation? Hyper intelligence? Sociopathic, amoral decision making? All three? Now consider those traits, and look at Luc Besson’s Lucy, another example of a decent concept which doesn’t quite reach the heights of something groundbreaking, but the seeds are there.
In short: Scarlett Johansson (back again) traces an evolutionary arc from human to machine in everything but name, where she becomes the centre of life, the universe and everything with the detachment and ruthlessness that only a computation could convey, alongside Morgan Freeman (doing his… yep, didactic Morgan Freeman thing, as ever). Much like Transcendence, this seems like a likely and choice concept for the future of machine centric film.
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