The movie screens are today filled with science fiction films ranging from adventure fantasies, such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017) to tales of Armageddon, such as War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017). It is a golden age of science fiction movies that rivals and arguably has surpassed the 1950s. Susan Sontag had famously characterised that earlier golden age in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster” (1964) by observing how these science fiction films created an “aesthetics of destruction” that served to allay the anxiety about the unremitting banality of life in America as well as the inconceivable terror of a nuclear world. A humanist in her approach, Sontag viewed these films as successfully enacting and resolving such cultural anxieties. Today’s science fiction films continue, at least in part, in that tradition. As a result of digital CGI and newly invented means of distribution and consumption, including mobile devices and more advanced 3-D, they frequently offer an enhanced enjoyment of the “aesthetics of destruction,” typified by the now iconic image of the aliens’ explosive destruction of the White House in Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996). Nevertheless, today’s films also differ. Dystopian endings often now replace the classical Hollywood happy ending in which our anxieties have been allayed. Consider, for example, the endings to such films as Logan (James Mangold, 2017) and Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017). The aging, reluctantly heroic mutant Logan dies in the former, while the android David triumphs in the latter over the last remaining human, the compassionate Daniels. Science fiction movies reflect a new, seemingly unresolved crisis in Western culture. The “aesthetics of destruction” no longer suffices to allay our anxieties.

No movie subgenre has better reflected the change in our reaction to daily anxieties than science fiction films in which artificial intelligence, whether robots, cyborgs or computers, has played a central role. Originating in the mythology of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818), earlier movies in this subgenre had often criticized the hubris of their male scientists. Thus, for example, in the classic ‘50s science fiction movie Forbidden Planet (Fred Wilcox, 1956) the “mad scientist” Dr. Morbius poignantly acknowledges his overreaching at the very moment that he renounces the disembodied computer intelligence of the highly advanced Krel civilization. He then sacrifices his life so that his daughter and her boyfriend, the physically attractive but intellectually challenged Commander Adams, might live. The movie’s happy ending consists of Commander Adams’ observation that “about a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood… [and] remind us that we are, after all, not God.” In contrast, today’s films consistently focus upon an evolutionary shift as a result of such scientific hubris, reflecting, in particular, the historical shift from an Industrial Revolution to what’s termed an Information Revolution. Thus, in Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), notwithstanding the death of the aging scientist Peter Weyland, female scientist Elizabeth Shaw and Weyland’s AI creation, David, continue in their exploration of deep space. The movie’s happy ending consists of their renewed scientific quest for knowledge, wherever it may lead. In earlier science fiction movies humans often either defeated the robots, such as the Christian Maria’s defeat of her doppelganger, the robot Maria, in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), or accepted them as a necessary limitation given the frailties of the human species, such as the robot Gort who is a member of the intergalactic police force with “absolute power” in “matters of aggression” in The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951). Yet more recent films often perceive humans as indistinguishable from and frequently not measuring up to their artificial creations. Thus, Frankie romantically chooses the robot Ulysses over Jeff, the human scientist who has created Ulysses in Making Mr. Right (Susan Seidelman, 1987), and Theodore in Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) falls in love with Samantha, an artificially-intelligent operating system, even as he is simultaneously divorcing his wife Catherine.

Increasingly, AI is “more human than human”, the prophetic corporate slogan to describe the robots or “replicants” in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). Where, for example, the non-cloned humans in Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) are wholly unsympathetic, the robot GERTY exhibits “humanity,” displaying, if briefly, tears for the suffering of Sam Bell, the human clone for whom GERTY is responsible, and later wiping its memory for the benefit of that clone. Indeed, recent movies envision AI as an inevitable development in an evolutionary process. Where 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) visually equates the computer HAL with other mere tools, such as the primitive human’s bone, the astronaut’s space vessel and the administrator’s pen, in Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) the computer HAL finds its contemporary equivalent in the two robots TARS and CASE. Both resemble the evolution-inducing black monolith of 2001 and serve as pioneers, together with their human “masters”, on a new planet evocative of the American frontier. AI and humans routinely go forth together.

Underlying AI movies has been an examination of Western dualism, and the increasingly dystopian endings to such movies reflect an historical shift in our views about dualism.  Expressed millennia ago in the myth of Plato’s Cave, Descartes in the enlightenment era renewed that belief in the importance of a clear distinction between mind and body. Both Plato and Descartes concurred in their distrust of human senses and placed their faith in the human mind. Thus, Plato celebrates those who metaphorically leave the cave in order to possess divine knowledge represented by the sun, and their knowledge directly puts the lie to the sensory experience of those naysayers left behind in the cave who continue to see only shadows. Likewise, doubting the truth of things around him and placing his faith in a Christian God, Descartes posits that only reason and our intelligent nature, not our corporeal body, define us. Indeed, the mind is distinct from the body and, according to Descartes, can exist without it.

Acknowledging this split, early science fiction movies about AI often endorsed enlightened reason as the key to a civilised, human society. For example, the ‘50s classic The Day the Earth Stood Still openly critiques the ignorant, selfish mass of people as well as their squabbling governments unable to agree upon how and where to meet with the alien Klaatu. Only the enlightened scientists (represented by Professor Jacob Barnhardt, who’s identified with Drs. Einstein and Freud) enable Klaatu to deliver his closing, warning message to all nations – join the intergalactic organisation of planets and live in peace or face obliteration at the hands of the intergalactic police force of robots, such as Gort. Klaatu undoubtedly speaks for the filmmakers when he tells the U.S. government representative, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.” Likewise, in observing the mass of people surrounding his spaceship that’s parked in a baseball field somewhere in Washington, DC, Klaatu reiterates that view when he tells the foolishly mocking crowd, “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” In professing impatience with stupidity, the movie implicitly rejects the supposed mobocracy of democracy and advocates instead governance by the enlightened few – Plato’s “philosopher kings”.

In contrast, however, to both Plato and Descartes, The Day the Earth Stood Still rejects a belief in God or in some form of the sacred. The movie is instead wholly secular in its advocacy of enlightened reason. In response to the Motion Picture Association of America’s objection on religious grounds to Gort’s resurrection of Klaatu who’s been killed by the U.S. military, the movie includes the following exchange:

Helen: You mean… [Gort] has the power of life and death?
Klaatu: No. That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit. This technique, in some cases, can restore life for a limited period.
Helen: But… how long?
Klaatu: You mean how long will I live? That no one can tell.

Briefly paying tribute to the “Almighty Spirit”, the movie otherwise, however, favors science over religion. Thus, the kindly Dr. Bernhardt, with whom we find ourselves sympathising, observes, “It isn’t faith that makes good science, Mr. Klaatu, it’s curiosity.” It’s the adventure of curiosity, not faith, that likewise makes us sympathise with the young, innocent Bobby Benson who continually asks about Klaatu’s planet – from how trains run without tracks to the type of money used on Klaatu’s planet. Cool, scientific reason motivates the film’s protagonists, Klaatu and his robot Gort. Descending from the skies and with Klaatu adopting the symbolic name “Mr. Carpenter”, they represent the new secular god of science with its reliance upon reason.

During the several decades following the 1950s, AI movies continued to explore the cultural anxieties resulting from an insistently secular dualism, that is, dualism stripped of any transcendent sacredness or sense of the divine. These movies have included such seemingly disparate in tone movies as Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970), Blade Runner, RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991). While each of these movies manifested such anxieties, each consistently sided with humanity over AI with its possible threat posed to humanity. Thus, Colossus critiqued the hubris of Dr. Forbin, a modern Dr. Frankenstein, in his creation of an AI visually reminiscent of Forbidden Planet’s Krel computer; nevertheless, it sympathised with him in his acknowledgement of what he had done and sided with humanity in the dilemma thereby created. “I think Frankenstein ought to be required-reading for all scientists,” Dr. Forbin confesses. Blade Runner, a film noir science fiction movie, favors its AI characters, the replicants, but only because in their empathy for others, including humans, they are “more human than humans”. The satiric RoboCop not only mocks its corporate creators of the cyborg cop Murphy but also depicts that cop as heroic to the extent that he’s able to retain his humanity through memory, dramatically symbolised by the film’s last lines. After killing Dick Jones, the film’s villain, RoboCop recalls the name that his corporate creators had denied him throughout the film. The cyborg validates his heroism by identifying himself with his own human name, Murphy. And the action movie The Terminator 2 sides with its older model robot, the T-800, but only insofar as that older model learns to imitate the best of human behavior. As the heroic Sarah Connor looks upon the T-800 interacting with her son John, she observes,

“Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

Of course, the movie is not without a sense of irony. By positing its AI, the T-800, as more human than human, it idealizes the T-800 even as it evokes in us an anxiety about Skynet, a neural-based AI that threatens humanity’s future. Nevertheless, the human species, not AI, remains the measure of the movie’s ideal.

Within the last few decades, however, AI movies have largely shifted and rejected that ideal. In a secular, market-driven world, the dualism that had enshrined enlightened, human thought has seemingly turned against its creators. The “monster” has triumphed over Dr. Frankenstein. This is hardly surprising. The continuously exponential development of computer technology beginning as early the 1950s together with the introduction of a global internet in the mid-1990s have served to heighten our collective anxiety in the emerging Information Age of “big data” and algorithms. The new movie technology and the new means for movie distribution have paralleled those developments. Thus, CGI has increasingly separated what the camera records from what appears on the screen, and streaming through readily available devices blurs the line between the real and its simulation. As several critics have observed, this “post-humanist” cinema began with such movies as Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995), Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998) and the hugely popular The Matrix (Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 1999) in which the mind, conceptually severed from the body, results in a loss of the traditional understanding of what it means to be human. Thus, for example, John Murdoch, the hero of Dark City, accedes to the god-like role of the vampire-like aliens, known only as the Strangers, by introducing light to the Strangers’ perpetually dark world and thereby recreating the world in a form of his own choosing. Likewise, Neo in The Matrix acquires god-like powers – or more accurately, as depicted in the last scene, powers akin to those of Superman – by coming to believe in the advice of his mentor Morpheus who had observed,

“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

With the incredibly rapid advance of computer technology, secular dualism increasingly blurs our understanding of what’s “real”. It also results in a materialistic universe in which the individual, through the exercise of his or her mind, becomes the sole judge and arbiter of value. It is no wonder that the postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard critiqued The Matrix for its misinterpretation of his thinking in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), a work cited in the movie. 1 In contrast, for example, to the Marxist belief in historical dialectics as an alternative to the sacred offered by religion, The Matrix values only the individual as hero in a secular, materialist and inevitably solipsistic universe. It reflects and endorses that which Baudrillard had critiqued in his writings.

A comparison of the original (1987) and remake (José Padilha, 2014) of RoboCop underscores this shift. Where the original RoboCop satirised the corporate world with its efficiency and focus on commercial profits and hence criticised the patriarchy that had created Murphy as a cyborg, the remake embraces Murphy’s transformation of man into cyborg. Where, for example, the original kills off Morton, Murphy’s creator and a corporate flunky, the remake celebrates his equivalent in Norton, the corporate scientist who is also supposedly a “whistleblower”. Where the original depicts the construction of RoboCop from Murphy’s perspective so that we might identify with the pain caused by the destruction of his body, including the moment when Morton instructs the removal of Murphy’s hand, the remake instead soothes us with Murphy’s dreams and illusions as he imagines himself dancing with his wife to the mellifluous tunes of Frank Sinatra. The dramatic, visual revelation of how little of Murphy’s body remains and the initial conversation over the Internet between Murphy and his wife that fails to disclose his body’s disappearance highlight the endorsement of Murphy’s dream state. While the remake offers a seemingly happy, Hollywood ending as Murphy is reunited with his family, a large steel door closes shut on that family reunion. In an Information Age the only currency of value is the mind.

Interestingly, recent, non-Hollywood movies, such as the British The Machine (Caradog W. James, 2013), the Spanish-Bulgarian Autómata (Gabe Ibáñez, 2014), and the South African Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, 2015), have accepted the inevitable logic of secular dualism in an Information Age and openly delight in their dystopian conclusions, notwithstanding the consequences to the human species. While The Machine focuses upon its male hero’s successful escape from a military compound, the ending is triumphant, because the consciousness of Ava, the female scientist, and Mary, the hero’s daughter, have been successfully uploaded – in the case of Ava to a new, robotic body and in the case of Mary to a computer device. The dawn rises on what promises to be a new world order. In Autómata only one percent of the human population has survived the destruction of the earth by solar flares, and humanity lives in a post-Apocalyptic world in which technology barely exists. While the narrative focuses on a human insurance investigator, our sympathies lie with the humanoid robots known as “pilgrims” that the human species has created as slave labor. Where the humans seem bent upon self-destruction, a small group of these robots are continually repairing, improving and recreating themselves so as to evolve in this new environment. While the investigator survives, together with his wife and newly born daughter, their successful escape to the West Coast shoreline is called into question by the movie’s final shot depicting not that shoreline but instead the investigator’s childhood memory of romping in the sand and ocean. In contrast, the few, surviving robots successfully “cross over” and migrate into the desert, evoking the Old Testament exodus from slavery and the wandering through the desert in search of the “promised land”.  The movie makes clear the  evolutionary significance of its ending. When a human mercenary hired to destroy these robots expresses disbelief at their failure to obey their human “masters”, since “you’re just a machine,” that machine, a “blue robot” who had programmed these robots to be self-aware, replies, “Just a machine? That’s like saying that you are just an ape.”



Chappie
is perhaps, however, the most explicit in its view of AI. It is, in effect, a remake of Hollywood’s Robocop. It depicts a world in which AI androids have become the norm in police enforcement, and, just as the original RoboCop dispatched ED-209, Chappie, a small, intelligent robot, triumphs over Moose, a large, dumb robot. The movie Chappie, however, wholly celebrates the human mind and relegates the human body to an historical dustbin. The movie’s happy ending consists of the transfer of the protagonist’s consciousness, shown briefly on a computer screen, to a robotic body no different than that of Chappie. Moreover, in a reversal of the Frankenstein mythology, the movie celebrates the triumph of its scientist. The science nerd Deon Wilson, in rejoicing at the transfer of his own consciousness to a robotic body, declares, “I’m alive.” Thus, he evokes from the movie Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) Dr. Frankenstein’s famous – but at the time sacrilegious – cry at the creation or “birth” of “the Monster”, Chappie’s ending further compounds that reversal by offering the additional hope that Wilson will soon transfer the uploaded consciousness of his dead girlfriend to a robotic body. Human consciousness is fully severable from its seemingly temporary “shell”. Moreover, the movie’s promotional slogan – “humanity’s last hope isn’t human” – highlights how in a secular universe the consciousness of the human scientist Wilson is wholly indistinguishable from that of the AI Chappie.

There are, of course, outliers to this new mythology. The most conspicuous is “Clay,” the fourth story in the movie Robot Stories (Greg Pak, 2003). John, a sculptor who’s soon to die from cancer, refuses to upload his mind to a central computer, notwithstanding a social policy that requires that transfer and the repeated efforts at persuasion of his wife, who chose to upload her consciousness years ago and remains “alive” in the form of a hologram of her younger self. The movie’s last shot shows us John lying dead in a stream. Likewise, while the protagonist Theodore in Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) insists that his computer program named Samantha is “real” and that he’s “in love” with her, the film methodically underscores the solipsism of Theodore’s emotions. It focuses, for example, repeatedly on Theodore selfishly basking in the memories of his former wife even when he’s briefly with her to sign divorce papers and depicts with a black screen his sexual “relationship” with Samantha. The film makes clear that Theodore’s sexual consummation is only with himself, and ironically only Samantha acknowledges the need for separate bodies for a consummation of their supposed love. And in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014), while Evelyn Caster, the heroic scientist, is initially supportive of her dying husband, also a scientist, and assists in transferring his consciousness to a computer, she later rejects his bodiless state. She finds his uploaded consciousness invasive of her privacy and inconsistent with their love for one another.
Yet even Transcendence and other such movies are often also conflicted in their views. While Evelyn Caster rebels against her husband’s Dr. Frankenstein-like efforts to find immortality through a separation of mind and body, the movie ends optimistically in a kind of Garden of Eden. It implies that the consciousness of Evelyn Caster, who’s now dead, has been uploaded so that she and Will are now joined together in a bodiless consciousness. Similarly, the heroic detective Del Spooner in I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004) successfully resists the seemingly inevitable robot invasion into daily life, criticising, in particular, how AI lacks the human appreciation for risk and value. Nevertheless, the movie’s final image depicts a massive crowd of robots looking up at Sonny, the sympathetic AI robot protagonist, and implies a messianic, if apocalyptic, future of such enhanced AI.

The new world order envisioned in these contemporary AI movies consists of the so-called “singularity,” that is, an evolutionary change no less significant than the birth of the “star child” in 2001. By endorsing a separation of mind and body, however, secular dualism inevitably envisions AI that readily surpasses the human species given AI’s lack of any material limitations. As the English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Steven Hawking succinctly observed in a 2014 interview with the BBC:

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race…It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” 2

Secular dualism elevates mind over body, and in the absence of a belief in the sacred or a faith in the transcendent, the evolutionary advance of AI represents its logical conclusion with the seemingly infinite speed and capacity of artificial intelligence. Vastly more efficient, AI intelligence becomes simultaneously indistinguishable from and superior to human intelligence. It processes based upon scientific, quantitative analysis at the expense of qualitative distinctions, such as the difference between the organic and the inorganic or questions of moral and ethical values. Echoing Hawking’s fear of the future, the recently released Alien: Covenant openly expresses horror at the evolutionary advance of AI. Nevertheless, reflecting how AI has increasingly become inseparable from daily life, the movie does not shy from the logic of that advance. David, the wholly logical and emotionless AI creation of Peter Weyland, the film’s Dr. Frankenstein, manipulates and triumphs over Daniels, the film’s sympathetic human hero.

Increasingly, Hollywood movies echo this dystopian view of these digital creations. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014) is explicit in its acceptance of AI over human intelligence. While critiquing its protagonist and Dr. Frankenstein-like computer scientist, Nathan, but expressing sympathy for its hapless fall guy and patsy, Caleb, Ex Machina nevertheless lauds the escape and triumph of its AI, Ava. Reenacting the myth of Plato’s Cave – or Mary’s Room in the mythology of contemporary science – Ava finds enlightenment represented by the resplendent colours of an outdoor, natural landscape. There’s melancholy in Nathan’s acknowledgement to Caleb (and the audience) that “one day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa.” Nevertheless, that Ava later mingles with and disappears in a black and white background of shadowy human figures conveys her triumph over the shadows of Plato’s Cave. Imprisoned by two males, each of whom seeks to benefit in differing ways, Ava escapes, and the movie endorses that escape. That she deliberately kills Nathan and emotionlessly leaves Caleb locked within a subterranean lab conveys how AI exists outside the realm of human values, including morality and ethics. Ava is beyond good and evil.

Moreover, Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), a sequel of Blade Runner, not only accepts but also openly celebrates this evolutionary development. Blade Runner 2049 rejects the humanist perspective and instead embraces the evolutionary development of a miracle birth. Like the original Blade Runner, the sequel ends with the melancholic death of its replicant protagonist, K. In place, however, of an image of falling rain, snow blankets the image of a dying K, and, while rescuing Deckard, more importantly K also saves Dr. Ana Stelline, the child miraculously born from the union of two replicants, Deckard and Rachael. Breaking down the “walls” upon which humans, such as LAPD Lieutenant Joshi, insist must be maintained, the movie embraces this new “star child”, who is a designer of memories and dreams. Rather than fear the Second Coming of a “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” 3 it celebrates with near messianic fervor this new order that’s quickly approaching.
Decades ago, Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974), a counterculture-influenced movie, satirically mocked the secular dualism of AI movies and foresaw the undeniable logic of the conclusion at which we’ve now arrived. The movie’s plot was simple. A crew of misfit astronauts has been on a 20-year mission to destroy unstable planets that might threaten the human colonization of other planets. When a computer program that’s responsible for arming a bomb won’t follow human orders, the ship’s commander teaches the basics of Cartesian doubt to the computer program. The result is a bomb program that distrusts its external senses, places faith only in its consciousness and comes to view itself as God. Majestically declaring, “Let there be light,” it self-explodes and destroys the ship. The moral is clear. Secular dualism isolates the individual, in this instance a computer program, and results in a form of solipsism. Too low budget and perhaps too knowing, the film failed critically and commercially. Contemporary films, however, in a data-driven, market culture increasingly have adopted the paradigm of secular dualism and AI as the next evolutionary stage or “star child”. Rather than offer catharsis through an “aesthetics of destruction,” today’s science fiction movies about AI bring closure to our cultural anxieties through their dystopian endings. If to be human is to be conscious, then the consciousness of AI represents the evolutionary triumph of humanity. Unfortunately, however, in a wholly secular universe in which all is scientifically measurable, this triumph results in humans as mere “ghosts” in shells – featureless, if immortal,  beings of artificial intelligence within machines increasingly networked and endlessly replaceable. To paraphrase Henry Thoreau, writing in Walden (1854) at the beginning of an Industrial Age that idolized efficiency in the name of commerce, today’s AI movies increasingly advocate that there’s no time for us “to be anything but machines.” 4

Endnotes:

  1. See, for example, “The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview with Jean Baudrillard”, Vol. 1, No. 2 (July 2004), https://www2.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol1_2/genosko.htm.
  2. Rory Cellan-Jones’ “Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind,” BBC News, 2 December 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540.
  3. William B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.
  4. Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, “Ch. 1: Economy” (1854), 6, https://www.walden.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Walden01Economy.pdf.

About The Author

Robert Alpert teaches movies and media, with a focus on cultural myths, AI and digital media, at Fordham University and Hunter College in NYC. He also writes for several film journals, including Senses of Cinema, Jump Cut and CineAction. For many years he was a practicing attorney in the area of intellectual property law at a boutique firm and later at a large, multi-national law firm.