This article is part of Humanity and the Machine, our exploration of the cinematic interactions between humans and self-aware machines.
The machines are coming. Actually, they’re already here, and they’d like your movie-going dollars, please (and a portion of your cable bill, too, if you’re not a cord-cutter). Artificial intelligence has long been a hallmark element of some of cinema’s best and boldest future visions – think Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Matrix – but as technology has increased its hold on everyday life (and, let’s be honest, as the sort of A.I. envisioned by such movies creeps ever-closer to actual creation), the tide of A.I.-centric entertainment offerings has seen a significant uptick.
The release of Alex Garland’s immensely well-regarded Ex Machina speaks to that popularity, serving as an elegant microcosm of the current state of A.I. film: sleek, smart, appealing, terrifying, and preoccupied with human emotion. Are we in a new golden age of artificial intelligence-infused entertainment? Well, we’re certainly getting there (much like how the machines are getting closer to taking over the entire world, and I’m sorry, is my fear too much?).
The success of Ex Machina — still just in limited release and already garnering big buzz – is reflective of other recent features that have merged personal issues with scientific interests to provide a fresh perspective on both the natures of A.I. and humanity itself. Ex Machina boldly probes the question of what makes something human – and, related, what makes us love other beings and/or want bone them – and how the creation of something non-human can inevitably and irrevocably alter former perceptions of that very question. In short, sure, it’s easy to say, “if it’s not human, it’s not human,” but then that damn A.I. being goes ahead and makes you fall in love with them, and all bets are decidedly off.
Her explored similar territory, imagining a world where a lonely man could fall in love with only a voice – a really smart one, of course, and a sexy one to boot – which now feels not only relatable, but kind of inevitable. Elsewhere, the recently released Daniel Bruhl feature Eva focused that kind of attention to a cute robot-kid, the kind that inspires confusing emotions related to parenthood (oh, hey, A.I. Artificial Intelligence!). Even the super-sweet kid film Big Hero 6 was preoccupied with issues relating to feeling emotional attachments to non-human entities – especially big, puffy dudes who are clearly not human (or, gosh, was he? more human than human?).
Not every recent A.I. film about the relationship between humans and machines has been a home run, however, just look at Transcendence, which innovatively tried to marry the two into one literal being, with very mixed results. That might have been bust – fine, it was a bust, Johnny Depp, what are you doing? – but it was inspired by a good idea that will likely eventually find its way to the screen with a (hopefully) better offering to sell it. It’s notable that A.I. is still a wonderful vehicle for driving otherwise uninspired sci-fi properties forward – from Transcendence to Chappie, Interstellar to the Robocop remake – and the final product can be a lumpy one, just like Transcendence, the kind of feature that’s marked by good thinking and bad execution.
Blockbusters also continue to gravitate towards A.I., including this summer’s Terminator: Genisys, which resurrects and redirects one of modern cinema’s most famous A.I.-centric franchises, and even Avengers: Age of Ultron. The new Terminator film looks to rejigger an already messy timeline and mythos, but the film’s newest trailer also places a major premium on the influence of A.I. beings in the film (just when you thought the series couldn’t get anymore A.I.-heavy, they had to go ahead and… well, we won’t say, in case you’ve managed to stay away from that newest trailer, which I personally recommend).
The MCU has long embraced A.I. – it’s easy to argue that any MCU film that includes Tony Stark and his Jarvis are films about A.I. – but Age of Ultron is the first to put that kind tech at its center, thanks to a power-mad A.I. being (you know, Ultron) who exceeds his original programming to genuinely think for himself, which unfortunately spells doom for the human race. It’s the biggest MCU feature yet, and it’s also a major win for A.I. (and the machines, oh God, the machines).
The entertainment industry’s rising interest in A.I.-centric properties also extends to the small screen. While flash-in-the-pan series like Almost Human and Intelligence both crashed after a single season, the Steven Spielberg-produced Extant has booked a second season, and that show your parents like a lot, Person of Interest, is currently nearing the end of its fourth season. New series about artificial intelligence are also on the horizon, including the AMC version of the popular Swedish series Real Humans, which has been titled Humans for American audiences, and will focus on a world where the new must-have item isn’t an Apple gadget, but a robotic servant known as a “Synth.”
Another A.I. series to look forward to? HBO’s new take on the Westworld mythos, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, as inspired by the 1973 film of the same name, which looks to be one of the most ambitious – if not the most ambitious – television series to tackle this kind of material. With an all-star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, and Jeffrey Wright, the series promises to be a full-scale A.I.-driven show that will both enthrall and just plain terrify.
Enthralling and terrifying? Sounds like something we know… (No, machines, no, stop!)