Artificial Intelligence In Film – Why Are We So Scared of the Future?

An easy argument to make for the success of an effective horror film is its ability to comment on contemporary cultural anxieties. From fairy tales reshaped as allegories to socio-political commentaries masked behind walls of icky body horror, the finest contributions to the genre often mine their fears directly from the cultural pulse. One fear that has remained present from the early days of cinema is the fear of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) turning bad. Let’s face it, robots have had a rough time of it in movies.

Throughout the history of cinema, robots have shot at, chopped up, lasered, manipulated, experimented on and attempted to impregnate human beings. This has affirmed their position as one of cinema’s greatest recyclable villains, saving themselves snugly in the hard drive of our deepest fears. It is a fear that is frequently justified by the progress and development of AI in real life, with viral videos of robot dogs capable of opening doors feeling like a prelude for humanity’s apocalyptic final chapter.

But where did this fear come from? Does our unease stem from the world of celluloid painting androids in a technophobic light? Or does the fear stem from somewhere deep within our own wiring? To answer this, we will examine the frightening history of robots on the screen and the attitudes towards their development in the real world.

Cinema has feared AI since the silent era

From the very first cinematic appearance of a robot in Harry Houdini’s 1918 serial The Master Mystery, which charts Houdini’s encounter with a poison-gas emitting bot, machines have been depicted in an overwhelmingly negative light. Less than a year after the release of Houdini’s serial, the term “robot” was officially coined in Karel Capek’s sci-fi play Rossum’s Universal Robots, a harsh depiction of a world where robots are crafted to conduct menial tasks for humans, only to become malicious and violent when modified to behave more like their fleshy counterparts. Capek’s play not only introduced the idea of sentient machines as an object of terror in science-fiction, but it also paved the way for the tropes and archetypes that have since defined robots on the screen.

If a film throws a robot into the mix, chances are it’ll try to kill or betray the protagonist at some point down the line. Examples of robotic immorality can be found in some of the earliest, most acclaimed works of cinema, such as that of the gynoid Maria in Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis. And even though she deserves some credence for being initially programmed to behave maliciously as opposed to acting on her own free will, the nasty bot still spends a majority of her existence spreading horror and manipulating workers to stomp out a revolutionary uprising.

Fifty-seven years after Maria was burnt at the stake, one of the most influential evil robots of all time exploded onto our screens in James Cameron’s The Terminator. Cameron’s highly stylised slice of sci-fi horror introduced us to another bloodthirsty and remorseless humanoid bot sent back to prevent a potential uprising. Only, this time, it’s more of a precautionary measure, with a full-scale war between man and machine already raging forth in the future. While The Terminator and its sequels present their antagonists as heartless killing machines programmed to execute their prey, many of cinema’s most infamous robots initially seeming pleasant before quickly turning malicious.

AI has a tendency to turn heel on humans

Robots often turn malicious due to an overlooked fault in programming, a freak accident, or — in the most chilling of circumstances — by acting on their own accord. One of the most unsettling examples of these robots is 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL. While he speaks politely, he has no problem sacrificing his colleagues to the dark vacuum of space.

HAL was joined in the same year by Proteus IV in Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed, which follows a talented scientist and his estranged wife (played by Fritz Weaver and Julie Christie, respectively). Weaver’s character celebrates the development of his Proteus model, a supercomputer with enough intelligence to quickly develop cures for diseases, communicate with humans in a conversational manner, and manually control nearby software. While intended as a scientific force for good, things quickly turn sour as Proteus decides that he wants an heir to walk among humans. So, he takes over the home security system, traps the wife in the house, and impregnates her. Other movies about robots breaking bad include Robocop, Westworld, Chopping Mall and Alien (but at least the droids in the Nostromo canon found themselves slightly redeemed by Lance Henriksen’s Bishop in Aliens).

Curious and manipulative robots are another tried and tested trope of the genre. These machines can be found in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Ex Machina follows Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb, a young programmer who wins a one-off stay at the home of an alcoholic tech genius (Oscar Isaac) to conduct the Turing test on a piece of AI that he has developed. Upon his arrival, Caleb is introduced to Ava (portrayed by the stellar Alicia Vikander), a beautiful gynoid who seems to have a genuine human interest in him, only to use him coldly as a means for her escape. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant‘s David (Michael Fassbender) is similar, though he uses humans as experiments to fuel his curiosity and desire to develop new life forms.

As strung out and tired as these tropes now feel, this venomous attitude toward robots is eerily echoed in real life. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned that we should expect artificial intelligence to achieve singularity with humanity by the year 2045. When the time comes, we should ensure that their intentions are aligned with our own. As ominous and almost cartoonish as these warnings seem on paper, they provide a solid psychological grounding for the treatment of our metallic pals on cinema screens everywhere. This, paired with Masahiro Mori’s definition and analysis of the ‘uncanny valley’, has created a sense of unease regarding robotics or animatronics that resemble human beings.

Given how many cinematic robots adopt an appearance similar to our own — with two of the most unsettling found in Chris ColumbusBicentennial Man and Alex ProyasI, Robot — for all the wrong reasons, the theory of the uncanny valley has inspired filmmakers looking to frighten moviegoers. In turn, the movies have made people feel frightened by the potential of anthropomorphic androids.

AI in movies isn’t always a source of terror

Despite the seemingly endless well of technophobia that fictional robots appear to be drawn from, there are several examples throughout the history of cinema that subvert the aforementioned genre conventions and exhausted cliches. Some movies have utilised robots as a tool for social commentary, comedy or romance. Though Terminator 2: Judgement Day should technically get a mention here for its subversive approach to repurposing Arnie’s model as a loveable antihero, the film still depicts Robert Patrick’s T-1000 as a shape-shifting murder-bot, and Skynet itself as the ultimate cause of our downfall. Therefore, it doesn’t count.

However, Brad Bird’s fantastic The Iron Giant is a heart-warming tale about a young boy who befriends a robot. Set in the 1950s, The Iron Giant depicts its titular character as a gentle, loving creature with no interest in delivering the terror promised by his appearance, reacting with violence only in self-defence from the military forces trying to capture him. Anchored by a truly human sentiment and a loving depiction of friendship, there are no skulls crushed or hazy battlefields under a sky lit with lasers. Bird’s film depicts man as the real monster, implying that robots can so much more than their unsettling exterior shells.

This idea is also echoed in Matthew Robbins’ adorable *batteries not included, a schmaltzy, Spielbergian flick (coincidentally co-penned by Bird in his debut) that depicts a family of pet-sized robots known as Fix-its, who arrive at a block of flats and help its residents combat nasty thugs sent by a local big-business property magnate to scare them out of their homes. While the movie features a horrifying robot birth sequence, *batteries not included is another fine example of a robot story in which humans are far worse than their metallic enemies.

That being, good robot stories don’t always revolve around humans being horrible, despicable creatures. While Ex Machina’s Ava manipulates poor Domhnall Gleeson’s feelings in order to outwit her human creators, some of these tales find humans falling in love with a machine — usually with saddening results. Some examples include Rod Serling’s heartfelt “The Lonely” episode of The Twilight Zone and Paulie implied relationship with his birthday robot in Rocky IV. Elsewhere, Spike Jonze’s spectacular Her functions not only as a heart-breaking romantic drama, but also as a satirical comment on our growing addiction to the devices in our pockets.

AI as a tool for social commentary and entertainment

Robots have further been used as tools for social commentary in examples such as Bryan Forbes‘ 1975 chiller The Stepford Wives (and, to a lesser extent, its cheesier, funnier Frank Oz-helmed remake). The Stepford Wives depicts Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) and her family shifting from big city life to the small community of Stepford, where all of the men seem eerily happy and the women are shown as creepy, subservient husks. It is eventually revealed that their husbands replaced them with gynoids designed to follow their every command. While admittedly acting as another example of a robot flick depicting humanity as the real horror, The Stepford Wives succeeds primarily as a scathing analysis of gender roles within the textbook American family dynamic, depicting the men as sleazy monsters with no desire for their wives to entertain their own thoughts or freewill outside of service. This point is hammered home in the film’s deeply disturbing climax, wherein Joanna herself is ultimately replaced by a Stepford Wife.

Other examples of robots used as tools for social commentary can be found in Pixar’s Wall-E, which uses its titular bot to spin a precautionary tale of ecological disaster. Short Circuit also flips the switch on a prior robotic trope, having its ‘Number 5’ model develop a consciousness when struck by lightning and once again making an enemy out of the human military who seek to capture and control him. Alongside the prior, grounded examples, robots have also been used for fun blockbuster fare, as gargantuan smash-vessels to battle frightening monsters for us in Pacific Rim and its less self-aware sequel. Shawn Levy’s fun “Rocky with robots” romp Real Steel also deserves a mention for its entertainment value. While these good robots are all used to different narrative ends in each of their respective films, they all subvert our expectations about robots on-screen, casting aside any notions of unease and technophobia by using droids for different, lighter storytelling purposes — be it as heroes, romantic interests, or cleverly written keys to unlock deeper themes.

What does the future hold?

We can only hope that more films decide to approach artificial intelligence in a subversive manner and tell fresh stories that ease our real-life anxieties. However, at least the actual technology is finding ways to have an impact on the creative industries. While we’re admittedly far off from an android-penned blockbuster, 20th Century Fox has been using AI to help develop trailers for their latest releases.

The studio uses a system to identify popular moments and ‘hooks’ within trailers, then utilises the results to recreate these elements in the promotional footage for other upcoming movies. The next time you find yourself in a cinema watching the latest trailer for a franchise film and find yourself met with the Inception BWWAAAAHHHHH as the footage of its talent fades in and out, you’ll know why.

While this is an interesting analytical application of AI into the production process, the closest AI has come to being actively involved in the writer’s room can be found in journalism with OpenAI’s GPT2 project, a text generator capable of “writing plausible passages that avoid the quirks that mark out previous AI systems.” While this technology is revolutionary, and its impact on the creative industries could be substantial, OpenAI have refused to release the programme primarily due to a fear of “malicious application” of the programme. Even with the extensive development of AI in the real world, our fear of android anarchy continues to keep us safe a while longer.

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