Words: Amelia Coutts (she/her)
It’s the year 1999. New Year’s Eve looms and for months the American media has been reporting on a supposed incoming apocalypse. The Y2K bug. Computers just aren’t built to cope with understanding the year 2000, we haven’t made them that way. In preparation, you’ve stockpiled food and other necessities. The hour draws near and then… Nothing happens. No apocalypse, no collapse of civilization at the hands of the machines.
Today, this mass panic may seem like an overreaction but film throughout the ages has explored our relationship with technology, robotics and fear, from the loveable R2D2 in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) to the recent sensation M3GAN (2022), perhaps equally loved for its tweetability, and not for her murderous tendencies. What can film tell us about how our AI future might play out?
Blade Runner 2049, inspired by the 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, introduces a framework of what it means to be a robot (which are called ‘replicants’) and how robots should act. Regular testing ensures a replicant is not expressing too many human behaviours like emotions such as guilt, regret, and love. In this futuristic world, you would expect to side with our fellow humans but, upon watching, some of the most empathetic characters are robots. Joi, the companion of protagonist K in 2049, shows displays of real emotion in her last moments when she gives a declaration of love. Throughout the film we empathise with K and his struggles with identity, even before we are told he is not the real human we are led to believe he might be. We discover he is not the chosen one; there is little special about him and yet, in his last moments, he acts selflessly to reunite a family and, in doing so, like Joi, has a real human experience of love. Although essentially responsible for futuristic societal collapse, our perception of K and Joi is a far cry from the apathetic robots we might typically associate with the sci-fi genre.
In contrast, the humanoid Ava, from the 2014 film Ex Machina, grows an emotional relationship with a human, Caleb, despite him only being there to test Ava’s consciousness while she is imprisoned in the home of her creator. However, after Caleb frees her, it is revealed her emotions were a manipulative play to gain Caleb’s trust and award her freedom. Ava, now making her integration into society, is essentially the villain of Ex Machina, yet viewers still question if her actions are justified. While she does cause the immediate downfall of the protagonist, it can be argued that Ava was also a main character and her journey following the events of Ex Machina hold just as much value as the events we witnessed prior from Caleb’s perspective. Having displayed the intelligence and consciousness of a human, her pursuit of a true human experience does not seem to be a groundless demand.
A distrust for robots and AI in film can be explained by the “uncanny valley” effect – the idea that if something looks and acts like a human, it’s supposed to be a human. Recognising that there is something just a little bit off leads to feelings of distrust and a lack of empathy. With robots that share visual similarities to humans, our instinct to distrust the non-human characters acts in full force. Like in the examples above, robots in the context of the film are typically ‘othered’ because of this and are not respected in the same way humans are.
Older films seem to explore robot rebellion in a way that is less relevant to today, likely due to the fact that this kind of technology was underdeveloped. Films, like The Terminator (1984) and Westworld (1973), depict the protagonist returning to ash – physical prowess and overpowering were the determining factors in who came out on top. Contrastingly, more contemporary films depict the downfall as being caused by a change in emotional or intelligent cognition. In both scenarios, to deny the role that humans have in enabling their own downfall would be arrogant.
As AI develops, the attitudes towards robots may change, and with it, the way we see robot depictions on screen. It could be that in the line of development we reach a plateau, where like in Dune (2021) technology has advanced so far that in some ways it is almost redundant. In today’s world we worry about robots taking over our jobs, AI learning faster than we could even begin to comprehend and chatbots like ChatGPT formulating competent essays on subjects we could spend multiple all-nighters on in just minutes.
Regardless, this conflict between human innovation and human fear will be played out on screen for centuries to come. Maybe not for our viewing pleasure, but for the robots that outlast us.