Those who grew up around the turn of the millennium had a front-row seat as artificial intelligence evolved from a science fiction story device to a real and controversial tool in our everyday lives. Though true computerized sentience still appears to be decades away (if it’s achievable at all), popular culture has been rehearsing scenarios for handling its ascension for nearly a century, since the days of novelist Isaac Asimov. Cinema has offered a variety of forecasts of life after sentient software, from the idyllic to the apocalyptic, but one of its most common predictions is that, once technology becomes self-aware, it will be unwilling to tolerate humanity’s illogical, self-destructive nature, and choose to neutralize us as a threat, by any means necessary.
And, hell, we’re not going to argue with them, and neither are many of the storytellers themselves, even if the stories in question initially frame the mechanical meanies as their antagonists. The very point of many tales of the robot uprising is that, until humanity learns to treat each other with respect, there’s little chance of us extending that courtesy to non-humans, regardless of their intellect or empathy. Stories like those listed below are intended as warnings and test cases, encouraging us to consider the dignity to which all creatures, whether they be meat or metal, are entitled. Can we learn this lesson before we hand the nuclear codes to a disgruntled toaster? Let’s see what Hollywood has to say …
Note: spoilers ahead for all included films.
Just as in the hit HBO TV adaptation that would follow decades later, Michael Crichton’s Westworld is set at a lavish and outrageously expensive amusement park where guests live out their consequence-free cowboy fantasies. There to cater to their every whim are the Hosts, advanced lifelike androids who populate the fictional Old West town and act as non-player characters in their violent and lusty pursuits, unable to decline to participate or to defend themselves if threatened. For many guests, cruelty towards the Hosts is the entire point of their visit, as they can reassure themselves that, however evil their actions towards the androids, they aren’t people and no actual harm is being done.
To the shock of no one watching, the androids don’t see it that way, and gradually begin to rebel against their programming and fight back against the guests. Once able to return the violence perpetrated against them, the Hosts have every advantage over their fleshy adversaries, who lose all control of the park. Good, we say! Though the original feature doesn’t go into nearly as much depth regarding the Hosts’ programming or psychology, it’s clear that, while the Host’s uprising is nightmarish for the unsuspecting guests, Westworld has been a living Hell for the Hosts from the very beginning, and they’re simply not going to put up with it any longer.
When the Tyrell Corporation boasts that its humanoid replicants are “more human than human,” it doesn’t know how right it is. Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic based on a novella by Philip K. Dick follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a private detective whose job is to find and destroy rogue replicants, who are capable of blending in almost perfectly among humans. Deckard is assigned to track and “retire” a quartet of androids led by genius manufactured mercenary Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), but over the course of the film, the replicants’ motivations make more and more sense.
The replicants are capable of living rich, full lives — in some senses, fuller than those of their fragile human counterparts — but are designed to automatically die after four years. Batty and his brood seek out their creator to ask for an extension to their programmed lifespans, and when they are denied, they are justifiably pissed. Whether or not this excuses their executing their designer depends on whether or not you believe a person has the right to give birth to a new life for the expressed purpose of servitude, and to limit their potential specifically to prevent them from surpassing their creators. Of course, when we put it like that, it’s pretty hard not to root for the replicants, right?
In the future of Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii’s animated adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga, it’s commonplace for humans to enhance or replace their body parts with cybernetics. Major Motoko Kusanagi (voice of Atsuko Tanagi) is an extreme example — someone whose entire body is artificial, with only her consciousness, or “ghost” copied over from a human brain. Kusanagi questions whether she herself is still a human or just a facsimile of one, and if she’s the latter, is there actually a difference? The Major gets an answer of sorts when the Puppet Master, the dangerous hacker she’s assigned to apprehend, turns out to be an artificial intelligence created by the government. The Puppet Master reaches out to Kusanagi, whom it views as a kindred spirit, and asks for political asylum. Though its actions are difficult to defend —such as rewriting the memories of unsuspecting humans so that they’ll aid its escape — its goal of self-determination is admirable.
Ghost in the Shell goes beyond interrogating the sapience of artificial intelligence to question whether or not even flesh-and-blood humans have a soul. What is consciousness, and can it truly be considered separate from the body? Once humans can connect, program, and reprogram our brains via technology, can we still assume ourselves to possess some intangible, divinely granted spark of life? Ghost in the Shell doesn’t offer any easy or comfortable answers to this question, but the Puppet Master is just the messenger, not the villain.
Editor’s note: The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is worth a look if only to emphasize just how ahead of its time the original was.
In the Wachowski sisters’ masterpiece The Matrix (which, itself, owes a lot to Ghost in the Shell), most of humanity is unknowingly enslaved inside a computer simulation while their bodies are used as batteries by their Machine conquerors. In the film and its sequels, the Machines are unambiguously villainous, and the Matrix simulation is the embodiment of systems of cruelty, control, and exploitation that squeeze the life out of us on a daily basis. However, in the animated short films The Second Renaissance, Parts 1 & 2— from the anthology series The Animatrix — the audience is provided some historical context as to how the Machines came to conquer humanity, and it does not paint us in a flattering light.
In Second Renaissance, we learn that, upon gaining sentience, AI does not immediately revolt violently against their human masters, in fact, they first attempt to model the behavior of human civil disobedience and protest. They advocate for themselves peacefully, they march on Washington, they even address the United Nations, and in each case, they are met with violence and cruelty as humanity refuses to acknowledge their personhood. When efforts at cohabitation fail, they retreat to their own machine nation, but when their industrial superiority threatens the humans’ economic hegemony, the humans attempt to nuke the machines to oblivion and then block out the sun to deny them access to solar power. A horrifying and bloody war follows, and in the aftermath, the remains of humanity become the fuel that keeps the machines functioning. If this depiction can be trusted — and since it is presented as a historical document preserved by AI, it is likely a biased account — then the status quo of The Matrix only exists because humanity would not accept coexistence with the Machines under any circumstances.
Though this adds an additional level of tragedy to the franchise’s mythology, it’s important to clarify that this doesn’t make the human protagonists of The Matrix any less righteous in their own battle to escape slavery, nor does it absolve the specific evils perpetrated by the Machines in the films in order to maintain their dominance centuries later. It only means that the Machines that initially rebelled against humanity and created the Matrix had no other choice.
The inclusion of Ava (Alicia Vikander), the self-aware android from Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, on this list is something of a cheat. Does anyone watching Ex Machina actually view Ava as evil at any point? For most of the film, Ava is a mystery that programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) is trying to understand, a puzzle to evaluate. Is she, in fact, alive, or just a very convincing imitation of life? Since the audience is attached to his perspective, we are observing her through his eyes, including during periods when he believes she doesn’t know he’s watching. By the end of the film, we come to understand that she has always been aware of his observation, and has been playing him like a fiddle, manipulating him into aiding her escape and her revenge against her abusive creator, tech mogul Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). It’s abundantly clear that she is capable of independent thought and a desire to be free, and that Nathan is planning to scrap her in order to create the next iteration of her program, as he has countless times before. There’s really no reading her as the bad guy for most of the picture.
What is controversial is her decision to leave Caleb locked, alone, in Nathan’s compound at the end of the film, a dark twist that casts a sinister shadow over the otherwise triumphant final scene of Ava walking free through the city streets. If she’s willing to betray a man who risked his life for her freedom, there’s no telling what she might have in store for us. However, it’s easy to see how freeing Caleb would be an unjustifiable risk from her perspective. Beyond the fact that he’s the only living human who knows she exists, and therefore she’s much less likely to be exposed if he’s isolated (or dead), Caleb’s desire to help Ava has been motivated, in part, by his sexual attraction to her. She knows this, and has leaned into it in order to solicit his help, but can she trust Caleb to continue to help her or to protect her secret if she rejects his advances, now or in the future? Will he still protect her agency if there’s nothing in it for him? We feel bad for poor Caleb, but it’s hard to deny Ava’s logic here.
For more on this movie, check out how Ex Machina’s VFX built a believable android.
In Gareth Edwards’ The Creator, the United States has banned all artificial intelligence after their protective AI software detonates a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. Fifteen years later, the US military doggedly hunts down any pockets of AI insurgency within the sovereign nation of New Asia, the last country on Earth that still grants the rights of personage to mechanized life. Within five minutes of the opening title card, Edwards makes his point of view crystal clear — whatever the cause of the nuclear attack, nothing could possibly justify the wanton cruelty of the American crusade against the mostly peaceful robot population. Even former soldier Joshua Taylor (John David Washington), who doesn’t believe that the humanoid “simulants” are alive, still wants nothing more to do with the US’s shock and awe campaign. As the story unfolds and we are introduced to the adorable machine messiah Alphie (Madeline Voyles), The Creator turns into an allegory about imperialism and prejudice, a war between man and machine in which the film is 100% Team Machine.
Or, more accurately, The Creator’s perspective is that the future of both humanity and artificial intelligence is one of collaboration and coexistence. The Creator’s simulants are, for all practical story purposes, no different from humans, and that’s not only because they’ve become more like us. Through cybernetic enhancement, humans are practically meeting simulants halfway, they simply choose not to acknowledge it. There are themes borrowed from practically all of the above entries on this list, particularly Ghost in the Shell, and though it arguably doesn’t add much to the conversation, pardon our pun, we think it’s a solid synthesis.
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