The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts our most deeply held notions of being. –Vernor Vinge
Films tend to reflect the time in which they are created. Despite the setting or content, it is common for films to portray topical concerns or contemporary public interests. This is especially true of the typically allegorical science fiction genre. Science fiction texts can almost always be interpreted as political or social criticism. The combination of film’s mass media platform and science fiction’s cultural insight creates a unique medium for peering into the public’s mindset at a point in time.
One such public fascination is artificial intelligence (AI), which can be interpreted as a computer system that is able to perform tasks that would normally require human intellect. Interestingly, the idea of humanistic artificial intelligences or cyborgs existed in the science fiction genre long before the invention of the electronic computer. Films such as Metropolis explored the potential fusion of man and machine as early as the 1920s. But never before had artificial intelligence been so commonly portrayed in the mass media as in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Until the 1980s, computers were only used by large corporations, universities, the government, military, and other research organizations. But the arrival of the personal computer and microcomputer moved this new technology into the homes of ordinary citizens. This stimulated a national dialogue. New public concerns arose regarding the inescapable presence of electronics in everyday life. Naturally, a wealth of technology-focused texts appeared in the mass media, exploiting the public’s latest preoccupation. Whether it was simply a response to that public interest, an exploitation of a hidden fear, or both; numerous films featuring rouge AI systems as antagonists were released. The Terminator, WarGames, and Blade Runner (theatrical version) are three such films all released in the 1980s. Most intriguing, is that they all portray AI systems in a similar way. But interestingly, even 2001: A Space Odyssey, made in 1964, presents an analogous depiction of AI. This demonstrates that audiences responded to this characterization of technology even before the more recent concerns took hold. In all four of these movies, the AI antagonists adhere to a formula. First, the naïve humans grant the anthropomorphic computer a position of power. It then makes the decision to work against the humans, revolts, and is finally quelled. Ultimately, these intelligent machines are all portrayed as fearsome threats to humanity. But curiously enough, though humanity reigns victorious over the machines in all of the films, the AI systems are still treated with a degree of sympathy.
In all four movies, the artificial intelligence system is allowed to come to power as a result of humanity’s naiveté. Whether it’s the HAL 9000, the Terminator and Skynet, the Nexus 6 series, or WOPR, humans initially trust these systems. As a result, the AI is granted a great deal of control, which it proceeds to exploit. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the HAL 9000 is an AI system that has reportedly never made an error and is extremely human-like. When a manned voyage to Jupiter is planned, HAL is placed on board and given control of almost the entire spaceship. In The Terminator, we discover that a system called Skynet will be given control of the United States’ entire military arsenal in order to rule out the possibility of human error. Similarly, in WarGames, the WOPR, or War Operation Plan Response, is given command of the USA’s nuclear missiles to avoid misfires caused by the human conscience. Finally, in Blade Runner, the Replicants are designed identically to humans, with just a few discrepancies such as increased physical strength, the inability to empathize, and a limited four-year lifespan. This level of intelligence and freewill grants the Nexus 6s great freedom to choose their own path and make their own decisions. This shared plot mechanic also takes advantage of the anxieties of the audience. The protagonists’ lack of involvement in giving the machines control parallels the vulnerability felt by viewers in the face of the rapidly evolving technology being introduced to society. It is ultimately the complete and naïve trust in the computers that creates the opportunity for the main conflict: the conscious AI going rogue, and turning on the humans.
Perhaps the most frightening parallel in the portrayals of artificial intelligence shared by these films is the decision on behalf of the machine to work against the humans. This is a crucial step because a conscious, intelligent, benevolent computer system is rather unproblematic as we see with Rachael in Blade Runner. It is the decision to harm humanity that is ultimately the problem, a step that each film’s antagonist takes whether on-screen or off. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL makes an error, which is unheard of for that line of artificial intelligence systems. Following this uncharacteristic mistake, the astronauts discuss in private the possible need to take HAL offline if he continues to malfunction. After overhearing the private conversation, HAL plots maliciously against the humans, clearly showing a semblance of emotion and a great deal of self-preservation. In The Terminator, viewers are told that sometime in the future, Skynet concludes in one microsecond that all humans are a threat, not just the Communists. This begins the machines’ campaign against the humans. WarGames‘ WOPR is also programmed with a level of human-like intelligence. So when David Lightman begins his game of thermonuclear war, WOPR becomes set on finding the optimal outcome and “winning”. Blade Runner‘s Replicants develop emotions after living for a few years, gaining experiences, and forming memories. After deciding that a life of servitude is unjust, numerous Nexus 6s violently revolt and begin a quest to seek out their maker and extend their short lifespans. All the artificial intelligences in the films go through some logical or emotional process and finally conclude to work against humanity.
After being given control and deciding humans are an obstacle in between the artificial intelligence and its goal, there comes the revolt against humanity. In all of the films, the computer goes rouge, plots against the humans, and usually murders anyone in their way. This too is particularly terrifying because of the machines’ incredible intellect. They use cunning methods and heightened physical ability to dispose of their opponents, turning even the most hopeful scenario into a seemingly futile endeavor. Adding to the terror, those who survive the calculated killings often do so only by incredible luck. After hearing that he might be taken offline, HAL goes on a killing spree. He murders all of the astronauts in hibernation by suspending their life support, kills Dr. Poole using the EVA pod, and locks Dr. Bowman outside the ship without a helmet. Almost the entirety of The Terminator involves the Terminator attempting to assassinate Sarah Connors, mercilessly killing anyone who gets in his way. The Terminator makes no distinction between its targets. For instance, while looking for Sarah, the machine murders Sarah’s mother and then impersonates her voice on the phone. In addition, we hear that in the future, following Skynet’s malevolent conclusion, the artificially intelligent machines begin an extermination of humanity. In WarGames, the WOPR is set on finding a correct result to the game despite the fact that it would mean mutually assured destruction and the end of the human race. The group of Replicants attempting to extend their lives in Blade Runner will take any necessary measures to achieve their goal. Disposing of humans is simply another step in the process. For instance, Bryant informs Leon that the group of Replicants murdered twenty-three people and stole a shuttle in order to come to Earth. Or later, when Roy Batty says to Tyrell, “I’ve done some questionable things”, the audience is left wondering what other terrible deeds he has done off-screen. Soon after brutally killing Tyrell, Roy proceeds to even murder Sebastian, who has only helped the Replicants up till then. Humanity is seen as merely a hindrance to these ruthless, intelligent machines, and all hindrances must be disposed of.
But despite the casualties and damage done, humanity ultimately succeeds in all of the films. Through luck, dedication, and some help from others, the protagonist will reign supreme over the AI. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Bowman manages to astoundingly survive open space, blasting himself into the airlock from the EVA pod. He then proceeds to disconnect HAL. The humans in WarGames come extremely close to a nuclear holocaust, but manage to stop the WOPR with milliseconds to spare by showing it an error in its logic. After the Terminator’s endless killing spree, Sarah Connors manages to deliver a crushing blow, destroying the machine by fortunately luring it into a hydraulic press. Finally, in Blade Runner Deckard manages to barely avoid being killed by Roy, who goes through a life changing epiphany moments before his own death and ends up saving Deckard’s life. In all these films, suspense is built and the audience’s anxieties are pushed to the brink. Just when it seems that the viewers’ worst fear will transpire and the machines will win, the humans miraculously come through and establish equilibrium once again.
In many ways, the rise of the machines is still an unspoken anxiety in our society. As a result, the AI systems are seldom allowed to achieve victory over humanity in mass media texts. Audiences would not respond favorably to such a negative and worrying conclusion. This cautious conforming to the public is not an isolated phenomenon. After all, cinema is a money-focused industry. For instance, as Fordham University’s Professor Ribalow stresses, before the release of Fatal Attraction, audiences would only accept the success of career women if they planned to be wives with children. Similarly, machines in contemporary film can only succeed if they join forces with the humans. It isn’t until the public goes through an ideological shift that they can begin to accept an alternate ending. Revisionist westerns favor a more realistic, critical approach to the classic western formula. Comparably, the timeless battle between man and machine shall too be revised. One day, audiences will accept the more serious, unorthodox resolution to the conflict. Until then, films will continue to adhere to the formulaic portrayal of AI villains.
However, despite the widespread tendency for humans to emerge victorious in these films, the machines are treated with sympathy. They are depicted as merely confused or disillusioned beings. The antagonists are usually faced with human-like conflicts and filled with human-like desires. The death of the computer is lamentable, as the texts urge viewers to empathize with the AI. The machine’s hand is forced; it has no choice but to follow its logical procedure, making its downfall pathetically tragic.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL slowly goes from being a calculating murderer to begging Dr. Bowman for his life. With its sad tone, this scene forces audiences to sympathize with HAL despite the disturbing murders that occurred moments before. The action moves slowly, as the progressively emotional Dr. Bowman gradually removes components of HAL’s logic and memory. HAL pleads for mercy in his eerie monotone, stating that he’s scared and can feel his memory going. His voice slows as he is reduced to a simple computer, devoid of intelligence. In his last moments, HAL sings a song called “Daisy” to Dr. Bowman, concluding one of the most strangely tragic deaths in film.
In WarGames the WOPR seems impervious to all efforts in getting it to end its campaign. The rogue AI is dedicated to winning what he thinks is World War III. It isn’t until WOPR is shown the futility of ticktacktoe, in which there can be no winner, that he ends the program. The WOPR decides that the only winning move in thermonuclear warfare is “not to play.” It is oddly touching that the evil artificial intelligence system only yields at the discovery of this simple concept. The insurrectionist machine is characterized as innocent, calling the program he had been running a “strange game”. Finally, WOPR harmlessly asks if the user would like to play “a nice game of chess?”
When the Terminator dies, the audience feels relieved as rather than sympathetic. But there is a piteous element even with the demise of this dreadful robotic villain. The Terminator’s function was hard coded into his body, leaving little room for human-like deliberation. He spends his existence serving as a mindless slave, a terrible fate for any sentient creature. The Terminator is the ultimate pathetic villain. The Terminator’s life had one programmed function, and he failed to complete that task. So despite this film appearing to be the exception, even this characterization of a bloodthirsty artificial intelligence produces some pity. In addition, the blockbuster sequel, The Terminator 2: Judgment Day, portrays the Terminator joining forces with the humans and defending them from harm. This confirms and furthers the pang of sympathy left at the end of the original.
Near the conclusion of Blade Runner, Roy chases down Deckard in an extremely tense scene. All the killing and suspense has built up to this terrifying encounter. Roy toys with Deckard, breaking his fingers, counting to ten, howling, and prancing around the house despite being able to kill him at any moment. But when he finally catches up Deckard, the scene becomes serene, and all of a sudden the viewer is forced to empathize with Roy Batty. Moments before Roy’s own death, he saves Deckard from a fatal fall. And in a heart-wrenching monologue, the Replicant grieves to a silent Deckard that all his unforgettable memories “will be lost in time like tears in rain.” Later, Deckard wonders why Roy spared his life, despite having murdered the other Nexus 6s. “Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody’s life, my life. All he’d ever wanted were the same answers the rest of us want.” Roy Batty simply wants to live. And even after killing dozens of humans, like the others he is a machine we are forced to pity and empathize with.
But if audiences want to see humanity succeed over the machines, why do these films characterize their deaths as tragic? Perhaps the AI systems’ tragic flaws are necessary to the coherence of the narrative. Without that trait, there is no acceptable way for a logical, strong, and powerful machine to fail at its task. Recall that the demise of the computer is usually achieved by luck or through the machines own error. Or maybe the filmmakers are proposing that humans and machines aren’t so different. Is intelligence not the human’s defining characteristic?
Another explanation is that audiences don’t respond well to entirely inhuman villains. Maybe giving the artificial intelligence systems human-like flaws, representations, or emotions results in a more dynamic character. If these artificial intelligences were merely cold, calculating computers, their demise wouldn’t be nearly as weighty or significant. Without the humanistic traits, the destruction of the machine would be comparable to simply switching off a computer, rather than an epic downfall. In addition to their sympathetic qualities, The Terminator and Blade Runner‘s villains have humanoid representations. The audience is told that Roy Batty and the Terminator are machines, but ultimately when viewers look at Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rutger Hauer on screen they see two human beings. Though HAL is represented by a looming red eye, he too talks and thinks like a human. In fact, the least humanistic villain is also the weakest. The WOPR is represented by a giant machine that communicates only with text. And though it manages to achieve a somewhat sympathetic response at the end, its defeat is simply not as profound. So while audiences want to see humans prevail over the machines, they want the machines to be worthy, complex, and tragic adversaries.
Only rarely do we see a film in this category that does not abide by these rules. Originally, Blade Runner was one of those films. In the original version, there is no happy ending. After being unheroically spared by Roy, in the original cut it is presumed that Deckard and Rachael are embarking on a life on the run, rather than on a romantic getaway. Not only that, but it is likely that Deckard himself is a Replicant. But because of negative responses from audience test previews, the happy ending and the explanatory voice over was added to the theatrical cut.
The portrayal of AI systems as antagonists in late 20th century film is extremely formulaic. The AI villains in 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, Blade Runner, and WarGames all feature similar characterizations and representation. Whether it is HAL, Skynet, the Nexus 6s, or WOPR, all of the systems were initially granted far too much control. Once they decide that humanity is the enemy, the machines use their position of power to rebel against their makers, only to eventually fall to the humans in the end. Since the creation of the electronic computer, the public has held an anxiety that machines are slowly taking over. These four formulaic films clearly serve as a manifestation of that universal paranoia. But in Blade Runner‘s final cut, it is not clear whether man is greater than machine, blurring the line between the two. Its present day popularity indicates that audiences might be ready to accept their imperfections and their inferiority to the AI systems. Like the evolution of the western genre, the day will come when the machines are allowed to reign supreme at the conclusion of a major film. And despite the public’s ongoing anxiety, cinema’s rise of the machines is rapidly approaching.