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TECHNOLOGY IN THE MOVIES

16.11.19

Whilst my meeting-packed working week often prevents me from watching as many new movies as I’d like to, there are a few greats that are etched in my memory. Most of which are fun, fantastical and futuristic affairs centered around technology (I’m looking at you Back to the Future…)

And with my recent blog delving into the implications of Spike Jonze’s Her and the announcement of the fourth Matrix instalment, what better time to explore the technological triumphs from other game-changing blockbusters – both on and off camera

Minority Report

I find it hard to believe that this film was released in 2002. If it were a child, it would be celebrating its 18th birthday next year, driving a car and heading off to work or university. And yet, I’d be hard pressed to name a movie that has been so profoundly successful at portraying - and predicting - the technology of the future. 

 

Retina scanners, multi-touch interfaces and crime prediction software all feature heavily. The film is set in 2054 – a fair few years away yet - but its bleak depiction of a high-tech, big-brother-is-watching-you style society resonates a little too strongly with the present day. Especially in light of the questionable, unethical data harvesting to influence the Brexit referendum and US election results. 

Steven Spielberg, as a director, doesn’t do things by halves. He purportedly consulted with an expert team of philosophers, artists, architects and computer scientists to perfect the futuristic backdrop, claiming in an interview with film critic Roger Ebert that “I wanted all the toys to come true someday”. We might not have reached that point yet, but I’m in little doubt that we will - and soon. 

A.I 

 

Another Spielberg movie – and whilst not his best, nor one of my favourites, he brought to life the misunderstood, underestimated and unloved android protagonists – played by Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment – in a cautionary tale. Originally intended to be a Stanley Kubrick film, Spielberg took the reins after the former’s untimely death in 1999. 

Osment plays David, an android who has been programmed to love: to love “Mommy”, portrayed by Frances O’Connor, and to be loved by her. Interestingly, the concept of AI - and the core theme of love - prompted Roger Ebert to revisit his review in 2011, a decade on from the movie’s original theatrical release. 

Of the film’s central premise, Ebert mused:

Watching it again recently, I became aware of something more: "A. I." is not about humans at all. It is about the dilemma of artificial intelligence. A thinking machine cannot think. All it can do is run programs that may be sophisticated enough for it to fool us by seeming to think. A computer that passes the Turing Test is not thinking. All it is doing is passing the Turing Test…What does love mean in this context? No more, no less, than check, or mate, or π. That is the fate of Artificial Intelligence. No Mommy will ever, ever love them.

The last sentence sounds harsh, which serves to underline the conundrum faced by audiences – if David looks like a human, sounds like a human and acts like a human, at what point is the line drawn? In this film, matters are complicated by the fact David is played by a real, live human. Separation between the two is tricky. 

But what of Sonny, the central A.I character in Will Smith’s 2004 film I, Robot?Are we, the audience, fools for rooting for Sonny? An android who merely replicates human behaviour. We know he isn’t real but we feel empathy nonetheless. 

If anything, films featuring non-human characters can make us feel more human. Not because of a huge gulf between reality and fiction, or human beings and machines, but because real, genuine emotions are evoked by the master manipulators of movies – remember the climax to Toy Story 3, Wilson the volleyball in Castaway, the melting white blob in Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, or the ski-loving refrigerator in Wallace and Gromit’s A Grand Day Out? Real tears were shed at these moments, and that’s something that cannot be coded. 

Equilibrium 

 

Prior to his caped crusader days, Christian Bale was rocking another all-black ensemble alongside Sean Bean (you decide if he makes it to the end of the movie…) in 2002 film, Equilibrium

Set in a post-WWIII dystopian future where emotions and artistic expression have been outlawed, Bale plays a stony-faced, monotone-voiced Cleric, charged with killing anyone who dares enjoy poetry readings or fine art – AKA the “Sense Offenders”. 

Whilst the premise may sound far-fetched - borderline comical, this sci-fi thriller is anything but boring. Borrowing heavily from The Matrix with its reliance on martial arts, the fight scenes are themselves a sight to behold. What I find most interesting, however, is the foundation of the film: that “feeling” is dangerous. 

The futuristic landscape of totalitarian city-state Libria is punctuated by hordes of human beings acting like robots. It is only when Bale’s character accidentally fails to take his emotion-suppressing daily drug dose that the dilemma of what it means to be human – and moreover, to be alive – is fully explored…

Iron Man 

From one superhero actor to another – this time in the form of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, otherwise known as multibillionaire Tony Stark. Much like Batman, Stark is famed for his uber-cool gadgets. None as impressive, however, as his computer and personal assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S. Siri and Alexa can only dream of competing against J.A.R.V.I.S’s mesmerising holographic capabilities and fully interactive user interface. It’s the virtual workspace of the future and I’m here for it!

Television gets in on the act…

It’s not just mainstream Marvel movies that are pushing the parameters of what’s possible. TV shows such as Channel 4’s Humans and Charlie Brooker’s Emmy award-winning Black Mirror have achieved great success by portraying futuristic concepts in present-day parables. From retributive robotic drone bees and controversial child trackers to literal memory banks, Black Mirror has explored everything from the wild and wacky, to the downright disturbing. 

Arguably one of the most innovative Black Mirror episodes to date is the 2018 choose-your-own-adventure story, Bandersnatch. In collaboration with Netflix, Brooker developed a plot that allowed the audience to make choices on behalf of the main character using their remote control. Even seemingly-innocuous decisions about which cereal to eat in the morning (obviously, I chose Frosties!) threatened to have troubling ramifications further down the line. And whilst the episode met with a mixed response from critics and fans alike (it still achieved a very respectable rating of 7.2 on IMDb but season two episode White Christmas reached the heady heights of 9.2), the complex interactive nature of Bandersnatch is certain to be a game-changer. 

Now Netflix has taken the first foray into interactive programming, it is surely only a matter of time before personalized adventures become the norm. Perhaps you’ll be able to choose your preferred level of gruesomeness for Horror movies, or remove swearing altogether. Or maybe you can choose who the unlucky-in-love protagonist ends up with in rom-coms: no more debates about Team Edward or Team Jacob, Mark Darcy or Daniel Cleaver, Aidan or Big… 

 

Whatever the future of movies and television holds, it’ll need to be seen to be believed! Now, where’s that popcorn?...

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