Since Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic Metropolis, there have been more than 50 films dealing one way or another with artificial intelligence. Originally, most of them involved robots of one sort or another, like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or Robby in Forbidden Planet (1956). In the ’60s and ’70s, though, the “thinking” computer came into its own in movies like Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), only two of many examples. The Godfather of Artificial Intelligence movies, of course, is still Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), though several more recent films have made legitimate efforts to the position, among them Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Ex Machina (2015) — all (and more) were superb, intelligent films.

And if the movies weren’t scary or prophetic enough about the next step in another kind of evolution, there’s Stephen Hawking, warning us time and again that science-fact is about to outstrip science-fiction in terms of the ominous transcendence of our machines.

Two overlooked films (one recent, one older) reflect the ambiguity regarding the evolution of artificial intelligence. Neither is the best sci-fi film ever, but they’re well worth a look for those who prefer thought and imagination over special effects and mayhem.

Automata (2014), a Spanish-Bulgarian production starring Antonio Banderas (who also produced), was unfairly dismissed by many reviewers as a derivative mishmash of better movies like Blade Runner. The movie and the video releases weren’t helped by misleading cover art — it showed a bald Banderas holding a gun, inevitably suggesting a cheap rip-off the Ridley Scott/Harrison Ford classic.

Automata deserves better. Set in a dystopian future when, due to unusual solar activity, the Earth’s population has been mostly eradicated and the land irradiated, humankind survives within some urban warrens supported by legions of humanoid robots. However, when the robots become capable of repairing and modifying themselves, thus voiding one of their prime directives, insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Banderas) senses a greater problem.

The influence of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics is apparent to any knowledgeable sci-fi fan, but Automata goes in a different direction than the shoot-’em-up Will Smith version of I, Robot. Jacq, who gets in all kinds of hot water with a very pregnant wife and some very bad guys, is aided by Cleo, a pleasure bot who looks like Chappie with breasts instead of Daryl Hannah’s Pris in Blade Runner. Jacq’s odyssey of discovery takes him into the barren wilderness where, despite the radiation, he discovers a new kind of life destined to supersede dying humanity.

Granted, there are flaws with the script, but the ideas, performances, and direction make up for its narrative defects. Rather than giving us a popcorn movie like I, Robot, director and co-writer Gabe Ibanez envisions an evolving intelligence that aims to strip away its human prototype, becoming something quite else in the process. Near the end, Cleo discards her human faceplate before accompanying her mechanical companions into the new world of the future, one devoid of man.

The closing credits of Automata include a clever tribute to HAL’s plaintive tune of “Daisy, Daisy” as he’s lobotomized in 2001. Those who stick around to the end will savor the irony.

In 1977, after a decade of truly memorable films including Darling which earned her an Oscar, Julie Christie made her second foray into sci-fi with Demon Seed. (Her first was Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.)

Director Donald Cammell’s follow-up to his controversial Performance seven years earlier, Demon Seed is based on an early 1973 effort by Dean Koontz, which the author himself radically revised and republished in 1997. When Proteus, an experimental computer designed by Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), becomes a tool of military-industrial types, the entity’s ambitions and expanding consciousness begin to transcend its mainframe.

Using electronic connections to imprison Alex’s estranged wife Susan (Christie) in her own home, Proteus eventually coerces her into becoming the surrogate mother for his “child.” Insemination and delivery result in the unseen fetus’s incubation in a kind of metallic triangular chrysalis, at which point the luckless Alex finally realizes the extent of Proteus’ goal.

Radically altering Koontz’s novel, the film’s conclusion is marvelously ambivalent and open-ended, suggesting quite a different evaluation of the “nuclear” family. Whether humanity is at the behest of a demon or its opposite, the future itself will be inextricably altered.

Just like Dr. Hawking has been prophesying.


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october, 2021