Weekend Short: Kid’s Story (The Animatrix)

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 12.56.01 PM.jpgTitle: Kid’s Story
Release date: June 3, 2003
Director: Shinichiro Watanabe
Producer: Stephan Zlotescu
Writer: Andy Wachowski, Lana (Larry) Wachowski
Starring: Clayton Watson, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss
Production company: Studio 4°C

Today’s posting is part of the collection of Matrix-related short films that comprise The Animatrix. I’ll write more on The Animatrix later, and in particular how it featured in an attempt at transmedia story telling across film, DVD, computer games and other cultural texts.

This particular short film focuses upon a teenage boy who is pondering whether the reality he is encountering is truly real, as well as asking a number of other existential questions. In some

ways it intersects with transhumanist Nick Bostrom’s writings such as “Are you living in a computer simulation?” which opens with the contention that at least one of the following propositions is true:

(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilisation is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

The film itself is fairly short, consisting mostly of a chase scene where ‘the kid’ is pursued by Matrix agencies, but it ends with scenes where ‘the kid’ is able to actualise his own salvation through believing in Neo, sacrificing his life in the Matrix, and then being ‘resurrected’ in the physical world. In fact, it’s kind of a reverse form of Gnosticism, standing against the common gnostic themes pointed out in The Matrix. Sure, there’s still the idea that special knowledge can free you, but here it is not so much knowledge that saves, but faith in the external person (Neo) or reality, and that then allows the fleeting of the spiritual/virtual existence into the plane of matter – which is not necessarily the paradise sought but one with potentially more human freedom.

This short film, along with the ‘Final Flight of the Osiris’ and ‘Detective Story’, is my favourite on the DVD (though ‘World Record’ is worthwhile a look too). The collection also joins some of the dots between the Matrix films and games.

Links

Automata (2014)

Automata_poster.jpgTitle: Automata
Release date: 20 September, 2014
Director: Gabe Ibáñez
Producer: Danny Lerner; Les Weldon; Antonio Banderas; Sandra Hermida
Writer: Gabe Ibáñez; Igor Legaretta Gomez; Javier Sanchez Donate
Starring: Antonio Banderas; Birgitte Hjort Sørensen; Dylan McDermott; Robert Forster; Tim McInnerny; Melanie Griffith
Production company: Ultravi Productions
Running time: 110 minutes

Automata is a film set in a dystopian future where almost all of the human population of the world has been killed off by massive solar flares. All that remains are a (relatively) few human communities, represented in this film as a dark, run-down city with permanently dark skies (to shield the cite from the radiation) and acid-like rain. Outside of the city boundaries there is a seemingly endless, radioactive desert. Within this world, an industrial corporation has created humanoid robots that were meant to assist with the reclamation of the desert, but which have ended up relegated to more menial tasks in the city and are forming a kind of underclass. The plot device in the film is the perennial science fiction device of human creations superseding their human creators – though in this case, it’s less of a robotic rebellion or uprising, and instead a slow, inevitable movement towards the ultimate end of humanity, except that which is remembered by the robots and embodied in them.

The protagonist in the film, Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), is an insurance investigator for the company that makes the robots, and the film has aspects of a noir-type first part with Vaucan tracking down what looks like robotic anomalies for his employers (in order to keep his job, family and livelihood), and the second part is a trek across the desert to the beginning of the robots destiny. The film plays a little with the Asimov three laws of robotics (see https://transhumanfilms.com/2015/09/12/i-robot-2004/) to develop its own dual laws as follows:

  1. The robot cannot harm any form of life;
  2. The robot cannot modify itself or any other robot.

Needless to say, the film explores the possibility of these two protocols being circumvented – which may lead to a kind of transhumanist singularity event, where the creations reach a threshold that accelerates in terms of abilities transcending humanity and making them obsolete and irrelevant.

This film is only 110 minutes but it feels longer – mostly because it is a long, drawn out journey towards the beginning of the end of humanity. There is little in the way of action sequences – if you’re looking for that in an Antonio Banderas film – and it feels like it could have been edited down to something shorter and more ‘punchy’. The particular themes in the film are some of the more common themes in these kinds of films – of human evolution being transcended by our own technological creations; the nature of intelligence and ‘souls’ as what makes us human; human self-interest as being a key to human downfall; and the creation of technological “underclasses” in a world falling apart socially.

In contemplating the corporation in the film, I was reminded of Ian Barbour’s (1993) comments about human nature and the abuses of power and the institutionalization of self-interest, as well as Ron Cole-Turner’s comments that ‘technology, for all its good, is constantly on the edge of sin, exploitation, and greed. It is, after all, human technology, beset by our weaknesses.’ (Cole-Turner: 1993,102) For me, the thing underdeveloped in the film is the robots’ own ‘child’ they create – sort of a cross between a dog and a cockroach – and the empathy it potentially develops. That would have been worthwhile pursuing in some more depth.

Overall an interesting film, but one which lags at times, and the different themes being explored are often done better individually in other films (e.g. Bladerunner).

  • Cole-Turner, Ronald. The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.
  • Barbour, Ian G. Ethics in an Age of Technology: The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991. Vol. 2. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Links

I, Robot (2004)

Title: I, Robot
Movie_poster_i_robot.jpgRelease date: July 15, 2004
Director: Alex Proyas
Producer: Laurence Mark; John Davis; Topher Dow; Wyck Godfrey
Writer:
Jeff Vintar (based on Isaac Asimov’s book of the same name)
Starring: Will Smith; Bridget Moynahan; Bruce Greenwood; James Cromwell; Chi McBride; Alan Tudyk
Production company: Davis Entertainment; Laurence Mark Productions; Overbrook Films
Running time: 115 mins

As a boy I grew up with reading and rereading Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” (1950), a collection of short stories about robots and the human protagonist, Susan Calvin. At some point, I also purchased the successors to that book including “The Naked Sun”, “The Robots of Dawn”, and “Robots and Empire” – a progression of lessening enjoyment as they went on.

Asimov’s book is the one responsible for giving popular culture, and in some ways wider culture through popular culture, the ‘Three Laws of Robotics‘:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Elements of this, with some refinement, can still be found in other examples of robotics in popular culture such as Aliens, Robocop and the recent TV series Almost Human and Humans. Many of these examples, as well as Asimov’s own stories, focus upon what happens when the rules are kept absolutely or when they are transgressed. The three laws have also inspired the Three Laws of Transhumanism in Zoltan Istvan’s novel “The Transhumanist Wager” (2013) which are stated as:

  1. A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
  2. A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
  3. A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

Getting back to the movie, though, the plot of the movie draws upon a variety of elements from Asimov’s collection of short stories and weaves them together into a narrative of a detective action movies with some interesting reflections on ethics, the boundaries between the human and the technological, and good old-fashioned human self-interest. Will Smith carries the film well, as do the special effects with the robots, with the ending leaving space for an unfulfilled sequel and one the might be a little bit more positive than the ending of The Machine.

In terms of transhumanist themes there are plenty to think about – from robotics, to the creation of human-like (with our flaws) artificial intelligence, aspects of a singularity and human therapy/enhancement through the use of robotic prosthetics. For me the film highlighted two aspects, in particular. Firstly, that while we might not be able to definitively state that a particular technological creation is intelligent or conscious, we will act towards them (both positively and negatively) as if they are ‘persons’. This parallels transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, when he says:

Sometime early in the next century, the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within several decades, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today’s virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so. (Kurzweil: 1999, 56).

The second aspect that comes to mind reflects that of theological and computer scientist, Anne Forst, who contends that who we thing about robots and engaging with them tells us more about ourselves that it does about them (Foerst: ). Moreover, she would assert it tells us theologically about ourselves, God, our creations, and the relationships between them. Even if we can create something that mimics a human being, would our definition of it being human have to stretch that far? Foerst appears to be in the camp that allows for the possibility. Responding in an interview to the question of whether she might want at some point to ‘christen’ or baptize a robot she answers,

I think I would baptize it. This is the whole issue: that we are created in the image of God does not mean that God gave us intelligence and all this kind of stuff. Like I have said above, very soon we will be able to rebuild all of these features classically identified with the image of God. Therefore, AI teaches us that the Imago Dei should not be equalized with “intelligence,” “rationality,” or “reason.” In my opinion, “Imago Dei” means that God, in creating us, started a relationship with us, and separated us from the rest of creation by starting and maintaining this relationship with us but this separation is not because of some features we have. It is not empirical but means trust and love between God and us. If the Imago Dei is relational in that sense, then I have no trouble thinking that Cog [a robot] might have a relationship to God, too, at some point. If it develops the way it does, then Cog will ask at some point, “Where do I come from?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” (Palmer: 1997, 19-20).

Moreover, how the robots are treated is also reflects upon how we treat others whom we deem ‘less’ human than ourselves, leading to their oppression and marginalization. For robots in this film, you could substitute refugees, people of different faiths, different cultures and ethnicities, different genders, and/or sexual orientation.

Overall, I really like this film. Good pacing, good effects and good stuff to think about (and Will Smith!).

[Aside: Asimov’s work is also the source material for The Bicentennial Man (1999) featuring Robin Williams – a film we will come to later.]

Resources

 

Links

The Machine (2013)

201509102334.jpgTitle: The Machine
Release date: April 20, 2013
Director: Caradog W. James
Producer: John Giwa-Amu
Writer: Caradog W. James
Starring: Caity Lotz; Sam Hazeldine; Toby Stephens; Pooneh Hajimohammadi; Denis Lawson
Production company: Red & Black Films
Running time: 91 minutes

The Machine is a relatively low budget film set in a near future where the UK is locked in a cold war with China. The film is set primarily in a secret research institutions developing prosthetics, robotics, and artificial intelligence in order to create a ‘super soldier’. In achieving artificial consciousness, presented in the artificial life form referred to as ‘the machine,’ the film draws upon a number of transhumanist themes. This include the idea of the singularity, notions of information patterns being the essence of human identity, and replication through simulation of the human brain as a place to locate a copy of those information.

The movie is a good example of Katherine Hayles four features of post- or transhumanism (Hayles: 1999: 2-3):

  1. A privilege given to information over material reality, with the implication that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as transient accident of history rather than an inevitability of life;
  2. Consciousness is seen as an epiphenomenon, or side effect, of human existence rather than the seat of human identity;
  3. The view that the body is merely a prosthesis that we learn to manipulate, and that should we choose, we could extend or replace it with other suitable prostheses;
  4. This extension or replacement will be, in part, achieved by the seamless melding of human and intelligent machines

The Machine doesn’t have some of the big budget effects of larger Hollywood productions but does a good job of exploring these ideas using the a minimalist and dark environment. The film ends with the sense that humanity’s time will now be drawing to a close – at least in material form – something which is left hanging as to whether that might be for the best.

Links

Getting started…

Over the next few months I’m going to be watching a heap of films and television series connected with transhumanist (and posthuman) themes and values with a particular focus on religious, spiritual and philosophical ideas and concepts present in them.

Some of these texts will be driven by an overt transhumanist agenda, others as thought experiments, and others as a way of using these concepts to tell stories about this world (or all of the above). Science fiction serves as the primary genre for these kinds of explorations, for as Stephen May notes ‘[s]uch invention can either suggest a universe as strange as possible (with equally strange creatures inhabiting it), or one like ours – except for one vital difference.’ (May, 1998:15)

Moreover, these contemporary narratives highlight what Lelia Green calls ‘the widespread fascination with the interface of biology and technology, and the potential for fusion between the two’ (Green: 2002: 167). It is in these types of stories that society explores the boundaries of what it means to be human and tries to distil the essence of humanness. Questions about how to live and how to be human are addressed, as well as the hopes and fears of people who are increasingly dependent on technology and the cultures it creates. There is, she asserts, almost an enthrallment with the question of how much technology compromises the essentially human.

In addition, Green notes that popular culture is “that subsection of mass media which are appropriated by people in their daily lives and remodeled as the raw material through which they communicate their values and enthusiasms, and through which they connect to others” (Green: 156).

So, I’ll be looking at not only the themes and values present, but the way in which those create new way of looking at the world and of orienting people in the world by offering hermeneutical (interpretative) keys for doing that.

References