It has to be said, we are seeing a lot of artificial intelligence and robotics within films and TV at present, and this certainly isn’t a new trend. There is a never-ending list of properties based around robotics and their competition with humanity to be a superior race. Of course, this isn’t always the narrative that we’re shown but it predominantly is. Rarely are we shown robots who don’t want to control or wipe out humanity in some fashion. Animated incarnations are often the exception; no one can imagine Wall-E killing humanity in a quest to clean up the planet and it’s doubtful that Robin Williams’ Fender from Robots was a real threat to humanity considering their whole world was made up of robots.
Some of cinema’s greatest villainy has stemmed from a robotics lab, with heartless killers sent to the past to track down future threats, spacecraft being taken over by faceless computer code and robots questioning their very reality and concluding that they are superior to humankind. Take for example The Terminator, 2001 A Space Odyssey and I, Robot. Each finds its story in the recycled trope that many of these narratives incorporate. The robot once thought to be used for human purposes, rises up and fights off its human oppressors. Indeed, even Wall-E could be thought to rise up eventually, sick of being used as a slave for cleaning up rubbish. This tired narrative really needs some revision if AI is going to continue to be interesting to us in our cinematic experiences. As AI enters our life more and more, it becomes clear that although it could one day turn against us, which of course would be terrifying, it could also have a larger amount of depth to it than just that.
Something which I felt Blade Runner: 2049 did extremely well was to make the Replicants feel like a real race of people, with no ulterior motive to wipe out all of humanity, but rather a series of individual motives and emotional readings of their world. With some simply following the orders of their masters, some seeking to hide away and protect the tranquil life they lead, some wishing to prove that they simply are the best and some desiring pure love, the Replicants that we meet throughout the film all can be distinguished, with personalities and dreams that set them apart. I cannot do this with a Terminator. I know when Arnold is on the screen but beyond that there is never a real connection to these mechanical monsters.
Westworld was a huge success for HBO and showed that the usual trope of killing of humanity for robotic supremacy could in fact not only be made interesting again but actually compelling, with us rooting for some of the artificial characters and potentially even supporting the robot revolution. Taking time to develop these characters is the best way of doing that, which seems obvious, but so many of our experiences with robotic programming fail to do one significant thing. They fail to actually give a life to the species that is fighting for their lives. They fail to humanise the robots and instead put them into a cold-hearted villainy that of course is very easy to carry out. It is easier to make someone feel terrified of the oncoming threat of a T-800 than it is to make us feel bad for the memory of Bernard’s lost son. Many storytellers just don’t take the time to bother to tell the story of the robot. More complex themes really cannot be developed without a view from the alternate side. These slave rebellion films and the intellectual superiority of the of mechanised beings that plague our future world are nothing more lifeless and hollow. They are not true characters when there is nothing behind them. How are we supposed to believe they are fighting for their own beliefs when it doesn’t feel like they could actually have any beliefs?
The likelihood of our stories continuing to focus on these mechanical men and women is inevitable. But if we are going to keep experiencing this recycled movie trope of artificial intelligence rising up against us, then we should be given a deeper story to develop what we’ve seen before. Whilst we’ve experienced works of art such as Ex Machina we’ve also watched Ultron tear apart a city just to take over the world, much like many other villains of the same nature. I’m not against fun robot rides in the cinema but what’s the point of watching it if there’s no emotional core to the creatures that we’re supposed to either hate or love? The fact that an animated movie put more life into a wordless trash compactor that what big Hollywood studios are serving up with their blockbusters says something about the writing that is going into these films. This is not a new problem but one that has gone on for years and something needs to change. Financially, it clearly wasn’t Blade Runner, but critically it’s certainly a start.