In this year’s crop of tech-themed movies you’ll notice that the paranoid machine vs. human/singularity-horror-show pictures of the 1990s and early 2000s (The Matrix et al) seem to have given way to a new kind of story that explores the peaceful, if troubled, coexistence between the carbon- and the circuit-based. Some of the year’s best movies feature robots and AI that seem to possess more of our better angels than their human masters. Others are traumatized by the humans’ confusion and conflicting notions about how to relate with their robot companions.
The best of the batch seem interested in exploring the human/machine issues that will arise as the machines become more like us, and as the two types of sentient beings grow closer together and even merge.
I’m not going to say that any of the tech-flavored movies that came out in 2014 will make the all-time best list. After all, Her came out last year, and nothing in 2014 came even close to Spike Jonze’s masterpiece. However, some respectable tech movies did hit theaters. I’ve collected mine and the VentureBeat staff’s picks here in no particular order.
The British sci-fi flick The Machine has flavors of Blade Runner and Her. It’s a well-imagined telling of the oft-heard tale about artificial intelligence beginning to replace humanity at the top of Earth’s food chain. But it’s more of a meditation about the positive interaction between humans and machines than about a paranoid foregone conclusion that the machines will win.
A new Cold War between China and the West has resulted in the deepest recession in history. The “proles” are in danger of starvation and extinction, while the governments of the two superpowers engage in an arms race to develop more intelligent and deadly machines. Britain’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has almost completed the world’s first artificially intelligent robotic soldier that sounds and looks a human woman but with incredible strength, speed, and agility. But the AI is pulled from the lab too early and thrust into military service. The movie is about the AI’s struggle to adapt, and the desire for revenge.
Most of The Machine takes place indoors, which limits the storytelling somewhat, but as a cerebral experience it’s among the best of the year.
Big Hero 6
Big Hero 6 was inspired by the Marvel Comics series of the same name. What’s interesting about this animated movie is that it’s set in a city called San Fransokyo, an interesting cross between San Francisco and Tokyo. That in itself is worth seeing. The main character, Hiro, is an orphan child living with his aunt and older brother Tadishi. Both brothers love science, and Tadashi builds his younger brother a robotic nurse called Baymax, a big white pillowy thing that looks a little like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. She’s another benevolent machine: she’s kind and caring, and turns out to be a crucial ally when Hiro and his friends get mixed up in a dangerous plot. The animation from Walt Disney Studios is a real treat for the eyes.
Automata explores the implications of a strongly principled and benevolent technology coexisting with humans. Fifty years in the future the planet has suffered an environmental disaster and is turning into a desert. Humans hope to use technology to combat their demise, and their fear. They create a “quantum android” called the Pilgrim 7000, which is designed to assist humans in their plight. But the robots begin breaking the fundamental protocols of their existence (“No robot should harm a human,” “No robot should alter itself,” etc.). Our hero, an insurance company man played by Antonio Banderas, is charged with destroying the naughty robots. But in true Blade Runner fashion, he begins to have difficulty seeing the robots as something less than human.
Based on a 1982 French graphic novel, Snowpiercer is the English-language debut from South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, the guy who gave us the wonderful environmental horror movie The Host a few years ago. The movie tells the story of an earth doomed by global warming. The movie is set in 2031,17 years after a failed experiment to reverse global warming has ushered in a new ice age. The two thousand or so humans left alive are continuously circling the globe in a bullet train with a perpetual motion machine for an engine. The train becomes the world — a completely self-contained ecosystem complete with a class system where the poorest inhabit the rear cars and the more fortunate are farther up. With limited resources, man is reduced to a darker, earlier self. And there are no friendly robots to help.
He’s back! Well, sort of.
In Godzilla (2014) an American engineer begins investigating a coverup of the real causes of a nuclear meltdown that took place 15 years ago at a plant near Mount Fuji in Japan. Turns out it’s not Godzilla’s fault. The core was breached by a manmade monster called MUTO (Massively Identified Terrestrial Organism!). This beast was engineered at a secret lab, which the main character and his son discover well inside the quarantine zone around the mountain. Actually there are many of these MUTO things. As the movie progresses, Godzilla and the MUTO things all converge on San Francisco where the engineer’s wife and kids live. They do battle and lay waste to the city, trampling all over the Silicon Valley types who live there.
The Godzilla movies have always been about the horrible unintended consequences of technology, and the point is made once again in this 2014 update.
The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie is a full-length adventure movie made completely out of LEGOs — the characters, the sets, everything. The story’s hero Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a normal, unassuming LEGO minifigure who is mistakenly identified as the one person who can save the world from an evil tyrant who hangs out on a huge spaceship. But Emmet is hilariously ill-equipped for the job. This movie could easily have been just another standard licensed toy movie for kids and it still would have made plenty of money. But, it turns out, it’s hilarious, and a good couple hours of entertainment for adults. In fact, we’ve seen The LEGO Movie at the top of a couple of “Best of 2014” lists.
In another technology vs. human mortality movie, The Congress, an aging actress decides to accept an indecent proposal from the studio she works for. The studio wants to scan her inside and out — the mental and the physical — and store her person (in the young and beautiful form they want) in digital form so that they can use her in movies forever. The huge machine they use to “scan” her leaves you wanting more details, but in Hollywood imagining the rough outlines is enough. The actress is desperate for the money they’ll pay her because her son is sick and needs expensive medical treatment. But having a famous digital double is not what the actress thought it would be.
Print the Legend
We’ve been hearing about 3D printing for the better part of a decade now, and the real-life applications of the technology are starting to show up. Print the Legend chronicles the people at the start of the movement. The Netflix-backed documentary follows startups MakerBot and Formlabs as they struggle to usher in this potentially game-changing technology. The people in this movie believe that 3D printing will be as big a revolution in technology as the personal computer was, and by the end of the movie you believe it.
In January 2013 the filmmaker Laura Poitras was going about her business creating yet another documentary about the government’s overreach into our civil rights in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. But she fell into a far fresher story when she started getting encrypted emails from none other than Edward Snowden, who identified himself at the time only as “Citizen Four.” Snowden was hot to tell his story about the NSA’s Prism program, so Poitras and journalist Glen Greenwald flew to Hong Kong to meet with Snowden. The film documents how the whole Snowden story, or legend, started.
I had to find a horror movie to put on this list. V/H/S Viral is not a “great” movie, but I give it points for taking an interesting look at the effect that a new kind of fame has had on the young. How far will the kids go to shoot the next viral hit? The movie, like the other V/H/S films, is episodic. Young people with smartphones and video cameras venture into dangerous scenes and situations to capture the footage that might make them YouTube-famous. Some of them die trying.
And now for the worst…
It turns out that traveling across the galaxy and ducking out through a wormhole into another reality is no problem for science in this sci-fi mess of a movie, but stopping crop blight — blight! — is so insurmountable a problem that the Earth must be abandoned. Yep, in Interstellar, the Earthlings must disappear through a wormhole and inhabit a planet on the other side of the galaxy to survive. But not before our hero, an ex-NASA pilot played by Matthew McConaughey, and a team of researchers go in search of the planet that’s the best fit for a new home. Gah.
Because I thought Johnny Depp was tasteful about his movie choices I sat down to watch this dog. In Transcendence, Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a famous AI technologist — so famous in fact that he becomes the target of some anti-tech wackos, who manage to poison him. As Castor gets sicker he decides to upload his whole being into an AI. Then he dies. His grieving wife finds her beloved still living on the computer in the lab. When the anti-tech wackos blow up the lab, Caster’s intelligence is apparently released into the wilds of the web, and he becomes more and more powerful the more knowledge — and connections to things — he collects. The ham-fisted way that the movie portrays this far-fetched notion is laughable. Castor’s AI seems able to inhabit and control everything from other people to pay phones to sprinkler systems. Avoid this one.