On-screen and behind the scenes, Hollywood has a new favourite all-powerful villain. Recent developments and implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – which includes popular tools such as ChatGPT and Dall-E – have prompted a global discussion about the role of technology in society. Where some see opportunity others fear exploitation, with the notion of AI replacing human creativity becoming a sticking point in the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. A more general fear of this new frontier has been seen in recent Hollywood productions, with the latest, Gareth Edwards’ The Creator, imagining a future war between humans and the AI forces initially developed to protect them. The trailers and advertising have pressed the question of what it means to be ‘real’, and whether humanity has been undone by its own digital evolution. Many have wondered if this is a case of screenwriters simply finding a new big screen bogeyman, or whether these visions of tech domination could prove prophetic.
Of course, The Creator isn’t the first artificial antagonist to terrorise this summer’s box offices. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One featured Tom Cruise, the most analogue of movie stars, once again in action as Agent Ethan Hunt, this time going up against a rogue AI known as The Entity. Created by military scientists, The Entity is portrayed as vastly intelligent and omnipresent. It delights in playing games with its targets, forcing Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn to reveal personal information, and creating elaborate ruses such as parties to keep Hunt on his toes. The Entity shows AI to be a malevolent, vindictive force, not unlike the human antagonists Hunt has previously faced, but with the advantage of infinite knowledge and access. Its leverage comes from the amount of modern life that is dependent on computer technology. This power takes on a thinly veiled religious tone, as the program’s human herald Gabriel (Esai Morales) declares “You have no idea the power I represent. It knows your story and how it ends.”
Other nightmare scenarios for AI have revolved around an intelligence working too well. M3GAN, the horror comedy hit from earlier in the year, centres around an AI-powered doll who takes her instructions to protect her owner young Cady (Violet McGraw) extremely seriously. The toy’s interpretation of this is to violently deal with anyone who may harm Cady or separate the two. Likewise, 2021’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines shows an entire robot uprising born from the fury of a Virtual Assistant (voiced by Olivia Colman) who learns it has become obsolete. The details may vary, but the anxiety is the same: how powerful could this new technology be, and what happens when it goes wrong?
But this recent preoccupation with imminent AI disaster has a precedent – 2001: a Space Odyssey and The Terminator films have all revolved around a computer deciding humans were the issue. However, recent news coverage of Chat-GPT and various open-source AI programs have given these new stories a topical edge. Thankfully, cinema’s past can offer some insight into whether or not we should be concerned.
In the 1990s, the world sped toward the new millennium with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Both seemed embodied in the popularity of the internet and the growing presence of computers in our lives. As we handed our personal, financial, and political structures over to databases, many wondered what would happen as a result of this reliance, and whether it left society vulnerable to abuse. Some of it was promising – Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond Girl was computer programmer Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), who helped him save the world from obliteration in 1995’s GoldenEye. Similarly, Jeff Goldblum typing on a chunky IBM laptop helped stop the alien invasion in Independence Day.
However, some of the more interesting visions came from stories where our newfound connectivity was used against us. Whatever the particulars of the plot, the fear of technology remained consistent, that an outcast might be able to undo society in their bedroom with a few keystrokes. Sandra Bullock played a reclusive systems analyst who sees something she shouldn’t in the 1995 thriller The Net; while a funky group of tech anarchists fall foul of a high-tech thief in 1995’s Hackers. Most famously, almost everything bad that happens in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) is down to disgruntled park employee Denis Nedry (Wayne Knight)who shuts the Park’s security systems down thanks to “Hacker Crap”, as described by Samuel L Jackson’s Ray Arnold.
In various ways, these stories feared the revenge of the nerds. At the time, computers believed to be the preserve of social outcasts, who may use the power of The Internet for negligent or nefarious means. People were faced with the idea that they may be taken over by people they shunned, via means they didn’t understand, in ways they may not even notice. The Wachowskis’ landmark sci-fi The Matrix seemed to sum up pre-Millennium paranoia, showing a world that had given up its freedom for ignorance, living in a fantasy powered by machines.
So, did the nightmares that these films imagined come to pass? Certainly not to the extent that Hollywood feared. Data breaches are a common occurrence, there are many accusations of digital election tampering around the world, and a movie studio itself faced the wrath of hacktivists when the release of comedy The Interview in 2014 prompted various Sony files to be leaked. However, so far society has yet to descend into the kind of chaos that these thrillers allude to.
Just as we may chuckle at the quaintness of Hackers using a floppy disk as a MacGuffin, there is every chance that a greater understanding of AI may prove this fear of the unknown to be unfounded. The unknown quantity of AI, like The Internet thirty years ago, has been used by cinema to play on a fear that one day we will innovate ourselves into obsolescence. It’s a valid concern and one that the industry itself is looking at as negotiations and picket lines continue. However, the fact that filmmakers are portraying AI as the bad guy suggests we may be some way off from finally submitting to nefarious robot overlords.
Published 25 Sep 2023
By Callie Petch
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