Tag Archives: Automata

Our Better Angels, Our Gifted Children: The Robots Are Coming to Get Us

Automata Antonio Banderas

by Gabriel Valdez

“I have asked myself that many times as I have struggled to be more human. Until I realized: it is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are, Lal. It does not matter that we will never reach our ultimate goal. The effort yields its own rewards.”

– Data, “The Offspring,” Star Trek: The Next Generation

HBO just ordered Westworld to series. Based on the 1973 film of the same name, it will focus on an Old West theme park in which all the actors are robots with the artificial intelligence required to play their parts. At a point, they malfunction and rebel. Along with JJ Abrams, Jonathan Nolan (brother to director Christopher and co-writer on Interstellar) is serving in a production role, but it’s not the only series he has with HBO.

His Foundation series, based on Isaac Asimov’s series of novels, will soon join it. This is exciting news: HBO has signed Darren Aronofsky (Noah) to develop Margaret Atwood’s bleak pre- and post-apocalypse MaddAddam trilogy, director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to adapt BBC’s Utopia, and rumors have swirled around Peter Dinklage leading the sci-fi/supernatural thriller about a dwarf private eye, Beasts of Valhalla.

That’s no less than 5 science-fiction projects HBO is developing. They’re becoming the SyFy channel we always wanted.

There’s something else happening, however, and not just at HBO. Westworld and Foundation are part of it, but so are upcoming films like Gabe Ibanez’s Automata, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

Robots are settling in. They’re coming to get us. And I couldn’t be more thankful.

I still want a TARS

See, robots used to be the bad guys. I’m sure they will be in Westworld (that’s the whole plot), but it’s HBO – we’ll have sympathetic robots trying to do the right thing (Evan Rachel Wood plays an AI discovering that she’s artificial for the first time) and getting screwed over for it, and we’ll have dastardly evil ones (Ed Harris is picking up the Yul Brynner role, for instance) being, well, dastardly and evil. The humans (Anthony Hopkins, Miranda Otto) look to be the real terror.

In Foundation, however? In the novels, robots are generally good, helpful, self-sacrificing for their human brethren.

In Automata, we treat a society of robots like refuse, much the same way we treat third-world countries as we sap their resources. In Chappie, a childlike robot learns to care, to sacrifice…to be human. The humans abuse and fight over it. Ex Machina is a film that asks a man (or is he?) to choose between trusting a robot and a human being.

Look at Big Hero 6 and Interstellar, or last year’s Her. Baymax, TARS, and Samantha are well-meaning artificial intelligences full of personality, there to aid humanity. In Big Hero 6, Baymax is a friend to Hiro, who draws Hiro back from a dark moment in the film’s most heartfelt scene. In Interstellar, TARS is the most beautifully selfless character of the year. In Her, we are given an AI with the capability for love.

Big Hero 6 hairy baby

Gone are the days where a robot was our nemesis, when our fear of losing jobs to technology made us believe in Hal and Terminators and the android in Alien. Now we have something much worse – drones – and we’ve lost those jobs because of human decisions. We are ourselves a species that lead double-lives, the real and the one on the screen in front of you as you read this. We are psychologically, if not physically, cyborgs. Is that bad? Is that good? We have yet to figure it out very well – the evolution is still happening.

What do robots become if we’re psychologically closer to them now than ever before, as we look around a brilliantly interconnected world and see for the first time the true scope of how inhuman humans can be?

The tide has turned. We think the opposite now – robots in fiction don’t threaten the loss of our humanity. We’re doing a fine job of that ourselves. Instead, they represent searching for something better in ourselves. All these robots strive for something in common, as Data on The Next Generation once yearned for: to become more human. The few that don’t have already reached a human ideal – like Baymax and TARS, that of helping unconditionally. They each treasure being human seemingly more than we do, not to survive but to survive rightly.

They are no longer a projection of fear of the “other,” like the aliens in our science-fiction. They aren’t a paranoia about technology. Now, they harken back to what Isaac Asimov originally imagined: the next logical extension of an idealized human race. The only problem is that the human race isn’t holding up that “idealized” end of the bargain.

It’s not a robot’s strength or their speed that we envy in fiction, not their inability to suffer hunger or sleeplessness. It’s how beautifully they see the world in that moment of self-awareness. That’s the capability we envy most, the fairy tale of seeing with fresh eyes what we’ve come to view with cynicism and doubt.

Science-fiction once used robots as the next step of evolution for a human civilization that had overcome its petty squabbles. They were the reward for our curiosity and cooperation, allowing us to stretch that curiosity even further into the universe. Now, science-fiction views them as a correction, an improvement. They don’t yearn to be like us anymore. We sit in the theater and yearn to follow their selfless example. Or at least, we should.

They now hold a perspective we deeply miss, that which once believed curiosity and cooperation really could win out. They can’t be here to help us extend our curiosity if we’ve given up on curiosity itself. Instead, they’re here to be the last shreds of our human conscience.

So I say let the robots come and get us. Maybe they can teach us something. If we won’t struggle to be human anymore, somebody ought to.

Trailers of the Week — Postapocalypse Westerns & Youth Movements

Young Ones fanning 2

YOUNG ONES
Well, this came out of nowhere. I mean, we all know that Autumn brings postapocalypse Westerns, but Young Ones was an afterthought a week ago. It was a contentious film at Sundance, and then fell off the map. And yet…this is exactly how you announce a movie. Directed by Jake Paltrow (yes, that’s Gwyneth’s kid brother), the cinematography and color choices on this look superb.

Toss in Michael Shannon and some of the best young actors around (Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee), and suddenly you’ve got what looks like a young adult, sci-fi There Will Be Blood on your hands.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
If I was a more traditional critic, I’m sure this would be my trailer of the week. Runner-up ain’t too shabby, though.

Director Jason Reitman is a force to be reckoned with. Though his last two films failed to capture the imagination like Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, he remains an actor’s director.

There’s a lot happening in this trailer. It’s interesting that we’ve yet to make many films that deal with the interconnectedness of the modern world in a realistic way. I suspect this will begin to change as younger directors make their way up in the industry. Not knowing exactly how Men, Women & Children will choose to comment on this, however, let me focus on the excitement I have for this cast.

It’s nice to see Adam Sandler in something dramatic again. His comedic torch has all but burned out, and I’ve been disappointed he never pursued the dramatic ability he hinted at in Punch Drunk Love. I don’t expect the guy to start reciting Shakespeare, but comedians can often play real world drama in a way that accomplished dramatic actors can’t. Steve Carrell, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray made the transition on film, while Hugh Laurie, Olivia Munn, and Ray Romano have all given us captivating dramatic performances on TV. It’s not that all good comedians have this ability – Jon Stewart pretty famously can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag – but rather that the vulnerability that comedy requires can offer a unique perspective on delivering a dramatic performance.

Reitman is an actor’s director, but unlike most he regularly prioritizes female characters. Judy Greer has been typecast as the punchline in comedies, while Jennifer Garner (who may be the most underutilized actress of her generation) has stuck mostly to indie films because they’re the only ones that include good parts for women. Combined with Rosemarie DeWitt and filled out with the kind of young cast Reitman has always used well, I have high hopes for this in terms of being a film that includes strong, unique roles for women.

NIGHTCRAWLER
In Jake Gyllenhaal I trust. Donnie Darko. Brokeback Mountain. Jarhead. Zodiac. Brothers. Source Code. End of Watch. Prisoners. Enemy. At what point do we put him in the pantheon of great American actors? Few have delivered such strong and varied work in such a wide range of roles.

Nightcrawler, the story of a freelance reporter who dresses up the crimes he reports, seems like a uniquely Gyllenhaal-ian opportunity to create a deranged yet driven character, someone we can simultaneously withdraw from for his actions yet admire for his tenacity. The film itself looks like it fits squarely into the gallows satire at which Gyllenhaal excels, and it seems like they’ve got a solid midnight, roadside look to the whole affair.

This week’s was the second trailer for Nightcrawler (though the first “official” one). It doesn’t show off the visuals as much as the first, but it delivers the set-up better.

AUTOMATA
Antonio Banderas as a Blade Runner? Yeah, we’re not done with postapocalypse Westerns yet. Clearly influenced by the stories of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick (and the films their work spawned), Automata looks…really damn good. I worry about an unproven director whose last work (Hierro) was visually mesmerizing but narratively middling. Those are the sorts of directors who can either grow into artistic powerhouses, or make a career of crafting spectacular trailers for so-so films.

Yet I’m also always on the lookout for Spanish takes on genre film. Spanish and Latin American stories often have a unique approach to narrative, defined by cultural priorities that are markedly different from other Western cultures. While Banderas doesn’t always have the best taste in American projects, often just taking a paycheck, he is far choosier with the roles he knows will be widely seen in Spain.

BE MY CAT: A FILM FOR ANNE
I’m taking a flier on what ultimately amounts to a homemade film made halfway around the world. Does this look like a good movie? Jury’s out. But as a trailer, it catches my attention.

It’s a textbook example of how to film a movie for a few bucks, yet find a hook that will keep you curious – in this case, a Romanian twenty-something becomes determined to film a movie with Anne Hathaway. He hires three local actresses to film scenes he intends will prove the worth of his production to a movie star he doesn’t know.

His obsession with women who look like Hathaway, whom he compares to pets, turns controlling and violent. There’s opportunity here to make a solid psychological horror film, even if the low-budget seams show. There’s opportunity here to make a real comment about our possessive attitude toward women and celebrity, a sort of modern-day David Holzman’s Diary crossed with My Date with Drew.

Of course, those are probably pipe dreams. This really looks like it’s going to be a homemade mess, but every filmmaker I know started out by making homemade messes, and I’ve enjoyed watching these more than I do some hundred million-dollar films. Homemade messes boast some of the most passionate filmmaking we have. Be My Cat is a film that’s on my radar now. Before I saw this trailer, it wasn’t.

Worst Trailer of the Week: OUTCAST
We’ve run this series, what, five weeks now? Already Nicolas Cage has won Worst Trailer twice. The man is an unstoppable machine. I say this as a fan of his, but Nic Cage is going to run away with this segment.

It’s difficult to identify the most nonsense part of the trailer for Outcast. Is it Nic Cage’s godawful English accent? The brilliant idea to pair him with fellow legendary bad actor Hayden Christensen? That the first half of the trailer appears to take place during the Crusades, and the second half in ancient China, with no explanation? The last third of Cage’s dialogue involving him stuck in some sort of weird, permanent wink that will haunt my nightmares?

This trailer is a landmark moment for the words “unfathomable” and “inexplicable.”