The sad thing about artificial intelligence, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once remarked, is that it lacks artifice and therefore any real intelligence. But try telling that to the bling-wearing, gangsta-limping robot hero of the upcoming sci-fi thriller Chappie.
Engineered as a security drone for Johannesburg’s militarized police force in a crumbling, not-so-distant-future South Africa, the bipedal technocreation is experimentally rebooted by an idealistic scientist (played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) to feel and think for itself, becoming a kind of bulletproof Pinocchio in the process. But when a pair of street thugs kidnap the droid, Chappie—as they christen him—gets a fresh set of directives: carjacking, Glock-popping, and a vocabulary of misunderstood hood-isms, such as “What’s up, f—mother?”
For co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp, the $50 million Chappie (out March 6) functions less as a glimpse into the future than a “weird coming-of-age story.”
“It’s an exploration into innocence—about this [created] being that wants the affection of his parents, but he’s split between two sets of parents,” says Blomkamp, the science-fiction phenom behind Elysium and District 9. “He’s a robot that’s more human than the human beings are.”
In that regard, though, Chappie (District 9’s Sharlto Copley via performance capture) is hardly an only child. Come 2015, a crush of forward-looking filmmakers with a slate of high-profile projects are using artificial intelligence to grapple with existential dilemmas of the all-too-human variety. They breathe life—as well as independent thought, churlishness, ultraviolence, even libido—into machines to examine humans’ increasingly dynamic interface with tech.
Following an illustrious line of vividly imagined cinematic AI that stretches from the tenderhearted machines of WALL•E to the bioengineered human replicants of Blade Runner to the homicidal HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, these new films tap into something bigger than just android entropy.
At a time when information-age connectivity defines daily life and foments actual revolution, it’s no coincidence movies are showcasing sentient automatons as lovers, errant children, and destroyers of the world. They are the fulcrum of fantasies, but also the apex of our anxiety. Will the thing we have built obliterate us? “It’s our new Frankenstein myth,” says Joss Whedon, returning writer-director of Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1), which features an indestructible robotic villain with limitless intelligence and a pronounced mean streak. “We create something in our own image and the thing turns on us. It has that pain of ‘Well, why was I made? I want to kill Daddy.’”
In Ultron’s case, that Oedipus complex finds its outlet in Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. The billionaire genius/playboy industrialist character who moonlights as Iron Man builds Ultron (performed and voiced by James Spader) as a superhero substitute to protect and serve humankind from otherworldly peril. Complications arise, however, when the self-replicating, eight-foot-tall battle-bot decides man is his own worst enemy and must be stopped. (Whedon used the parent-killing baby in Ray Bradbury’s story “The Small Assassin” as a reference.) “I don’t remember seeing an artificial-intelligence movie where the robot is bonkers—the most emotionally unstable person in the film—and who has the knowledge of 3,000 years of recorded history and who is a pouty teen, all at the same time,” Whedon says.
Not pouty but similarly hell-bent on eradicating humankind is the army of marauding humanoids that beams in from the future for Terminator: Genisys (July 1). Topping their to-do list: eliminate a ragtag band of rebel humans led by John Connor (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes star Jason Clarke), Kyle Reese (Divergent’s Jai Courtney), and Connor’s warrior future-mother, Sarah (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke). The $170 million sci-fi epic’s plot arc represents a bombastic dramatization of the Technological Singularity—the tipping point at which, some academics believe, AI will exceed human control and overrun our civilization.
That future doesn’t seem that sci-fi anymore, in our era of self-driving cars and automated iPhone conversations. Even such acclaimed theorists as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, respectively, decry artificial intelligence as “our biggest existential threat” and warn it could “spell the end of the human race.” All of which fueled Genisys producer David Ellison’s decision to relaunch the Terminator franchise. “That dividing line between man and machine has never been closer,” he says. “The Singularity feels like it’s not that far off.”
Neither, for that matter, is the kind of man-machine sexytime envisioned by Ex Machina (April 10). The science-fiction thriller follows a low-level computer coder (Unbroken’s Domhnall Gleeson) working for a Google-like Internet search engine who wins a competition to spend a week at an Alaskan retreat with the company’s eccentric but brilliant CEO (Oscar Isaac). Expecting a promotion, the younger man is instead introduced to Ava (Anna Karenina’s Alicia Vikander), a sentient AI whose physical beauty is undimmed by “her” visible robot machinery. And he must conduct a Turing test, the complex analysis measuring a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligent human behavior, while wrestling with his own conflicted romantic longing for the humanoid.
According to Ex Machina director Alex Garland (the novelist-screenwriter responsible for such dystopian future-set films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine), the movie addresses the type of God complex that necessarily accompanies creating artificial life and also tweaks certain hard-and-fast rules governing human attraction. “The film is saying, ‘Here is a female-looking robot. A very beautiful machine. But it is a machine,’” Garland says. “And then it puts the viewer through the experience of the character in the film, where you become increasingly blind to that fact.”
The blurring of that emotional dividing line between human and machine is also at the center of Chappie, of course. The movie’s goal, says producer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past), is to foster heartfelt emotion for the most bloodless of man-made objects. “It makes you fall in love with and forget that you’re watching a robot,” he says. “You care about him. You’re worried about which path he’ll take just as you would for a young boy growing up in a dangerous neighborhood.”
Real-world technology may not have overcome philosopher Baudrillard’s concerns about artificial intelligence (yet), but this year, at least the movies will.
Additional reporting by Nicole Sperling.