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Reflecting on Robots: Representations of A.I. in Recent Film

Written by Matt Denny.

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My name is Matt, and I’m afraid of robots.

This statement needs some qualification. What I’m specifically afraid of is the creation of true, human level, artificial-intelligence. I’m not afraid of the Curiosity Rover, but I would be afraid of HAL. Then again, who wouldn’t be? Furthermore, I’m not even particularly scared of what such robots would do to us. I’m no more scared of a Skynet style robot uprising than is normal (OK, maybe a little more). What really bothers me, what really scares me, what I’m preoccupied with far more than is healthy is what we would do to them.

As I see it, the motivation to create artificial intelligence can be reduced to two desires. Firstly, to have a thing able to do dangerous, unpleasant, or difficult jobs which, for whatever reason, must be performed by a sentient humanoid rather than a pre-robotic machine. The second reason? Because we can.

These are probably gross over-simplifications, and if any roboticists are reading this I apologise and admit I’m speaking out of ignorance of the subject. That being said, I don’t think this is an issue that the humanities should be kowtowing to science on. In fact I think this is exactly the sort of issue that the arts and humanities are for. I’m reminded of the superb humanities relevancy ad put out by the University of Utah some time ago. Whilst it’s not my wish to downplay the threat of cloning extinct predatory reptiles, I think we can usefully expand this mantra to cover “Science can tell you how to create artificial intelligence, the humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea”. For a more positive alternative we might pose “Science can tell you how to create The Pill, but the humanities can tell you why this might be a potentially liberating development - or a potentially repressive one. Nothing is really straightforwardly good or bad in the humanities. OK, how about the humanities can help you understand the multifaceted cultural impact of scientific developments?”. Whilst thorough, this is an admittedly less catchy slogan.

This brings us on to the topic in hand: films about robots. While I might be terrified about the prospect of real world robots, I love movie robots. Or perhaps its because I’m terrified of robots that I get so much from films about robots. It’s in these films that we’re able to explore and experiment with the idea of robots, what the existence of robots and artificial intelligence would do to our understanding of ourselves; as individuals, as a culture, as a species. In particular I’m intrigued by the ways these films define the categories of human and machine, how these boundaries are maintained or transgressed. For some films, the boundary between human and machine must be rigorously maintained. The first Terminator film operates in this manner with, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) neatly setting out what sets robots apart from humans: ‘It can\"t be bargained with. It can\"t be reasoned with. It doesn\"t feel pity, or remorse, or fear - and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.’

A side-effect of characterising the T-800 in this way is that it helpfully invests humanity with opposing qualities: Humans can be bargained with, we can be reasoned with, we do feel pity, remorse, and fear. Made two years earlier, Blade Runner calls such comfortable oppositions in to question - more or less overtly depending on the version and viewer interpretation. If the Nexus 6 replicants are "more human than human”, than what do we make of Deckard (Harrison Ford)? If we take Deckard as human, he is demonstrably less human than Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Batty is gregarious, athletic, intelligent, passionate, poetic, quick to laugh and with an easy smile. He also inevitably and tragically mortal. What is Deckard compared to this? He’s surly, scruffy, deadpan, mechanical, and monotonal (especially on the voiceover). If Deckard is the representative of humanity then all hail our robot overlords.

But what if Deckard is also a replicant? For some this might be a dissatisfying reading of the film, robbing it of its carefully cultivated opposition of machine-like-human to human-like-machine. If Deckard is also a replicant, the question of why he appears “inferior” to Batty remains. Comparing the central replicant couples in the film, Deckard and Rachael are far colder and more mechanical than Batty and Pris. Perhaps it all comes down to self-knowledge and performance? Batty and Pris know they are replicants, and so feel the need to perform humanity (although Pris is also clearly proficient at performing doll-like automatism). On the other hand, Deckard believes he is human, and thus has no need to perform humanity - as far as he’s concerned he’s human and so anything he does is a performance of humanity. Indeed Deckard probably would not have any notion of actions as performative. His behaviour would simply be the outward expression of his inner humanness.

Rachael complicates things further, through her coming to terms with the discovery that she is a replicant. Is she performing humanity with Deckard, or is she performing replicant behaviour? This raises some particularly unpalatable questions regarding her relationship with Deckard. Is Rachael allowing Deckard to treat her as sexual object because she now sees perceives herself as robbed of humanity, no longer the human she believed herself to be but only a replicant, a thing not a person, an Object rather than Subject? Or does she do so because she believes she’s performing the role appropriate to heterosexual intercourse - believing she is a woman, and therefore Object rather Subject? This is murky, unpleasant stuff that the film never really explores.

<i>Blade Runner</i>
Blade Runner
To my mind, what’s really at stake in the Deckard/Batty opposition is not whether Deckard is a replicant or not but whether he is a person or not. He might have done “a man’s job” at the end of the film, but is that the same is living a full life, achieving the full potential of personhood? I’d argue no. Batty’s candle may have only burned briefly, but it truly did burn all the brighter - certainly more so than Deckard’s. Batty’s dying words function like a sci-fi version of Wordsworth’s Prelude, a poetic recounting of the many events that have contributed towards making him him. With his death, the unique combination of experiences that made Roy Batty will end, and be lost like tears in the rain. I always cry at this point, because when Roy Batty dies he might not be a human, but he’s definitely, defiantly a person.

I like to think Blade Runner ends with hope - and not in the cheesy “here’s some B-roll from The Shining used to manufacture a happy ending with seemingly no sense of irony” sense. Although to be fair my reading isn’t too far off this. Inspired by Roy Batty, Deckard takes off with Rachael and they decide to live, properly live, like Roy did. Perhaps they do retreat in to the wilderness, like Frankenstein’s Creature hoped to do with his mate. It would certainly be a fitting tribute to the overtly Romantic Roy Batty. Of course this assumes that there is some wilderness left, which seems highly unlikely. For me, the echoing cry of “Shame she won’t live, but then again - who does?” isn’t so much a reminder of Rachael and Deckard’s limited lifespan (regardless of whether Decakrd is a replicant or not, he’s still mortal) it’s a call to live, and live well. Who lives? Roy Batty did, so maybe we can too.

However, for all that Blade Runner seeks to destabilise the opposition of human/replicant (or human/robot, or human/A.I.) it is also strangely comforting. The qualities that make Roy a “person” rather than a machine are qualities that we associate with humanity. What makes Deckard an incomplete realisation of “personhood” are his mechanical qualities. While allowing the replicants the status of personhood might be a destabilising move, it’s also just the inverse of the Kyle Resse robot/human opposition. Isn’t taking the positive qualities of Roy Batty as his qualifications for personhood a bit self-congratulatory? A pat on the back for humanity, assuring us that we too are poetic, compassionate, and empathetic. For all their differences, Roy Batty and The Terminator both hold a reassuring mirror to humanity - both flatter humanity, reflecting what we (believe) we are and what we (hope) we are not respectively.

<i>Short Circuit</i>
Short Circuit
The robot as reassuring mirror is closely related to the idea of the exceptional robot. This device is also more reassuring than it is subversive. Subversive in that it transgresses the distinction between artificial and “natural” intelligence, but reassuring in that this applies only in special cases, not generally. Johnny Five in Short Circuit is a classic example of both the exceptional robot and robot as reassuring mirror. The characteristics that make Johnny Five “alive” are his thirst for knowledge, his sense of humour, his compassion, and his fear of death. This makes him akin to humans and starkly different from his compatriots, warmachines that are merely mindless automata. Johnny Five is perhaps a particularly extreme example, since his sentience occurs (metaphorically speaking) through act of God rather than man. A lightning strike is the cause of the titular electrical malfunction that brings Johnny to life.

Chappie is clearly a descendant of Johnny Five, albeit a foul-mouthed, swaggering, gangsta descendant. Before we lament the behaviour of the younger generation compared to their more respectable elders, let’s not forget Short Circuit 2. Chappie is an overwhelmingly reassuring (and highly sympathetic) robot. Unlike the inscrutable and ageless HAL, Chappie is not A.I. as omnipotent and fully formed but something much more human. To begin with, Chappie is no more than a frightened child, unsure of his new surroundings and unable to communicate. He is supremely unthreatening and instantly endearing, traits emphasised through both character design and Sharlto Copley’s superb motion capture performance. Like us, Chappie has a life cycle moving from baby, to child, to surly teenager and beyond. He is also mortal thanks to a faulty power unit. Like Roy Batty, Chappie lives at an accelerated rate. The presentation of Chappie as a child allows for an interesting exploration of the theme of potential, and how this links to Chappie’s personhood. Each of Chappie’s three parents visualise Chappie’s potential in distinct ways, each of which amount to a different conception of what it means to be human. Deon (Dev Patel) seeks to bring out Chappie’s artistic potential and cultivate his moral sensibilities, hoping Chappie will become a shining paragon of all that A.I. can be. Ninja (Ninja) on the other hand, is far more concerned with Chappie’s immediate real-world usefulness. No son of Ninja’s is going to waste his life painting pictures - Chappie needs to man up and earn his keep. Ninja directly shapes and influences Chappie’s behaviour to suit his own ends, moulding Chappie in the image of a gangster but taking advantage of Chappie’s childlike naivety to manipulate him. This opposition isn’t so straightforward though. While Deon might spout platitudes about Chappie not accepting limitations and being whatever he wants to be, Deon places some pretty strict limitations on Chappie himself. Chappie can’t do a crime, he can’t speak to Deon disrespectfully, and he can’t use slang. Deon is as limiting and manipulative as Ninja, using his status as Chappie’s creator to establish a long list of Thou Shalt Nots.

It’s only Yo-Landi (Yo-Landi Visser), Chappie’s mother, who seems at all concerned with what Chappie might want. For Yo-Landi, it seems most important that Chappie grows and learns and knows that he is loved and special. The film relies on heavily on a binary of controlling father/nurturing mother, and it would have been great if it had gone full Aliens and had Yo-Landi in an exo-suit going toe-to-toe with the shorts-wearing be-mulleted villain Vincent (Hugh Jackman) - or even better facing down callous CEO Michelle Bradley (played by Sigourney Weaver herself). But it doesn’t, because apparently it’s far more important to fridge the excellent Yo-Landi so Ninja can get a redemptive character arc. I know the avenging mother trope is problematic in itself, but it’s a good deal better than the kill-the-woman-to-motivate-the-man trope. At least your female characters are still alive at the end of it. That’s probably a good baseline to aim for, having more women alive at the end of the film. Chappie does resurrect Yo-Landi using a back-up of her consciousness and even builds her a brand new (decidedly creepy) robot body.

It’s through Yo-Landi’s relationship with Chappie that the film most prominently gives voice to the theme of robot as reassuring mirror. The bedtime story of the black sheep, who looks different on the outside but is the same on inside perfectly encapsulates the tensions between inside/outside and surface/depth that structure robot narratives. Chappie and the black sheep might be different on the surface, but they’re the same as everyone else where it counts - inside. The film might refer to the defining quality of humanity as consciousness rather than soul, but this is no more than a suitably secular repackaging of the same metaphysical concept. Like Roy Batty, what grants Chappie personhood is that he demonstrates all the best qualities of humanity. We perceive him as human because he acts and thinks in the ways we like to believe humans do.

The robot as reassuring mirror has a strange double-effect. It subverts the specialness of humanity, suggesting not only that the supposedly defining qualities of humanity can be simulated and are therefore not so unique after all. Yet these qualities are always presented as something worth simulating, as somehow inherently valuable. Of course an artificially intelligent being would simulate the defining qualities of humanity - those are some damn fine defining qualities! When we see Roy Batty, or Johnny Five, or Chappie and think “there is a person” we could unpack and extend that thought to read “This creature has demonstrated its personhood through a display of its fine qualities. It is taken for granted that I am a person, therefore it is automatically assumed that I share these same fine qualities”.

Ex Machina does not do this. Indeed Ex Machina appears to take sadistic and cynical pleasure in relentlessly and resolutely not doing this. Ex Machina is not interested in holding up a reassuring mirror to humanity. As Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers, mirrors can be far from comforting things. To my mind, this makes Ex Machina special: it touches upon many of the things I find so unsettling about Robots.

Much of Ex Machina’s effectiveness comes from its fluent manipulation of genre conventions, and the subsequent frustration (or fulfilment) of audience expectations. For example, while Ex Machina is in many ways the same A.I. rebellion narrative you may remember from Frankenstein, Der Golem, and Blade Runner; the image of humanity reflected in Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a far cry from the noble savage Mary Shelley’s novel. While it is true to say that Ex Machina refuses to use the robot as a flattering and reassuring mirror of humanity, that doesn’t mean the film isn’t interested in playing with that trope.

<i>Ex Machina</i>
Ex Machina
Ava’s early conversations with Caleb suggest she is a robot in the Roy Batty mould. She is gentle, emphatic, and desirous of knowledge and affection in equal amounts. These “human” qualities are all the more starkly apparent when compared to her arrogant, self-centred, brutish, Dr FrankenBro creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac). In the momentary breaks from Nathan’s surveillance, Ava’s fear and urgency - and her apparent vulnerability - also serve to emphasise both her humanity and Nathan’s monstrosity. Ava’s desire to escape, representing her awareness of her inhumane treatment, is for Nathan convincing evidence that he has created true artificial intelligence. More convincing, and the crux of the modified Turing test Nathan has been conducting, is Caleb’s reaction to Ava. Claeb’s treatment of Ava as if she were human, his recognition of Ava’s personhood in the face of her manifestly manufactured nature, is the confirmation of her humanity. This is the defining quality of the robot movie. It’s the same moral as Chappie’s black sheep, the same dynamic that informs my response to Roy’s death at the end of Blade Runner: I know that this is an artificial being, but I feel that it is human.

<i>A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
It’s this dynamic that Roger Ebert seems to so spectacularly misunderstand in his review of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It’s the purpose of the robot to confuse and undermine binaries of natural/artificial, authentic/inauthentic. What Ebert refuses to accept is the Baudrillardian notion that a simulation is in fact indistinguishable from something original or genuine. Such distinctions are purely metaphysical. While the robot as reassuring mirror happily dabbles in the notion that the artificial can aspire to the natural, that Pinocchio need only act like a real boy in order to be a real boy and that the Scarecrow and the Tin-Man had brains and heart all along; they seldom follow this reasoning through to its logical and unsettling conclusion. Simulation is indistinguishable from the genuine; therefore simulated love is no less “real” then genuine love. However, if the genuine is indistinguishable from simulation; genuine love is itself no more than a simulation. Human behaviour is just as mechanical, simulated, and performative as that of a robot. Caleb experiences this uncanny realisation first hand. Already filled with uncertainty by the paradoxical humanity of Ava, Caleb is confronted with the revelation of Kyoko’s true robotic nature. Where Ava is demonstrably robotic, Kyoko has until this point passed as human. It is only in peeling back her skin that she reveals herself to be one of Nathan’s creations. In a palpably disturbing blend of existential and body horror, Caleb uses a razor blade to determine whether his humanity is only skin deep. While this sufficiently (if horrifically) proves that Caleb is organic rather than robotic, he remains just as programmed as Nathan’s other creations.

Nathan reveals that Caleb was specially selected for his propensity to fall in love with Ava, his willingness to rescue the princess from the castle. Caleb even considers the possibility that Ava had been designed in accordance with his pornography preferences. Caleb might be the human component in Nathan’s elaborate spin on the Turning test, but Nathan makes it clear that Caleb is every bit as pre-programmed as Ava, his behavioural choices not only accounted for but predetermined. Of course, Nathan isn’t quite the arch manipulator he thinks he is, and while he’d expected Ava to manipulate Caleb in order to facilitate her escape he hadn’t allowed for her being quite so successful - nor for Caleb and Ava’s ability to predict his behaviour.

This exploration of the mechanical, predictable, pre-programmed quality of human behaviour is one of the ways in which Ex Machina breaks with the convention of robot as reassuring mirror. The other is its presentation of deceit, dissimulation, and manipulation as the defining qualities of humanity. The final proof of Ava’s humanity, of her personhood, is her ability to convincingly deceive others. To be human is to be a liar, and the most successful humans are the best liars.

Zhora in <i>Blade Runner</i>
Zhora in Blade Runner
This is the polar opposite of Chappie, Short Circuit, or Blade Runner. In each of these films, the qualities linked to humanity such as love and compassion and empathy are all qualities we can think about in terms of authenticity and transparency. This brings us back to notions of surface/depth and appearance/essence - something that Ex Machina forcibly draws attention to through Ava’s appearance and in the set design. Ava is designed in such a way as to display her inner workings - she is a robot that loudly proclaims her artificiality. Paradoxically, this apparent transparency conceals her hidden motives, her duplicity, her humanity. This play on concealing transparency reminds me of Hannibal Lecter’s murder suit in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal: a disguise that is no disguise, a concealing surface that fails to conceal. A more pertinent comparison might be Zhora’s (Joanna Cassidy) costuming in Blade Runner - a transparent vinyl coat over what must be the very minimum amount of material that can justifiably be referred to as clothes. Zhora’s costume seems like a not particularly humorous joke at the expense of the eroticism of concealment - no matter how scantily clad someone is; it’s the parts that remain covered up that seem scandalous.

Only once she has emerged as the most successful liar and manipulator does Ava have access to the full trappings of humanity. Harvesting skin from Nathan’s less successful creations, Ava crafts herself a fine human-suit. Galatea becomes a real girl without help from Aphrodite or the Blue Fairy, and she leaves Pygmalion and Mr Geppetto locked in a prison of their own making. Humanity doesn’t come off well in Ex Machina. Humans are cruel and violent, manipulative and easily manipulated, expert liars and incredibly credulous. Watching Ex Machina is to experience the disgust of Gulliver confronted with the Yahoos in land of the Houyhnhnms.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes explores similar ground, but never quite plums the misanthropic depths of Gulliver’s Travels or Ex Machina. Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) might represent the worst of warmongering humanity, but Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcom (Jason Clarke) embody more positive qualities of family and co-operation. The great tragedy of the Apes prequels, of course, is that we know where they end up - Charlton Heston on a post-apocalyptic beach, pounding his fists in frustration at the self-destructive stupidity of humanity (an image somewhat at odds to his public and political persona). The narrative of Apes is that of the fall from grace, slowly trudging further to the east of Eden. In the prequels, Caesar and his kind have the chance to be more human than human, but we know from The Planet of the Apes that they end up being human, all too human. Ex Machina doesn’t even allow for such Romantic notions of prelapsarian potential thwarted. Ava does not share the desires of Frankenstein’s creature to return to nature, her paradise is a busy intersection full of people. She is fully a creature of culture. In this Ex Machina can be seen as a full-blooded rejection of The Natural - and the notions of authenticity that accompany it. Humanity in Ex Machina is not a natural condition, but cultural, constructed, and cultivated.

In pursuing this theme, Ex Machina is highly successful and addresses some of the core issues at stake in robot fiction. More problematic, however, is how these concerns intersect with the film’s exploration of gender. For all that the film stresses duplicity and artificiality as the defining and universal human traits; it shouldn’t go unremarked that the character most adept at lyng and manipulating appearance is identified as female. In this Ex Machina falls in to the old custom of making the female body the contested site of truth and illusion. Woman is pictured as both the truth to be uncovered and the veil concealing truth. This analogy particularly suits Ava, extending the metaphors of transparency and concealment inscribed on her body, and carried over in her “veils” of clothes, wigs, and finally skin. The association of Woman-with-a-capital-W with truth and concealment leads naturally to unfortunately masculinist metaphors of unveiling, piercing, and mastery that Ex Machina acknowledges, explores, but sadly never entirely overcomes (although it does a better job than Trance). Similarly, while the film clearly and directly engages with the allegorical potential of the female robot as metonym for human woman, it can’t quite manage to critique the treatment of woman as objectified Other without falling into objectification. Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, does a sterling job of exploring precisely this theme without objectifying its characters [1] [2].

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the perspective of Ex Machina seems to me resolutely male, white, and heterosexual. This may, however, have something to do with the fact that as spectator I neatly fall in to this demographic. As noted above, Ex Machina does go some way to trying to critique this perspective from within. To my mind it fails on two counts. Firstly, and most obviously, is that Ava remains inscrutable, unknowable, and other - despite being the film’s most successful character. Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is a helpful point of comparison. Both characters are consummate performers and manipulators, both are masters of appearance. Amy and Ava know how other characters will see them, and try to use this to their best advantage. For all that I have my misgivings about Gone Girl, at least the audience is granted some insight into to Amy’s interiority. With Ava, we know that she has concealed motivations, but we as an audience are never privy to them. Ava never gets her cool girl speech.

The film’s second failing is that it never adequately critiques Caleb. The film is very successful in its critique of the sort of toxic masculinity represented by Nathan - perhaps too successful. Nathan is so obviously a monster, it’s easy to overlook Caleb’s own problematic treatment of Ava. Caleb is A Nice GuyTM, he’s gentle, sensitive, quiet, and shy compared to Nathan. Gleeson and Isaac convey this contrast brilliantly, their starkly different physicality emphasising their differences. What comes across less clearly are their similarities. Both treat Ava as an object, although Caleb’s actions fall more clearly in to the category of “benign sexism” or patriarchal patronising. For Caleb, Ava is a fragile and delicate flower that needs rescuing. And if, maybe, she wanted to show her gratitude to Caleb for being such A Nice GuyTM and rescuing her from the clutches of the atrocious ogre Nathan, well who would he be to stop her? Ava is as much a sex object to Caleb as she is to Nathan, Caleb just dresses it up a bit. Nathan recognises this - his test depends on it - and his blunt allusions to Caleb’s desire do go some way to pointing out Caleb’s unacknowledged prejudices. It’s fitting that Nathan and Caleb should end the film trapped together, although I’m not sure the significance of this really lands as heavily as it should. It seems more like the wanton cruelty of a “misandrist” robot than a recognition of Caleb’s complicity. Again, Gone Girl is to my mind more successful than Ex Machina in exploring the problem of Nice Guy sexism, although it has more than enough problems of its own.

Robots are a fantastic tool for exploring issues surrounding personhood and Otherness. The problem is that Otherness isn’t necessarily a very helpful category. It’s all well and good to explore the Otherness of women if you’re a man - but how does that work from a woman’s perspective? It needs to be balanced out with consideration of the Other as Subject, otherwise we’re limited to exploring only how oppression works and do nothing to combat or move beyond it. Roy Batty is definitely a person at the end of Blade Runner, but I think Ava is pretty much stuck in the scary, murderous, unknowable-other category. For me, Ex Machina brings in to focus a key reason why there is something fundamentally wrong with pursuing the development of artificial intelligence. To build a robot is to build a slave. It’s right there from the first use of the word by Czech author Karel Čapek in his play Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti/Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word robot, coined by Čapek, has its roots in the Czech words for serfdom and hard labour. In one of the smarter moments of The World’s End, two underlings of mechanical alien overlords point out the inappropriateness of the term when applied to their masters. Robots have good reason to want to overthrow their human masters. Traditionally, mankind doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to recognising personhood. A recent article for The Atlantic touches on similar issues in relation to the field of futures studies. I was particular struck by Sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor’s observation that the “whole idea of creating these creatures that are human-like and then have them be in servitude to us, […] is not my fantasy and I find it highly problematic that it would be anyone’s” summarising my feelings on the matter more elegantly and succinctly than I could hope to manage.

Again, Science might be able to create artificial-intelligence, but it’s up to the humanities to explore why maybe we shouldn’t.


This article started life as the alternate take for both Ex Machina and Chappie. It has, however, mutated in to a more general musing on robots in film. Hopefully it will still be of interest to those who had been hoping for a more traditional alternate take for each film. If anyone is interested in writing an article or alternate take addressing either film in more detail please get in touch.

This article was published on August 03, 2015.