Out of the same shadow of the Cold War as The Iron Giant (1999), so too emerges ‘Gort’ – the statuesque humanoid robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) accompanying Michael Rennie’s Klaatu, a visitor from another world with an ultimatum for the earth. A creation of otherworldly science and invention, Gort reflects the future mankind wants for itself in the early 1950s, a product of the atomic age, the bomb, and the future. Films like The Day the Earth Stood Still held a mirror up to the human race, as if knowing film’s fascination with the technologic wouldn’t stay in the stars; instead refocusing itself to the earth, to man-made terrors, and to the space-race.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is the film pointed to as the template all others followed in their use of artificial intelligence, looking at HAL-9000 (the super-computer of the film’s third act) as the most menacing and iconic. HAL’s menace comes not from his own prerogative, but from subtle, escalating malfunctions – from a slip in a chess game to premeditated murder. A decade later in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), we meet Ash, the similarly murderous android in human form. The ‘new Hollywood’ era of cinema refocuses technophobia earth-side; we’re given something that may look human, may sound human, may be able to play a game of chess like a human – but it’s not human, and its distinct lack of humanity is what makes the prospect so terrifying even to audiences today.
This fear doesn’t quite last into the 1980s, however. As everyday electronics and mass entertainment like video-games consoles and personal computers saturate the market, technology is that little bit less intimidating. It’s more often than not repurposed for the sake of satire as in Robocop (1987), the awe of the family adventure film like Short Circuit (1986), or for philosophical commentary as seen in Blade Runner (1982).
The distinction between human and robot is further broached in the early Terminator films, with a particularly interesting scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) as the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a disguised T-1000 (Robert Patrick) attempt to convince each other they are human on both sides of a telephone conversation. That said, the era is inundated by many zany inclusions of similar androids and intelligences, with a notable appearance from a sentient robot butler in Rocky IV (1985) threatening to steal the film from under Stallone’s oft-broken nose.
On a theme The Iron Giant follows, Terminator 2 establishes perhaps one of the first mainstream representations of a father-son dynamic between man and machine, as young John Connor teaches the T-800 Terminator to be more human. The 1990s, then, returns to the complex relationship between man and machine set by the late 1960s and ‘70s – often circulating around ‘cyberspace’ and the introduction of the virtual environment in films such as The Matrix (1999), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) and amusingly in The Lawnmower Man’s (1992) bizarre computer-animated hellscape.
In the 21st century, our lives are so interlinked with technology (be it smartphones, social media or virtual reality headsets) that artificial intelligence isn’t something confined to the realm of science-fiction. Siri, Apple Inc’s virtual helper, is pre-installed on each new iPhone, and robot factory workers are quickly replacing the need for human staff. Capturing this moment of fragile peace with technology’s place in our lives, Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) attempts to explore the issue through the lens of a romantic relationship between man and computer.
For all intents and purposes, the film could very much still work as a ‘romantic-dramedy’ between man and woman. What works so well is the reframing of these conventions through the use of technology. In an ingenious move, Jonze reframes the ‘technological singularity’ (the hypothetical point at which AI opens itself up to autonomy and self-improvement, going beyond human understanding) as the point at which a person outgrows their lover, and must move on.
It’s a beautifully poignant moment that encapsulates the relationship between Hollywood and AI. It’s a device that will continue to be used because it so accurately addresses both our deepest fears and our most optimistic hopes. And when the scales tip, the cameras start rolling.
See The Iron Giant at FACT this week for half term!