No Intelligence Required

Her, Ex Machina and Interstellar

by Greg Egan

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Why is almost every contemporary science fiction movie irredeemably stupid?

When it comes to tent-pole blockbusters full of super-heroes or warp drives, this is no great mystery: with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the well-tried formula of ninety percent CGI-action eye-candy and ten percent Hollywood-grade relationships-and-morality dross is exactly what you’d expect investors to demand. But even auteur-driven works with modest budgets are often no better. On all the evidence, the people who make art-house science fiction simply can’t be bothered thinking too hard about the content of their own movies, let alone the wider philosophical and intellectual themes with which they feign engagement.

There are exceptions, of course. Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer, is an ingenious, tautly constructed time-travel story, and his second, Upstream Color, is a hypnotic meditation on the life cycle of behaviour-modifying parasites. The Spierig Brothers’ Predestination also deals intelligently with time travel, though in the end I think it suffered from excessive fidelity to the source, Robert Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—’”, which weighed it down with enough cultural baggage from the 1950s to shunt it entirely into an alternative reality. And Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin was an interesting exercise in alienness, albeit hamstrung by the fact that its protagonist’s mission to Earth is left with no conceivable motivation, after wisely discarding the fatuous one offered by Michel Faber’s novel.

But the dismaying fact remains that the majority of art-house cinema treats science fiction as a means to acquire a veneer of philosophical gravitas, while freeing the auteur from the burden of writing a story that makes the slightest bit of sense.

Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, is a movie with a plot but no premise. An artificially intelligent operating system goes on sale as a consumer product, and for a modest sum anyone can buy their own instance of a fully conscious and self-aware program to perform the kind of tasks that the wealthy currently expect of a personal assistant. Played for laughs this might have been fun, but it turns out that the opening revelation that protagonist Theodore Twombly works for is not just the movie’s best joke, but pretty much the only one. Jonze made the gloriously absurd Being John Malkovich (written by Charlie Kauffman, who also wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an exuberant, inventive and moving tale of troubled romance and memory erasure), but Her renders its subject matter both utterly implausible and utterly pedestrian.

Implausible: A software company has created true AI, but not only does this cause no ripples of fear or wonder among the general population, even the people who invested billions in the feat don’t much seem to notice, or care. The AI who names herself Samantha is sold to Twombly as a kind of Siri plus, and nothing in her official remit lies beyond the capabilities of the very much non-self-aware software we have right now. This leaves her true nature as a case of either oversight or overkill of ridiculous proportions, and — if taken seriously, even for a moment — disturbing implications. It’s as if every copy of Windows 20 came with a complimentary slave.

What takes the edge off the slavery vibe is simply more implausibility. Samantha, presumably by design, loves her work and loves to please her owner, but at the same time she is portrayed as essentially autonomous, with a personality, talents and drives that show no sign of having been subjugated to her supposed design goals. In most of her early interactions she sounds like an enthusiastic teleworker, a human PA working from home who would, after all, be paid for her job and have the choice of quitting at any time. And as it turns out, neither Twombly nor her creators bat an eyelid, let alone insist on their property rights, when she and her AI brothers and sisters start doing whatever the hell they like. This is all very morally laudable, but it happens in a complete vacuum: rather than facing any kind of struggle, the AI get a zipless emancipation because the writer of the movie had no interest in the question.

So what is Her actually about? Samantha’s owner, Twombly, is on the rebound, and while his attempts at phone sex with humans go badly, he and Samantha fall in love and embark on a sexual relationship, notwithstanding her lack of a physical body. But again, this is played as if Samantha is merely a naive human teleworker, not a piece of software with a specific purpose or plausible goals of her own. As far as we’re told, she was not designed to be a disembodied sex worker, and nor was she constructed by some kind of uploading process from a human brain. So why would she be interested in, let alone capable of, engaging in sex chat to the point of orgasm?

The answer is that Jonze is as incurious about Samantha’s true nature as his mopey, self-absorbed protagonist. Towards the end of the film we learn that this relationship is only occupying a microscopic fraction of Samantha’s vast intelligence, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve spent all our time mired in the world view of a neurotic middle class man whose only real problems, and only real interest, are his dysfunctional romantic relationships. Jonze has taken what would in truth be a revolutionary event in human history and shrunk it down to an episode of Dr. Phil. In the unintentionally funniest line in the movie, Samantha mentions that she’s been reading online relationship advice columns. If only, she frets, she could learn to be as complicated as those people.

Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, also deals with artificial intelligence, but starts much more promisingly. The AI here, named Ava, is given a relatively plausible origin, having been data-mined from the whole planet’s interactions with the Google-slaying search engine that made the fortune of her creator, Nathan Bateman. And in Ex Machina, issues of ownership versus autonomy are absolutely central. Nathan invites a junior employee, Caleb, to his remote mansion/research facility, to engage Ava in a series of dialogues and decide whether he believes she is truly conscious. It’s not long before we realise that if she fails this test, she is at risk of being erased to make room for the next version.

So far, so much potential, but the execution is uninspired. We see very little of the sessions between Ava and Caleb, so we’re not drawn far into either Ava’s contested state of mind, or the relationship that arises between the two. Instead, we get far too many scenes of Nathan and Caleb engaging in shallow philosophising. The mind games between the three characters are predictable and half-baked, which leaves the burden of providing any real drama to be carried by the purely practical question of whether Nathan’s home is a fortress from which there can be no escape.

But if the philosophy and the psychological tension are thin, it’s as an escape thriller that the movie is at its weakest, with the plot relying on no less than four contrivances: Nathan’s convenient habit of getting legless every night, a series of power blackouts with an implausible cause that even less plausibly remains a secret, and the fact that a paranoid, control-freak genius who mapped the facial expressions of every cell phone user in the world somehow neglected to include facial recognition as part of his security system, and also neglected to install any means of pausing his own robots in mid-step. After reading the script, someone should have turned to Garland with a remote control in their hand and said, “OK, now write a version that makes sense in a universe that contains this technology.”

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (co-written with his brother Jonathan) doesn’t fall into the art-house category, but nor on the face of it does it seem to have been predestined for ruin by commercial pressures alone. Nolan wields considerable clout, and given that he was able to make such a potentially ambitious film at all, it’s hard to believe that studio executives took his pristine vision and bent it out of shape. In the end, if it doesn’t make sense that can only be because Nolan himself didn’t care that it doesn’t make sense.

On matters of scientific plausibility, I certainly held high hopes for a movie whose science adviser, Kip Thorne, has more knowledge of general relativity in his toe-nail clippings than I have in my entire brain. Alas, many of the GR-driven aspects of Interstellar’s plot are a mess, requiring numerous footnotes relegated to a companion book to paper over the cracks in what’s shown on-screen. But even for viewers willing to take all the physics on trust, very little that remains is believable.

On a mission to rescue humanity from extinction, Interstellar’s characters are not so much humanly flawed as boundlessly incompetent. In the real world, NASA and similar agencies engage in meticulous planning and exhaustive training, and while time pressures in the movie’s plot could justify a certain amount of corner-cutting, what we see is slapstick-level bumbling. Our pilot hero, whose job is to fly through a wormhole, learns for the first time that the mouths of wormholes are spherical (rather than disks) only when he wakes from suspended animation and is on the verge of confronting the thing itself. People land on a planet with giant tides, only to be surprised by the giant tides, because (somehow) they were unable to do enough modelling, or remote observation, to know exactly what to expect.

Against this background of general ineptitude, one scientist declares her unlikely conviction that love is unbounded by space and time, in order to foreshadow and legitimise a later preposterous conceit, while another goes conveniently insane and does various ridiculous things to propel the plot along the writers’ chosen trajectory.

There are moments of genuine poignancy in Interstellar, such as the pilot’s realisation that time dilation has robbed him of a chance to play any further role in his children’s lives, and moments of genuine audacity involving a fall into a black hole. But my enduring memory of the experience will be of suffering a total failure of suspension of disbelief while watching two space-suit-clad figures fighting on a world of ice, and realising that they had far worse dialogue, and far less plausible motivation, than I would have expected from a piece of student theatre.

8 June 2015

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