The dehumanizing impact of machines. The possibility of mankind being destroyed by its own creation. The question of artificial intelligence exceeding its programming. The nature of life itself.
These are the sorts of questions that are brought up when one thinks of “films based around technology.”
(Incidentally, this is #28 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
Today, the job is to come up with four movies which don’t only deal heavily with technology but also are actually good movies themselves. Let’s get started.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 – directed by Stanley Kubrick)
2001 is perhaps the ultimate film about technology. The story features some sort of unknown alien presence influencing primitive man to pick up a bone and beat his enemies over the head with it…in other words, the first tool, the first example of technology. The story then follows the logical path and shows humanity much later, having invented space flight, artificial intelligence, television and much more. The alien presence has been waiting for humanity to develop to this stage to usher them into their next stage of development, but first our main character finds he has to fight for survival against the very technology he has developed. The HAL 9000 computer, surely one of the most effective villains ever presented on film, has become paranoid and faulty, and sees that destroying its creators is the only way to ensure its own survival. The film shows its main character, Commander Dave Bowman, having to find his human courage and ingenuity to overcome what is the pinnacle of mankind’s technological achievement.
Then of course he flies through a portal and becomes a space-baby. So, you know.
Anyway, 1960’s drug-inspired trippiness aside, 2001 is perhaps the best film to capture all of the classic implications of technology, and is a story that genuinely deals with the concept of mankind’s relationship with technology amongst its other themes.
TRON (1982 – directed by Steven Lisberger)
Back before The Matrix, before Lawnmower Man, before The Thirteenth Floor, TRON was a movie that dealt with the uncertainty that we all had about what was going on inside our computers. Not just inside the mind of the computer, but inside the world of the computer. There we were, playing games with little human-like avatars, sending them into mortal combat and death defying trials. But what if they weren’t just computer programs? Or rather, what if they were, and what if those programs had life? Sentience? Civilization? Culture? Religion? TRON is not the best movie ever made, and it owes a lot of its vibe to Star Wars, but it was a vanguard film in terms of talking about these sorts of themes in the guise of popular family entertainment.
Logan’s Run (1976 – directed by Michael Anderson)
Logan’s Run is about the way that technology can dehumanize people, or how people can allow replace their own thought with technological ease. Wall-E did a lot of the same things, but Logan’s Run did it much earlier. In it, a computer looks after the remains of humanity, managing every aspect of their lives, and dictating that all humans must voluntarily die at age 30 in order to conserve resources. But the world they live in up until that point is a completely carefree and hedonistic one. The movie even anticipated internet-based relationships: in one bit we see that people can put themselves “on-line” looking for perspective partners, except that these selections can be immediately followed through on thanks to convenient teleportation devices. In Logan’s Run, technology controls the population, it identifies how old people are, it kills them in a quasi-religious ceremony, it provides for every aspect of existence including reproduction, and in one bit it even tries to attack our heroes in the form of a killer robot. Logan’s Run has a bit of a disappointing ending, but it’s a classic of its day in looking at the implications of technology in that particular social and moral era.
The Iron Giant (1999 – directed by Brad Bird)
The Iron Giant isn’t the only movie to talk about whether a machine is just a machine, or whether a machine could be more than that. Lots of other stories did this, including Terminator 2 of all things. And every second episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But this is one of the most enjoyable films to go this route. Brad Bird’s animated project takes place during the cold war paranoia of the 1950’s, and just like film’s from that time uses the advanced “monster” to really represent the fear of atomic devastation. But it also uses its modern hindsight to a more hopeful perspective. The Giant can overcome its programming, it doesn’t have to be just a deadly weapon. It can in fact be a hero. It can be…like Superman. The Iron Giant is a triumphant look at the possibility of mankind turning it’s capacity for destruction into something more beneficial, but it’s the strength of the storytelling rather than the message itself that earns it my endorsement.
Considered but Rejected: Wall-E (definitely a runner up), War Games, Terminator (especially Terminator 2), I Robot, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Big Hero 6, The Net, Tomorrowland, and Vanilla Sky. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a big contender, but though it uses technology I didn’t reel like it was about technology as much as some of the others. Also Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, which is an early example of the whole “technology dehumanizes people”, but not quite as iconic as Logan’s Run.
Full Disclosure: I’ve never seen Metropolis, which I assume is also about the dehumanization aspect of things. Or Her. Or Electric Dreams, even though I once won that film on video for being the best dancer at an 80’s party.