On what would be HAL 9000's 25th birthday, we take a look at some of the movies that made us scared of what innovation could mean
When it comes to cinema, technology has a free reign. Unshackled by the restrictions of reality and fact, filmmakers are given a blank canvas on which to imagine just how far technological progress can take us. Robots, space travel, artificial intelligence; within the realms of the filmic narrative, nothing ever seems too far-fetched. However, these possibilities don’t always elicit a happy ending – take 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance.
Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic introduced us to HAL 9000, cinema’s original big, bad computer. As the malfunctioning, murderously rational antagonist in the 1968 film, HAL introduced us to the haunting possibility of technological advancement. Towards the film’s climax, HAL reveals that he became operational on 12 January, 1992. So, on what would be his 25th birthday, we look back at other times that film’s treatment of technology has left us fearful of the post-digital world’s next big step.
TOTAL RECALL (1990)
Cinema has long been fascinated with the tension between dreams and reality – an idea explored to outlandish effect in Total Recall. Paul Verhoeven’s romp was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a construction worker who travels to Mars to discover his true identity. With implants, lobotomies, dream vacations and mind wipes, human memory is presented as fragile and prone to manipulation at the hands of malevolent technology. Truth and reality are never fixed and, among the eccentric Verhoevenisms, it’s a movie that resonates most through its spooky ambiguity. How do we know that we’re ‘real‘?
THE NET (1995)
It’s easy to forget that The Net was released in 1995. Though the technology in the film is dated to the contemporary viewer, the dangers that it explores are more prevalent than ever before. Systems analyst Angela Bennet (Sandra Bullock) lives an interpersonal life – her relationships exist almost exclusively online in chatrooms and forums, while her identity and e-dendity are indistinguishable from one another. This makes her the perfect target for a group of cyberterrorists, that are able to hijack Bennet’s life, both on and offline. Over twenty years later, we are entangled with the online more so than ever before – if it was unnerving then, The Net is terrifying now. If only there was some high-profile hacking in the news that we could use as an example.
There’s nothing threatening about Samantha, the computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johannson in Spike Jonze’s Her. She’s sweet, inquisitive, caring – and that’s what makes Jonze’s story so unnerving. The film’s concept – a Pygmalion tale of human entering relationship with non-human – is by no means a novel one, but the effortlessness in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls for his digital companion is startling. It’s a strung-out modern allegory about technology’s influence on society, that takes the romantic and combines it with the Frankensteinian. Her is a strange and beautiful movie that imagines the potential of artificial intelligence and paints us as insignificant in comparison. What’s scary is that we don’t seem to mind.
Upon first meeting GERTY – the artificial intelligence that Sam Rockwell’s astronaut shares his lonely lunar facility with – we instantly assume it to be villainous. Since 2001: A Space Odyssey, talking space station computers have kind of been tainted for film-goers. However, in Duncan Jones’s 2009 film, GERTY – along with the rest of the technology on show – is fine. It’s the humans that aren’t. Without spoiling the film’s big reveal, Moon is an existential take on technology’s ability to accelerate the unethical. It’s a film about ideas and creation, that scrutinises the notion of humans using technological advancement as a platform to play god. It’s about the dangerous potential it gives us, rather than the potential that we give it.
BLADE RUNNER (1982)
Ridley Scott’s neo-noir classic is the ultimate take on the hostility that exists between humans and tech. Set among a dystopian Los Angeles, Blade Runner was one of the first films to bring cyberpunk motifs to the big screen – there’s a chilling friction between past and present in Scott‘s film that presents social decay as a product of technological progress, alongside an overbearing sense of paranoia and distrust. Who’s in charge? Who’s controlling who? Who’s real? Blade Runner is a menacing example of ‘high tech, low life‘, in which humans and genetically-engineered replicants struggle to coexist. The scariest part? You can’t tell who the robots are. With a second installment on the way courtesy of French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, film-goers will get another go at trying.