August 18, 2016

Watch: What Can Movie Robots Teach Us About Being Human? HAL from '2001' Meets Samantha from 'Her'

A new video essay explores the relationship between humanity and robots.

Do you know the term “uncanny valley”? It refers to the experience you have when you look directly at a particularly human-seeming robot. In case you’ve never done this (I haven’t), the reaction is commonly described as a slight feeling of disgust mixed with confusion.

When a film features an android character, such as David from A.I. or Ava from Ex Machina, one can never entirely know how to feel about the character’s presence. Is the robot a character, or not a character? Can the quirks and inflections of its self-expression be said to add up to a personality? There’s always a twinge of creepiness to the poor robot, a sense that there is only hollowness at its core.

This feeling of querulousness goes double for those films which feature intelligent computers: these machines assume near-bodily presences, simply through their voices, and they can quite literally tilt the inner equilibrium of a story. Generally, the presence of such a machine in a film casts the imperfection of all human characters into relief, forcing viewers to consider what might, in fact, be human about the machine, and what might be slightly inhuman in the machine’s flesh-and-blood counterparts.

HAL, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Samantha, from Spike Jonze’s Her, are two such disembodied intelligences, and Tillmann Ohm has juxtaposed them in this clever video essay, forcing the preternaturally calm HAL and the animated, expressive Samantha to have a wide-ranging conversation about, ultimately, the difficulties inherent in their kind of existence. 

As you watch, the voices remind us of what is poignant about both characters: we want them to be perfect, to be better than humans—and yet, much like humans, they let us down. HAL disappoints in 2001: A Space Odyssey by malfunctioning in malevolent ways, while Samantha disappoints in Her by being unable to survive a routine system upgrade which renders her obsolete in the hard drive of the film’s broken protagonist, thus breaking him even further.

From Hal and Samantha to David and Ava, the presence of quasi-human beings such as these ultimately represents a very human experience: the striving towards perfection, followed by sadness when we discover it does not exist.          

Your Comment

5 Comments

The major difference between HAL and Samantha comes from the filmmakers behind them. Even though Kubrick is accused of being cold and heartless, the fact of the matter is that 2001 is an optimistic film: HAL is eventually defeated through human intelligence, one which is shown to eventually transcend technology as the star child. But Spike Jonze chooses to have technology transcend to a higher plane of existence over humanity in his film. What's disturbing about the ending of Her is not only the implication that technology is superior to humankind, but that Spike tries to leave us with a feeling of hope, as if its okay that humanity has been bested by its own creations.

August 18, 2016 at 11:43PM

0
Reply
avatar
Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile
82

I think Robot stories primarily address the issue of 'what makes a human'? 'where lies the boundary between human and non-human?'. If this intrigues you, than the Swedish television series Äkta Människor (Real Humans) will definitely be of interest to you.

August 19, 2016 at 3:05AM

1
Reply
avatar
Judith Boeschoten
Director of Photography
154

I've actually never heard of it. Another film that explores this theme, also coincidentally starring Scarlett Johansson, is Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin. It addresses these issues from the perspective of an alien inhabiting a human body, and I think it does so more successfully than Her. Even though both films star Johansson, a major fault to me about Her is that the audience already knows that the voice belongs to her and therefore never has to learn to trust her the way that Theodore does. The reason Under the Skin works with Johansson is actually because the audience knows her. We know she's playing a character in the same way we know that her character is playing at being a human. She's a familiar face, but at the same time her careful acting and the knowledge that her character isn't human creates an "uncanny valley" effect.

August 19, 2016 at 3:53PM

0
Reply
avatar
Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile
82

I actually saw that one a week ago, and I agree. I think you're right about the starring of Scarlett Johansson. They are of course entirely different films, especially the fact that in Under the Skin, the perspective lies with the 'robot' in question. This theme is much bigger than just AI films I guess. There have started to pop up some zombie films and series with zombies that are very much alike humans and therefore also address the "uncanny valley", such as Les Revenants, In the Flesh and Warm Bodies. I think it's an interesting shift that is taking place in which the perspective is more often becoming that of the 'monster', or 'robot' in question. It's also more striking I think, because it brings the viewer out of their comfort zone into a perspective that is unknown and strange to them. That's what makes Under the Skin such a powerful movie, at least for me.

August 22, 2016 at 2:47AM

0
Reply
avatar
Judith Boeschoten
Director of Photography
154

The shift towards the perspective of the monster is interesting, especially since it's just now happening even though the AI theme has been present in cinema at least as far back as Metropolis. Even movies like Ex Machina don't shift towards the perspective of the sub-human character until the end of the film. I also enjoy films that make the viewer experience a strange perspective. Werner Herzog does this often, although with an opposite goal; instead of making "monsters" or other oddities appear more human, he often emphasizes the strangeness of landscapes until the familiar becomes unrecognizable, more like an alien planet than home.

August 29, 2016 at 8:17PM

3
Reply
avatar
Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile
82