Computers will kill us all someday. Don't panic. Even if constantly agreeing to Adobe and iOS updates makes us complicit in our annihilation by artificial intelligence (AI), that's decades away, right? Right?
We're anxious about AI's ascendancy because of its coin-flip outcome: Enlightenment or eradication? Man-and-machine convergence also might give our digital destruction a disconcertingly human face, as theorized in several films, including this week's Transcendence.In it, Johnny Depp plays a dying AI researcher pressing on after uploading his consciousness to a computer. But as his pursuit shifts from knowledge to power, all of humankind is threatened.
Depp is the biggest actor yet to play a potentially homicidal computer program, but he's hardly the first. Sometimes, red lights and monotones a la HAL 9000 aren't enough, and you need flesh-and-blood menace. And if any of these movies has it right, whenever we meet our encoded enemy, it will look like us.
Jeff Fahey, The Lawnmower Man (1992); Matt Frewer, The Lawnmower Man: Beyond Cyberspace (1996) Virtual-reality experimentation turns Fahey's simple, sweet groundskeeper Jobe into a libidinous, loquacious stud and, much later, a megalomaniacal madman. He torches a priest with pixilated fire, dines on tormentors' brains and, as a giant floating head, disintegrates G-men. After Jobe's transfiguration into a "cyber-Christ," his body crumbles like a Cracker Barrel biscuit. That, however, didn't stop producers from resurrecting and recasting him in a sequel. (Stephen King siphoned profits after suing New Line Cinema for using his name on the original, which bore scant resemblance to his original story.) Frewer's Jobe is a paddleball-playing paraplegic trying to lure folks in a future dystopia to his virtual world of second-rate Jim Carrey impersonations. He eventually comes around, but only after slaughtering more innocents, like your precious brain cells.
Ted Marcoux, Ghost in the Machine (1993)Forget about an enlightening exploration of Cartesian mind-body dualism. This movie addresses a far more pressing existential issue: A running elbow smash on a digital serial killer totally works. The Address Book Killer (Marcoux) is a blue-eyed Ted Bundy whose dying soul is zapped into a computer mainframe through which he continues his serial-killing ways. His new method of murder? Electrocution, of course. As an invisible-killer forerunner to Final Destination, Ghost interestingly tweaks slasher film tropes while indulging in innovative practical gore. For instance, one victim's skin bubbles into pustules as the killer turns his entire kitchen into a microwave.
Russell Crowe, Virtuosity (1995) Sid 6.7 (Crowe) is a mash-up of 200 sadists (including the one who murdered the family of Denzel Washington's character) that escapes a simulator to wreak real-world havoc. Despite the Riddler-green suits and aggro-Rick Astley [www.rickastley.co.uk/] hairstyle, Crowe relishes his rare villainous opportunity to rattle Washington's cage, snarling, "Just because I'm carrying around the joy of killing your family inside me doesn't mean we can't be friends."
T. Ryder Smith, Brainscan (1994) Brainscan was released near the inception of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board—a lame attempt to quell parental panic about video games' potential to transform their kids into violent, remorseless husks. Initially, it explores adolescent aggression burbling under still suburban waters. Eventually, however, reality and fantasy insidiously bleed together when a digital demon named Trickster materializes from an interactive CD-ROM game that simulates gruesome murders. A cross of Dee Snider and Carrot Top with a cockatoo's haircut, Trickster is like Freddy Krueger if he were a fading star of summer-stock theater, not a child-killing custodian.
Hugo Weaving, The Matrix Trilogy (1999, 2003) Every corporation has a crony who insists he can run things better. Every computer has a program that goes wonky. Weaving's Agent Smith blends both with wry malevolence. He seizes control of the Matrix not by kissing ass but by kicking it—always with deliberate diction, never without his suit. Like an actuary with attitude, he contemptuously calculates how to wipe out men and machines that sicken him.
David Warner, Tron (1982) Jeff Bridges (face / voice) & John Reardon (body), Tron: Legacy (2010) Sark (Warner) is certainly a badass binary gladiator. But he's also a company-man chump—regularly reamed by his computer-mainframe boss and apprehensive about fighting humans zapped into the mainframe. His sinister successor, though, has true upper-management potential. CLU is a program created in the circa 1982 image of computer guru Kevin Flynn (Bridges). Created for good, CLU reboots and salivates at the prospect of eradicating humankind. It's eerie hearing Bridges' carefree chortle punctuate CLU's casually fascist decrees—far more chilling than Uncanny Valley de-aging of Bridges' face. Thankfully Flynn's Lebowskian human incarnation eliminates CLU before he enacts his plan. It would be difficult defending humankind doing all those double-takes at a rubber-faced Jeff Bridges.
Photo via Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures