Ultron and the meaning of robots and AI in modern sci-fi movies

Age Of Ultron is about evil AI, and Ex Machina’s about a sentient robot. Ryan explores the link between these and other modern SF films.

It’s an idea as old as literature itself: a lifeform is created, only for it to behave in a way its maker hadn’t anticipated – and sometimes with fatal consequences.

Writer-director Joss Whedon has drawn attention to the parallels between Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein and Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the latest opus in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Whedon’s reading of Marvel comics lore, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark create Ultron – an artificial intelligence intended as a global defence program, but instead turns against the Avengers and humanity in general.

Brought to life by a peformance-captured James Spader, Ultron’s a charismatic example of a recent wave of AI characters in the movies. We’ve seen sentient, mutant killing Sentinels in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, a seductive operating system captivate Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Johnny Depp uploaded to the web in Walter Pfister’s little-seen directorial debut, Transcendence (2014).

Jose Padilha’s RoboCop remake showed us what a world where wars fought by unfeeling robots, both abroad and on city streets, might look like. Conversely, the likes of The Machine (2013), Automata (2014), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie imagine a more gentle form of AI – albeit ones still occasionally willing to go to violent measures in order to survive. 

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Of course, we’ve been seeing robots in movies for decades – they’ve long since become an accepted part of our culture – but the past two or three years have seen them crowding onto our screens with unusual regularity, from expensive blockbusters to tiny, five-figure indie films and all points in between. They’ve been the subject of moving family dramas (Robot And Frank), space adventures (Interstellar, where they play a pivotal role), comic book action films and romantic comedies.

So why have so many filmmakers and screenwriters got artificial intelligence on their minds? Alex Garland, who made his directorial debut with Ex Machina this year, might have the answer.

“There’s been a lot of stories about AI recently in film, like Her, or Transcendence, or Automata, or [Ex Machina] and then there’s going to be Age Of Ultron,” Garland said in an interview with io9. “This suggests it’s in the zeitgest. It’s in the air a bit.”

For Garland, the presence of so many robots in recent movies isn’t necessarily about AI at all – but rather our relationship with the increasingly sophisticated range of technology around us. 

“Has there been any big breakthrough in AI?” Garland continues. “Not really. People are continuing to work on it, like they’re continuing to work on a cure for cancer, but nothing really big’s happened. So why is that? I think it’s got nothing to do with AI, I think it’s got to do with tech companies, and I think it’s because of our laptops and our computers and our phones – we don’t really understand these things, but we feel they know a lot about us. And actually, we’re right: They do know a lot about us, and we don’t understand them.”

A simmering, just-below-the-surface concern about technology might explain the ambivalence displayed towards AI in recent science fiction films. We’ve come to rely on our mobile phones and tablets, our computers and sat-navs, and in many ways, we’re willingly seduced by them – there’s something intimate and pleasing about a well-designed touch screen interface; we pinch and caress them, and they buzz back warmly in response, like the purring of a contented kitten. Yet beneath that, is there perhaps a fear about just how much we like – and even need – this array of gadgets? Drilling further down still, isn’t there a wonder at just how much these devices – and search companies like Google – know about us through our hours of messaging and browsing?

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These are the kinds of thought that are manifesting themselves on the cinema screen in recent years. In Spike Jonze’s Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character encounters an operating system so user friendly that he falls in love with it. In Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb finds himself similarly bewitched by Ava, a robot played by a spookily poised Alicia Vikander. But what is Ava, really? Does she think like a person, or is she essentially an expensive bit of computer trickery cooked up by Oscar Isaac’s arrogant tech guru, Nathan? 

Ex Machina presents a fascinating triangle of tension which could be read as an allegory for our own relationship with big tech companies and the devices they create. Nathan’s hired smart young programmer Caleb to subject Ava to the Turing Test – designed to tell whether an intelligence is indistinguishable from a human. But is Caleb really there to test Ava, or is Nathan studying Caleb to discover her effect on him, like Apple field testing its latest smart device? And what about Ava? Does she have an agenda of her own?

The unknowable nature of machine intelligence is explored in other recent sci-fi films. In The Machine, directed by Caradog W James, robots communicate with one another in a language that is impossible for humans to fathom. In director Gabe Ibanez’s Automata, there’s a growing, slightly paranoid fear among its human characters that a line of robot servants (called Pilgrims) might have worked out a way to alter their own programming.

Automatas a flawed film, but there’s something quite effective about the robots themselves; the camera invites us to study their blank faces and glowing blue eyes. What’s going on in that artificial brain? If they’ve acquired some kind of consciousness, what will they do next? 

Unclear agendas could be seen as a current concern in the real world, too. The tech giants behind our search engines, phones and browsers are multi-billion-dollar companies. That they’ve started to use their billions to break into new fields of research is well documented; over the last few years, we’ve heard that Google’s sunk money into things as diverse as asteroid mining and driverless cars. In mid-April 2015, Google was awarded a patent for systems which specialise in “allocating tasks to a plurality of robotic devices.” This, inevitably, led to lots of journalists asking things like, “Is Google building a robot army?”

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For now, the killer robots seen in the likes of Avengers: Age Of Ultron and the forthcoming Terminator: Genisys remain comfortably in the lands of fiction – the closest thing we have are the unmanned, human-controlled drones patrolling the skies of the Middle East.

But the plotlines in those movies, as well as more low-key fare like Ex Machina, The Machineand films like them, all explore themes and concerns that go far beyond robots and despotic computers; they’re really, I’d argue, about how we relate to the technology we all rely on every day, and whether we can really trust the people who make these devices – devices which, for most of us, are growing more unfathomably complex with each passing year.