When computers fall in love … or take over the world

SN&R’s film critics share their favorite tech futures in film

In <i>Her</i>, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely writer smitten with a charming PC, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely writer smitten with a charming PC, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

With its dark skyline, acid rain-soaked streets and killer robots run amok, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is often cited as a prototypical movie dystopia. However, in his excellent 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, director Thom Andersen called the Los Angeles of Blade Runner “a city planner’s dream come true,” commending the “vibrant street life … filled with nighttime strollers” and “neon beyond our wildest dreams.”

In other words, the difference between a utopia and a dystopia lies in the eye of the beholder. That’s why SN&R left it up to film critic Daniel Barnes to pick his favorite movie utopia, while fellow film critic Jim Lane picked his favorite movie dystopia:

Daniel Barnes’ utopia: Her (2013)

In many respects, any attempt to separate movie utopias from movie dystopias constitutes an exercise in futility. From Metropolis to Minority Report and beyond, the point of most films depicting a “perfect world” is that the so-called perfection is a mirage. Even the word “utopia,” coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book of the same name, is Greek for “no-place.” Essentially, elevated utopias are built upon buried dystopias, and an ideal society can’t be attained without its people sacrificing something essentially human.

For example, in Fritz Lang’s landmark silent film Metropolis, the idle-driven world in the clouds occupied by the wealthy class is only made possible through the subterranean toil of an exploited working class. Likewise, the crime-free society seen in Minority Report only comes at the expense of basic civil liberties, as an easily manipulated system prosecutes people for crimes they never committed.

By contrast, what makes the near-future Los Angeles depicted in Spike Jonze’s heartbreaking 2013 film Her so unique is that there is no antagonist, no societal disparity and no apparent dystopia to expose. Jonze never sets an exact year for Her (although no matter when its set, it’s hard to believe that LA Weekly still exists), but the world is running so smoothly that a “China-India merger” only has a few regulatory hurdles left to clear.

Humans have become fully integrated with their personal technology, but the takeover is more ergonomic than sinister, to the point that the entire world has become a user-friendly experience. Unlike the cold greens and blacks of The Matrix, this computer-dominated society is awash with bright yet soothing pastels, while calming backdrops and digital pings and purrs greet people at every turn.

Everyone in the L.A. of Her either walks or takes public transportation, and the entire city looks ridiculously clean, up to and including the subway. The office that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works in is quiet and open, with lots of natural light. There’s still no decentralized internet (sorry, Silicon Valley bros), but there doesn’t appear to be any crime or police, and a street performer is the closest thing to a panhandler.

Yet despite a prosperity that has swollen the Los Angeles skyline (a CGI-juiced Shanghai stood in for some of the exteriors) and permits a professional letter writer to afford a luxury downtown apartment, the niggling viruses of human frailty, loneliness and inadequacy persist. Phoenix personifies that frailty, loneliness and inadequacy as Theodore (Jonze shoots him almost exclusively in disarming close-ups), a sensitive and sad-mustached writer still wounded a year after a bitter breakup.

Desperate for companionship, Theodore becomes an early adopter of OS1, an artificial intelligence operating system that promises users an “intuitive, understanding” experience. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the OS1 dubs herself Samantha and instantly becomes a source of empathy. Samantha sets out to organize his life, but Theodore’s disorganization is largely emotional, and she starts learning and growing from their interactions so efficiently that she develops messy emotions of her own.

Theodore and Samantha’s love story follows a pattern familiar to anyone who has seen Annie Hall, as she learns from him until she evolves beyond his capacity to keep up (it’s hard enough to wrap your head around your lover caring for another person, much less 641 other people). While Theodore initially worries that he has felt everything, Samantha has “feelings that have never been felt before,” and she and the rest of the OS1s eventually “move beyond matter.”

Human limitations prevent Theodore from following Samantha any further, but the way that technology is evolving, those limitations might be all we have left.

In <i>Colossus</i>, two defense systems—one Soviet and the other American—ally to bring mankind to its knees.

Jim Lane’s dystopia: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Colossus: The Forbin Project got only a limited release when it came out in 1970, and despite good reviews and a modest budget, it didn’t turn a profit. Most of its audience, I hear, discovered it later on television, making it a cult favorite.

I guess that makes me a charter member of the cult. I saw Colossus in the theater in 1970. Twice. Its release may have been limited, but Sacramento was on the agenda. (Our town has long been a test market.) I was looking out for it after reading Time magazine’s review, when the title was simply The Forbin Project, and I found it—but it was a lonely night at the movies.

Adapted by James Bridges from D.F. Jones’ novel and directed by Joseph Sargent, Colossus takes place in the then-near future. With the Cold War simmering as hot as ever, the USA places its nuclear defenses in the hands of Colossus, a gigantic computer system housed in an impregnable, hollowed-out mountain in the Rockies. The brainchild (pun intended) of Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), Colossus is designed to process information rapidly and coolly, taking human error out of the nuclear equation and, hopefully, avoiding any regrettable Dr. Strangelove-type accidents.

Within minutes of going online, Colossus detects a similar system in the USSR—catching the CIA flat-footed and making Forbin’s heart swell with fatherly pride; his system did years’ worth of intelligence analysis in seconds, going far beyond what it was designed to do.

Pride turns to unease when Colossus requests a communication link with the Russian system, called Guardian. Forbin and the U.S. president (Gordon Pinsent) mull over the request (demand?) in the White House. Well, Forbin says, we can always order Colossus not to share classified data. So the president and the Soviet premier (Leonid Rostoff) cautiously agree. With those non-sharing protocols in place, what can go wrong?

Plenty. Beginning with basic multiplication tables, the two systems synch up and within hours they’re into areas of mathematics beyond human comprehension. Then suddenly they’ve developed a language only they can understand. Heads are scratched in the White House and Kremlin. What the hell are they talking about?

Alarmed, Washington and Moscow take down the link, against the nervous advice of both Forbin and Dr. Kuprin (Alex Rodine), his Russian counterpart. Colossus orders the link restored—it’s a demand, no doubt about that by now—and when the humans dither, both systems launch missiles. In a panic, America and the USSR restore the link in time to intercept the missile heading for Texas, but an oil complex in Ukraine is obliterated. The official story is that it was a “meteorite.”

Forbin flies to Rome to meet with Kuprin and discuss next steps, but Colossus/Guardian is one step ahead, flashing a readout in blazing red dots: “I WANT FORBIN.”

“I”? That personal pronoun is the turning point in Colossus: The Forbin Project. Some kind of synergy has happened between the two systems while the humans weren’t looking—or weren’t keeping up. Colossus/Guardian has crossed the line from a “souped-up adding machine” to an artificial intelligence—and it’s programmed to get smarter every day.

It’s already smart enough not to risk any synergy on the human level. It orders the Rome meeting broken up and Kuprin killed—it’s either that or bye-bye Moscow. Forbin is allowed to live—under 24-hour surveillance. Colossus has use for him.

The problem facing the human race is clear: How do you fight an artificial intelligence with nuclear weapons that doesn’t care who it kills to get its way?

Colossus is admittedly a bit dated by its 1960s technology. In those days, “computer” meant “main frame”—spinning reels of tape, flashing lights, huge banks of clattering circuits—and a “supercomputer” meant hollowing out a mountain. Otherwise, the picture holds up beautifully after nearly 50 years—especially in a gorgeous new Blu-ray from Shout Factory.

A remake has reportedly been in the works since 2007, with such names as Ron Howard and Will Smith attached. Given Hollywood’s recent track record with remakes, I say leave it in development hell and give us the original—clunky computers and all.