Nearing the end of James Cameron’s miniseries, we finally get some takes on a compelling sci-fi problem that comes up again and again: AI, friend or foe?
Appropriately enough, our frame for this episode was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played the T-800 in the Terminator series. Naturally, then, the body of the episode starts with a look at that film series. James Cameron talks a bit about his inspirations for the film, which is worth noting because of years of speculation that the movies are a ripoff of Philip K Dick’s short story, “Second Variety.” Cameron and Schwarzenegger also discuss acting and casting choices. We get behind-the-scenes footage here with this reflection.
Of course, the Terminator eventually becomes a good guy in the sequels, and that is discussed, as well as how there continues to be T adversaries in that universe (Robert Patrick, actor for the T-1000, talks about his time on set and he still has that absolutely bone-chilling glare). Amy Nicholson even points out that humans that keeping on making these potentially deadly machines–and SkyNet–are the real villains. We know the possibilities, and yet we keep on pushing for that deadly AI.
Ultimately, the Terminator chunk runs the first nine or so minutes of this episode, which is nice. This episode doesn’t jump around too sporadically; it feels like we really get an opportunity to digest ideas and topics in a satisfying amount of time.
After that, we move onto 2001: A Space Odyssey. The very first thing Schwarzenegger brought up at the beginning of the episode is how after years of playing the Terminator, science fiction has moved to “science fact,” and Amy Nicholson dives into it, pointing out the inclusion of items that resemble TV screens in travel seats, iPods and iPads, which were named for that iconic scene in 2001… Eventually this follows its course to the scene where HAL, the spaceship’s computer, “dies.” He sings “Daisy Bell,” in imitation of IBM computers with early voice synthesis that was being experimented with at the time the film was made, in the sixties.
Although there’s brief overview of the traditionally negative portrayals of robots since Metropolis (1927), we go then to Asimov, who invented the famous three laws of robotics, and gave us positive robots, friends and helpers, companions. Asimov’s laws lead to the film (and the show) Westworld. Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) describes it as “a cautionary tale about robotics… We believed that we could create artificial life and that it would obey us.” And, of course, he points out that the film was by Michael Crichton, who gave us Jurassic Park, more or less the same kind of tale. Again, science fiction comes closer to science fact, and crew for the television show discuss the topic as it plays out in their version of the story. This question is more about what are we, and what is consciousness defined by–the questions we may ask about ourselves, as humans.
This topic is picked up again towards the end of the episode with Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: The Next Generation, each dealing with AI consciousness in their own, individual ways. Both are the most optimistic looks at the topic, and specific episodes from each are broken down thoroughly. Blade Runner finishes off this area.
Star Wars, Short Circuit, and Wall-E are also discussed in terms of friendly robots that make it easy for a viewer to project upon and really love. Our historical sci-fi moment that’s very obscure discusses the 1938 Lester del Rey short story “Helen O’Loy,” which seemed to create that notion of a robot as a sympathetic, personable being that can feel love and does find love. The modern day jump is to Her (2013), in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who gets completely entangled romantically with his Siri-esque OS. We get an interesting, albeit brief, discussion of the graphic design, and how this situation steps over dependence into something much more, and perhaps worse for man in a different way.
As I said earlier, this episode starts with a long chunk on one specific movie, and this whole episode feels less frenetic than previous episodes. We see a few clips from movies that aren’t discussed in depth, like Space Camp or The Day the Earth Stood Still, but they pretty much exist as non-distracting visuals that don’t necessarily need to be acknowledged verbally. It feels like there’s a focus beyond name-dropping every single movie that can be associated with the episode theme.
The discussions in this episode are also very thoughtful, and Schwarzenegger’s comments about “science reality” caught my attention from the get-go. And, of course, discussions regarding who is more “worthy,” cruel man or cruel machine, is reminiscent of the “Monsters” episode, though there isn’t much in the way of jarring repetition, since AI monstrosity has its own special nuances.
This series ended on Monday, with the final episode, “Time Travel,” airing right after “Intelligent Machines.” Keep an eye out for our review of the final episode, which will be up on N3rdabl3 soon! And feel free to check out our reviews for the previous episodes, “Aliens,” “Space,” “Monsters,” and “Dark Futures.”
If you need to catch up, all episodes of Jame’s Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction are currently available to stream on AMC, depending on your cable provider.