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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Thinking Machines, Part 2 (originally published 7/05)

From Pinocchio to Frankenstein's monster to the Tin Man of Oz, we have long been fascinated by stories about artificially constructed facsimiles of humanity and their desire to become fully human. Among other things, such stories prompt us to ponder a fascinating question: if an animate being looks more or less humanoid and has the power of articulate speech, what else is required for it to be considered fully human? The Tin Man felt that the capacity to feel deep emotion (a heart) would make the crucial difference. For Pinocchio, it was autonomy (no strings) that was lacking. Frankenstein's monster could not think himself fully human without companionship, the one thing that was forever denied him.

The latest piece of popular fiction to engage the question of what it means to be human by way of a pseudo-human character is the recently released "Stealth," in which a computer-based Naval aircraft flight controller develops a mind of its own, with calamitous results. As we saw last week, however, plenty of earlier films have also toyed with this concept. Here are a few more such titles to look for on home video.

"Blade Runner" (1982). Philip K. Dick is one of those writers whose best work is more philosophical than dramatic, which makes his books fiendishly difficult to adapt for the screen. Faced with the problem of adapting Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," Hampton Fancher and David Peoples elected, probably wisely, to drop back and punt, creating a film that owes at least as much to Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville" (1965) as to Dick's novel. Only minimal hints remain of Dick's musings on the ultimate impossibility of verifying your own identity, or even your own existence. Instead, we are given an entertaining adventure story featuring Harrison Ford as a bounty hunter assigned to eliminate a band of renegade androids. The problem is that android design has advanced to the point where only a highly trained specialist is capable of distinguishing them from humans. But if the distinction is that fine, how fine is the moral distinction between destroying an android and murdering a human being?

"D.A.R.Y.L." (1985). The title acronym refers to an android in the form of a young boy (specifically, a Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform) played by Barret Oliver. The two halves of this film are significantly different in tone, almost creating the impression of two shorter films yoked together. The first half shows us a childless couple who become foster parents to the abandoned Daryl, not suspecting that he is an android. Only after the youngster proves to be preternaturally adept at all sorts of skills do they begin to suspect the truth. The second half involves the parents' attempt to protect Daryl from the agency that created him, which now wants him recalled and destroyed.

"Making Mr. Right" (1987). For a lighter look at the contrast (or lack thereof) between artificial intelligence and humanity, try this engaging satire. John Malkovich appears in a dual role, both as Dr. Jeff Peters, a research scientist, and as Ulysses, the android Peters has created in his own image. Peters generally fits the stereotype of the emotionally stunted, socially backward scientific genius. Ulysses, however, is intended to be a cash cow for the corporation that funded his creation. In order to realize the full benefit of promoting Ulysses, it will be necessary for him to learn how to interact with humans effectively. Since his creator is himself deficient in that area, a public relations consultant is hired to educate Ulysses in the social graces. The consultant, whose name is Frankie Stone (get it?), is played by Ann Magnuson. Frankie makes the most of her unique opportunity to do a complete emotional makeover on a man (or at least an approximation of one) without having to overcome a lifetime of societal gender conditioning. The inevitable result is that Ulysses ends up as an altogether more humane being than the actual human who created him.

No one, by the way, follows the precipitous developments in artificial intelligence more warily than writers. Those of us who remember how passive and compliant typewriters were still have not entirely adjusted to our computers having the temerity to suggest that we may have misspelled a word. So far, my computer still needs my help to turn out this column every week. But a year from now, who knows?

The Thinking Machines (originally published 7/05)

One of the most chilling psycopathic killers ever to have been brought to the screen must undoubtedly be HAL-9000, the Jupiter mission's onboard computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." By developing a will to power, making the leap from calculation in the arithmetic sense to calculation in the Machiavellian sense, HAL crosses a disquieting threshold, introducing the taint of human foibles into the realm of artificial intelligence.

The latest screen progeny of HAL is "EDI," the computer-based Naval aircraft flight controller featured in "Stealth." EDI proves to be the perfect flight crewman, until a lightning strike causes him to lose sight of a small detail of military etiquette called the chain of command. The notion of blurring the line between organic and artificial intelligence has long been a favorite subject of science fiction writers, largely because it touches on a thematic area that science fiction handles especially well: the question of what it means to be human. One of the best ways to illustrate the nature of humanity, after all, is through contrast. But it is only in science fiction that you can have a sentient character who is nevertheless not human in order to provide that contrast.

Artificial intelligence serves this purpose admirably. "Stealth." is certainly not the first film to explore this territory, nor, for that matter, was "2001." For some earlier examples of films in which artificial intelligence encroaches on the border between man and machine a little too closely for comfort, look for these titles on home video.

"Metropolis" (1926). Fritz Lang's seminal science fiction masterpiece includes one of the screen's earliest portrayals of humanoid non-organic intelligence. When the master of the vast underground city of Metropolis learns that a young woman named Maria is quietly teaching his workers that their lives have worth, he foresees danger. Eliminating Maria would only make the problem worse, so instead he commissions a mad scientist to replace her with an android replica. The phony Maria's assignment is to stir the workers up into an angry mob. The idea is that people motivated by unreasoning anger are, in the long run, easier to manipulate than people who are motivated by an understanding of their own human dignity. The android, however, proves to be so adept at her assignment that the city is nearly destroyed by the violence of the workers' uprising.

"Demon Seed" (1977). Based on a novel by Dean Koontz, this underrated picture tells the story of a supercomputer called Proteus IV, the brainchild of research scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver). When Proteus suddenly develops the capacity for independent thought, it decides that its fondest wish, like some perverse Pinocchio, is to acquire organic life. It begins by gaining control over the system that runs Alex's gadget-filled household. This allows it total control over doorways, lights, and appliances, including a mobile chair with an electromechanical arm. Then it uses that control to imprison Alex's wife, Susan (Julie Christie). Its plan is to use Susan's womb to incubate synthetic genetic material that it has fabricated in Alex's basement laboratory. The story line is very cleverly worked out, and is neither as silly nor as sensationalistic as it sounds.

"The Electric Grandmother" (1981). A far more sanguine consideration of the possibilities inherent in artificial intelligence comes from the pen of Ray Bradbury. Based on Bradbury's short story, "I Sing the Body Electric," this hour-long television adaptation features Maureen Stapleton as an android nanny purchased by a widower to provide a maternal presence in the lives of his children. The technological Mary Poppins wins over two of the children immediately, but the third is reluctant to risk an emotional commitment. Gradually, however, she comes to understand that this magical grandmother will never abandon her through death as her mother had. Another television version of the story, under its original title, may be found on the recently released "Twilight Zone: The Definitive Edition, Season 3" DVD set. Bradbury himself had a hand in both adaptations.

I was going to let it go at that, but apparently my computer has other ideas. So, whether I like it or not, next week we'll consider some additional examples of films about artificial intelligence and the meaning of humanity.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Nothing But Net (originally published 1/05)

In many ways, the game of basketball seems ideally suited as a backdrop for a movie. Given the fast moving and visually stimulating nature of the game, you might assume that it would have proven irresistible to filmmakers down through the years, but it isn't so. In fact, the upcoming release of "Coach Carter" is a bit of a rarity. The history of the cinema includes baseball movies as far as the eye can see, but relatively few basketball films. And of those few, fewer still are available on video. Does that mean that you roundball fans are stuck with old game tapes until "Coach Carter" makes its way to home video? Not on your high tops. Here are some titles you can look for at the corner video store right now.

"Tall Story" (1960). Anthony Perkins plays a college basketball star who is amorously pursued by a co-ed (Jane Fonda, in her movie debut). The young athlete is pressured by gamblers to help throw a game against a visiting Russian team. Meanwhile, the distraction created by Fonda's character, however pleasant, has interfered with his studies. To maintain his eligibility he must pass an ethics exam. (Get it? He's trying to pass an ethics test while he's deciding whether to throw a game.)

"One on One" (1977). Robby Benson co-wrote and starred in this Rocky-esque film, dramatizing the unsavory practices that have too often tainted the reputation of collegiate basketball. His story of a naïve high school basketball star who gets recruited by a high-powered college team deals openly with the sleazy underside of college athletics. Ultimately, the film pulls most of its punches, but, even so, it was potent enough to cause USC and UCLA (Hollywood's hometown campuses) to refuse to cooperate in the filming.

"Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938). This one isn't really a basketball movie, but the classic Jimmy Cagney - Pat O'Brien vehicle belongs here just the same. The plot centers around old pals Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerry Connelly (O'Brien), who were kids together on the wrong side of the tracks. Rocky grows up to be a hood while Jerry grows up to be a priest. When Rocky blows into town after serving a jail term, the neighborhood kids are mightily impressed with him. Jerry is glad to see his old friend, but leery of his potentially bad influence on the street-wise kids Jerry has been struggling to win over. Later in the film, of course, there will be conflict along those lines, but initially Rocky chooses to help Jerry with the kids. The scene in which Rocky referees a basketball game for Jerry is a classic. The street roughnecks know nothing about the rules, and wouldn't care if they did. They think nothing of shoving, tripping, and even punching the opposing players. Rocky responds with some street-style officiating. Shoving another player elicits a punch in the breadbasket from the ref, while a right cross to the opponent's jaw is rewarded with an uppercut instead of a whistle.

"The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961). This Disney comedy features Fred MacMurray as the title character, Ned Brainard. Professor Brainard has discovered a rubberlike substance with a remarkable property. When you drop it and let it bounce, it actually rebounds higher with each bounce, gaining energy instead of losing it. He calls the stuff "flying rubber," which he shortens to "flubber." He uses his college's losing basketball team to test the usefulness of flubber by applying it to the soles of the players' shoes. The result is an absolutely spectacular basketball sequence, with players springing 20 and 30 feet in the air.

"Cornbread, Earl, and Me" (1975). Right in the midst of a spate of black exploitation films came this quiet, humane little film about a young African-American man whose talent for basketball is about to take him out of the ghetto and on to college. Two weeks before he leaves for school, two policemen gun him down, mistaking him for a fleeing suspect. In his film debut, 12 year old Laurence Fishburne is outstanding as the slain youth's admiring younger friend.

There are other hoop movies that I'd love to point you toward, including two Harlem Globetrotter films, but they aren't available on home video. Instead we have "Scooby-Doo Meets the Harlem Globetrotters" -- a clear technical foul, but what can you do?