Predictive text software was programmed with hundreds of sci-fi screenplays to see just how well AI could write a screenplay of its own. Unlike many of the stories in the screenplays used, Sunspring (2016) shows that a robot-run dystopian future is far from upon us.
A computer wonders if its user reciprocates its love for her, and dreams of the singularity in which they will become one.
DIRECTED BY: Charles Band, Rosemarie Turko, John Carl Buechler, David Allen, Jeffrey Byron, Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicolaou
FEATURING: Jeffrey Byron, Richard Moll, Leslie Wing
PLOT: A demon sucks a computer expert into a dream world where he puts him through a series of tests, each directed in a different genre style.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its bespectacled hero with a laser-blasting artificial intelligence best buddy who defeats Satan in hand-to-hand combat to save his super-hot aerobicized girlfriend from demonic bondage, The Dungeonmaster may be the apotheosis of 1980s nerd camp. Objectively speaking, however, it’s no more than a guilty pleasure.
COMMENTS: The Dungeonmaster starts out in medias R.E.M., with a dream in which the hero chases a red-robed woman through a misty corridor; he catches her, she drops her dress for a full frontal shot, they start to make love, and then a bunch of aliens break in and abduct her kicking nude body. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything that follows, but it does earn the movie that super-cool R-rating all the awesomest B-flicks get (besides this pre-credits sequence, The Dungeonmaster is strictly a PG affair).
Actually, in a funny Zen koan sort of way, the fact that this preliminary fantasy sequence has nothing to do with anything that follows has everything to do with everything that follows, because the rest of the movie is made up of strung-together fantasy sequences with no real logical connection between them. Paul is a computer scientist with an early prototype version of Google glasses that allows him to hack the traffic light cycles as he’s jogging and take money out of his ATM without entering his PIN number. Gwen, his aerobics-instructor girlfriend, is jealous of Paul’s relationship with a female artificial intelligence named CAL (short for her serial number, X-CALBR8), but when the Devil abducts her and chains her to a concrete boulder on a studio back lot, she learns to appreciate what she’s got.
You see, Old Scratch is impressed by Paul’s skill with computers, which he regards as some form of arcane wizardry, and so has devised seven tests (each directed by a different one of Charles Band’s pals) for Paul to conquer in order to win Gwen back. One representative quest involves Paul finding Einstein’s ice grenade to throw at the figures in a frozen wax museum. Other challenges include facing zombies and their puppet king in the Land of the Dead, defeating a stop-motion animated jungle statue, and solving a neo-noir mystery. In the most terrifying trial of all, Paul finds himself in a W.A.S.P. video directed by Charles Band, and must fight his way past a bunch of leather clad groupies with big hair to stop an Alice Cooper wannabe from sacrificing his fair maiden on a pointy stage prop.
Paul defeats almost every challenge simply by zapping the boss baddie with CAL, whom Satan has helpfully transformed into a wristband laser. He also utters the immortal line, beloved of “Mythbusters” and teenage solipsists alike, “I reject your reality and substitute my own!” The art direction, while admittedly cheap, is actually pretty good throughout, colorful in that bright 1980s way with plenty of sub-Industrial Light and Magic glowing laser beams and electrical arcs turning up everywhere. The Dungeonmaster zips from one underdeveloped adolescent fantasy to the next, with zero logic and seven layers of cheesy spectacle. It’s kind of great! If I had my way, I would totally reject this reality and substitute The Dungeonmaster‘s.
Remembered fondly by few, The Dungeonmaster was a very late arrival in the DVD format, only showing up in 2013 on Scream Factory’s “All Night Horror Marathon Vol. 2” set alongside inferior but equally unloved Charles Band productions Cellar Dweller (1988), Catacombs (1993), and Contamination .7 (1993).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“If this really was a D&D adventure I’d venture that the Dungeon Master desperately needs new medication. Or much less medication. I haven’t seen anything this weird and stupid since I read the Castle Greyhawk module.”–Noah Antwiler, The Spoony Experiment
DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze
PLOT: Still wounded by his divorce, professional letter writer Theodore Twombly retreats from human relationships into a lonely life of videogames, gossip websites, and anonymous phone sex. However, his world changes after he upgrades to “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” a sentient program named Samantha that he initially treats with suspicion but soon accepts as a confidant, then a lover. When Twombly and Samantha becomes more intimate, though, her insatiable curiosity about the world strains their bond and threatens to recreate the heartbreak that Twombly experienced once before.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Twombly and Samantha’s pairing is weird, Jonze’s story glosses over the odder aspects of the couple to concentrate on the universal qualities of the affair. The early introduction of phone sex normalizes the sensuous but purely vocal encounter between man and program that begins their romance, and the casual acceptance of their relationship by others further overlooks uncomfortable questions that another film might dwell upon. Instead, Jonze uses the scenario to fancifully illustrate the needs, passions, and pains felt by anyone who falls in love, even a woman who exists within a digital cloud.
COMMENTS: One of Her’s most endearing moments occurs after Twombly and Samantha’s first sexual encounter, when he awkwardly tells his OS that he isn’t interested in a serious relationship. It’s strange to see a morning after scene play out between a man and his computer, and yet that strangeness is absent from the dialogue as Johannson responds with the same charming annoyance and veiled attraction she’d provide in any romantic comedy. On the surface Samantha is defined by her nonphysical nature, but the warmth of Johannson’s performance shows the character’s emotions are not constrained by the lack of a body, that she feels with as much range and depth as any person. Rather than asking if computer programs could ever feel love, as other sci-fi films have, love is not merely possible but inevitable for Samantha. In Her, love is a fundamental part of intelligent life, and so anyone worthy of being called alive, whether human or artificial, naturally must be able to love.
At the same time, Her envisions an emotionally barren future where media technology isolates people from each other, eroding the personal connections they need to thrive. Twombly embodies that isolation as he shuffles from work to home with his eyes glued to one high-tech device or another, engaging others in only the most superficial ways. However, Phoenix’s awkward, self-enclosing performance also suggests someone not just glued to technology but also afraid of emotions, even as his sensitive letters hint at a deeply empathetic soul. Like Samantha, Twombly has a natural ability to love, but unlike his newborn OS he is burdened by past romantic failures and the fear of seeing them repeated, which discourages him from pursuing love at all. That fear pushes Twombly into a stupefying routine of media consumption that keeps other people, and the emotional risks attached to them, safely at bay. Whereas Samantha’s urge to love gives her life, Twombly’s reluctance to love leads him to numbly, thoughtlessly live out his days in front of machines, depriving him of a real life.
Given Twombly’s attachment to machines, it’s fitting that the person who finally reaches him is herself part of a machine. The chemistry between the characters is palpable despite Samantha’s invisibility, not solely because of Johannson’s strong voice work but also because of Phoenix’s total commitment to the conceit. In one scene Twombly shuts his eyes and lets Samantha guide him through a busy carnival, and as he follows her voice he moves so eagerly and joyfully that she could be leading him by the hand. Conversely, when Samantha disappears at various points in the film, Twombly’s solitude exceeds that of a man simply standing by himself. In Phoenix’s face we see a wordless grief through which Samantha’s absence is apparent, and through that sense of absence the invisible character takes shape.
Twombly is shaped by the relationship too as he ends his solitude and begins to let other people connect with him again. By the end, Twombly has realized that the ability to form those connections is itself a marvelous thing, regardless of whether or not they end in heartbreak. Samantha herself is not a perfect mate and Twombly’s relationship with her never seems sustainable, but the film treasures their bond no matter how absurd and fleeting it may be. In a world where people can rely on technology to smooth out the complications in their lives, Her argues that something as complicated and ephemeral as love has a place in our lives too, that love is in fact still what makes life worth living.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Andrew Bujalski
FEATURING: Patrick Reister, Robin Schwartz, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary
PLOT: In the early 1980’s, computer programmers gather in a hotel to compete in a computer chess tournament.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Computer Chess has a few bizarre moments and boasts oddly creative editing techniques that make it worth mentioning on this site. However, the weirdness is too mild to be seriously considered for the List.
COMMENTS: Witness the birth of the cyborg, the collision of man and machine. The 1980’s were the decade that saw the explosion of the tech industry. With the acceleration of hardware design and subsequent rapid development of more efficient calculations by programmers, the initial platform of humble computers created during this time period blossomed exponentially within a very short time frame. The movie Computer Chess, which takes place in this era, is as close an analysis as we are going to get about the rise of modern tech-culture and the consequences that we may face (or already face) because of it. Computer Chess presents its take with exuberant humor and smudges of dark trippiness. In other words, welcome to geek heaven!
The movie’s minimal plot concerns a group of early techies competing in a chess tournament for a cash prize, only the moves are determined by computer programs and not the players themselves. Besides the tournament action, scenes are filled with philosophical conversations about programming, the future of computers, and human nature. The artful editing (cracks and glitches), set design (Lynchian hallways full of cats), and the physical appearance of the participants are some of the movie’s strengths in the weird department, offering a balanced tone of subtle eeriness and quirky humor. The on-screen font signifying the different stages of the event gives the picture a retro-technological vibe, while the programmers wear thick-rimmed glasses and consume drinks like Scotch and red wine.
Peter (Patrick Reister), the central protagonist, acts as a sort of human calculator, staying up for days at a time trying to debug the flaws in his computer program, while his mentor, a seemingly stable family man who has brought his wife and kid along to the tournament, guides him through the fiasco while reminding him not to let his own personal ideas interfere with the process of fixing the problems. Peter remains completely focused, obsessing to the point where each consecutive scene makes him appear less human. The sole female participant in the tournament shows him considerably more attention than she does the others, and this seems to have no effect on him at all; his face is expressionless and contemplative at all times. Sharing the same space as the tournament competitors is a spiritual marriage counseling group led by a soulful and charismatic African man. The group represents the purely humanist side of the scenario, as the aging and uncomfortably erotic couples avoid scientific notions of progress, standing opposite the nerdy and repressed machine fetishists competing for mathematical dominance. One scene shows the couples fondling warm loaves of bread while they moan together in ecstasy: a starkly humanistic counterpoint to the exacting and calculated behavior of the chess competitors. A sense of unity is developed between these two paradigms through a metaphor likening the movements of people to the movements of pieces on a chess board, signifying the absurdity of the vast and chaotic mathematical outcomes within the two.
From an early point in the movie, there is a central message given about the definition of human consciousness and how it translates to the creation of artificial intelligence, and it’s precisely during the resulting conversational junctions between characters when vague but powerful feelings of unease begin to surface. This hyper-modern anxiety is fully embodied by Peter, who is competing in the tournament but having trouble getting his computer to work properly. The black and white picture and utterly bizarre snippets of alien-synthesizer can sometimes recall other computer/science films such as Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, but instead of giving us a manic character study about obsession we are given a series of quiet, somewhat dark suggestions that these calculating machines we depend on for all sorts of human needs are actually entities. Luckily, the heaviness of these concepts is delightfully balanced with oddball humor and ample substance abuse. The movie even dips into meta-fiction a few times, making references to the conceptual dynamics between digital and analog technologies (the guy in charge of filming the tournament tells the cameraman not to point it at the sun), and it is effective because we already know where the technology is headed—to a place where boundaries between people and machines appear to grow thinner by the second. Today, one doesn’t have to be geeky to have a deep relationship with a computer, or a camera for that matter.
A single scene is shown in color, in which the compellingly off-putting (albeit humorous) moocher/programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) searches his mother’s home for money that he owes some of the other programmers. The picture abruptly changes back to black and white, triggered by the vocals of Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who recites the phrase, “lost in a loop.” The theme of looping, previously mentioned in a stoned conversation between the team members in a hotel room, could be seen as a convergence of human cognition and mechanical calculation. Key philosophical questions are raised about the nature of the human brain and its relationship to computer technology—thinking machines. The relevance of these kinds of philosophical inquiries is powerful in an age where technology has come to define what a person is, whether it’s through the use of cell phone apps or social networking profiles.
The ending is pleasantly funny and wickedly surprising with an insane punchline that has miles of implications, both about the main character and about the future of humanity. It’s almost creepy in its quietly dry delivery, but is outrageous enough to remind the viewer not to take everything they just saw too seriously.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Dryly humorous and wonderfully weird, this is a preternaturally mundane evocation of early 80s nerdery and an almost scary peek at the history of AI.”–MaryAnn Johanson, Flick Filosopher (contemporaneous)