I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe, to borrow a line from Ridley Scott’s 1982 shocker, “Blade Runner.” But I’m a movie critic, so of course I have. And one of my favorite unbelievable visions is that of walking, talking, thinking and often terrifying robots, like the kind that both thrilled and scared me in the original “Westworld” and especially “The Stepford Wives.” In the 1970s, these creepfests offered a far bleaker view of our future world than the robot sidekicks in “Star Wars” that would soon overtake the culture and the film industry.
The movies have long been haunted by these fantastic machines, particularly those humanoid inventions that look unnervingly like us, be it the robot woman in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) or the duplicitous android in Scott’s “Alien” (1979), ingenious creations that are “virtually identical to a human,” to borrow another quote from “Blade Runner.” More recently, though, another specter — artificial intelligence — has by turns captivated and alarmed the world, onscreen and off. In the latest “Mission: Impossible” flick, Tom Cruise battles a sentient A.I.; in the forthcoming postapocalyptic thriller “The Creator,” John David Washington plays an operative sent to retrieve an A.I. weapon that looks like an adorable kid.
I’m keeping an open mind about “The Creator” even if artificial intelligence admittedly gives me the willies. I blame Stanley Kubrick. I’m joking, sort of, but my bone-deep suspicions about A.I. haven’t deviated much since the eerily affectless voice of HAL 9000, the supercomputer in Kubrick’s 1968 freakout, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” took up permanent residence in my head. It’s HAL’s calm, measured, unrelenting voice I heard when I read the May 30 statement from more than 350 leaders in A.I. “Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I.,” it read, “should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”
By the time that warning was released, the Writers Guild of America had been on strike for four weeks, spurred to action, in part, by fears that generative A.I. would not only encroach on their livelihoods, but might also at least partly supplant them. Similar concerns drove SAG-AFTRA, the union representing some 160,000 performers and media professionals, to hit the picket line on July 14, making this the first time since 1960 that both groups are on strike. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade organization that negotiates on behalf of studios, has waved off union worries with bland promises that all will be fine. “We’re creative companies,” it asserted in May, “and we value the work of creatives.”
If you snorted reading that line, you aren’t alone. Given the history of the movies and, you know, capitalism, and putting aside the obnoxious use of creative as a noun, it is hard to take this assurance in good faith. The writers’ worries, though, are nothing if not serious: Among other things, they don’t want A.I. to be used to write or rewrite literary material or be used as source material. In July, John Lopez, who’s in the union’s A.I. working group, added a romantic spin to these conditions, writing in Vanity Fair that “meaning in art always comes from humans, from having something to say, from needing to connect.” I’m sympathetic, but I wonder if he’s ever read the transcript of a Disney earnings call.
Unsurprisingly, given that companies are already scanning actors’ faces and bodies, SAG-AFTRA sounds near-apocalyptic about A.I. in the concerns it’s raised: “Performers need the protection of our images and performances to prevent replacement of human performances by artificial intelligence technology.” Reading this, I flashed on Andy Serkis, who’s best known for voicing and providing the movements for motion-capture characters in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and in the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” series. Fans of his work in both franchises, including his “Apes” co-star James Franco, lobbied for the actor to receive Oscar recognition. “This is not animation as much as it’s digital ‘makeup,’” Franco wrote in Deadline, a take that industry bosses surely must have appreciated.
In cinema’s earliest, wildest years, movie people did it all: writing, directing, scouting locations, acting. As motion pictures became a big business in the 1910s, efficiency became a rallying cry and then an ethos in the industry, which applied the principles of scientific management to its practices. As the production process became increasingly rationalized, sprawling studio lots were built that centralized work (and made it easier to manage workers) and specific departments (executive, wardrobe, electrical) were established, which maintained a thorough division of labor. By the 1920s, directors, writers and stars who had once exercised control over their work increasingly answered to producers and studio bosses.
Some films seemed to nod at the Hollywood factory on a representational level, including Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936). In it, his Little Tramp works in a factory that’s a model of efficiency, as evidenced by a new “feeding machine” that’s meant to serve workers as they labor, increasing production and decreasing overhead. When the boss tries the feeder out on the Tramp, though, the machine goes kablooey. Not long after he returns to work, tightening bolts zipping past him on a conveyor belt, he suffers a breakdown, his motions turn frenzied and he’s sucked into the machine, a still startling image of radical dehumanization.
Although some stars exerted their independence inside the system, especially those with savvy agents, the studios kept a tight rein on the majority of performers. By the early 1930s, the industry’s most overt means of exerting control over its most famous workers was the option contract, usually running for seven years. Studios didn’t just shape and refine the stars’ images, changing their names and coordinating their public relations, they also maintained exclusive rights to the performers’ services. They could drop or renew a contract, loan actors out, cast them in terrible roles as well as suspend and sue those deemed unruly.
“I could be forced to do anything the studio told me to do,” Bette Davis said of Warner Bros., which signed her to a standard player’s contract in 1931. Davis grew frustrated with her roles and said that her only recourse was to refuse, resistance that the company answered by suspending her without pay. “You could not even work in a five-and-dime store,” Davis said. “You could only starve.” She won her first best actress Oscar in 1936, but two years later, she said, she still didn’t have a provision in her contract for star billing. Her fame and salary had grown, though not her power: Her third Warners contract stipulated that she had to “perform and render her services whenever, wherever and as often as the producer requested.”
Directors and writers contracted by the studios similarly struggled for control and sovereignty, with the companies taking the view, as the screenwriter Devery Freeman once said, that when they hired writers they owned their ideas “forever in perpetuity. ” Every studio was different, and so were the terms of labor. In 1937, the independent producer David O. Selznick (“Gone With the Wind”) explained that, for the most part at M.G.M., the job of the director was “solely to get out on the stage and direct the actors, put them through the paces that are called for in the script.” At Warner Bros., he continued, a director “is purely a cog in the machine” who was given the script often just a few days before going into production.
Given the tension between art and industry that characterizes much of Hollywood history, it is no surprise that the “cogs in the machine” metaphor crops up frequently in chronicles about the good old bad days. I love many classic Hollywood films (and miss their competencies), but for all its genius, the system took its toll. The outrages of sexual exploitation and racial discrimination are, in the end, simply the most grotesque and flagrant examples of how thoroughly the system could, and did, chew up its own people. “We have the players, the directors, the writers,” Selznick wrote in his resignation letter to the head of Paramount in 1931. “The system that turns these people into automatons is obviously what is wrong.”
Selznick’s despair brings to mind one of my favorite scenes in “Blade Runner.” Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, it centers on Deckard (Harrison Ford), a gruff, Bogart-esque type who hunts renegade replicants, lifelike synthetic humans that are produced as slave labor. Fairly early on, Deckard visits the Tyrell Corporation, which builds replicants, to speak to its spooky eponymous founder. “Commerce is our goal here,” Tyrell says, as he explains his business with unctuous equanimity. “‘More human than human’ is our motto,” he continues, sounding very much like an old studio boss.
As in “Blade Runner,” most of the most indelible thinking machines in movies take human shape. That’s the case in “Metropolis,” in which a metallic robot is given the form of a living woman, as well as in films like the original “Westworld,” “The Stepford Wives” and the “Terminator” franchise. Even when the A.I. doesn’t have a physical body, the more memorable ones are voiced by recognizably human performers like Paul Bettany in “Iron Man” and Scarlett Johansson in “Her,” Spike Jonze’s improbable, improbably sweet romance about a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) and a virtual assistant, a disembodied presence that you quickly sketch in specifically because of Johansson’s résumé and potent star persona.
Given that movies are largely character-driven, the human shape is no surprise. A robot that’s a hunk of metal can be scary, but non-anthropomorphic machines don’t resonate as powerfully as the lifelike ones that roam our screens. Alternately charming and off-putting, neither fully human nor obviously artificial, these machines function as servants, warriors, companions, toys, distractions and, invariably, unsettling mirrors. In Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001), a drama about a boy android called David (Haley Joel Osment) that — who —yearns for his human mother’s love, a character distills one crucial reason we are so unsettled by these machines: “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?”
Isaac Asimov wrote that when he was a kid, robot stories could be divided into two types: “robot-as-menace” and “robot-as-pathos.” Part of the power of Spielberg’s “A.I.” is that its lead character’s pathos is rooted in his desire for love. Yet David is also intentionally discomforting because he is at once machine and human, which makes him neither. He is, in a manner of speaking, a problem child for the couple who “adopt” him as well as for Spielberg. It’s a problem that the film solves with a fairy-tale ending and some far-out robots called “specialists,” willowy creations that shut David down. By then, all organic matter on Earth is dead, human beings having technologically advanced themselves right into extinction.
Intentionally or not, movies like “A.I.” and “Her,” “The Terminator” and “The Matrix” have been prophesying a future that suddenly seems here. Since the introduction of ChatGPT in November, the words artificial intelligence have become ubiquitous, cropping up in headlines, at congressional hearings and on picket signs brandished by writers and actors who, for good reason, are themselves concerned that they’re being advanced into extinction. “A.I. is not art” has popped up on a few of the signs, though I prefer “Pay the writers you AI-holes!” It’s a good line and a reminder that writers are never expendable, or at least that’s what I’ve been silently chanting while writing about our brave new world. Siri, do you review movies?