Aliens and robots are swapping seats as filmic sci-fi reformulates its visions of the foreign and the familiar.
From the original War of the Worlds back in 1953, all the way to the first Independence Day in 1996, there was a common thread running through 'first contact' scenes in alien invasion flicks. These usually involved some human pacifist force (such as a priest, a scientist, or a group of new-age hippies), going out to 'welcome' the aliens and getting pitilessly obliterated.
The scene usually served to orient the film politically; if the aliens in War of the Worlds represented Communism, then the priest's death signified the inadequacy (or insufficiency) of Christian values face to the new paradigms of the Cold War. It was a useful narrative cliché, and it proved durable because all of these films used extra-terrestrial life form as a symbol for the same concept.
For a long time, and well beyond the 'invasion' genre, aliens have been used as our prime metaphor for the Other. They were cast not only as 'foreigners' from a land that was invariably beyond reckoning, but also as stand-ins for any deviant cultural, political or sexual identity.
There was no equivalent cliché in science-fiction films that were about or inclusive of robots, largely because robots represented the opposite of extra-terrestrials. Take such diverse products as Forbidden Planet (1956) and Star Wars (1977), or even the 1962 animated series The Jetsons: robots were primarily cast as waiters and housekeepers. There could be no 'first contact' cliché with them because they were correlated to the domestic, the familiar, and the mundane (albeit in a futuristic form), and not to the Other.
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) brings together these two tropes in a powerful and suggestive contradistinction. On the one hand, there's the absolute and unspeakable Otherness of the monolith, and on the other, the magnified butler-turned-psychotic that is Hal.
It may sound odd to say this at a time when we're all still talking about Arrival and its nigh-untranslatable alien language, but there are signs that these clichés may finally be turning outmoded. Aliens are increasingly used as signifiers of the familiar and the human, whilst robots are being reabsorbed into the concept of 'artificial intelligence' to produce a new Other. In other words, the original relationship is being reversed -- if only very slowly and tentatively.
For example, let us compare Ridley Scott's 1979 classic Alien with its 2012 prequel Prometheus. In the first film, which was about fear of sexual violation (don't we all know by now?), the creature was essentially an incarnation of the terrifying 'other body' involved in rape. The robot Ash (Ian Holm), an agent from the very congenital corporation, was so similar to the humans that he remained indistinguishable until the very end.
In Prometheus, Scott establishes that the original monsters were in fact created by an anthropomorphic race, which also happens to be humanity's ancestors. The story of the aliens, it turns out, was all about us. Meanwhile, the film includes the first android in the franchise never to be mistaken for a human: the eerily inaccessible and disquieting David (Michael Fassbender).
Now, a different type of thematic follow-up to Alien can be found in Alex Garland's Ex Machina. The focus here shifts from rape and violation to generalised gender relationships -- but this is still, at heart, a film using a science-fictional premise to dramatize sexual anxiety. And the Other, this time, is not an alien but an artificial intelligence.
Critics of the film have focused on the sexual politics of the android Ava (Alicia Vikander): is the film segregating her femininity by adopting the male perspective as 'normal' or 'default', or is it doing the opposite, by suggesting that it's impossible to keep her contained?
I would contend that what's most interesting about Garland's creature is less how she reimagines the concept of a woman and more how she reimagines the concept of a robot. Ava's defining trait is her intelligence, and in particular the way that it differs from the intelligence of a human being (male or female alike). This is an important leap from traditional representations of robots, which cast them either as unthinking machines -- to whit, The Terminator in which the 'self-aware' Skynet only serves as an off-screen plot device -- or else as essentially human beings, as in Steven Spielberg's A.I., Scott's Blade Runner, or Chris Columbus' Bicentennial Man.
Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno in Ex Machina (2014)
While Ex Machina's conclusion could be construed as a 'happy ending' of sorts, it feels unsettling rather than comforting: something unknown has been released into our world, and we have no idea what it will do next.
The film readily lends itself to feminist readings, but it's even more powerful as a metaphor for technological development. Aliens and robots may still be a fictional concept, but artificial intelligence is very much a presence in our everyday lives: from our phones and our cars all the way to high-end finance and warfare, it really does feel like we have released 'Ava' into our world, with little sense of what will happen next.
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The 2014 film Transcendence does a somewhat clumsy job of dramatizing some of the genuine scientific concerns about artificial intelligence. Although the notion of a Skynet type of machine taking over humanity still smacks of the popular public perception of sci-fi, the question of whether a malign 'Superintelligence' could develop within our lifetimes is becoming commonplace in universities and scientific communities alike -- and the arguments behind it are surprisingly compelling.
Transcendence brings together many of the tropes behind this new idea of artificial intelligence. Johnny Depp plays a developing, super-smart computer willing to enslave humanity not because it is evil in any recognizable sense of the term, but only because it has a completely alien view of what good and evil are, to the point that 'healing' the planet involves removing humanity of its agency.
Unlike robots, aliens have not been significantly reconceptualised in the imaginary of this decade, and are in fact becoming increasingly cartoonish and standardised. The revival of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises sees a recycling of the concept of aliens as stand-ins for 'foreigners', except these foreigners are now portrayed as part of an increasingly globalised community, potently downplaying their exoticism and strangeness.
The Marvel movies stretch this concept even further. Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thor films treat extra-terrestrial life as little more than a mirror of our own society and culture, whilst the wondrous 'first contact' scene when aliens invade in Avengers: Assemble is reduced to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) looking up and muttering: 'Oh right. Army.'
To some extents, the Marvel films are guilty of similarly over-familiarising artificial intelligence. The titular antagonist in Avengers: Age of Ultron is only too human, but that film notably includes one 'first contact' scene of sorts -- and it's with the aptly named Vision. Here, the same characters that respond to aliens and gods by raising an eyebrow all stand in shocked, muted silence at the sight of an artificial intelligence that just came to life.
Paul Bettany as Vision in Age of Ultron (2015)
I would contend that this scene is the new 'first contact' cliché of science-fiction films this decade. It's found in a similar, if not always identical form, in most films that deal with artificial intelligence. Sometimes the scene is bombastic, as in Age of Ultron or Independence Day: Resurgence other times it's soft and downplayed, as in Her; sometimes it's disquieting, as in Ex Machina or Transcendence, and at times it can be funny, as in Big Hero 6. But all of these films share a moment in which the action pauses, and they let the spectator absorb the Otherness of the artificial intelligence they face.
This remains the case even when the robot ends up being yet another surrogate for a human being, such as in Neill Blomkamp's Chappie (2015). That this film should include four characters awakening an artificial intelligence and standing around it in astonished silence seems predictable, although note the contrast with the director's previous effort specifically about aliens, the much more successful District 9 (2009). Not only are the aliens here patently human beings (an open and rather poignant metaphor for refugees, actually), but the film starts out well after their landing and arrival. There is no 'first contact' scene in District 9.
The fact that there are important exceptions to this argument (Arrival, again), as well as the fact that robots like Ultron and Chappie are still anchored to an all-too human familiarity, means that we must be careful with generalisations. Even so, the increasing role and power of artificial intelligence in our society will certainly translate into a greater presence in science-fiction films.
While aliens may never be completely abrogated as a metaphor for the Other, there is reason to believe that 'first contact' scenes made ten years from now will most likely involve not human beings and extra-terrestrials, but human beings and a computer -- in films, and possibly in real life alike.