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Hellfire Video Club: HAL HAS A LOT TO ANSWER FOR: Artificial Intelligence In The Movies

Given all the recent talk of AI and it's threat to the future existence of humanity, we figured we’d jump back to take a look at some vintage cinematic treatments of the subject which AREN’T ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Here are a few depictions from simpler times (i.e the mid-eighties).

Words Hellfire Video Club Published 13.06.23

The Tower

Jim Makichuk, 1985, Canada

An AI system named ‘Lola’, designed to regulate and power an office building, goes awry and starts trapping, killing and vaporising its inhabitants to boost its energy supplies, in this Canadian TV movie obscurity. Chock full of perms, daytime soap level acting, ultra primitive graphics, and a synth/drum machine-heavy score, this one ticks loads of boxes in theory, but sadly isn’t quite the hidden gem you’d hope for on seeing that (killer) poster and synopsis. It’s slow paced, overlong, frequently poorly acted, and fails to deliver any real surprises in its story developments. That said, it does hold a kind of dorky 80s made-for-TV charm - the stubborn conformity lending it a kind of cosy reassuring feel which best suits a late-night zone out, if you’re going to watch it at all. It’ll throw a small goofball at you from time to time (welcome), but it’s never enough to shake you too hard out of the ongoing stupor. If you want to assess the overall vibe, the clip below (there is no ‘trailer’ as such) will probably give you a pretty good idea if you’re going to dig its particular strain of cheapskate monotone.

Max Headroom; 20 Minutes Into the Future

Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton, 1985, UK

 What we have here is the back story pilot (not quite feature film length, clocking in at around an hour) behind the eighties pop cultural phenomenon that was Max Headroom, the first computer generated/virtual TV presenter, and a Channel 4/MTV staple. Sometime into the future, where everything is so shit people just stay in watching TV all day/night - Edison Carter, a reporter for ‘Network 23’ uncovers the truth behind ‘blipverts’, a new ultra compressed advertising technique with the unfortunate side effect of making some viewers explode. Soon Edison is kidnapped, and his brain duplicated by the same evil genius computer whizkid behind the blipverts tech, and as a result ‘Max Headroom’ is born, a new TV phenomenon ready to bring the truth to the masses of TV addicted future freaks.

Taking place in a landscape visually very similar to Terry Gilliam’s classic ‘Brazil’ (1985) and probably any other futuristic UK Sci-fi from this period (i.e. it looks like it was shot on the then abundant wastelands of East London, these days doubtless a sprawl of luxury flats), this isn’t going to give you any great insights into AI, but makes for a fun, swift watch for anyone curious about 80s Cyberpunk.

Deadly Friend

Wes Craven, 1986, USA

A teenage computer whiz arrives in town with his new self-built AI robot ‘BB’ in tow. All is well until double disaster strikes… A mean, paranoid old crone living across the street blasts BB to smithereens with a shotgun after a Halloween prank goes wrong. Then worse still, neighbour and potential romance Samantha gets pushed down the stairs and killed by her creepy, bullish father. What’s a teen genius to do? Reanimate Samantha with BB’s computer chip AI brain of course! Needless to say this doesn’t go well,  and Samantha mark II, now mute and staring into space wearing spraypainted eye make-up, starts stumbling around with jerky arm movements seeking revenge on anyone who’s ever wronged either her or BB.

Like so many 80s studio films, Deadly Friend suffered intense interference from boneheaded execs chasing the mythical test audience thumbs up, so the film manages to glide through its basic story arc with a kind of dot-to-dot approach favouring events over character development. As a result, there’s little point in looking for depth or illuminating takes on identity (AI or human) here. What we (now) get is a weird mash up of PG rated post Spielbergian sci-fi-lite and slasher horror. Whilst most of the latter was supposedly imposed by the studio, the skimmed over/compromised tone of the first half means it’s this stuff which tends to provide most of the fun (including an ace, if inexplicable, ‘death by basketball’ murder). So yeah, it’s the AI killers who always win out in the end.

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