Margaret Maria Roidi
Dr. Lance A. Strate
27 February 2010
Creation: Technology on Screen
Technological innovations are an integral part of every evolving society. The drive to enrich one’s life through the creation and implementation of new media continues to grow as the public seeks ease, comfort, and control over its environment. The endless possibilities provided on a daily basis generate further demand for change to occur as various tools are aimed to satisfy, and even increase, individuals’ needs to manage and select the material to which they are exposed. The unconventional on-demand lifestyles, promoted through the use of new media, demonstrate people’s aspiration to function as gatekeepers; the quest to find one’s creator is now replaced by each person’s need to become that ultimate being. Technology offers this opportunity along with the burden of all its consequences. The duality of new media has inspired filmmakers to depict on screen the interaction between people and technology as they attempt to undertake the role of the creator. The genre of science fiction demonstrates the use of such tools and the inevitable costs with which they are associated. James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence: A. I. (2001), present the ethical challenges that arise when people’s obsession with the reflection of their own image turns into a window, revealing a world they have yet to foresee.
Science fiction films are inspired by people’s endless desire to explore future possibilities. New technological innovations provide filmmakers with the proper means to enrich the depth and impact of their craft, enhancing viewers’ cinematic experience. The mystical worlds presented on screen expose a fascinating characteristic of human nature that of taming and controlling one’s environment. Undeniably, cinema provides an escape from reality while it highlights people’s deepest aspirations. Marshal McLuhan notes, “The movie is not only a supreme expression of mechanism, but paradoxically it offers as product the most magical of consumer commodities, namely dreams,” (390). This medium, therefore, depicts the complexity of human instincts as they are demonstrated by people’s use of technology.
An egotistical sense of superiority is promoted by the introduction of new media in each given society. James Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931) focuses on the tremendous power bestowed upon a scientist. Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, embodies the absolute example of narcissism, which is encouraged by the forceful and careless implementation of technology. A man’s desire to create his own image, thus attaining immortality, is the ultimate incentive towards exceeding the boundaries of morality; the tools available make it possible for this doctor to fulfill an unattainable dream. Technology offers the dangerous illusion of control over nature, blinding in a way the doctor’s judgment. The new tools of his profession will be employed to conduct an unorthodox experiment, one that is meant to give him the false sense of control he seeks. The filmmaker focuses on the irony of the dual nature of any new medium: use versus misuse.
Based on Mary Shelly’s book, Frankenstein challenges the viewers’ understanding of progress. Any innovation which is accepted and incorporated into people’s conventional lifestyle changes the core of every society with unpredictable consequences. Dr. Frankenstein’s work defines who he is with technology serving as his nemesis. His castle is isolated and inaccessible; the establishing shot frames the troubling actions taking place within this facility as the scenery and overall misé-en-scene suggest the disturbed mental state of the protagonist. The massiveness of every room demonstrates the characters’ powerlessness and the temporality of their existence. The immense size of his laboratory functions as a mirror, externalizing his inability to understand the risks of creating his own reflection. Low-angle-shots and low-key lighting are used throughout this film to promote a sense of uncertainty and fear as distorted lines and expressionistic features dominate the screen. Each frame is filled with shadows, leaving the characters unprotected against the threat of the unknown.
The symbolic use of fire in the film presents man’s historic transformation. The monster seems to be frightened by it, suggesting that every technology has the potential to harm its user. The paradox of this situation is that the monster fears and avoids the tool – fire – yet the doctor does not recognize the same danger in his own creation. Sue Barnes’ essay, “Cyberspace: Creating Paradoxes for the Ecology of Self,” addresses the inevitable questions about a-life research; the rush of creation overpowers one’s decision making process, leaving him vulnerable to a myriad of repercussions. The fascination of employing new means diminishes people’s ability to estimate and prevent any potential risks (237). The monster suffers by his creator’s misuse of power; Dr. Frankenstein wished to find god, but in the process he chose to take his place instead.
The following sequences present the doctor’s absolute disregard for his creation. Dr. Frankenstein flees his laboratory where chaos and disorder prevail as a direct result of his irresponsibility, and finds shelter in the warmth of the life he had previously abandoned. The filmmaker, however, confronts the audience with the consequences from which the doctor attempts to escape, exposing them to the fact that once change is introduced balance cannot be restored. In the meantime, the monster continues to wander until he is invited to play with a little girl, Maria. Whale uses a long shot to create a false sense of security; the child cannot recognize the danger she in as she throws flowers in the lake carelessly with her new friend. Frankenstein’s monster appears as fascinated by the flowers floating at the top as Maria. Nevertheless, the doctor’s inability to fulfill his role as the creator and “father” of this new life is reflected by the monster’s inability to comprehend that throwing the little girl in the water will lead to her drowning.
The uproar does not take too long to generate a mob of angry villages running to protect their territory. Frankenstein himself is viewed as the victim while his creation is prosecuted for showing as much sympathy to others as it was shown to him. The doctor made the mistake to overlook the significance of his actions and assume that if he were to pretend that nothing ever happened, life would simply go back to normal. “Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body,” (McLuhan 67). The director shows the battle between the old and new technology; the monster kidnaps his creator and demands revenge for the suffering he was forced to experience. Inevitably, Frankenstein is consumed by his own reflection since he was unable to understand the extent of his actions. The symbolic burning of the monster is meant to warn the viewers about the reckless use of modern media as he presents the creature dying by the tool he feared the most.
The director concludes the film with the characters’ world appearing intact. However, the seed of knowledge has already infiltrated their society, waiting for the proper moment to transform their conventional rhythms. Frankenstein shows the dramatic events following the implementation of new tools as a way of satisfying one’s narcissism. The idea of change is a common theme in science fiction films as it captures the essence of human nature and its endless yearning to prevail over all creations. Naturally, the enigma of progress inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which undertakes the task of presenting a chain of evolutionary events through a pioneering and critical perspective. The director’s unique vision of the journey people have embarked upon is initiated by the depiction of tools as divisive instruments of destruction from the “dawn of man” to the infinite universe and beyond.
The director’s sophisticated and carefully thought-out use of the cinematic means of the late 60’s enables him to take cinema into an unexamined path. The film opens with the soundtrack setting a mysterious tone while the black screen encourages the viewers to clear their minds and be transported into the unfamiliar past. The uncertainty of the opening sequence, therefore, is accomplished by an unconventional establishing shot which frames the emptiness and chaos. As this film was released a year before the actual landing on the moon, the spectators did not have a previous reference in mind; 2001 constitutes the very first attempt to present outer space and challenge people’s position within the infinity of the universe (Mast and Kawin 542). The symmetrical presentation of the planets after the film’s opening indicates that there must be a master plan directing the evolutionary cycle of life. A question that is difficult to answer when one is blinded by the power bestowed by his creations.
The vast and crude environment of the primitive past is overwhelming. The level of coexistence among the early creatures is defined by the mutual need to survive; however, territoriality and procession of one’s space initiates the quest for a tool that will enhance their natural self. It is then that the humming sound of progress invades and transforms permanently their world. The slab is a neutral element, a carrier of information and knowledge; it is entirely up to the user to interpret and decide how to implement this new power. Bolter and Gromala argue, “Each installation calls its participants into an active relationship, asking them to perform rather than merely to view,” (15). The secrets held within this tall, smooth, and unidentifiable object are meant to be unleashed and incorporated into the lives of those exposed to its sight. Kubrick’s cynicism about any technology is clear in this shot. The appearance of the slab comes in contrast with the crudity of the environment in which it is located.
Tools are always impossible to tame as they carry their creators’ flaws. The ape’s thought process, sparked by the bones in front of him, is identifiable. He attempts to apply another meaning to an object by questioning its use. A long shot frames this scene of discovery with the ape at the centre of the screen. The bones could be interpreted as the stability and foundation of familiarity; nevertheless, they could be employed as a form of destruction and empowerment. The stages of this realization are immediate and gratifying, encouraging change to occur. The presentation of the ape’s movements in slow motion compliments the significance of this moment; a medium shot follows the hand holding the bone as an extension of itself. The ironic presentation of evolution lies in the fact that creation goes hand-in-hand with destruction. This montage sequence foreshadows the events that are to follow.
Kubrick’s cinematic approach demands his audience’s attention. The oblong white bone of the Stone Age has turned into an orbiting station in space in which the journey to find the meaning of life continues. The depiction of the transition from the past to the present is accomplished successfully by this match-on-action cut, demonstrating the impact of a simple tool on the technological advancement of the future. Richard Barsam discusses further the meaning of this rapid transition:
An “ape-man” rejoices in his newfound weaponry, a bone, by tossing it into the air, at which point it becomes technology of a far more sophisticated kind. This astonishing leap of sight, space, and time introduces several of the movie’s principal themes: the relativity of time, the interaction of inventiveness and aggressiveness, and the human race’s desire to conquer the unknown, (318).
Viewers are forced to become active participants in the story by creating connections between the time periods, considering the reasons that might have led to this evolutionary cycle and questioning their abilities to survive in a world ruled by their own creations. The serenity of this futuristic scene presents the harmonic coexistence between technology and man. The characters are driven by their desire to find answers; on the way to discover the ultimate creator they give life to other forms of existence, taking the human race a step closer to that being by making them small gods.
The intrusive nature of technology seems to follow the characters even in space. Two of the men taking part in this mission, Frank and Dave, represent each spectator as their experiences are meant to shed light into the bizarre world of machinery. When Frank does not supervise the tools of the scientific station, the technology comes to him. A message from his family, celebrating his birthday, interrupts him in the form of a video call; the sense of time is lost. The creation overpowers its master with ease, depriving him of privacy and control. The machines may be far more improved in the future, but people still cannot rid themselves of the same old destructive instincts that characterize them. The most obvious example of this complex relationship between master and creation is HAL, a highly intelligent computer. Today, this medium’s behavior is dated by the perception of the past, which viewed computers as an electronic brain rather than a tool of representation. He is the highlight of human invention. HAL’s standing in the mission is valued significantly more than that of the human beings he is accompanied by. Even though his capabilities exceed those of any person, he carries the mistakes and weaknesses of his creators (Bolter and Gromala 89).
HAL is inquisitive and skeptical. He is programmed to distrust his associates and has no mercy or sense of sympathy. HAL’s intrusive tone is meant to manipulate Dave into confessing his thoughts about the mission, exceeding the boundaries of humanity. Lies and mind games are qualities which transferred into the technology by people. The computer plans to divide and conquer the two men by ordering them and challenging their knowledge; a computer can never be wrong, only a human error would be the answer to the mistakes halting the mission. When HAL is questioned, he does not hesitate to blame calmly the discrepancy for which he is accused on humans’ poor skills. Kubrick presents this incident in order to ridicule people’s inability to admit their own mistakes; the computer simply acts the way he is programmed. This demonstration of arrogance and superiority by HAL awakens Dave and leads him to investigate the source of the problem. In an attempt to escape from HAL’s watchful eye the two men try to conspire against him and plan accordingly. However, their underestimation of the machine’s intelligence is proven to be a deadly mistake as HAL’s instinct to sustain himself leads him to kill first.
The charming qualities that made HAL special are overshadowed by lies, manipulation and, a murder. The twofold use of any tool is easy to question, but Kubrick seems to believe that people will always be defeated by their own limitations to acknowledge their mistakes. HAL, much like humans, feels entitled to act this way since he considers himself superior to his master. However, he soon realizes his own immortality when Dave proceeds with the plan to terminate him. During this sequence, the machine exhibits a puzzling quality. HAL behaves as a child and tries to appeal to Dave’s emotions; HAL begs for him to stop, he sounds regretful, and begins to retrieve to an earlier stage of his life as a computer by singing a children’s song. The table is reversed. The creator is taking responsibility for his creation’s actions and begins to employ technology in a positive way, taking control of his life and that of the human race.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ends with the symbolic “Starchild.” A transparent mass of light becomes the home for Dave while he has regressed to a fetus-like stage. “The electric light is pure information,” states Marshall McLuhan in his examination of this medium without a message (19). Consequently, the future of the human race lies in the incorporation of knowledge and technology within an ultimate being. Serving as a medium within another, light carries the depth of human experience and transports it across the universe. The director presents the “Starchild” next to Earth as if he is a reflection of the actions in which people engaged, giving life to a new form of absolute balance and harmony. This film’s unconventional structure derives from the complexity of human life; any tool provides a new experience which morphs its creator and takes evolution into a different direction.
The genre of science fiction provides a plethora of interpretations regarding the future of humanity. In 1982, Ridley Scott released the film adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Scott’s Blade Runner presents a quite different atmosphere from that of the classic science fiction films of the past, sparking a new cycle of on-screen pessimism. Its plot and visual elements classify it generally as a neo-noir, pointing to the existential movies of the 40’s and 50’s, while its futuristic setting and storyline foreshadow a glooming outlook for humanity. The director’s use of cinematic elements transfers the audience to a world in which people have satisfied their egotistical need to replicate themselves by creating androids – a result of conquering new media and advancing into the NEXUS phase. These humanlike machines are used as slave labor to serve their creators, whose initial fascination with this scientific accomplishment has faded. Therefore, much like HAL, replicants developed a unique sense of self turning against their creators and confronting them for their mistakes.
People’s misuse of androids prevents them from seeing the transformation of their environment into a new interactive entity. Even in this highly evolved society, mankind is preoccupied with its quest to recreate life, keeping the endless desire to dominate and overpower others alive. “Scott’s Director’s Cut raises philosophical questions about the worth of humanity and humans’ control of the world which they have created,” (Galagher 1). The filmmaker’s depiction of people’s journey through time and space is challenged by the social uproar the NEXUS phase brought upon them. The psychological consequences of facing the rage of one’s own creation are unsettling as he is confronted by the reflection of his actions’ true intentions. The realization of mankind’s selfishness to give life to its own image for the pure joy of admiring new media’s advantages is too difficult to bear. In Blade Runner, technology provided the tools to manage everyday tasks with ease, but the intoxicating power that came along fooled the citizens of this planet once again. The only solution to eliminate further casualties lies in the characters’ persistency to “retire” their replicants, demonstrating mankind’s need to restore order in the only way proven successful by destroying their reflection.
Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, is a well modernized version of the classic noir hero. Rick is a middle-aged detective searching for life without the continuous pursue of replicants as it has ostracized him in the darkest corner of the Earth. He is a loner, whose existential choices determine his fate and course of action; it is Rick’s job to detect and “retire” the replicates from the world that created them. The director’s purposely made decision to conceal Rick’s connection with the creatures he seeks to destroy is meant to challenge the audience directly. Turning the spectators into active participants in the mysterious pursuit of truth and justice is an unconventional way of holding them accountable for the events depicted on screen. In a sense, Ridley Scott’s approach is aimed to warn the public of the dangers that ignorance, indifference, and arrogance disguise as signs of progress. Lev Manovich’s interpretation of the implications presented in the film brings up an interesting view about new media’s direction:
Like Blade Runner, Macintosh’s GUI [Graphical User Interface] articulated a vision of the future, although a very different one. In this vision, the lines between the human and its technological creations (computers, androids) are clearly drawn, and decay is not tolerated. In a computer, once a file is created, it never disappears except when explicitly deleted by the user. And even then deleted items can usually be recovered. Thus, if in “meatspace” we have to work to remember, in cyberspace we have to work to forget, (63).
Blade Runner centers on the gray area in between order and chaos. Rick’s inability to escape from his past is illustrated by his interaction with Rachel, an android who is not aware of the fact that she is a replicant. The memories implanted into her brain appear and feel real; one is to wonder what reality is and whether Rick could be an android as well.
This perplexing presentation of spaces and characters is another indication that appearances can be deceitful, just like technology. The futuristic background is enhanced through the extensive use of low-key lighting and expressionistic set design, conveying the story’s cynicism. The sets’ obscure treatment turns them into canvases of visual information. The paradox of creation challenges the audience’s expectations by revealing the unexpected richness found within each environment. The multiple layers of humanity cannot be defined or preprogrammed, but perhaps the replicants share much more in common with their creators than the characters dare to admit. The suffocating air is made worse by the rain and smoke, which linger in the atmosphere; the crowded scenes are followed by deserted ghost-like areas. It is evident that technology acted as a tool of regression, depriving humanity of its opportunity to evolve and achieve greatness. Scott promotes this imbalance to resemble the chaotic world of Frankenstein rather than the “harmonic dysfunction” of Kubrick’s 2001.
J. F. Sebastian, played by William Sanderson, portrays an ingenious man whose creations serve as a window into a world he will never come to enjoy. Suffering from a terminal genetic disease he is forced to live in fear; as a result of this condition, he is given a refreshing perspective on life that none of the other characters are capable to comprehend. The filmmaker presents J. F. Sebastian’s apartment in a remote and abandoned building that does not reflect the magnitude of his creativity. Nevertheless, its interior opens the door to another universe. It could be argued that J. F. Sebastian lives in a parallel virtual world using his dolls and toys as his avatars, comforting himself while waiting patiently for the inevitable. This illusion of control brings joy into a life that occupies multiple spheres of existence. Roy Batty, the leader of the androids seeking revenge, is a part of Sebastian as well. The interaction between the two characters makes it clear that both men share the same sense of reasoning, but also the weakness of the limited time they have on the planet (Bolter and Gromala 130-131).
The battle between Rick and Roy composes the climactic sequence of Blade Runner. The anticipated confrontation of creator against creation – human versus technology – presents the ultimate dilemma as the audience wonders what difference each result would make. Rick’s weakness lies in the fact that he has embraced narcosis while Roy’s pessimistic view of the future cannot be altered. Technology has the potential to create dreams, but also to externalize humanity’s worst nightmares; Roy condemns people for being doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past as they choose to let the memories of their failures fade in time. All the moments of destruction and suffering will be lost until the next cycle of violence begins. Confronted once again by their own flaws, people will attempt to destroy the mirror rather than use it as a window into their soul. Information is power, but it is how it is employed that makes all the difference.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner paved a new path for future science fiction films to follow, addressing the concept of technological innovation with the use of a dark and cynical representation of the distant future; thus illustrating technology’s chaotic consequences. The most elaborate and original concept, however, came from Stanley Kubrick’s and Steven Spielberg’s collaboration in Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001). The initial idea for the story was eventually morphed into a relatable plot of loss and gain. A. I. centers on the dramatic journey of a machine attempting to become a real human being so as to gain the affection of the couple who programmed him to love them unconditionally. The film’s use of technological elements to portray the creation of a harmonic coexistence between man and machine satisfies a certain desire for a tangible, yet dreamlike, future.
Based loosely on the story of Pinocchio, A.I. centers on a world in which people’s on-demand lifestyles redefined the meaning of life. Embracing technology as the only tangible instrument worth believing in, they modified the moral and social standards of the past. The skepticism surrounding artificial intelligence is now eased by the convenience of having highly advanced, yet loyal, robots attend to mankind’s every need. Nevertheless, Cybertronics continues to target people’s demand for emotional support creating robot lines that provide just that. The newest breakthrough is the introduction of humanoid children programmed to simply love; it is expected that this product with have a tremendous appeal to parents who have suffered the loss of a child. David is a machine which will continue to love unconditionally with the same depth and devotion until one’s final moments. Science cannot predict the complexity of human nature or narrow the vastness of its emotions, thus presenting a significant limitation that cannot be resolved through any lifeless medium. The ultimate question raised in the end of the meeting may bring people to tears. Is there an individual capable of returning this kind of love? David will function as the window, showing people what they have scarified in order to accept progress.
The imminent isolation and loneliness David will be forced to experience is portrayed on the screen. A collection of shots is used to foreshadow his character’s dramatic journey through a world where the overproduction of on-demand services has narrowed people’s judgment and deprived them of their humanity. It appears that his presence and love will only be accepted when and if requested. For example, in the sequence where David is first brought to the house, he approaches and observes his new environment as he finds himself looking at a framed family picture. His reflection lies masterfully on an empty spot away from the rest of the characters, demonstrating that he is created solely to substitute people’s need for a child. Even though David appears to be real, he can never fully become human. The audience is aware of this, but David will never understand why. The conflict of this situation is impossible to be conceived by a technology that is given specific limitations. David – unlike Frankenstein, HAL, and androids – is incapable of feeling any other emotion than love. He is a machine, whose only task is to love his “parents,” when his mission is not accomplished he has no means of protecting himself against the pain of failure and rejection.
In the final sequence of the film David tries desperately to find the “Blue Fairy” and become a real boy to gain his mother’s love. The viewer is faced with a familiar desire of being united and accepted by his creator. When David’s wish is granted and Monica returns, he comes to experience one last special day with his mother. David carries the knowledge of the past and future; his mother’s perception of time and space is insignificant, therefore for this one day, the child gets to be the adult. It is the degree of awareness that determines and measures age, not the manmade sense of time. The visual indicators of the child’s emotions are reflected in the room in which he is waiting patiently for his mother to be returned to him. David is surrounded by cold and metallically shaded lighting, while when the time has come to be with his mother, the environment changes quickly with reddish hues leading him to her. In the final medium shot, where David and Monica share the bed for the first and only time, it is clear that they have finally become one; both of their faces are bathed with a naturally earthly color as the camera moves away.
The purity of the ending sequence depicts Steven Spielberg’s optimistic interpretation of what the future holds for humanity. David is the only transparent link connecting the past with the future; the act of sharing his knowledge ensures the continuity of mankind’s accomplishments across the universe. The compassion and love he was programmed to feel never faded and his memories will never be tainted by anger or regret. Artificial Intelligence: A. I. presents a window into a world in which man and technology have found a harmonic balance. Nevertheless, sacrifices are always expected in order to accomplish such a transition. Frankenstein’s inability to face the cost of his actions resulted in chaos as the creation mirrored its creator’s flaws, much like HAL in 2001 and the androids in Blade Runner. In A.I. people were stripped of their emotional independence, but David’s memories will help restore a world long forgotten by evolution. Technology is a pure carrier of information; it is up to each individual’s use that defines whether its consequences will benefit or harm life.
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