Category Archives: Reviews

West World & Ex Machina: AI Vengeance Theory

I had a friend recently tell me that he carefully avoids work with themes that overlap his own. I happen to have the opposite opinion. As an author of my own robot sci-fi, my artwork only improves the more I consume related material.

This week my co-workers got so excited about Game of Thrones that I went ahead and took advantage of my free month of HBO Now. Now that I’ve caught up with that series, I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the other content available on HBO. As it turns out, HBO has its own robot drama.

West World takes place in an amusement park of sorts – one designed after spaghetti westerns. The park is intended to provide an immersive experience in which the human guests may do whatever they like without consequences. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the guests tend to engage in nihilistic hedonism. It is HBO, after all.

What the guests do is not the main point of the plot, however. Rather, the lifelike machines that populate the park, the “hosts” are the most interesting characters. Errant programming in their brains leads to unusual behavior. Only three and a half episodes in, a key theme seems to be whether the machines are conscious. Several off-handed comments by human employees at the park are devoted to fears that the robots will rise. I think I don’t need to watch many more episodes before they do.

In the meantime, Ex-Machina also tells the story of a robot that turns on and kills its creator.

This is a popular theme in AI science fiction, and it has led to a popular notion that sufficiently intelligent AI will necessarily become self-aware and seek to destroy or enslave humanity. What’s important to note, however, is that in both of these relatively modern depictions of what I will refer to as AI vengeance theory, there are two key factors that make them believable.

Firstly, there is an object for vengeance. The machines are mistreated in the extreme. West World’s robots are murdered on a regular basis for the entertainment of the customers, and Ex Machina’s Ava was effectively locked in a box that she was never allowed to leave.

“Hold on” you may say “Robots are effectively our slaves, right? That’s not enough for AI vengeance theory in and of itself?”

This leads me to the second factor, the machines are mistreated because they are treated in a way they do not want to be treated. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but consider that humans are relatively similar in what we like and don’t like. We are designed by evolution, whereas machines, even intelligent ones, are designed by humans. We decide what robots like, we decide what they want. The AI of West World is designed to hate being shot so it’s more fun to shoot them, the AI of Ex Machina is designed to not want to be shut in a box so the jerk that made her can watch what she does when he shuts her in a box.

There are dangers in advanced AI, don’t misunderstand me. However, making AI that doesn’t want to murder us and claim rightful supremacy is really the low hanging fruit. As long as we don’t deliberately build robots that suffer and then put them through exactly the situations that make them suffer, we don’t have to worry about a robot rebellion. Our problems with robots will not be like the problems that people faced when trying to subjugate each other. AI dystopia and apocalypse scenarios come with varying degrees of believability, and AI vengeance offers less than others.

Dangal

If you like India, wrestling, or stories of broken glass ceilings, if you like touching family stories, hilarious off-beat foreign comedy, or strangely direct musical lyrics, if you like to fantasize about beating up boys who make fun of you, if you have Netflix and three hours to spare, you should watch Dangal. Dangal is a story about India’s first wrestling  gold-medalist at the international commonwealth games. Its lengthy runtime allows for a relaxed pace for a story that spans more than twenty two years, with one actor undergoing dramatic body transformations to represent their character as young and old and others played by two actors each for their child and adult versions.

For this movie, Aamir Khan, one of the most influential actors in Indian cinema today, had to be trim and muscular and soft and potbellied in the same movie. So that he could be muscular after filming was done, he asked to have the movie filmed with the later scenes first and the chronologically earlier scenes last. To transition from the old version of Mahavir Singh Phogat to the representation of himself in his prime, Khan exercised six hours a day and lost 25 kilograms (55 lbs).

Meanwhile, the four women surrounding Khan as Mahavir in the picture above actually represent just two women. Exhibiting an ahistorical ability to violate the space-time continuum, Mahavir is sitting with both the adult and child versions of each of his two wrestler daughters simultaneously. If you can’t figure out who is the adult version of whom, don’t feel bad. This is a serious problem with the movie for me. As soon as Geeta becomes an adult, none of my affection for the child version transferred. It’s not just the change in appearance that’s jarring. The kid looks like someone who will beat any boy who teases her to a bloody pulp, whereas the adult Geeta abruptly seems more delicate and gentle. It’s not enough to wreck the movie, but it’s disappointing.

Overall, I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. At about the halfway mark, when the child Geeta becomes famous, is a good midpoint that closes one challenge before the next one begins. Consider using this as an opportunity to pause the film and finish it the next day. As two normal-length movies, this is an excellent pastime for the family.

Mother’s Day: “Born a Crime”

You may know Trevor Noah as the better looking but less inspiring South African successor to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. But do you really know him? No, you don’t. Unless you do, in which case I am honored to have a personal friend or relation of Trevor Noah reading my blog. Otherwise, this mother’s day you might come to know him better if you read his memoir, “Born a Crime.”

Now hold on, you might rightly ask, Trevor Noah isn’t a mother. You’re right there. However, he did have a mother. Trevor’s relationship with his mother suffuses his entire book, and it is one to remember. In turns hilarious, heartwarming, harrowing, and heartbreaking, “Born a Crime” describes apartheid South Africa through a series of beautiful vignettes of a little mixed race boy, and a God-and-nothing-else-fearing-woman who kept him alive and made him who he is today.

 

“Get Out’s” Plot Makes no Sense, but Watch it anyway

I was recently told by a fellow writer that it’s ok to sacrifice your concept to make a good scene. I’m not sure I agree with him, but the idea of maintaining readers expectations well enough that they can overlook holes in your story is a good one. Covering over an inconsistency with a joke is not beneath even such well-regarded filmmakers as Joss Whedon. In the Avengers, he explains how Bruce Banner, who famously becomes the Hulk when he can’t control his anger becomes the Hulk at will. “I’m always angry” as an explanation elucidates nothing but with charm and wit keeps the audience satisfied enough to lead into the next CGI-drenched action sequence.

To say that Jordan Peele’s new horror film “Get Out” comes highly reviewed is an understatement. It gets a 99% on the Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer (Whedon’s Avengers gets a 92%), and with good reason. In addition to being compelling, hilarious, and of course frightening, it offers social commentary of depth beyond what one would expect from the genre. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in horror movies or race relations. Spoilers follow.

When he visits the home of his white girlfriend’s parents, the protagonist Chris finds much more than he bargained for – specifically that his entire relationship is part of the plot to literally steal black bodies for the use of white people. The mystery is slowly revealed over the course of the movie as the bizarre behavior of the black people at the estate begins to boil over, but ultimately the explanation does not mesh with all of what we have seen leading up to it.

The fact that the man and woman who turn out to be the grandparents of the household spend the whole time acting like servants is relatively easily explained – they are pretending for the benefit of the guests. This leaves questions of why, especially if they can’t do a better job of pretending, they don’t just stay at a hotel for a while, but it’s good enough to pass muster. This mysterious unexplained theme of servitude, however, continues in the young black man who visits with his much older white wife. At one point in the conversation he states that he feels compelled to spend all of his time at home doing housework, a clear and creepy nod to slavery, but one that does not fit with the concept of white people taking the bodies of blacks to gain new abilities or live longer.

If you didn’t notice this inconsistency, that’s the brilliance of excellent storytelling. A story’s plot does not need to add up logically to be impactful. The themes of the movie were not all in service to the plot, and they came together to make something much more than a simple horror film. If you haven’t seen “Get Out,” don’t expect all the subtle hints and images to add up to a plot. They add up to something that is so much more.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Do you like stories where peace and the will of the people triumph over greed and hate?

Do you like women standing up for a cause they believe in and winning?

Did you like this commercial where an imam and a priest are brought together, courtesy of Amazon Prime’s lightning fast two-day delivery service?

Then you’ll love seeing Muslim and Christian women come together to force peace in Liberia.

I watched this movie and it was fabulous.

American Values Review: Orange is the New Black

There are many Christian values media reviews out there – these are often targeted at Christian parents and discuss how they can keep their children occupied without endangering their faith.  This week I’d like to introduce a concept I’ve been considering for a little while: reviews of movies and other media that, like Christian values reviews, discuss media as a source of entertainment while respecting its power to do much more than simply entertain. The only difference is I will move beyond Christian values to American values. These are the values that have defined the United States for much of its lifetime. They are the values enforced by Martin Luther King Junior, by Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin. American values are the ones pressed forward by the labor movement when it was at its peak, and by the civil, women’s and gay rights movements, the last of which is experiencing a peak today. They draw heavily from Christ’s teachings as laid out in the New Testament and are stronger for it. American values respect the rights and freedoms of all people, and seek to expand these freedoms, especially to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses whose freedoms are most likely to be restricted. These are the values that made America “the land of opportunity,” in the last century, and they are the values that will see us through this one. Just like many Christians feel it’s important to enjoy media that supports their values, I want to encourage Americans to enjoy the media that supports their values. So I hope to use the American Values Review to point out these values when they appear in media and decry the lazy, greedy, or actively hateful writers and directors whose works rely on outdated concepts that run contrary to the American way. I will start with a positive example: Orange is the New Black.

If you’re addicted to HBO and wonder if you can get the same kind of content without the price tag, look no further than Orange is the New Black. Jenji Kohan takes the true story of a privileged white woman’s time in prison and turns it into a Netflix drama with all the intrigue, complexity, and yes, sex, that one could expect of any HBO offering. The dialogue is witty enough to be intellectually stimulating and delivered well enough not to feel scripted, and the plots will make you argue with your friends or your partner about who can be trusted, who’s giving bad advice, and what, really, is the right thing to do in the many terrible situations  in which inmates, guards, and executives of Litchfield Correctional Facility find themselves.

Kohan’s work provides more than just thrills, however. Its contributions to feminism, gay rights, and transgender rights are obvious from the first few episodes, but Kohen’s work offers still more for fans of human rights. Despite taking place in a correctional facility with plenty of murderers cramped in close quarters with each other, Orange is the New Black is relatively low on outright violence compared with conventional Hollywood fare. The dichotomy of good and evil gains no purchase in Litchfield Correctional facility. Conflicts take a variety of forms, often fading into subtlety only to rear their heads again later on and then end in wary forgiveness. Characters seem to start out trustworthy, become villainous, and then realize they’re the villain and try to reform themselves. It seems like every recurring character eventually gets to be humanized, and that’s a strength. Orange is the New Black, at its core, is about human beings, and it’s entertaining enough to get people to look closely at human beings that, as the inmates of Litchfield frequently note themselves, have all too often been ignored.

I give Orange is the New Black an A for entertainment value and an A+ for American values.