This weekend we get the film adaptation of “The Circle”, a tale about a tech worker who goes to work for an internet corporation and finds that the company may be violating the privacy and freedom of customers and puts her in the center of a situation that could determine the future of humanity as she knows it. It’s expected to be a timely cautionary tale about how technology controls the world we live in today. As such, I decided it would be cool for this week’s list to look at ten films that do the same and warn audiences about the risks associated with the growing dependence on technology.
For this list I examined films that have a bit of science fiction added in to tell cautionary tales about the impacts over-dependence on technology can have on humanity. These can be full-on science fiction stories or stories that feature a technological element that is significant to the plot. Films like “Short Circuit” that tell a more family-friendly or comedic tale of technology and man or “The Social Network” that depict real-life technological wonders and achievements were not considered for this list as they don’t show the dangers of technology’s growth necessarily. Also any film that featured technological elements that drive a conflict, like “Tron”, but don’t necessarily share a word of caution for the viewer were left out as well.
Be sure to check out the latest technology-centric film “The Circle” in theaters this weekend. Of course SPOILER ALERT is in order. Here we go:
10. “Blade Runner”
A true science fiction classic, “Blade Runner” sees a world where replicants are created in the image of man, but are not allowed on Earth. Enforcers called Blade Runners hunt down those who do escape back to Earth and one of those runners is Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard who is charged with hunting down runaway replicant Roy Batty and his group of renegade replicants. As the story unfolds we see Deckard fall for an advanced replicant named Racheal and eventually get an iconic monologue from Batty that draws into question the rights these replicants have to life, and whether or not their short life span allows them to appreciate their existence more than normal humans. They’re made to look, act, and essentially be human, but they are a product of technology and they are in fact made. The film asks the viewer to question who is truly more human, the man or the genetically engineered replicants? It’s a powerful statement that would be relevant in any era where genetic engineering can produce a life and warns that as science gets closer and closer to that technology, defining who is truly human and who is a “product” could be a very real issue for the future of humanity. It’s that underlying theme that has helped “Blade Runner” continue to grow as an iconic and cautionary tale in the sci-fi genre.
9. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
We all have memories we’d rather forget. That’s the concept of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” as a couple who endured a rough breakup erase each other from their minds thanks to technology utilized by the company Lacuna, Inc. Most of the film focuses on Jim Carrey’s Joel who, as his memory is being erased, finds himself trying to save his memory of his ex-girlfriend in his subconscious, reliving happier memories that he slowly realizes are not worth losing despite the harshness of the bad times. It’s a cautionary tale about how while memories can leave a scar, they can leave other marks too and in a world where you would have the option of getting rid of those memories thanks to technology, would it really be worth it? The film ends on a high note as it answers this question with an emphatic no. It’d be nice to know that there is an easy way to escape the pain, but sometimes a lot of good comes before the pain that is worth remembering even if technology allows you the chance to escape it for good.
8. “Live Free or Die Hard”
As technology grows in popularity and significance to society cyber terrorism becomes a very real threat. Thus was the driving conflict in the fourth film in the “Die Hard” franchise as we saw Bruce Willis return as John McClane and take on cyber terrorist Thomas Gabriel as he infiltrates the United States’ infrastructure and plans a fire sale of the nation’s financial assets just to prove a point, that it can be done. Timothy Olyphant turns in an amazingly devious performance as Gabriel who, having worked for the U.S. Defense Department and mocked for his warnings about the lack of security on U.S. finances, shows the world just how easily a man with a computer and a few very smart cronies could take over the nation. While many aspects of the film are obviously dramatized, the concept is not farfetched. Countless American’s utilize computer banking and payment methods and much of our financial data is saved on hard drives now. Imagine if someone could access it all, eliminate your 401K with the push of a button, or completely deplete a bank’s finances in the snap of a finger? It might be a bit over the top and unbelievable to see it actually happening, but we live in a different world now. Hopefully the warnings Gabriel voiced in the film did not fall on deaf ears.
7. “2001: A Space Odyssey”
Obviously artificial intelligence is going to be a big theme on this list, but it really is a relevant concern as we see everything from self-checkouts and ATMs to mechanized food production machines become commonplace. Well imagine if a computer was so intelligent it was almost human. “2001: A Space Odyssey” features one of the most famous AI characters of all time, Hal 9000, who creates a problem for the astronauts aboard Discovery One. It’s this character that in itself is a cautionary symbol of technology’s rise to intelligence in society and it pre-dated so many of the technological advances that would come to be part of the world today. HAL 9000 expresses logic, fear, and several other human emotions as he fights back against his human masters to basically stay alive after they believe he is in error. The same emotions could be attributed to a death row inmate who believes he is innocent. Essentially humanity made HAL 9000 too smart for their own good and jeopardized lives when HAL 9000 was simply trying to, himself, survive. It’s one of the most iconic technology versus man incidents in film history and this list wouldn’t be complete without it. Hell, even Epic Rap Battles of History pointed out HAL’s iconic symbolism when he interrupted a battle between two of the most prominent technological minds of the day, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
6. “Total Recall”
Could you imagine taking a tropical vacation from the comfort of your own living room? Well Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid did just that in this sci-fi classic and it’s that luxury that causes his memory to be erased and his reality to be drawn into question. When Quaid seeks to have a memory implanted of him being a secret agent on Mars he discovers that he really is, himself, an agent having had false memories implanted in him before. This reality turns his world upside down and kick starts a plot that, in the end, leaves everyone, characters and audience members alike, questioning exactly what is real and what isn’t. It’s a sense of confusion that is the essential risk of the technology portrayed in the film. It’s like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” only the reverse where the risk is not losing memories you want to keep, but instead embracing memories that give you a false sense of reality. When you can’t determine what’s real from what’s fantasy you lose all sense of the present. Such technology should be used carefully, if ever at all. I mean we saw a secret agent become the victim of that technology in the film didn’t we? Imagine if that was a president or prime minister? You can convince world leaders of realities that never even existed.
5. “The Matrix”
One of the few films on this list where technology has already one, “The Matrix” presents a world where robots have become the dominant “species”, harvesting humans for the energy they need to stay alive. These humans are sedated in a false reality that we and the films protagonists, call the Matrix. The ones who manage to wake up become part of a resistance army trying to take back their world from the machines their ancestors created. This film takes a look at several different concerns about a growing technological world. First you have the reality, where robots are king and have darkened the world and superseded humanity. Humans created the tools of their own destruction and those tools bring us to the second lesson, the Matrix itself. The Matrix is a representation of how technology can bend the boundaries of reality. Virtual reality is becoming a major factor of society again and the closer we get to being able to experience things as lifelike as possible, the closer we get to creating our own virtual world like the Matrix in real life. If ever our robot overlords were to truly rise up, we are creating the means to pacify us that they could use to dominate our species and the world. Sounds plausible, right?
4. “Ex Machina”
“Ex Machina” was a fantastic 2015 science fiction independent film that was about as straightforward as a technological cautionary tale could be. The film saw a programmer charged with issuing a Turing test, a test meant to gauge the intelligence of a machine, to determine how lifelike and “human” the machine, Ava, can be. Ava proves to be much more than a simple robot, capable of romantic feelings and deception, as her more human features begin to shine. The film also sees the programmer, Caleb, question his own humanity at one point when he suspects he may, himself, be an android as a rather heavy handed gesture towards just how lifelike the robots in the film prove to be. The final scene alone is a massive warning to the dangers of a robot who can take on human emotion and intelligence. It’s an expertly crafted science fiction film that takes what some would call a massive genre cliché and makes it a very relatable and thought-provoking narrative about the dangers of underestimating the capabilities of man’s creations.
3. “I, Robot”
Probably the most generic film on this list, but one that is also the most straightforward in its call for attention to the dangers of technological dependence. I mean the main character, Will Smith’s robot-weary Detective Spooner, is already aware of the dangers of robots having seen how their inability to separate logic from what’s right and wrong can impact the results of their decisions. The premise sees Spooner trying to solve the death of the man who saved his life by implanting him with cybernetic parts. Believing a robot named Sonny is responsible, Spooner hunts down his target, but finds that the one responsible is a much bigger threat when it turns out to be a supercomputer VIKI who, in an attempt to follow the three laws of all robots, feels that humans are a danger to themselves and thus need to be controlled or eliminated. This, in itself, is one of the most stirring clichés of any robot-themed plot line and “I, Robot” provides a perfect presentation of how the intellectual nature of androids, robots, and computers could cause them to misinterpret what humans could see as a more open-ended rule. From Spooner seeing a robots logical decisions in life saving as a flaw to VIKI’s intellectual breakdown of the three laws, what was created to keep robots in line turns out to be the one thing that turns them on humanity, their inability to really think like a human.
2. “The Terminator”
While he would be back (pardon the pun) in several equally cautionary sequels, the original “Terminator” film was the first in the series to show audiences the inevitable dangers of human technological advancements. When a cyborg from the future is sent back in time to kill the mother of resistance leader John Connor it’s up to future resistance warrior Kyle Reese to keep her safe. As the story plays out we learn that a defense network known as Skynet hijacked the weapons systems of the world and created a nuclear holocaust. The result was a world where humans fight for control of the world from robots like the Terminator, which proves to be a dangerous and tenacious opponent for the protagonists. This film blends the present and future seamlessly as we only get a glimpse of what is to come while Reese tries to help Sarah Connor have the opportunity to stop the apocalyptic future from happening. Put aside the time travel elements and paradoxes and you find a world where humanity is suffering from its own dependence on technology before that dependence even creates a real problem. The Terminator is a sign of what’s to come and a warning to humans that this is what you will be creating, the tool of your own demise.
Possibly the most culturally relevant film on this list, I picked “Her” as number one because of its dependence on modern technology that actually exists in some form to drive the plot. In futuristic L.A. introvert Theodore falls for a talking operating system with the ability to adapt. The system names itself Samantha and through sheer verbal encounters the two become closer, essentially meaning Theodore has found it easier for him to fall in love with a machine than an actual human being. As the relationship progresses Theodore learns the harsh reality that he is not the only one in Samantha’s world and that technology can’t replace what human interaction brings to a relationship. This is one of the more positive and relatable entries on this list and its message is one that many should heed as we become more and more connected to our phones, laptops, and tablets and what they provide for us. We already have online dating and online pornography sites that have created a real rift in interpersonal relationships in the real world. It’s only a matter of time before we can literally have a relationship with the technology we hold in front of us. The potential for computers to replace humans in our times of emotional strife and need is far from a ridiculous concept. “Her” is perhaps one of the best examples of a potential real world scenario that has yet to play out off the big screen, but could actually happen with the world headed in the direction it is today.