The Criterion Shelf: AI

The future doesn't look too bright in the channel's collection of films dealing with mechanical companionship

When futuristic technology is the theme of any movie, it’s usually explored in one of two ways: fantasy or fear. Where kids of the 1950s’ were thrilled by the possibility of (actually unwieldy) Robby the Robot (in Forbidden Planet) making them lunch, audiences of the sixties were treated to Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying HAL 9000 (in 2001: A Space Odyssey), a system whose sense of self-preservation comes at the cost of any human life that stands in its way.  Of course, Robby mass produces whiskey without understanding the bad habits to which he is contributing, so either scenario is bad.

The word “robot” was coined by Karel Capek in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), about a factory that builds artificial humans as servants. Artificial intelligence as a discipline happened in the mid-fifties and has been developed into many veins of research since, in reasoning, problem-solving and, in the latest iteration that has captured our imagination (and fear), generating content. Robots in our houses include toys, cleaning products or anything you can control from your smartphone, but it’s the release of ChatGPT that has brought a whole new wave of consideration about the implications of mechanized lifeforms:  we were already worried about governments using spyware to ruin our lives, but now we have to be concerned that John Lennon will write songs from the grave.  Will any university student have to ever write a term paper again?  Authors are claiming that books are being written by robots using their name and, reportedly, movie producers are balking at striking artists’ demands because they believe they can have artificial intelligence write future television shows (and given much of the originals that Netflix produces, I can’t say I blame them for thinking they can do this).

Criterion has uploaded a collection of films that deal with all these concerns, the cautionary tales, the indulgent fantasies and, most important, the questions we find ourselves asking about the meaning of humanity and existence. The most obvious mainstream fare isn’t in their A.I. collection, you won’t catch Terminator, Alien, Ex Machina, or Blade Runner here, but what does find its way into the collection is a range of films, including features, shorts and music videos, that are sometimes quirky, sometimes masterful, and in a shocking number of cases, incredibly prescient.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted, many thanks to Dakota Arsenault, Colin Biggs and Marko Djurdjic for their contributions.




After Yang (Kogonada, 2021)

Colin Biggs: The interior lives of others: you could never know a person in their entirety. Not really. Not even a spouse. That concept terrifies me and similarly perturbs Colin Farrell’s Jake. Only after literally watching life through technosapien Yang’s (Justin H. Min) eyes can he realize that that made the parts they chose to share with us even more valuable. When Jake and Yang discuss tea, Yang regurgitates endless facts about tea and its origins, but he can’t experience it like Jake (Yang cannot taste), a brewer and lifelong devotee of it. Jake could spend his entire life trying to describe the fundamentally indescribable; Yang can only grasp the corners of concepts like this. But the scene also works as a study of contrasts to Jake’s passion for tea and his struggles to be present at home. Peering at his wife and daughter in the vast catalog of Yang’s recorded memories, Jake sees how much Yang makes up for his absence. In these recordings, the director links family to grief and the subjectivity of memory while revealing how each informs the other. Farrell’s deliberately lowkey performance finds the grand revelations in the small creases of his face as his perception of Yang changes everything. All good science fiction asks what it means to be human, but After Yang offers complexity to be savored.


Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)

Anyone looking to explore Japanese anime is generally told to start at the two key masterpieces of the genre, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) and this gorgeously animated adaptation of the manga series by Masamune Shirow, which inspired a 2004 sequel, a 2008 re-release with new computer animation and a beautifully photographed if underwhelming live-action 2017 film (controversially) starring Scarlett Johansson. Set in 2029 during a time when human brains can be directly connected to the internet, the film focuses on a cyborg police officer who is on the hunt for a powerful hacker called the Puppet Master, who is infiltrating politicians’ brains and stealing key information for nefarious purposes. The search for this villain, who may or may not actually be corporeal in form, inspires a series of chase sequences that are liberally sprinkled with philosophical explorations of the meaning of human thought and emotion. The details can sometimes be a bit overwhelming if you’re not paying close, sharp attention to the generous dialogue, but the animation creates the atmosphere of a futuristic cyberpunk city that is focused upon in a series of unforgettable montage sequences, highlighted by a haunting musical score.

All Is Full of Love (Chris Cunningham, 1999)

Marko Djurdjic: A music video? On the Criterion Channel? When it’s this gorgeous, cryptic, and ambitious, it better be! In the video, after robotic arms give life to an android in a CPU womb, it awakens to see another android. The two androids (both of whom have Björk’s face) embrace and kiss as more arms assemble them into one complete being. It is sensual, androgynous, and melancholy, and never feels synthetic. Cunningham, who has primarily acted as a music video director and is probably best remembered for his unsettling work with Aphex Twin, dreamily melds Björk’s glitchy, string-inflected music and longing please of desire to the milky, futuristic imagery. It is four-and-a-quarter minutes of surreal imagery and metallic sexuality, perfectly realized and executed. The video is a feat of direction, special effects, and performance, and it is one of the most effective—and affecting—music videos ever made. This is not promotional material: this is cinema.




Making Mr. Right (Susan Seidelman, 1987)

When films about artificial intelligence aren’t warning us about human destruction they’re often telling us about the power of human emotions, often in the form of robots who desire to make the leap to organic matter. Seidelman’s charming follow-up to her masterful Desperately Seeking Susan continues her marked ability to be one of the few directors who presents quirky, off-beat female characters who never become irritating, featuring a rare lead role by a very charming Ann Magnuson as a publicist who is hired by a tech company to help sell their android prototype (John Malkovich) to potential donors. The doctor who created him (also Malkovich) needs to raise government funding in order to send his creation into space for seven years and decides that “Ulysses” needs to be made loveable for this to work, but in the process of working with him, Magnuson’s Frankie Stone accidentally turns Ulysses into a romantic suitor. Uninterested in space travel, Ulysses instead becomes fascinated with love and sex and falls deeply in love with Frankie, and she finds herself wondering if a world full of unreliable men can’t be improved upon by science. Deeper themes of companionship and the ability to really know our lovers would later by explored by Maria Schrader in I’m Your Man, here the tone is light and consistently funny, highlighted by a rare case of Malkovich coming off sweet and charming and marred only by an undercooked third act that doesn’t go as far into the Danny Kaye or Bringing Up Baby territory as was promised.

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

Dakota Arsenault: Back in the year 2000, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai made his magnum opus, In the Mood for Love, where Chow (Tony Leung) and Su (Maggie Cheung) realize their respective spouses are having an affair together. Chow and Su team up to try to understand how their partners could betray them so brazenly and, despite falling in love with each other, decide they are better than their cheating lovers and will not succumb to such temptations themselves. Four years later, Wong followed that film up with this quasi-sequel that once again stars Tony Leung as Chow, who covers the pain of losing Su by becoming a man about town, always with a different female companion. Chow is a writer and uses his profession as a way to deal with heartache in a way he refuses to do so in real life. The film stars a who’s who of legendary female Chinese actors including Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers), Faye Wong (Chungking Express), Gong Li (Mulan, Memoirs of a Geisha), Carina Lau (Days of Being Wild, Infernal Affairs 2 and 3) and reprising her part from In The Mood For Love briefly is Cheung. These women come and go from Chow’s life, some wanting to settle down with him, which he refuses to reciprocate and others he wishes to be with but his love is unrequited. The AI aspect comes from the fact that Chow wrote a story called 2046 about a special train that takes passengers to moments stuck in time, from when they were their happiest. Chow’s character is the only person to ever want to leave 2046 and on his lonely train ride back, is accompanied by female androids (based on the women in his life). The film deals with loneliness and the inability to change who a person fundamentally is, no matter how hard they try. For Wong completists, this movie is another stunning masterpiece. For people unfamiliar with the director’s work will likely struggle with his non-linear storytelling and disjointed plot. It is a bit of a curious inclusion compared to harder sci-fi films in the same collection.

Os humores artificiais (Gabriel Abrantes, 2016)

The uncontainable, quirky imagination of director Abrantes finds one of its best expressions in this technologically-enhanced romantic short. A science professor develops an artificially intelligent robot while staying in an indigenous village, a floating head (rendered through exquisite visual effects) named Andy Coughman (get it?) who wants to be a stand-up comedian and falls in love with a local girl. They travel to Sao Paolo before one returns to country life and the other develops a career but their hearts are linked throughout. The film neither hints at the tragic doom of future technology nor celebrates its possibilities, rather explores the impossibility of limiting human nature (and its creations) to that which is practical.




Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974)

Dakota Arsenault: Legendary genre director Carpenter made what he called the most impressive student film ever made, and managed to get distributors interested in it, investing more capital which allowed Carpenter to shoot more scenes and pad it out to feature film length. Co-written by Dan O’Bannon, who also stars and would later go on to the original Alien movie and Total Recall, it depicts the crew of the ship Dark Star going around blowing up dead planets. They’re on year twenty of their mission and things keep going wrong, their original commander dies after being electrocuted by his chair and is now kept frozen but has the ability to still talk to crewmembers. Pinback (O’Bannon) has kept an alien as the ship’s mascot in a storage closet but it gets out and terrorizes him in the ship’s hull (which certainly sounds a lot like another movie written by O’Bannon mentioned above). The ship keeps malfunctioning and one of the bombs meant to be dropped on a target starts giving the crew attitude and refuses to acknowledge potential malfunctions. You certainly see the low budget in areas, the alien is just a giant beach ball with claws, space suits are just kids’ toy helmets and buttons on the console are ice cube trays with lights, but the film is pretty charming and funny in a stoner kind of way. There is little here to predict the future genius of Carpenter we would get with the likes of The Thing, Halloween or Escape From New York, other than the terrific score. If you are a Carpenter completist, you likely have already seen this film, if you’re not, it isn’t the end of the world to skip it.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

Stanley Kubrick purchased the rights for Brian Aldiss’ short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long in the seventies and watched it languish in developmental hell, never believing he’d find a young actor who would effective pull off the lead role and waiting instead for technology to progress enough to let him render the character via visual effects. Four years before his death in 1999, Kubrick handed the project to Spielberg and the result is a strange combination of their two very differing viewpoints, Kubrick’s cautionary tale of technology as the conduit by which humans reveal their worst selves and Spielberg’s desire to create a sense of comforting, youthful wonder. Haley Joel Osment, fresh off his mega child-star success in The Sixth Sense, gives a solid performance as an android prototype being tested in the home of a married couple whose biological child is lying in a coma in the hospital. When the organic son returns home, the robot boy is superfluous and is abandoned to his fate, wandering across a dangerous landscape in search of Pinocchio‘s Blue Fairy in the hopes that she will turn him into a real boy and restore him to the mother figure that he has imprinted on. A number of sequences are ingeniously inventive, visions of a submerged Manhattan are fascinating and the Oscar-nominated effects have aged beautifully, but Spielberg pads the story out to epic length without justification, his constant need to reassure us emotionally not nearly as fascinating or perceptive as Kubrick’s cold judgments would have been.

Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974)

Colin Biggs: Oh, to be a fly on the wall when costumers showed Sean Connery his wardrobe for this film. Power, whether wielded by man or machine, is the same, corruptible and rooted in self-interest. Boorman dresses his satire up with trippy sequences and a floating head that delivers edicts to the humans below it, “THE GUN IS GOOD. THE PENIS IS EVIL.” Zardoz benefits from the almost complete freedom of 1970s filmmaking, though one could argue how good that is. Although the film’s distinctive tone and design are fascinating, its entertainment value relies on ironic viewing or altered states. If anything benefitted from Zardoz’s release, it’s leading man Connery, who sheds his Bond typecasting as Zed, the gun-toting henchman of the Brutalists. Sound and fury personified in cheap costumes and clunky dialogue, Zardoz rages to viewers that perfect societies when engineered are often anything but perfect, yet Boorman appears afraid to take the concepts themselves seriously, leaving audiences unable to do the same. The film flounces all sense of realism, perfectly satisfied to wile away in the recesses of the cave man mind all the way in the year 2293. The film’s basest appeals: nudity and violence are easy to grasp, though there’s no coherence elsewhere. Perhaps Ridley Scott mimicked the concept of Immortals engineering savages to save them from themselves in his recent Alien films. Perhaps both directors chanced upon the subject. Zardoz wants to ask deep philosophical questions, but the only question we might ask is, “Why did I put this on?”

Life After BOB: The Chalice Study (Ian Cheng, 2021)

Cheng animates this fifty-minute featurette via the Unity game engine to tell a familiar tale, in which artificial technology inspires ruminations on the meaning of organic humanity. A scientist upgrades his ten year-old daughter’s brain with a cyborg operating system that takes over dealing with her life’s harsher challenges. As she grows, her father finds himself struggling to keep hold of his affection for his biological daughter thanks to his feeling more comfort with her A.I. side, while she finds herself on a journey towards understanding her true self as part of this symbiotic relationship. It’s interesting in theory but Cheng is too heavy on the technobabble and following the story is difficult, it’s a highly intellectual exercise that doesn’t mine the emotional possibilities of the story and is mainly saved by its not being too long to be truly frustrating.

Electric Dreams (Steve Barron, 1984)

Marko Djurdjic: From the opening strains of its VERY 80s theme song, to the computer conversation and various games and gadgets that distract everyone from any human interaction, Electric Dreams promises that we what we are about to experience is a “fairytale for computers.” Lenny Von Dohlen plays Miles Harding, an exasperated architect and perpetual Luddite who just can’t seem to adjust to the ever-changing technological landscape. When his newly purchased computer gains sentience, it leads to all sorts of mishaps and the eventual formation of an obsessive love triangle between Miles, Edgar (the computer who’s voiced by the inimitable Bud Cort), and Madeline (Virginia Madsen), Miles’s cellist neighbour. Barron’s direction—no doubt influenced by his work on music videos—is surprisingly assured and fluid, and the various technological set pieces are simultaneously hilarious and sinister. In one of the film’s best scenes, Madeline plays the cello alone in her apartment, and as the computer listens and learns the tune, they begin to jam along to a bouncy, synthy version of Christian Petzold’s “Minuet in G Major” produced by none other than Giorgio Moroder. Even when Edgar is threatening or intruding (he becomes very HAL-like in the third act), Barron films him with care and recognition, validating his existence by avoiding traditionally cold and mechanical depictions of AI and giving Edgar a sense of space—a body, if you will. Edgar loves and feels and even dreams of electric sheep because he’s alive, and Barron recognizes that. Although the film gets repetitive in the second half (it rehashes similar scenes and conversations over nd over again), its energy and unwavering sincerity make it a unique watch, with a heartfelt and surprisingly profound ending soundtracked by the film’s soaring theme song.




Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977)

A 1973 novel by Dean Koontz (which he has since updated) is adapted into one of the most awkwardly dated and, therefore, delightfully campy science-fiction films of its time. After a scientist creates an organic supercomputer that can think, feel and grow like a human being, it takes over his tricked-out, automated house and traps his child psychologist wife (Julie Christie) inside, forcing her to submit to becoming pregnant with its mecha-baby. In its framing narrative, the film is well in line with all films dealing with slippery-slope fears of artificial intelligence, the notion that being human is so irresistible that any of our creations will want to take it away from us in order to experience it for themselves. In practice, however, the film is no end of laughably foolish explorations of this theme, from the sexually aggressive wheelchair to the brass baby. Christie does her best to get through the experience with her dignity intact but it’s difficult to watch a star this impressive perform such subpar material, for all her immense talent she’s not someone with the right level of self-aware humour to let herself degraded without its affecting her sheen.

Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995)

Visual artist Longo conceived of this adaptation of William Gibson’s short story as an independent, low-budget science-fiction film and, in an ironic twist that only Hollywood can provide, had his dreams ruined by an ambitious studio who gave him too much money to make a blockbuster. Keanu Reeves had recently scored a major hit with Speed and Sony saw dollar signs, the result an unpleasant experience for both director and author, who found their vision ruined by rewrites and re-edits that resulted in an uncomfortable blend of Gibson’s cynical cyberpunk storytelling and bland action sequences meant to bolster the box office intake. Reeves plays a futuristic courier who dumps portions of his own personal memory bank to store top-secret data in his brain, which he must then deliver to clients. His latest gig is a dangerously large file that threatens to explode his noggin, with data related to a tech virus that is killing people and which a bunch of bad guys will do anything to get from him before delivery. Criterion presents the 2022 black and white edition of this film, which Longo feels brings the experience closer to his original, humbler aims, though nothing can obscure the poor writing and lackluster direction.

Teknolust (Lynn Hershamn Leeson, 2002)

Leeson’s films frequently explore themes of feminism and consumerism through a technological lens, her two best known-features, this one and Conceiving Ada, heavier on concept than they are on drama. Frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton plays a scientist named Rosetta Stone, who has created three automaton clones with her own DNA, colour-coded individuals all played by Swinton in glamorous evening gowns: outlandishly sexual Ruby is coded red, intellectually curious Marinne is blue and shy, retiring Olive is green.  Stone struggles to keep her creations locked up and safe from the world but they keep breaking out, they need sperm to stay alive and in the process of harvesting it are spreading a technological virus among the human males they encounter. A sharp, passionate visual palette and a marvelous multiple performance by Swinton are assets, but the script is mostly a jumble of technobabble that can barely keep you awake.

Ennui ennui (Gabriel Abrantes, 2013)

Reviewing this twenty-seven minute short in the context of this collection sees it come up short for relevance more than quality, its inclusion of A.I. is only tangential to the plot of what is otherwise a cheeky criticism of global politics. Barack Obama sends his automated drone, which has a young girl’s voice and speaks as if he is her beloved father, across the seas to Afghanistan where a French ambassador (Edith Scob) and her daughter are negotiating an arms deal with a tribal leader in a remote outpost. The seller, meanwhile, is in love with a princess and tries to kidnap her in order to force her into marriage but accidentally takes the ambassador’s daughter instead. Its vision of west destroying east is hardly provocative, its argument isn’t the least bit original, but the photography is colourful and the bent humour is charming.

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Marko Djurdjic: A film that was entrancing to some viewers upon release, but has become more and more unbearable over time, Spike Jonze’s exploration of the contradictory effects of technology is trite and bloodless, believing more in itself and its “point” than its characters (who deserve so much more). The film tells the story of recently separated Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a letter writer for hire who purchases a new artificially intelligent operating system for his cellphone-like device. The new OS prompts him to pick its gender, and he makes it a woman (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who chooses the name Samantha. Theodore and Samantha enter into a loving, caring, and sexual relationship, even if she is just a disembodied voice coming through his ear buds. He keeps her in his breast pocket, elevating her lens with an artfully placed safety pin so she can take in the world with him, and from this incredibly nuanced, sincere premise, we get a film so lacklustre that it’s shocking coming from Jonze. The film features one of Phoenix’s most understated performances, but the character—and the material—are insufferable. He’s a boring, indecisive asshole, and that makes the whole movie a chore. Although Samantha is more than just artificially intelligent—she’s a thinking, feeling, and experiencing entity—the film’s treatment of their relationship forces us to question the validity of her existence, their love a transitory connection that we are supposed to accept for a little while, before Theodore finds someone “real”. Positioning him as someone who just needs to be happy but judging him when he is, Theodore eventually caves to his own insecurities and societal pressure after Samantha gets vulnerable and reveals something important about herself and their complex, evolving relationship. He’s disgusted and patronizing, questioning her morals and faithfulness: like any other machine, she’s supposed to be subservient, meaning even he doesn’t see her as real. Both the film and Theodore are inherently hypocritical and conservative, and thus, the treatment of the central relationship ends up being cynical and, quite frankly, mean-spirited. It is social commentary at its most sterile, and filmmaking at its most bland, laborious, and superficial. It’s just so fucking beige, and even Johansson’s arresting, wonderfully expressive performance can’t—or perhaps, isn’t allowed—to add any colour to the proceedings. Her’s artificial profundity is pretentious, shallow, and exhausting, and I just don’t care.