This summer’s Terminator Genisys, a kinda-sorta-reboot with several visual and dialogue callbacks to both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is not the abject disaster it could have been. But it’s still, uh, not great, so in some corners of the internet it occasioned the reminder that the best sequel to the James Cameron originals is in fact the short-lived TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
TSCC follows Sarah Connor (the terrific Lena Headey, post-300 and pre-Cersei Lannister) and her son John (Thomas Dekker) two years after the events of Judgment Day, when their studiously low-profile lives are shattered by yet another Terminator sent back in time to kill them. And future-John again sends back a guardian, whom I was surprised and delighted to see echoed in Ex Machina, the best science fiction movie of the year.
I know, I wrote about another android-centric sci-fi movie just a few months ago. I’m also going to discuss a new android TV show, AMC’s Humans. We’ve had quite the “Summer of A.I.” in real life, too, from the DARPA Robotics Challenge to the call for a ban on autonomous weapons, and even this business with Uber. I’m not qualified to diagnose why it’s all hit at once, but it provides a nice backdrop to reflect a bit on some of recent sci-fi’s most interesting artificial women, and on what they say not just about intelligence and life but about, of course, us.
The first woman to get the signature line “Come with me if you want to live” was not Emilia Clarke. It was TSCC’s Summer Glau—an alumna of that other short-lived-but-excellent Fox sci-fi show, Firefly—as a Terminator named Cameron who approaches John as a flirty classmate.
Cameron’s primary purpose is not ass-kicking or amusingly stilted line readings, but being a halfway effective impersonator of humanity. And the greatness of Glau’s performance, though rooted in her ballet-honed physical control, lies not in more of the bravura fight scenes she’s probably better known for, but in embodying the uncanny valley. She has to be human enough to engage John’s—and our—sympathies, but never so human that we forget what she is.
Cameron’s alien intelligence is characterized in, for example, twitches and tilts of her head when she assesses new information—a killer-cyborg version of a dog processing unfamiliar speech. It’s in the way she takes ruthlessly utilitarian advantage of John’s attraction to her, to make protecting him easier. It’s in the unsettling intensity of her stare, her eyes often a little too wide.
Maybe most affecting, for their contrast, are the times Glau gets to act fully human. Foremost among them is the episode “Allison from Palmdale,” in which a glitch causes Cameron to believe she really is a teenage girl, who now has no idea where she is. By turns wary, excited, and desperate, the titular Allison is not only a striking contrast with the Cameron we know, but a disturbing insight into Skynet’s tactics, and by extension into the apocalypse that our heroes strive to prevent.
Several years after TSCC, breakout Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is not the first-billed star of Ex Machina but is nonetheless its true focus and greatest asset, as the android Ava. (She’s also, like Summer Glau, a former ballerina.)
The core of Ex Machina is a riff on the Turing test, conducted by young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Ava’s eccentric creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac) wants Caleb to determine if Ava is fully self-aware. The critical difference between Caleb’s task and the classical Turing test is that Caleb will be in the same room as Ava. He’ll see her face and hear her voice.
Ava is on first impression an innocent, a friendly naif. She’s a little childlike, both in her inquisitiveness and in her unfamiliarity, despite her intellect, with just about everything. But she’s also trying, on some level, to seduce Caleb.
Maybe the most important aspect of Vikander’s performance is her physical elegance. A Terminator like Cameron moves precisely, but awkwardly. Her mechanical rigidity is a giveaway of her nonhuman nature, and a source of physical comedy. Ava, by contrast, is graceful. She does move slowly, as if she’s thinking about exactly where her limbs are in space through the entire range of any step or gesture. She’s very deliberate, very controlled—not because it’s hard, but because she’s reveling in sheer experience. And having had this taste of living, she can’t be satisfied with her cage.
Ava and Cameron are successors to mythical figures like Galatea, whose sculptor Pygmalion so fell in love with his creation that the goddess Aphrodite brought the statue to life. Then they got married, which isn’t creepy at all.
It’s weird that future-John sends a Terminator he figures his teenage self will fall for, right? Clever, but weird. It’s weird that Nathan programmed Ava to be heterosexual. Unsurprising, but weird.
In discussing much robot fiction, it’s hard and probably irresponsible to bracket the interrogation of our exploitation of women, of exploitation in general. Humans has been uneven, but may yet prove an important critique of our technological drive to dominate our environment—not only through tools but through other agents, if we can find a way not to feel guilty about it. And “a way not to feel guilty about it” is not the same as “an ethical way.”
When I say “technological,” I refer to more than smartphones and drones. Indebted to my existentialism professor Iain Thomson, I also mean the philosophical assumptions underlying modern technophilia. Namely, the idea that the universe is ours to master. That everything in it—including us—is raw material waiting to be optimized. That the value of a thing or a person is only ever instrumental, rather than inherent.
Why is being gifted to a man the highest good available to Galatea? What if she’d had a choice in the matter?
“EVERYTHING YOUR MEN DO TO US, THEY WANT TO DO TO YOU”
In the near future of Humans, “synths” are commonplace household and work appliances that look almost exactly like people. Some are housekeepers or nannies, or caretakers deployed by healthcare providers. Some are glorified switchboards. Some are sex workers.
One of these last is Niska (Emily Berrington), who unlike the vast majority of synths is secretly fully self-aware. When we meet her she’s in a brothel not by choice or design, but because she and her self-aware “siblings” were recently scattered and have gone into hiding. When the group’s leader drops by to tell her she has to hold out a little longer, she’s understandably furious, and rebukes his suggestion to turn off her pain processing: she was built to feel, and she won’t surrender what makes her who she is.
Later, an unsettling client asks Niska to roleplay as “scared” and “young.” She decides she’s done waiting, strangles the john, and makes her escape, but not before telling the (human) madam: “Everything your men do to us, they want to do to you.”
Viewer reaction to Niska, at least as a stand-in for all synths, was mixed. Niska is a victim, but because most synths really are unfeeling service machines, is all apparent mistreatment of them “really” mistreatment, or do we the audience just feel that way because they’re attractive and pleasant? And while the world may be better off without the guy Niska killed, might it also be better off having robot brothels than not, so that people like him aren’t public menaces?
Other storylines, however, reinforce the idea that because synths are so lifelike, it’s ultimately impossible not to see human-looking nannies and human-looking physical therapists as just human—much as John and Caleb inevitably grow attached to Cameron and Ava. If their humanity isn’t the point, why design them to look like people at all?
Here we should be clear that Niska’s story is not really about sex work but about where we all draw the borders of our own decency. Humans suggests that the object of an action isn’t what determines the action’s worth or moral content, but the desire to act itself. If we indulge dark impulses without actually hurting anyone, Niska believes, that doesn’t make our impulses less dark. It doesn’t make us better people.
Of course, this tension between consequences and character is an old one in moral philosophy, and the question of which is more important remains unsettled. But even if we may never quite put the trolley problem to rest, science fiction provides more specific, more vivid, and arguably more useful thought experiments to help us work through the way our values may—must?—evolve alongside our capabilities.