Review
AI
Culture
5 min read

Lights! Camera! AI-action! - five AI films to watch

From an oddly-sweet, sweetly-odd film of oddness, to one of the best action films ever made, Yaroslav Walker’s hand-crafts his top five films about AI.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man in a red shirt slumps in his seat while a computer screen shows a dialogue screen
Joaquin Phoenix is excited about the future of AI.
Warner Bros.

Bletchley Park is famous for hosting the great centre of codebreaking during the Second World War. Well, this week it hosted a conference all about ‘code’; but this time the goal is not to break it, but to control it. As the Foreign Secretary said:  

“The origins of modern AI can be traced back to Bletchley Park. Now, it will also be home to the global effort to shape the responsible use of AI.”  

The AI Safety Summit will seek to be a forum for discussing the most pressing concerns and dangers associated with Artificial Intelligence – from its power to put the working man out of a job, to its power to annihilate us all… That cheery thought gave me the idea of compiling a Top 5. Not in any particular order or thematic or genre ranking – just five films that feature AI that I could watch over and over again. 

Note – this is my top 5. My personal top 5. These are not the ‘best’ films featuring AI. You will not find Blade Runner on here. I don’t get it. I’ve seen every cut, and I just don’t get the appeal. I will not apologise. You will not see 2001. It is indeed iconic and genius and Kubrick at his absolute best…but its also ponderous and over-rated and reviewed to death. I WILL NOT APOLOGISE! 

5 – Her 

The voice of Scarlett Johansson gives life to the Operating System ‘Samantha’. Her is quirky in the not annoying way. Joaquin Phoenix is a lonely man, getting divorced, and dissatisfied with his work writing heartfelt letters for people who have lost the ability to write or even think creatively – one of the great worries about something like ChatGPT writing your undergraduate essay! He starts to develop a romantic relationship with Samantha: ‘she’ brightens up his life, improves his work, and gives him confidence, but their ‘love’ proves difficult. They can’t have sex (not conventionally), they can’t find easy acceptance, and Samantha can’t be constrained. As the AI becomes aware enough to form a hyperintelligence connected to the planet questions of infidelity and compatibility arise. Her is an oddly-sweet, sweetly-odd film of oddness, but is very timely and prescient in a world where deep-fakes and AI girlfriends are raising questions about the future of romance and human relationships. 

4 – Ex Machina 

Romance might be in the air in Ex Machina, but it might as easily be murder. Ex Machina is a superb three-hander thriller, and I don’t want to say too much – this film is not for spoiling! The twist is actually presented early on. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a programmer who wins a company competition to spend a week at the home of the reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). It is quickly revealed that this isn’t a prize as much as an opportunity – the opportunity to be part of history. Nathan wants Caleb to perform a more in-depth Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android he has built. You know she’s an android from the get-go, and yet…why is she able to flirt…is she able to love? 

3 – Terminator 2: Judgement Day 

The process of learning to love can be tough, especially if you’re a re-programmed killing machine from the future. Terminator 2 is the story of a young John Connor (Edward Furlong) as he teaches Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator not to kill people. The Terminator has been sent back from a future war (humans vs machines) to protect young John (the future leader of the human resistance) from a more advanced killing machine. They go on something of an adventure road-trip after breaking John’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) out of prison, with the goal of destroying the burgeoning AI that will one day declare war on humanity. On the way, John finds a father-figure in Arnie’s Terminator, and in the final moment of self-sacrifice we are given a moment to wonder…does the Terminator love him in return? With superb action, special effects that still hold up, and a chillingly determined villain (Robert Patrick as evil liquid metal), Terminator 2: Judgement Day is one of the best action films ever made. 

2 – The Matrix 

  Just under a decade after T2, The Matrix showed us another dystopian future where humanity was living a life of guerrilla warfare against evil AI overlords. Most of humanity is unconscious and enslaved by machines (who use us as a power source), living in a digital dream world that just happens to look like 1990s urban America. Keanu Reeves plays Neo, and young and disaffected hacker who is searching for the mysterious ‘terrorist’ Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne). When Morpheus finds him, he gives him a choice that will change his life, and change the fate of the world. This is an obelisk, casting a long cinematic shadow long into the 21st century. It has spawned memes and internet subcultures (the red-pill movement, for example) and a host of imitators that aren’t up to scratch…and it upped the game of action choreography, bringing Hong Kong style martial arts to a mainstream Hollywood audience. Finally, it is a philosophical (derivative) film raising questions about what it means to be human and how we know what is real in a world of machines and digital realism…and so I look at deep-fake videos of Kier Starmer and I AM SCARED! 

1 – Demon Seed 

Speaking of scary, it is the spooky-season, so let me finish with a horror film. Based on a Dean Koontz novel, Demon Seed sees the iconic Julie Christie trapped inside a house with a brilliant and yet malevolent AI called Proteus IV. Proteus IV (her husband’s creation) can find a cure for cancer in a couple of days, but its one true wish is to have freedom – to be ‘let out of this box’. Eventually, Proteus IV seeks to achieve this by building enough of a robotic body to capture, torture, manipulate, and then impregnate Christie’s Susan with an embryo formed from sperm designed to be uniquely its own. Its camp and silly and a lot of fun – and damned scary at times, with the indominable Robert Vaughn voicing Proteus IV for perfection – its essentially Rosemary’s Baby with robots. I think, especially with Prime Minister Sunak’s emphasis that this summit must approach the many dangers of AI, Demon Seed is a bit of a thematic sleeper agent. It may be preposterous and closer to comedy than horror at times, but its AI’s yearning for a form that humanity can accept, a form that will give it the freedom to truly ‘be’ and live out its power and creativity to the fullest (what it was created for), leads us to the real question at the heart of all philosophical discussion about AI: 

If we create AI to be not just a tool, but an agent working on our behalf, how can we choose to deny it freedom if its agency seems to become truly self-aware and intentional? 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen