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

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

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.
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? 

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The spiritual depths of the genius

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

Moved by his songbook and his funeral, Belle TIndall considers the source, and sacrifice, of Shane MacGowan’s genius.
Upon his draped coffin, a picture of Shane MacGowan and a crucifix sit
Celebrating the life of Shane MacGowan at his funeral mass.

Have you ever seen a Catholic priest hold up a Buddha during a Mass? Or a crowd applaud and cheer after a reading from the book of Micah? Or Nick Cave miss his queue by half an hour?  


Then I suppose you’ve yet to see the footage of Shane MacGowan’s funeral.   

On a cold December afternoon - in a Tipperary church which was full to bursting – family, friends and fans gathered to (in the words of the presiding priest) "hold, help and handle the loss of the great Shane MacGowan… to celebrate his song, his story, his lyric, his living." I watched the footage because I had heard rumours of dancing in the aisles, renditions of The Pogues’ songs on the streets, bible readings by Bono and prayers led by Jonny Depp. And I can confirm, the rumours were all true.  

People really did climb out of their pews to dance around Shane’s coffin to ‘Fairytale of New York’, a song which has just lost its maestro. Fans really did line the streets of Dublin to greet Shane’s body with raised glasses of Guinness and renditions of his most-loved songs. What’s more, Bono really did read the bible and Jonny Depp really did pray for ‘a deeper spirit of compassion in our world’. In fact, far more interesting (but far less documented) than the presence of Jonny Depp, was the presence of Shane’s raw and gritty Christian faith, which was so obvious throughout. It wasn’t just cultural Christianity on display here, it was far deeper than that. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself - I’ll get back to that in a moment.  

There was defiant joy, immense grief, loud laughter and silent sobs. There was lament and there was celebration, there was bitter and there was sweet, there was light and there was darkness. It was raw and messy and awkward and authentic and, in every way possible, profound. I suppose you could suggest that it was a lot like Shane in that way.  

Indeed, this was no ordinary funeral.  

Nick Cave performed a rendition of ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, which has only cemented my opinion that it is the most romantic song ever written (we can argue about it later). And then there was the eulogy, given by the person that I like to think inspired the song that Nick had just performed: Vicotria Mary Clarke, the woman who has loved, and been loved by, Shane MacGowan since she was twenty years old. And while it was the star-studded eccentricities that enticed me to watch the funeral, it is Victoria’s eulogy that has plagued me ever since. She delivered it with an eloquence befitting of a poet’s soulmate and the composure of someone who has been preparing to eulogise the man she loved her entire life.   

Victoria understood MacGowan completely, and through her words, she has helped us to understand him too. She told us how –  

"He wasn’t interested in living a normal life, he didn’t want a 9-5 or a mortgage or any of that stuff, he liked to explore all aspects of consciousness. He liked to explore where you could go with your mind…. He chose many, many, many mind-altering substances to help him on that journey of exploration. He really did live so close to edge that he seemed like he was going to fall off many times…"  

And I suppose therein lies the source, and sacrifice, of his genius. He was incredibly introspective, almost scarily so. It reminds me of another songwriter – a biblical one – King David, who once wrote:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’  

I’m wondering if Shane made similar requests of God, whether anyone would have the boldness to pray this line with as much literality as someone who was fascinated by ‘all aspects of consciousness’. Perhaps such introspective depths are reserved for the geniuses that are brave enough to ask God to take them there. And that got me thinking about other such geniuses - some of them present in that very church - who have plunged the depths of themselves and gifted us with the spoils through their art, those who follow their romantic longing’s lead, those who have an eye for the unseen. I can’t claim to fully understand it, but how interesting that those who live as ‘close to the edge’ as Shane did tend to either bump into oblivion (Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis) or God. Or, as in the case of Shane MacGowan, both.  

The reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. 

At one point, MacGowan was taking one hundred tabs of acid a day, and Victoria recounted (with a hint of a giggle – her adoration of him utterly tangible) how, in the early days of their relationship, Shane carried an encyclopaedia of pharmacology around with him. This was so that he could look up each drug he was being offered before accepting it. I suppose to an explorer of consciousness, this encyclopaedia is as close to a compass as it gets. And so yes, there was darkness there. But Victoria wanted us to know that –  

"He didn’t just like to go to the dark places and the weird places, he also liked to go to the blissful and transcendent and spiritual places… he was intensely religious."

She evidenced this with a story drawn from the last months of his life, all of which were spent in hospital, when a priest had to confiscate Holy Communion from Shane – who had obtained it ‘illegally’ and taken it daily. You see, in the Catholic Church, Holy Communion has to be administered by a priest under specific circumstances. And so, Shane became, perhaps, ‘the only man in the world who’s been busted for Holy Communion’. But nevertheless, whenever he came to the end of himself, Shane found God. And while he held the belief that no religion had a monopoly on God (hence the afore mentioned reference to the Priest displaying a Buddha), he was utterly devoted to Jesus.  

"I think what he was trying to get across was that there’s something in this stuff’ explained Victoria, ‘there’s something in Jesus that’s worth thinking about. It’s worth valuing. It’s worth exploring that Jesus is real."

I didn’t know this about Shane MacGowan; how actively he sought God, how deeply he enjoyed Jesus. But it makes complete sense. If one goes looking in the deepest places, they’re likely to find the deepest thing. Roam around the truest place, and eventually you’ll bump into the truest thing. 

 I, like Shane, believe that to be God. 

I suppose the difference, and the reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. Instead, I shall simply ponder how beautiful it is that God appears to wait for the brilliant to notice him, even in those depths.   

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