Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Movies that examine the relationship between man and machine go back to the sixties. When Stanley Kubrick released his magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), robots entered the collective consciousness and have remained there until today. His HAL can be seen in TARS in Interstellar (2014) as well as in the unforgettable Ash from Alien (1979).
Later, depictions of machines shifted to a more human-like form. Since Maria turned heads in Metropolis (1972), filmmakers have explored a myriad of ways to depict the interaction between mankind and machines. From fembots and Stepford Wives (2004) to replicants and Transformers (2007), storytellers have continually integrated machines in their cinematic tales to address issues of identity and technology.
Thus we arrive at Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner Titane (2021). The film has garnered critical acclaim, generated discourse about gender identity, and made it as the official submission to represent France at the upcoming Oscars. It’s difficult to describe the film’s storyline without possibly spoiling it. Based on reviews from countless international film festivals, Titane does kick off with a particularly memorable sex scene involving a woman and a Cadillac.
Perhaps the most iconic filmmaker to fuse sex and machines is David Cronenberg. Ducournau confirms that he served as an inspiration for her distinct horror filmmaking. Cronenberg’s 1996 Cannes winner Crash marked a significant shift in the way we understand sex. The film follows James Ballard (James Spader) who becomes consumed with the sexual appeal of car crash victims. A master of body horror, Cronenberg created a discussion about the nature of sex - not what is or isn’t sexual but rather what could be sexual.
Such controversial territory is not unfamiliar to Cronenberg who, in 1983, took audiences around the world on a wide ride in his techno-erotic thriller Videodrome. In the film, another obsessive protagonist pursues sensual pleasures through television devices and porn tapes.
The late 20th century witnessed the rise of movies targeting the man-machine duality. While Edward Scissorhands (1990) portrayed the impact of a metal arm on identity and social acceptance, the Terminator franchise dialed up the action to create immersive cinematic experiences for tech-hungry audiences.
In 1999, the Wachowskis changed the world with The Matrix. The cult classic posed philosophical questions about human nature, free will, and the very fabric of our reality. Its Agent Smith set an unbeatable archetype for evil robot before it became a popular plot device in films like I, Robot (2004).
As we step into 21st century cinema, the idea of man vs machines becomes reductive. Nuanced stories dive deeper into our relationship with machines, be they microchips, robots, or full fledged A.I. humanoids. Filmmakers no longer put man and machine in a cage to watch them fight - instead, they set them free and watch them coexist.
Alex Garland, famed for his stellar work in sci-fi, made his directorial debut Ex Machina in 2014. Undoubtedly inspired by the ideas of Blade Runner (1982), Garland examined the boundaries and potential of artificial intelligence through a modern take on Frankenstein. Ava, brilliantly played by Alicia Vikander, is an advanced A.I. humanoid with a lot to prove. Its thought-provoking conversations with Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) tackle what it is to be human. The audience shares Caleb’s doubts about Ava’s ‘humanity’ and together we experience a memorable Machiavellian final act that captures our fears about robots as it does about human nature itself.
A few years later, Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade (2018) showcased the unleashed power of artificial intelligence. It asked: would absolute power still corrupt absolutely when delegated to artificial intelligence? The film’s expertly choreographed action sequences make it a futuristic thriller that is equally action-packed and stimulating.
The majority of the aforementioned films are helmed by men. Wondering how Julia Ducournau presents man and machine? Don’t miss Titane (2021) at Cornwall Film Festival this November. Book your tickets now!