Movies to get you into the digital mood

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 15, 2021 - March 21, 2021.
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While reading the Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint may give you some idea of where the nation plans to head in terms of technology, many will not be able to relate to the words or picture of what the future will look like when technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, 5G and the rest become commonplace.

So, we decided to compile a list of movies to get you into that particular futuristic mindspace. Admittedly, many of these selections are distinctly dystopian in nature, grappling with the potentially negative effects of all-pervasive deep tech on the human psyche, but they can also act as a primer on the technologies being talked about.

Her (2013)

This award-winning movie starring Joaquin Phoenix centres around how an AI operating system (OS) blurs the line between what is real and what is virtual. The movie follows Theodore, who sets up an AI OS named Samantha in his home, which interacts with him via headphones. Over time, Theodore finds himself filling the lonely gaps in his life with conversations with Samantha and, eventually, he falls in love with her, err … it?

The reviews for this movie are mixed — some found the concept sick while others (like me) were impressed with the tremendous capability of the technology. There are some scenes that challenge the human-AI relationship boundaries, bringing about ethical questions such as is it healthy to have a “relationship” with a non-physical technological being that lives inside your head?

Technologists are now trying to humanise technology — meaning the more lifelike a chatbot is, for example, the better the user experience — and this movie shows the extreme of what can be achieved in that direction. — By Vanessa Gomes

Gossip Girl (2007-2012)

Hello, Upper East Siders. Gossip Girl is an iconic and long-running series that follows the lives of privileged teenagers living in New York. Their scandalous lives are revealed, shared and, arguably, driven by an anonymous blogger called Gossip Girl.

Anyone can send in a tip to Gossip Girl. Every Upper East Sider receives notifications whenever a new post is published. Nothing is secret. Everyone knows who secretly loves whom and who eloped with whom.

The wild drama was entertaining to watch but it also highlighted this new reality created by social media. It is fortunate that Gossip Girl only had access to blogs. In this world of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and whatnot, one can only imagine the lack of privacy individuals would have. It is tech-enabled social surveillance at its best. On the flip side, people also become obsessed with their image as portrayed on social media, because it is the main lens through which they are judged.  — By Tan Zhai Yun

Gattaca (1997)

Starring Ethan Hawk, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, this sci-fi thriller is set in a dystopian future, where humanity has fully embraced the science of eugenics.

This has effectively created an elite upper class with access to all the trappings of genetic superiority, while natural-born people — referred to as “in-valids” — are stuck at the bottom rung of society.

Vincent (Ethan Hawk) is one such in-valid who refuses to accept his fate. A janitor at an aerospace conglomerate, Gattaca Inc, he has always dreamt of seeing the stars. In a desperate attempt to escape his miserable, natural-born existence, Vincent strikes an illegal bargain with Jerome (Jude Law), a one-time genetic superhuman turned depressive paraplegic.

Vincent attempts to scam his way into a place on a spaceship to outer space by passing off Jerome’s superior genetic material as his own. The movie details Vincent’s obsession with looking, thinking and talking like Jerome to better sell the ruse, because detection would mean disaster. But an unexplained murder throws a spanner in Vincent’s plans, and threatens to derail his years of work and meticulous planning.

Gattaca is a brilliantly written movie that explores the extent to which people are willing to push past even the most iron-clad societal norms. It is dark and at times difficult to watch, but eventually opens up to reveal a surprisingly idealistic outlook.

The highly stylised sci-fi aesthetic of the Nineties is cranked up to 11 but, make no mistake, Gattaca truly shines in the quiet moments of dialogue, drama and introspection. The action sequences never feel too over the top, nor do they overshadow the movie as a whole.

In an era where sci-fi blockbusters deliver expensively assembled CGI characters with empty personalities and forgettable plots, the now 20-year-old Gattaca more than holds up against its more modern and much flashier counterparts.  — By Oliver Christopher Gomez

Ex Machina (2014)

This stunningly shot science-fiction thriller explores human/robot relationships. In the movie, we meet a highly advanced AI robot named Ava.

Programmer Caleb wins an office competition that brings him a seemingly rare opportunity — a week in the remote techno-bunker of Nathan, his genius tech billionaire boss. It is here that he meets Ava.

As Caleb becomes gradually fascinated by Ava and eventually somewhat falls for her, the dark nature of Nathan’s work is revealed. He uses these advanced bots for his selfish pleasure and keeps them imprisoned.

The movie awed me at first with its cinematography and graphics, but pulled me in to the questions of: what is the line between humans and machines? Can advanced machines be treated in a way that is morally wrong?

Ex Machina not only sparked conversations on how differently female and male AI robots are portrayed in media but also, on a deeper level, to what extent a machine can transcend its original programming. As Ava was created by men for men, the ending is refreshing and it warrants being on your to-watch list, just so you can draw your own conclusions. — By Iriani Amirudin

Memories of the Alhambra (2018)

While this South Korean drama has two popular stars — Hyun Bin and Park Shin-hye — as its leads, the series is not your typical romantic comedy. The storyline revolves around an augmented reality (AR) game that has gone haywire and blurred the lines between reality and fantasy.

To play the game, you just have to put on a pair of contact lenses. You can walk around your city and find objects hidden in real places, visit locations in the game that are set in the real world, interact with other players and fight villains with your physical body (imagine children hitting the air with an imaginary hammer by the side of the road).

Things go bad when two players in the game duel and one of them actually dies. Soon, the main character finds himself launched into the game and having to fight for his life even when he is not wearing the contact lenses. Losers in duels actually die and the main character has to avoid this fate.

Watching this series was eerie. I can see how fun this AR game would be and imagine its commercial potential. But it would be so easy to lose sense of what is real and what is not. What is to stop someone from grabbing a knife or gun in real life — thinking they are still in the game — and killing another player? And what is going to happen in a world where everyone is walking around seemingly normal, but are really living in their own world, restricted to whatever they are watching through their contact lenses? — By Tan Zhai Yun

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Some of us get frequently chewed out by our grandparents for spending too much time on social media and while we may dismiss their concerns, the question remains, what if their fears are well-founded?

If you watch The Social Dilemma, a docu-drama directed by Jeff Orlowski, you may just start to agree with them. It explores how social media is designed to affect our brains in the same way a drug does, its influence over politics and the widespread danger of fake news and conspiracy theories.

As a social media user, I was once willing to give out my personal information to access free services. After all, why wouldn’t I want advertisements tailored to suit my needs, or access a service that I had come to rely on without paying a dime?

This movie has somewhat altered my perspective on this, indicating a rabbit hole that is far deeper than what I had expected. A multibillion-dollar industry rests on top of what is essentially a free service, and there are solid reasons for that. And then there is the fact that the creators of these services often restrict their own children’s access to social media.

The documentary highlights a real need for policies to be set in place to protect consumer data privacy and security, and will leave watchers questioning how free they are with their personal data and their use of social media. — By Jotham Lim

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s visionary dystopian noir is a vision of future bereft of human emotion. Critically acclaimed for its mind-blowingly futuristic scenes, the film’s complex plot deals with cyborgs known as replicants, who are bio-engineered by the powerful Tyrell Corporation.

The replicants, which look and act like humans, are supposed to assist humans. But matters go awry when a group of superhuman replicants, known as Nexus-6 — engineered for perilous off-Earth missions — turn rebellious.

Replicants are then outlawed and law enforcement units, called “blade runners”, are tasked with taking out any replicant on Earth. Anyone convicted of aiding or assisting a replicant is sentenced to death. Retired blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is called out of retirement to hunt the rebels and eventually finds himself falling for a replicant, who has no idea that she is not human.

When I watched this movie for the first time in 1999, I was fascinated by how much of the exploration of the moral and philosophical dilemmas associated with AI and advanced technology were still relevant 17 years after it was made.

Seeing that we were on the cusp of the millennium and the anxiety that followed the threat of Y2K, the perpetually dark, rainy and neon-illuminated future — or November 2019, to be precise — was downright alarming. — By Pathma Subramaniam

Wall-E (2008)

While Wall-E may seem like just another computer-animated comedy, its message is not as lighthearted as it originally appears to be. The story is set in the 29th century when a trash-filled Earth is devoid of humans. They had evacuated some seven centuries earlier and now float around in space in a giant spaceship named Axiom.

The story is set around a whole string of “what ifs”. For instance, where can an over-reliance on technology take you? The humans in this movie lie back on their hoverchairs, which they use to move around, having lost their ability to walk. And they only interact with holograms placed in front of them to carry out their daily activities (such as shopping). They no longer have any human contact either.

Although we are still far from being handicapped by AI and robots (Elon Musk’s warnings about AI notwithstanding) we do seem to be moving in this direction. Director Andrew Stanton also pointed out in an interview that by taking away the need to work, the robots also took away humanity’s need to put effort into relationships.

One commentator said this film does not necessarily demonise technology. Rather, it spells out that technology needs to be used to help humans become more human; that it must be subordinate to human flourishing.  — By Chui Yee Mun