Summer of the Machines
A child of
the 1970s, I grew up nurturing a healthy distrust of computers. Star Trek
reruns like "Return of the Archons" and "The Ultimate Computer"
reminded me that humanity was inherently superior to mechanisms because we
think and they can't. Genre films of the same period echoed suspicions about
technology too, particularly Michael Crichton's Westworld (1962) and
Dean Koontz's Demon Seed (1966). As an unpleasant hangover from the
late sixties, we also had the undying specter of Kubrick's HAL 9000, a mellifluous-voiced
computer with homicidal predilections.
of the disco decade was evident. Don't hand over too much autonomy to machines,
or they will bite humanity right in the ass. But as times changed and
the seventies became the eighties, that paranoid perception shifted, and Isaac
Asimov and William Shatner began hawking Commodore Vic20 home computers on
TV. Suddenly there was a chicken in every pot and a computer in every household.
User friendly machines soon dominated the genre, represented by kindly ambassadors
such as Chuck Wagner's Automan (1983), Lance Henriksen's Bishop in
Aliens (1986), and Brent Spiner's Lt. Commander Data in Star Trek:
The Next Generation (1987-1994).
These new metal men were gentle and unthreatening, often guided by Asimov-ian
principles of appropriate behavior; essentially robotic man-servants to a
superior but tolerant human race. We could domesticate our computers, even
love and afford them civil rights, these productions suggested. D.A.R.Y.L.
(1985) gave audiences the android as a loveable, orphaned child and Meeting
Mr. Right (1987) revealed automatons as potential lovers or companions.
Sure, bad seeds like the MCP in Tron (1982) and Arnie's Terminator
(1984) occasionally reminded us of the mechanical menace, but they were generally
the exception, not the rule.
Considering such massive shifts in public perception, it is a surprise that
The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3 have become the most popular
entertainments of the summer. After all, both films showcase post-apocalyptic
worlds where mankind has been all-but-destroyed thanks to his upstart technological
creations. Without warning, we're back in the world of Dr. Who's exterminating
Daleks or Battlestar Galactica's genocidal Cylons. It's a reversal
that's been under the radar for some time (The Matrix premiered in
1999), and a result, I believe, of yet another fundamental shift in American
On May 11, 1997, an IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue defeated world chess
champion Garry Kasparov after a mere nineteen moves, threatening our long-held
conceit that thinking humans will always triumph over unthinking machines.
Considering that watershed event, how far away, really, is A.I.? Probably
not beyond the next horizon, and that may be one reason for Hollywood's retro
obsession with evil machines. It's a bugaboo that has a sense of validity.
Thinking machines will happen, it's just a matter of when.
Also, computers now control most of our country's critical infrastructure,
from power grids to communication venues to pizza delivery. Importantly, the
machines performing such critical functions have no sense of allegiance. They
can serve us...or subvert us. Computer viruses have proven over and over that
financial infrastructures are vulnerable to just such subversion and manipulation.
And then there was September 11th, 2001, wherein all of our new-fangled machines,
early warning systems, computers, and high-tech procedures did nothing whatsoever
to prevent the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans by a small number of enemies
walking freely - and undetected - within our borders.
The aggressive machine usurpers of Terminator 3 and The Matrix Reloaded
are really surrogates for these terrorists, because both enemies represent
an attack from within, from a presumed ally. The events of September 11th
were a surprise, and so it would be, no doubt, to awake one morning to discover
that Defense Department computers have activated America's nuclear arsenal.
Or that unmanned predator drones like the ones used in Iraq and Afghanistan
(and which we see appropriately "evolved" in Terminator 3),
are suddenly turned against us. Much as our commercial aircraft - our machines
- destroyed those towers in Manhattan.
But there's another element of our contemporary lives that these summertime
dramas reflect, in a much more subtle fashion. In these films, the human race
played Frankenstein. We played God and created the machines, and the machines
destroyed us in return. Considering the nature of that revolt, we are our
own worst enemy because we can't control our children, just as the United
States cannot control those enemies we once armed, funded and fully supported,
like former American allies Saddam Hussein (in America's tussle with Iran)
and Osama Bin Laden (in America's conflict with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan).
In everyday reality, America's adopted children have indeed turned on us,
and so we must question the wisdom of the military men who supported these
nuts merely on the basis of that proverb "the enemies of our enemies
are our friends." Compare these scenarios with the plot of Terminator
3, wherein similarly blinkered military men activate Skynet, a manmade artificial
intelligence, and thus set in motion the very events that destroy humanity.
The guise for "arming" Skyne is the destruction of another
enemy, an unidentified cyber-virus threatening the country. When, we rightly
ask, will our government stop making deals with the devil just because it
So The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3 do not merely concern
cool futuristic wars with nasty CGI robots, they are films mirroring our deeply-held
suspicion that our most advanced tools are in the wrong hands. Will these
mechanical children turn on us like our foreign allies did? That's not only
an interesting question, it's the premise of the Sci-Fi Channel re-imagination
of Battlestar Galactica, which, not coincidentally, is about a revolt
of human made robots (the Cylons) against their masters in a September 11th-style
In the 1950s, aliens were always invaders and bad guys come to steal our identities
(Invasion of the Body Snatchers), destroy our freedom (Earth vs.
The Flying Saucers), even steal our females (Mars Needs Women).
Back then, Americans feared the outsider, the foreign (i.e. Communism). We
are living in a similar period of paranoia today, but we now fear the surprise
revolt from within. We live in suspiciob that the very thing which makes us
a super-power, our technology, can turn against us. That's why we'll see a
remake of Westworld and other machine-bashing productions in the coming
Let's just hope the machines don't get their feelings hurt about it.