Computers can suffer from typecasting, too
Monday 30 September 1996
In Alphaville, Godard summed up cinema's dread of the malevolent mainframe. Galactic gumshoe Lemmy Caution rescued Love, Poetry and Anna Karina from the clutches of a soulless cyberworld looking oddly like Sixties Paris. The alternative title - Tarzan Versus IBM - said it all, as pulp fiction, classical myth and New Wave panache joined forces against the sterile regime of Prof Von Braun's evil supercomputer.
A more satirical take on the man/machine standoff was John Carpenter's film-school 2001 riposte, Dark Star, in which an orbiting Cartesian dialogue with a nuclear bomb's onboard computer - programmed along the lines of "I explode therefore I am" - parodied the philosophical condundrums of the genre overall. By contrast, Donald Cammell's Demon Seed aimed to shock, as a computer controlling Julie Christie's flat menaced, raped and impregnated her in a bid to fend off its own imminent shutdown. Last gasp of this demonising tendency, for the time being, may have been Skynet, the autonomous, Internet-like web controlling the world in Terminator.
It's hard to maintain such a stance, though, when audiences are acquiring little HALs and Alpha-60s of their own. Sneakers, it is true, featured a plan to shut down global computer networks in a Sixties-idealist bid to retun to digital Year Zero: however, the perpetrator, a former radical named Cosmo, was villain, not hero. Despotic hardware bent on world domination is now passe, replaced by user-friendly PCs whose (usually juvenile) operators, inspired by Matthew Broderick in War Games, save the world from nuclear destruction, space aliens or marauding dinosaurs. More typically, freelancers of various persuasions stumble across and foil sinister conspiracies, without technology itself being called into question. The Net showed Sandra Bullock, deprived of her identity by a sinister group called The Praetorians, defeating them with a computer virus of her own. Hackers had streetsmart teenage cybernauts defeating a computer fraud.
Compared with Hollywood's robust response to TV in the Fifties, its reaction to the computer boom has been one of rather timid accommodation. One reason might be that computers wrote the scripts in the first place. It's not just special effects that are digitally generated: a range of software with names like ScriptWizard, Final Draft and Dreammaster is available to shape character, plot and resolution to box office-proven parameters. Perhaps this also helps to explain why so many recent films on this (and indeed all) subjects tend to be rather predictable reworkings of familiar genres.
There's little doubt that if 2001 were remade today, the velvety, camp voicings of Kubrick's HAL - courtesy of the gay actor Douglas Rain - would be recast as the sympathetic centre of of an especially hip coming-out comedy.
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