CHARACTERS INSIDE THE BODIES OF SENTIENT MACHINES
When you watch a movie, read a book, play a game, there’s a funny old thing that starts to happen. In some way, to some extent, you are set adrift from this world, of its space and time, its mortgages and salaries, and are lulled across to another reality—a reality of fiction, of story, of characters. Every time you read the back of a cereal box, navigate the menus of your phone, think ahead to your next meal, you transport yourself to a dimension at once parallel to, within, and completely at odds with our own material universe.
It’s an everyday phenomenon, but no less phenomenal for its ubiquity; so regular, yet so unresolved is this occurrence in our lives that it seeps through our artistry and into our tales, manifesting as magical books like The Neverending Story, as dreams come true like Alice in Wonderland, as virtual realities like The Matrix and Tron.
Yet the medium or device through which the fictional world is achieved becomes a magical portal, a technology that legitimates what happens when we phase, disavowing its magic in accordance with our orthodox materiality. We plug into eXistenZ, are drugged and hypnotized into Inception, use hallucinogens and isolation tanks to access Altered States: the bareback liminality of phasing becomes subject to a device, a device that impels at once access and restriction, is at once contraceptive and control panel.
And yet there’s another form of entrance in our great, mutual dream that belies this very materiality of which we are so keen to assure ourselves: not those fantasies in which we require machines, of a more or less technological nature, to traverse worlds, but those in which the world our characters enter is the body of a machine.
The above still—from 1979 movie Alien—is taken from Fabian Reimann’s science fiction reader Another Earth Catalog, and his legend is doubly revealing. Tom Skerritt’s character, the captain of the unfortunate Nostromo, is ensconced in a technological cavity as he consults the ship’s computer; he is at once located in the heart and the head of the ship.
Alien is a film of interior spaces that lends itself easily to the machine/body ambiguity: the ship’s computer is the maternal MU-TH-UR 6000, referred to as ‘Mother’ by its crew, and we start the movie winding down her passageways to a chamber in which the resident humans awake from hypersleep pods, naked but for diaper-like underwear. Not just heart and head, then, but womb.
Mother is a ship of corridors, of air ducts and apertures, pipes and tubes; dark, dripping, full of strange noises and residue, this is an individual’s body made huge and communal. Airlocks are used to evacuate the dead and deadly, like ritual enemas for the many and the one. The crew both need Mother to survive and are incidental to her plans; the android aboard the ship, Ash, is her sole co-conspirator (and next of kin) and it’s small surprise when his violent death exposes the milk-like fluid that powers him.
MU-TH-UR 6000 is a machine, a body, but more automation than intelligence; less so the sentient Trimaxion from 1986 children’s movie Flight of the Navigator. A sparkly one-room ship so bubbling with personality as to border on mania, ‘Max’ is as far from Mother as this family film is from the 18-certificate Alien.
Max starts the film as a ‘robot drone’, only becoming the chattering, playful character capable of love and humour once the human boy David enters him; his circuits mix with child protagonist’s mind and he begins to develop emotions. David brings him to life, teaches him to feel.
Happily, for a Universal rating, Navigator offers no ambiguity over the twelve-year-old David’s backdoor entrance to and consequent piloting of the talkative spaceship. Mother is female, and Hollywood exemplifies that we can go inside her body and she feels; Max (voiced by Paul Reubens) is male, but his is a cold space, a functional space. And yet this critical reticence, and the connected insensate quality of Max’s corporeal cavity, speaks volumes as loud as the more overt body/environment analogies aboard Alien.
Overt are the overtones in our next entrance into a thinking machine: that of V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Released in the same year as Alien, the Enterprise’s first foray into cinemas saw Captain Kirk and his crew investigate a vast, mysterious entity heading its way through space on a collision course with Earth.
This is a mystical kind of Star Trek, with a large portion of the film devoted to the grand, processional entrance (or perhaps en-trance) through the mellifluous blue clouds of V’ger’s form. Ultimately revealed to be machine in origin, the entity’s immaterial psychedelia is used to convey the heteronormative Hollywood lure of womanhood and the magic of sexual ecstasy, as a swollen-headed Enterprise (led by the notoriously virile Kirk) penetrates its successive folds. The vaginal-sounding V’ger possesses the most eligible female on board the ship, replacing her with a robot that must once again be brought to life—in this instance, when former Captain Will Decker joins with her.
Equally psychedelic and at least as orificial is the 1968 landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey, which starts with totem-worship and ends with astronaut David Bowman whizzing into another giant phosphorescent slit. This is a psychic entry, Bowman transcending the heretofore physical world and voyaging into a timeless mental space—composed as a series of domestic interiors—which results in the memorable final image of the film, the baby in a ball.
But there’s another, more material entrance on show in 2001. As HAL 9000, the computer aboard the Discovery One ship, becomes increasingly erratic, Bowman determines to shut it down. He opens an out-of-the-way panel and crawls inside HAL’s core to deactivate from within. HAL, reluctant, wants him out; there is a tangible sense of trespass to Bowman’s presence inside the definitely male machine. Bathed in red light—a technique foreshadowed throughout the film as the colour of interiority—this is an intrusion into HAL’s inner sanctum. As the astronaut shuts the computer down, one module at a time, HAL demonstrates the extent of his consciousness, of how human he is: “I can feel it”, he slurs. “I can feel it”.