Kirsten Strayer November 5 2017

Artificial Life and the Post-Human Filmic Experience


If Homo sapiens disappear, what will take their place as the dominant life form on Earth? Some speculate that a new, emerging life has already begun to take our place in the world, and that artificial life will meld with or even overthrow the supremacy of carbon-based life forms. Most simply, artificial life is understood as any synthetically-created entity that that can grow, evolve, or otherwise take on unforeseen characteristics. While artificial life does not (necessarily) have the brilliance of artificial intelligence, it has emergent characteristics: as it develops, it can change and even physically adapt to its environment.

Artificial life has only recently begun to flourish in cinematic representation and, increasingly, in the ways that directors experiment with film and video. Of course, robots have always been major players in narrative film, usually as allegorical personifications that allowed film to explore politically charged issues of the day. Movies about artificial life, however, are far more concerned with corporeality, emotion, and defining the concept of life itself. From Ex Machina to Her, contemporary films have focused on evolution and development of artificial beings as singular entities that evolve into something entirely different than what their authors,

Short narratives, experimental films, and documentaries are all stretching the boundaries, imagining how artificial bodies develop, change the environment, and even alter the trajectory of human evolution.

By examining dynamic--and even artistically creative--machines, this collection explores the myriad of ways in which artificial life is thoroughly changing what we think of as film and video. In I.R.I.S. (Hasraf HaZ Dulull, 2008), an automated surveillance security system turns itself into a finely tuned organism out to destroy its makers.  Although the short film shares a narrative conceit with many other science-fiction stories (machines turn on humanity), it differs in that it gives its AL emergent properties. Similar to the cells of organisms, the drones in I.R.I.S. begin to work together to have an entirely new function.

I.R.I.S. (Hasraf HaZ Dulull, 2008)

A precursor to Her, Spike Jonze’s short film I’m Here (2010) lets his artificial beings demonstrate their emotional life much more thoroughly than their intellectual prowess. In Jonze’s sentimental—if slightly disturbing—short piece, an artificial person named Sheldon lives a mundane and lonely existence as a library assistant until he meets the woman of his dreams, an artificial woman called Francesca. The film links character growth and personal sacrifice to their (highly artificial but nonetheless suffering) bodies.

I’m Here (Spike Jonze, 2010)

Both Sunspring (Oscar Sharp, 2016) and Macrostructure (Eric Schockmel, 2014) imagine artificial life as central to the contemporary filmmaking process. Sunspring was “written” by a computer named Benjamin, which was programmed by scanning thousands of screenplays. What is emerges is nonsense dialogue, but it retains the architecture and pacing of a screenplay. This “thought experiment” shows the crossover between human and mechanical creative pursuits. While it isn’t created by a computer, the animated short Macrostructure does imagine a machine’s ability to create life: both in the sense of reproducing itself and in imagining a higher power.

Sunspring (Oscar Sharp, 2016) 

Macrostructure (Eric Schockmel, 2014)

Finally, in Bringing Bones to Life (2016), Amy Karle creates a 3D scaffolding to grow stem cells into bones. Using a hydrogel material, Karle creates a fecund environment for the bones to grow. She even acknowledges during her process, however, that she doesn’t know if the bones will grow according to her planned structure or if the cells will grow in an entirely different way. Here, the artificial substance provides the metaphorical and literal primordial soup from which new life can emerge. By using bone (which function as both our living framework and our iconic image of death), Karle permeates the lines between living beings and artificial scaffolding, between animate and inanimate, and between life and non-life.  

Bringing Bones to Life (Amy Karle, 2016)

About the Author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.

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