Updated: Sep 20
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
"Human beings have dreams; even dogs have dreams, but not you. You are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?"
This dialogue is taken from the movie I-Robot, in which Will Smith's character, Del Spooner, interrogates an AI robot, Sonny, as a suspect in his creator's murder. It seemed more relevant and almost prophetic regarding the crossroads we find ourselves at in the film industry and exploring our future.
3 laws govern robotics; these were created by Isaac Asimov, who famously spearheaded science fiction into what we know it today (I-Robot is based on his work, and there is an Apple TV series based on his work called Foundation, which is currently in its second season) The three laws are:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
As the film industry grapples with the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, it faces a momentous opportunity to redefine its future. In many ways, this moment parallels the creation of Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics, albeit in the context of entertainment. By addressing issues of compensation, predatory behavior, racism, and bigotry, the film industry can establish its own principles to govern its conduct and priorities.
Rewriting the Film Industry
The WAG and SAG-AFTRA strikes are not only about fair compensation; they represent a broader struggle to redefine the balance of power in the film industry. Much like Asimov’s Law of Robotics, which prohibits harming humans, the studios are currently in direct conflict with this law, seeking to underpay actors and writers alike, restricting their residual payments as the payment system hasn’t caught up to the technology, so streaming platforms aren’t explicitly included as another platform liable to pay creatives, with that in mind, the 8-10 episode format has also severely decreased the ability for writer’s to make a living from their seasonal work.
This leads to the next point: the use of AI in filmmaking is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. AI-driven tools now assist in screenwriting, casting decisions, and visual effects. This has increased the fear that AI will be used to replace human creativity as studios find ways to increase their profits, which has called to question the lengths they will go to achieve this. Technology has made leaps and bounds in film, from being able to digitally add a member of the cast in post-production, as Zack Snyder did in replacing Chris D'Elia with Tig Notaro in his Netflix film Army of The Dead after multiple women came forward to accuse Chris of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse after filming had wrapped.
On the other side, Warner Bros used the now deceased Christopher Reeves's likeness to CGI him into a scene as Superman in the latest DCEU movie, The Flash, and although he had granted the studio permission, this left the audience with a sense of unease with some calling it "digital necromancy."And although both those examples aren't explicitly AI, this cements the disparity between technology and ethics.
This was again highlighted with Netflix's acclaimed series Black Mirror, whose basic premise exists to serve up cautionary tales of what happens once technical advancements are left unchecked. The first episode of season 6 was titled "Joan Is Awful" and left the world stunned because of the concept of a consumer signing off the rights of their likeness because they didn't read the terms and conditions while signing up for a streaming service and having a dramatized version of their lives playing out in real-time on the world stage while they can do nothing but watch helplessly.
This was horrifying because it seemed probable but still unlikely until people confirmed that studios were looking at this option to cut actors' salaries. After this, the extras involved in the filming of WandaVision came forward, stating there was a clause about the studio giant- Disney being able to use their digital likeness added into their contract clauses, which many were unaware of at the time.
The ethics of AI has been marked as a big talking point. And brings into question The Three Laws. Like the AI in "I-Robot," the film industry must acknowledge its responsibilities and make changes that prioritize the well-being of those who make it tick.
Confronting Predatory Behaviour
The situation with Chris D'Elia being replaced with Tig Notaro due to sexual assault charges, unfortunately, isn't an isolated incident. In recent years, the revelations of predatory behavior within the entertainment industry have sent shockwaves through Hollywood, from the #MeToo movement, which saw Harvey Weinstein get incarcerated for his years of sexual abuse, to, most recently, Danny Masterson (Steven Hyde in That 70s Show), who has just been sentenced to 30 years behind bars on two counts of rape. The ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike offers an opportunity to address this dark aspect head-on. By establishing clear guidelines and consequences for misconduct, the industry can start the journey toward systemic issues that have allowed such behavior to persist.
Tackling Racism and Bigotry
The film industry has a deeply rooted history of racism, from the infamous "Birth of a Nation" to more recent instances of backlash from specific segments of "Star Wars" fans against diverse casting choices. While progress has been made, it's disheartening that, in 2023, we still celebrate "firsts" for black women and queer people of color in prominent film roles. These achievements are vital steps toward inclusion, but they also underscore the need to confront the lingering racism and bigotry within the industry.
Changing the White Gaze
It's time to decenter the white male perspective to reshape the film industry's future. While making more inclusive variations of existing stories, often sold as reboots and sequels, is a step in the right direction, empowering scriptwriters and storytellers from different backgrounds is equally essential. The success of films like "Barbie," "Everything Everywhere All at Once," and "Parasite" demonstrates that audiences are hungry for fresh, authentic narratives that break away from the white gaze.
Nostalgiamania and Creativity
Nostalgia-driven content has dominated the film industry recently, with numerous reboots, sequels, and adaptations of beloved franchises. While nostalgia is a powerful tool for engaging audiences, an overreliance can stifle creativity. The audience has shown they are also growing fatigued with the constant bombardment of recycled content. 2023 is the first time since 2001 that a sequel/reboot hasn't been in the top 3 most significant box office hits of the year. The future of film should involve more nuanced approaches to nostalgia, one that respects the past while pushing the boundaries of storytelling.
The film industry must evolve to protect and empower those who contribute to its artistry. Just as Sonny, the AI robot in "I-Robot," challenged Del Spooner's expectations, the film industry, too, must challenge the status quo. It's time to write a new script that reflects the diversity, inclusivity, and accountability that the future of film demands. This moment may be the catalyst for creating the equivalent of Asimov's laws to govern the entertainment industry, ensuring that it remains a vibrant and responsible art form for future generations.
When I imagine the future of films, I see main characters that challenge the notions of gender in ways we haven't yet been able to see; I see stories that decenter the western Caucasian man and explore different parts of the world with a beauty that hasn't yet been captured on film. I laugh in new ways, cry at new concepts, and fall in love with new types of galaxies and techniques given to me by creatives working with the technology that we create. It's more of the feeling of what I get when I watch Spider-Man: Across The Spiderverse. I was in awe as different types of animation styles interacted seamlessly with one another, watching a story about an old age moniker with a new-age face who looked like he could be my brother in a heart-wrenching-coming-of-age story that explores incredible concepts.
The magic of film and how it makes us feel will forever be essential and will outlive us. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communicating and something so deeply personal to the psyche of humans that it should be protected. And ensured that it can keep the livelihood of its custodians. And the powers that be should respect that. I hope that this strike creates The Three Laws that govern humanity in entertainment. Ushering in a new era of unprecedented creativity for generations to come. I am still determining what the three laws should be, only to benefit those who work the hardest to give us this generational entertainment. It also opens doors and elevates those locked out due to systems of oppression that historically kept them from telling their stories. Their way.