Aliens, Atomics Bombs, and Artificial Intelligence
Three nuclear explosions blasted across my screen when I went to see Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City several weeks ago. One of them was in Asteroid City itself. Another was in the trailer for Oppenheimer—a movie about the man who invented the atomic bomb, so, it figures. Yet another was in the final shot of the trailer for Dune: Part Two, just as Paul Atreides says, “He who can destroy a thing has the real control of it.”
In any given year, many movies will rise to prominence as a result of their individual craft or entertainment—and I love obsessively dissecting those movies and enjoying them for what they are on that level. One of the things that causes me to pay close attention every year, though, goes beyond individual artistic merit; instead, it’s about seeing and observing the ways that these movies are all in conversation with each other. And if we believe that artists are some of the closest things that we have to prophets in the modern age, even accidentally, then we should listen closely to what that conversation is about.
Asteroid City has a lot going on. It’s easily Wes Anderson’s most metamodern, self-reflective film to date, examining the inherent artifice of art and the way it helps us understand our lives anyway. I don’t really blame the people who didn’t connect with it, but I thought it was a profound enigma. This is ironic, because the movie is very much concerned with enigmas; the plot revolves around the sudden (and extremely brief) appearance of an awkward-looking stop-motion alien in the desert town of Asteroid City, causing everyone to spiral into confusion, hysteria, and existential turmoil shortly thereafter. The atomic tests which can be seen in the distance of Asteroid City, momentarily shaking the buildings but leaving the residents unfazed, feel like an intentional parallel to the alien itself; in the same way that the mysterious appearance of the alien has left everyone with questions about their place in the universe, the advent of atomic weapons during the same time period was causing everyone in the real world to do the same. Of course, it doesn’t take much of a leap to see the ways that Oppenheimer is exploring some similar ideas in a much more literal sense; Nolan’s mythic and singularly-focused biopic examines that cultural moment quite deliberately through the grief and existential turmoil of the man who pioneered it. “You’re the man who gave them the power to destroy themselves,” says Kenneth Brannagh’s Niels Bohr, “and the world is not prepared.”
It may seem at first that any story exploring the atomic bomb would be about power, but I think there’s more to it than that. Sure, for the person pressing the button or pulling the trigger, a bomb might be about power, maybe even for some zealous citizens in the nations such powers would benefit. But for most of the ordinary human beings living in an atomic age, perhaps the experience is much closer to that of the alien in Asteroid City: an uneasy enigma. We can’t control it. We don’t know how it will affect us. It might alter everything we think we know about reality, leaving us the slightest bit out of step.
It's the lack of clarity or resolution that's so compelling about many of the stories dancing across our movie screens right now. It speaks to the restlessness we've all had these last few years. Houston Coley
You’re probably smart enough to see where I’m going with this: if I were to liken the alien and the atomic bomb to any other “entity” causing the same existential turmoil in 2023, the topic of artificial intelligence would be top of mind. Lucky for us, we do not currently find ourselves at a stage where we have to ask questions about sentient computers or robots with feelings, but we are asking questions about the increasing role of AI in our lives—as a tool, a weapon, or an enemy, whether we want it or not. In Asteroid City, a kid on a school field trip writes a (characteristically quirky) country ballad to muse about the arrival of the alien in town; one of the funnier verses asks the alien, “Are you friend or foe…or other?” I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve been asking the same of AI in the last few months.
With almost prophetic timing, Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One was uniquely positioned last month to address this question quite literally and definitively. The “entity” in Dead Reckoning is a rogue AI that has gained control of every military, defense, and intelligence network in the world. Of course, it started by influencing social media. Where a more indecisive movie may have tried to make nuanced arguments about the way AI could be used for good, Dead Reckoning takes a much bolder approach: it goes all-in on the offensive, with very clear real-life subtext. “This Entity,” says Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in the first 10 minutes, “I mean to kill it.”
Despite Ethan’s heroic intentions to destroy The Entity for good by finding the cruciform key that can unlock its source code, every other government wants to eliminate him and get control of the key themselves to use The Entity for their own purposes. Less of the drama in Dead Reckoning is focused on what those governments would actually plan to do with the power of The Entity, though; more of it hinges on the way that this godlike AI uses its digital influence to literally rewrite our characters’ understanding of reality itself, leaving them unsure what’s real and how much choice they have in their fate. The experience is marked with paranoia and uncertainty, not dissimilar from that of the citizens in Asteroid City after they encountered the alien.
The timing of a movie about Tom Cruise literally going to war with AI could not be more perfect, especially given the way that AI has taken center stage in the current union strikes, with more than a few studio executives touting generative artificial intelligence as the alternative to raising pay for writers and actors longterm. There was even a report by NPR recently revealing that certain studios have already been including a Black Mirror-esque clause in actor contracts allowing them to scan a performer’s body and face for one day’s pay and use their likeness in perpetuity via AI-aided VFX without ever needing to pay them again—similar to the digital necromancy worked to bring back hollow wax figurine imitations of Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, Adam West, and others in The Flash back in June.
These specific examples might feel like minutia, but they’re a daily incarnation of what Bo Burnham managed to accurately describe in his song “That Funny Feeling” back in 2020: the tiniest and silliest changes to ordinary existence that actually reflect major shifts in the grander human experience, leaving everyone slightly off-kilter and unable to pinpoint exactly what feels uneasy. A key part of the strangeness of living in a digital age is knowing that huge, culture-changing things are happening regularly, but on a day-to-day basis, you’ll only ever interact with the comically shallow, consumeristic incarnations of those things. It leaves one with more sympathy for Augie in Asteroid City, melancholically staring out the window after the arrival of the alien and wondering what to make of any of it. Like the atomic bomb, AI has the (theoretical, hypothetical) potential to both save or destroy the world, but it will more likely do neither, leaving us in a perpetual state of disquieted restlessness waiting for the next penny to drop.
Of course, there’s another “entity” that has plagued us for the last few years: the pandemic. In fact, I think the restless and disquieted tension these movies capture may have its roots in the shared cultural trauma of quarantine—a time when, much like these other examples, a strange and powerful force entered our universe and left us in an uncertain world feeling helpless and unsure when that force might affect us, too. The undeniable sense of “living through history” was surreal, and the loss of control was palpable. I think that feeling hasn’t faded yet.
When I started writing this piece, I was seeking some form of clarity and resolution around why these ideas of aliens, atom bombs, and AI were floating beneath (and above) the surface of so many movies in 2023. I think, however, that it’s actually the lack of clarity or resolution that’s so compelling about many of the stories dancing across our movie screens right now. It speaks to the restlessness we’ve all had these last few years. Is that restlessness all about the new age of AI? Perhaps that’s some part of it. But maybe it’s also a general sign that we’re searching for meaning in a confusing world, marked by issues and enigmas that make us feel entirely out of control, lingering with a strange aftertaste that feels a bit like fallout.