There’s no question that the somewhat geeky subject of artificial intelligence has broken through into the mainstream zeitgeist of late, with the last year or so seeing three big films about the subject (Transcendence, Her and Ex Machina) along with short-lived TV series Almost Human and a memorable episode of Black Mirror entitled “Be Right Back” which touched on many of the same themes. In real life, no less an authority than Professor Stephen Hawking has pronounced fully-realised AI systems as potentially spelling the end of the human race by making us entirely superfluous to requirements. Very much in the same vein to all of this is Humans, a new Channel 4/AMC co-production which adapts an original 2012 award-winning Swedish TV drama.
Actually the subject of AI is almost as old as cinema itself, with the iconic robot of Maria in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis one of the first films to touch on fears that humans were on the verge of being made redundant by machines, while a major plotline of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was a meditation on what might happen if an intelligent machine spontaneously concluded that its human colleagues were endangering a crucial mission and even its own existence.
However the most enduring themes of AI today arguably stem from two influential movies from the early 1980s: The Terminator was very much in the Hawking apocalyptic camp as the first machine to become sentient then promptly wipes out the human race, and only in the sequel were there deeper and more nuanced looks into what emotional traits the titular cyborg might go on to manifest; while in Blade Runner such concerns of what machine consciousness would mean to both the machine itself and to the humans around it were very much front and centre. The latter film even raised the question of what genuine consciousness is and how we could even hope to recognise it in a computer intelligence, when it’s still hard enough to understand exactly what it is and what it truly means even within ourselves. That was very much the aspect picked up by Alex Garland’s superlative Ex Machina.
Humans picks up the discussion from Ex Machina but moves the story along to a point where humanoid androids – now known as synthetics, or simply ‘synths’ – are no longer awe-inspiring advanced prototypes but have instead become common-or-garden appliances seen on every street corner handing out advertising fliers, working in ordinary businesses and in everyday homes, no more worthy of note than smartphones, laptops or tablet computers. Buying one is presented as just another spur of the moment consumer decision, like popping out to the Apple Store at Westfield, or buying a new kitchen appliance or family car.
That’s exactly what Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) does when he finds himself overwhelmed with domestic duties and coping with three children while trying to juggle running a full-time business. His wife Laura (the increasingly impressive Katherine Parkinson) is less than thrilled with his unilateral decision: she’s shown as deeply suspicious and resentful to synths even before she walks in the front door to find one sitting in her own living room. A successful lawyer working away from home a good deal of the time, she immediately fears that she’s being replaced and usurped from her role within the family. She’s not the only one with such insecurities: eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless) tellingly asks why she should even try to study hard at school and university for seven years to qualify as a doctor when a synth can be programmed to do the job in seven minutes. Are we all destined to just become poets in the future?
Despite her hostility to synths, it’s nonetheless Laura who stands up for it when the children start treating the new arrival as a personal slave, with no more regard for it than they would have if they were to mistreat a toaster. Laura alone starts to identify with and even to anthropomorphise the unit which they name Anita, although that’s in part in response to her own escalating fears that there is something wrong and dangerous about it. And she’s not wrong, as the odd idiosyncrasies start to build up: early on, when asked what she thinks about a piece of music on the radio, Anita is able to pronounce it very well performed on the basis of a comparison with the sheet music held in her memory banks, but tellingly cannot offer any opinion on the qualify of the music itself; yet later Anita is found in the garden, staring up at the sky, spontaneously declaring the moon to look particularly beautiful that night – a subjective opinion that she should simply not be capable of.
The domestic soap opera story of the Hawkins is intertwined with two others. William Hurt (whose casting may be a bit of an in-joke based on his lead role in the 2001 Steven Spielberg film AI: Artificial Intelligence) plays George, an elderly American increasingly beset with dementia who relies on his antique synth Odi (played by Will Tudor, who looks unnervingly identical to Domhnall Gleeson from Ex Machina and Black Mirror) as a sort of external backup drive for his memories, only to find Odi developing a serious malfunction of his own. Anyone who had ever had an indispensable computer fail on them will wince in pain as Odi recites a series of progressively serious fatal exception read errors with his corrupted partition files. When Odi malfunctions in a public place, the government insists that he be replaced by a newer healthcare model (Rebecca Front in a striking cameo as the scariest NHS synth imaginable) but George will not be parted from his only remaining link to the past, and moreover the synth that he sees as his surrogate son.
On top of this is the story of Leo (Merlin’s Colin Morgan) who appears to be leading a sort of ‘synth liberation army’ consisting of a rogue group of synths on the run. Max (Ivanno Jeremiah), Fred (Sope Dirisu) and Niska (Emily Berrington) are all exhibiting nascent signs of genuine consciousness and feelings and as a result are being tracked down by Hobb (Danny Webb) who is akin to Blade Runner’s replicant hunter Deckard. Hobb seems to be alone in realising that the synths are evolving beyond their programming and coming close to the point of singularity (a.k.a. transcendence) whereby they surpass real humans, as predicted by computer pioneer John von Neumann, the theory of which is summarised and explained in dialogue with The Game’s Jonathan Aris and via a bit of somewhat inelegant exposition crowbarred in as a TV news interview late in the episode.
Anita is another of this exclusive clique of almost-sentient synths, despite having been stripped down, wiped and reprogrammed in the interim and now offered as a refurbished unit at a discount to the Hawkins. She is the audience’s primary synth identification point and as such the performance of the role is arguably the most important in the show, much as Alicia Vikander dominated and set the tone for Ex Machina. Fortunately Gemma Chan pitches it just right in the part, keeping a blank-faced precision to the way she plays Anita to ensure that we never forget that she is a machine and not just another human, and yet at the same time also imbuing the character with enough unnerving mannerisms to make her seem too real for us to be entirely comfortable with her. There’s something about the glassy-eyed stare that she exhibits that draws us in as we try to work out what she’s thinking – whereas the crux of the part is that the face is not connected to the AI’s innermost thoughts and only shows those traits that she’s been programmed to. It’s the disconnect between the two aspects that makes her creepily inhuman, because we lose our ability to ‘read’ her with any level of accuracy.
Unlike Ava in Ex Machina, we never get to see Anita ‘undressed’ – that is, the mechanical components under the synthetic skin. The only significant synth-related FX are glowing green eyes to remind us of their essential mechanical nature, a subtle nod perhaps to the glowing red eyes of The Terminator. In fact, the first episode of Humans appears absolutely determined not to startle the horses by presenting anything that might be mistaken as any sort of off-putting science fiction by the home audience: other than the single core conceit of the synths themselves, the series is set in a completely recognisable and indeed downright ordinary world. You’d have thought that the sort of technology required to bring the synths to this level of functionality would be reflected by similar advances in the rest of the show’s technological mise-en-scène but this is not the case, and if anything things look rather dated with a sequence set in Kings Cross Station for example looking more like 1975 than 2015. The direction by Sam Donovan is studiously natural and unobtrusive, never once calling attention to itself, and wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Coronation Street.
I’m sure that this is absolutely intentional, a way of making the audience comfortable and only asking them to accept only one impossible thing before breakfast while at the same time being careful not to divert attention from the all-important core AI concept with any other shiny distractions. The aim of the first episode, then, appears to be to establish a baseline of intrigue and fascination, but for me at least it did leave Humans lacking any immediate ‘wow’ factor. What we get instead are a range of constituent parts that are already familiar (possibly overly so) from other similar films, books and TV shows, many of which I’ve already name-checked earlier in this review. To throw in a couple of other examples: there’s a scene set in a synth warehouse facility where the dormant units stand motionless in rows except for one who suddenly steps out of line just like an identical scene in the 2004 I, Robot starring Will Smith, and which also featured an elderly scientist seeing a new-generation robot as a surrogate son; and inevitably there’s Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the android Pinocchio who so desperately wanted to be a real boy and whose quest was the basis for many of that show’s best moments.
Where Humans could yet score big is by bringing together the various different aspects of AI from all those films, TV shows and literary (and scientific) texts and combining them into a single coherent intertwined narrative, one possessing a depth and a complexity that a feature film never could achieve in a two-hour running time. One episode is obviously far too early to make a call on whether it will ultimately succeed in doing this, but certainly writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have got off to a strong start, putting the pieces and characters in place and establishing a world that we can believe in without much of a stretch in order to foreground all the different issues arising from sentient machines. I don’t mind one little bit that they haven’t gone in all guns blazing, or feeling the need to put all their cards on their table in the first five minutes like so much Hollywood fare of recent years. Quite the contrary. The slow-burn works just fine – so long as the whole thing does properly catch fire and burn bright eventually, somewhere down the road.
And the only way of knowing whether it will do that is to keep watching for all eight episodes. I know that I will.
Humans will be broadcast in the US on AMC from June 28 2015. In the UK it continues on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm. The DVD of season 1 will be released in the UK on August 17 2015.