Essays · Movies

This Video Essay Will Make You Think Hard About Consciousness in Film

Watch this video essay about the depiction of consciousness in film.
Ex Machina
By  · Published on October 12th, 2018

Consciousness has always been on our minds. Philosophers and scientists have been perplexed by the immeasurable standards of sentience and higher thinking forever. Why are human beings distinctly intelligent? And where did this distinction come from? Today, the conversation on consciousness has shifted from genuine curiosity to fear that we will no longer be distinguished. In this golden age of technology and innovation, the general public is becoming increasingly more worried about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Will AI eventually develop real consciousness and take over the world a la The Matrix? Or will it simply be a tool we can use to better society? In any case, this fear of consciousness developing to human level or greater is growing, with even Elon Musk expressing concern about AI’s threat to humanity.

As our fascination with sentience spans the length of time, filmmakers use their expressive medium to bring their own contemplations to a mass audience. In a video essay titled The Cognitive Revolution — Exploring Consciousness in Film, Like Stories of Old examines Hollywood’s musings on consciousness through sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arrival, Ex Machina, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, among others. Watch the video below.

The video makes the point that filmmakers often examine consciousness from god-like perspectives, imbuing intelligence into things mankind has created, instead of the life that already surrounds humanity. We can break the point down into three subpoints.

  1. We tell stories about consciousness through lenses of higher powers.
  2. Our natural tendency to tell stories about consciousness through our own creations instead of the creation surrounding us shows that we hold little value in the consciousness of animals.
  3. Animals have shown similar indications of consciousness to humans, blurring the lines of what actual consciousness is.

Lenses of Higher Power

Our sentience is unique and many question where it came from. Did it come from God? Did we naturally develop it through macro-evolution? These questions have always been at the forefront of our minds and some filmmakers face them with through the development of our consciousness. The video points out that both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Prometheus handle the development of consciousness from higher beings.

“This god-like element is more often than not just an extension of human consciousness. A vision of our destiny.”

Our fascinations with higher beings and consciousness don’t just stand from gods giving us sentience, they also extend into our fantasies to be gods. Ex Machina and Chappie are two films where mankind has created artificial intelligence, surpassing humanity. This recurrent theme of god-like fantasies in sci-fi doesn’t just concern consciousness. We’re obsessed with films that explore how humans can transcend the mundanity of humanity. Superhero films rock the box office because we want to live beyond the limitations of our species. This general route of escapism makes contemplations on becoming higher beings all the more easier to do because we’re doing it every time we want to be Spider-Man.

Our Own Creations

When telling stories about consciousness, filmmakers are most interested in making films about artificial intelligence, manufactured humans, and genetically modified apes. These are stories about constructs mankind has made, not stories about the consciousness that already exists in this world. Like Stories Of Old suggests that we keep consciousness within the realm of humanity because we are destined to create. This, however, is problematic because our need to create overshadows our willingness to accept that consciousness already stands outside of humanity. The video quotes primatologist Frans de Waal’s book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” to explain how animals and humans share similar indications of consciousness — but more on that later.

We tell stories about consciousness within our spectrum of humanity because those are the stories worth telling. Sure, there are different levels of consciousness found within animals, but that doesn’t make a compelling film. No one wants to watch a movie about ants building a colony. We watch films like the Planet of the Apes series because there is intrigue in humans embedding consciousness elsewhere. The consciousness found outside of humanity hardly has stories to tell apart from nature documentaries.

Chappie Ai

Consciousness in Animals and Humans

As the video continues to explain, de Waal finds it difficult that humans focus on their own consciousness because animals have shown similar indications of consciousness. Animals can use logic and reasoning to solve problems, they display self-awareness, and they can even show signs of morality. All of these traits were once thought to be humanity’s defining traits of consciousness. Because animals and humans are more alike in consciousness that we believe, Like Stories of Old finds it difficult that our films are human-centric when it comes to stories about sentience.

While it may be true that animals and humans share similar traits of consciousness, there are obvious, distinct differences. Humans build metropolitan cities, craft world-changing technology, and progress introspective philosophy. It’s dangerous to start thinking that humans and animals are on the same plane of consciousness. Relegating humans to the same level as animals only depreciate our value. This depreciation of human value inspired regimes like Stalinist Russia or Hitler Germany to rid people like animals.

Consciousness is an intricate thing. We don’t really understand it, and this video essay gave us a great look into Hollywood’s depiction of sentience, reminding us that our intelligence makes us special. We’ll always love watching films about AI discovering itself — here’s hoping The Matrix doesn’t come true.

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Lover of coffee, the emdash, and General Hux. Journalism student at Biola University in Los Angeles.