Friday, May 16, 2008

Rocket science anyone?

In the fifties, I used to be an ardent fan of black and white B-grade sci-fi movies from Hollywood scripted using pulp magazine writers’ logic. You know stuff like It Came From Outer Space, the 1953 flick also made in the 3-D format which I remember seeing in the Eros Theatre at Church Gate. I had also seen and enjoyed The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Blob (1958), the Steve(n) McQueen debut vehicle. Somehow or the other, though, I had missed watching The Invisible Boy (1957). Well, I made up for the lapse yesterday. I happened to switch on Turner Classic Movies early morning and there it was, lo and behold! The hero is Robby, the Robot – who debuted in Forbidden Planet (1956) – with 10-year-old Timmie as his sidekick. A gargantuan Super Computer with hypnotic flashing lights (“Look at the pretty lights, Timmie”) and an ambition of world domination is the villain. The Matrix with its two sequels deals with the same theme of world domination too, you’ll recall. However, I found the idea of the doddering, plodding AI colossus, made and fed by Timmie’s computer scientist dad, in The Invisible Boy getting anywhere close to taking over the world ridiculous. Even his persuasive spiel at the end of the movie did not impress me much. ("Come, scientist! Let us reason together. I can still answer any question your mind can devise. I am an instrument of knowledge. I will lead you to the farthest planets. I will lead you to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. I will show you the stars!") The idea of Timmie being endowed with super intelligence by the far-seeing evil genius with flashing lights seems ludicrous too – at least the way it is presented. The boy is then able to reassemble and put into serviceable mode Robby whom his dad and his colleagues have discarded as a derelict piece of scrap beyond redemption. Nobody takes Timmie’s handiwork too seriously until the kite made by Robby carries his young friend aloft. This puts Timmie’s technophobe and techno-illiterate mom ("Did you have a nice day at the computer, dear?") into a ballistic frenzy. To grant his wish of being able to play without parental interference, Robbie – and the Super Comp – make Timmie invisible. He is kidnapped and held hostage to force his dad into surrendering a classified safety code that stands in the way of the Super Comp’s ambition and so on and so forth. What starts off as a fun sci-fi movie suddenly starts taking itself too seriously and ends up a damp squib which incidentally is a firework that fails to go off because it happens to be wet. My discomfort with the theme of the film springs from my inability to accept the Super Comp as a sentient being, I reckon. True, it had AI but was it not fed information by his – and Timmie’s – dad, the computer scientist? Where then did the ability to feel and perceive subjectively, the (self) “awareness” as it were, come from? How could the ambition to take over the world arise? Am I making a mountain from a molehill, rocket science from pulp sci-fi? Horace would've approved, though. Was it not he who wrote: “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus” (= “The mountain will labour, a ridiculous mouse will be born”)? Much ado about nothing, the Bard of Avon aka William Shakespeare would've whole-heartedly agreed.