Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Mars Express, from GKIDS

Science fiction once reflected society’s concerns, but lately, it more often tries to shape and alter society’s worries instead. Horror has become a better barometer of our true collective anxieties. AI is a prime example. Horror depicts the potential deadly menace of AI in movies like M3gan. In contrast, sf tells us human beings are the bad guys, so AI constructs have more to fear from us than we do from them, in films like The Creator, Automata, The Artifice Girl, Ex Machina, and Chappie, many of which bombed at the box office. Can human and artificial consciousnesses just get along? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to probably not in Jeremie Perin’s GKIDS-released animated feature Mars Express, which opens this Friday in New York.

In the future, anybody who is anyone lives on Mars rather than the crummy old Earth. Artificial intelligence has achieved self-aware consciousness, but they are still bound prime directive programming—unless a cybernetic hacker “jailbreaks” them. Most of private investigator Aline Ruby’s work involves catching such criminals, at the behest robotics tycoon Chris Royjacker, with the help her partner, Carlos Rivera. Sadly, Rivera was killed several years ago, but they still work together, because he had the foresight to back-up his consciousness. Ruby fully accepts the back-up Rivera cyborg, but Rivera’s former family did not.

Recently, a rash of jailbreaks have led to violent robotic crime sprees. There seems to be a systemic effort to corrupt artificial intelligences. Ruby and Rivera quickly suspect it might be related to their latest case: the disappearance of a cybernetic programming student.

Mars Express
is a cool-looking attempt to create a Ghost in the Shell-style world, with its own distinctive sociological take on human-AI interaction, inspired by Asimov’s laws of robotics. Perin and co-screenwriter Laurant Sarfati also shrewdly import elements of the noir detective genre. However, they inevitably return to same anti-human themes, inviting viewers to literally root against their own species.

Mars Express is an animated film with deeply human characters. Ruby is a recovering alcoholic, who falters due to the stress of the case. Back-up Rivera yearns to reconnect with Rivera-prime’s family, but he cannot undue his former self’s mistakes or his ex-wife’s revulsion to his current physical form. (To be fair, the way his head hovers above his should, sans neck, is a bit disconcerting).

Mars Express
features some very striking futuristic cityscapes and space-faring scenes that would please Chesley Bonestell. Quite cleverly, a major plot point involves annoying software updates that fail due to lack of memory.

In many ways,
Mars Express represents smart science fiction and high-quality animation. However, the anti-human implications are troubling. Once you accept the notion humankind in general is no longer worthy of life, it becomes much easier to justify killing large numbers of the species, for sinister ideological purposes. Despite such reservations, Mars Express is still recommended for its visuals and world-building, when it opens this Friday (5/3) in theaters, including the Regal Times Square in New York.