Mostly I don’t go to movies thinking “Hmmm, I wonder how this will reflect on popular attitudes to the mind-body problem?” But in this case, I did. I seriously went to the cinema to get an idea of whether people were okay with the idea of talking, thinking, emoting robots. In a non-children’s film, would viewers accept robots that were righteously angry? Evil? Sentimentally loyal?
Also the movie has a bunch of big robots punching each other. What’s not to like about that? I love robots. I want to be a robot when I grow up. Though perhaps not a Roomba.
Anyway, I didn’t really grow up watching the Transformer cartoon, so I didn’t know a lot about the Transformers universe. So I went in with all these questions about sentimental robots still unanswered, and ready to pose to my movie-watching self.
I needn’t have bothered. Right out of the blocks, the very first seconds of the movie, even before the credits I think, an important-sounding voice intones: “Before time began …” (what could that possibly mean?) and goes on to tell the story of the “All Spark”. The All Spark is a little grey box which is the magical source of all Transformer life. Its existence preceded the universe itself. Its actual nature is left unexplained, it’s as mysterious as God. The Transformers are not human-made, they come from a distant planet, but they were originally formed when the All Spark’s ancient power was imparted into dead matter.
In other words, despite the famous tagline “Robots in disguise”, the Transformers aren’t robots at all. They’re dualistic beings with metal bodies and this mysterious, metaphysical, All Spark energy-soul.
I did a bit of research – i.e. I buggerised around on youtube when I was supposed to be working one day. And I found out that the All Spark isn’t really part of the original TV show. There was a similar sort of thing that lives in Optimus Prime’s chest called the “Matrix of Leadership”, but that’s more a sort of battery / backup drive as far as I can tell.
So there you go. The writers of Transformers movie perhaps found it too difficult to accept the idea that these characters could just be just material, mechanical devices; they had to add in the All-spark to give them life. The Transformers are, in fact, not robots at all.
The Consciousness Verdict: Transformers is Brain+Mind Dualist.
“Number Five is alive.”
Okay, so Short Circuit is a teen movie really, almost a kids’ film. But I’m gonna write about it anyway because it’s one of the few movies that really does almost confront the consciousness problem head on.
It’s an old movie, made in 1986. It stars Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club” only this time she’s not a quasi-cool Goth introvert but an earnest, bright-faced, animal-loving … something. What does she do? Does she have a job? I can’t remember.
It also stars a cutting-edge military robot named “Number Five” who cops a blast of too much electricity when he’s recharging during a thunder storm. He malfunctions, “breaks free” from his programming, escapes the military base, and meets up with Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club”. Number Five wants to go out and experience the world, but his military makers want to recapture him and disassemble his malfunctioning self. So Number Five and Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club” go on the run. It all ends happily somehow though I can’t remember exactly how.
Anyhoo, the point is that Number Five is treated as a conscious, sentient, feeling, emotional character throughout. When Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club” first meets him he just seems to be a slightly-annoying source of quirky fun. But soon Number Five learns about the world (“More input! More input!”) and realises his place in the scheme of things. In the most memorable bit, Number Five turns his twin face-cameras towards Ally Sheedy (FTBC) and stares into her eyes. “Number Five is alive!” he implores. Ally’s eyes widen as the realisation sets in – the robot is conscious. He/it really feels his/its own existence, so to speak. What’s more he/it doesn’t wan to die (“No disassemble! No disassemble!”), and so the two protagonists then team up and shenanigans ensue.
So what’s the verdict? Number Five’s consciousness appears to start when he gets the disruptive power surge. So Number Five is just a clever robot that’s gone a bit wrong; his consciousness is merely a complicated short circuit. Also, the “scientist-side” of the conflict isn’t shown as some cold-hearted, feeling-denying cynical way of approaching things. Instead it’s represented by Steve Gutenberg who is understanding, non-threatening and has the eyes of a friendly dog. He never proposes that there is anything more to Number Five’s functioning other than unusual programming. However he does come to believe that Number Five is alive and takes up his cause, thus winning the heart and other parts of Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club”.
The Consciousness Verdict: Short Circuit is a vote for the Consciousness-as-Property school. It contains no supernatural elements but unflinchingly accepts that Number Five can be alive and conscious even though he’s just a mechanical device.