The Year Ahead in Science Film

This year’s SXSW Film festival highlighted our fears about emerging tech and concerns facing online and gaming communities.

A scene from sci-fi thriller Ex Machina.
A scene from sci-fi thriller Ex Machina.

Society’s shifting and uneasy relationship with emerging technology was at the forefront of this year’s South by Southwest Film festival and conference, the cinematic arm of the annual cultural extravaganza in Austin, Texas. Screenings included narrative sci-fi films that focused on the (not-too-distant) future, questioning if we’re psychologically prepared to face and use advanced technologies such as intelligent robots and interactive virtual reality. Meanwhile, documentaries examined sexism in gaming and the criminal trial involving the massive online black market known as Silk Road. And one film even raised the question: Why did we love Steve Jobs so much? (For more of SciFri’s SXSW coverage, click here.)


Ex Machina (in theaters April 10)
Written and directed by Alex Garland, the screenwriter of recent sci-fi cult favorites 28 Days Later and Sunshine, this thriller made headlines during the fest for a creative marketing scheme that tricked Tinder users into chatting with one of its lead characters, Ava. The catch, of course, is that Ava isn’t human—not in real life, or in the film. Instead, she’s an A.I. humanoid robot designed by a fictional reclusive genius and tech CEO played by Oscar Isaac. In the film, his character invites one of his employees to perform the Turing Test on Ava for one week. Ex Machina is an unnerving film that probes age-old psychological questions from the vantage point of a future that doesn’t seem quite so far off. (For more on A.I., tune in to this SciFri segment.)

Image by Adam Newport-Berra

Creative Control
The threat of emerging technology is also the basic premise of the tense Creative Control, whose setting is “five minutes into the future.” Indeed, the film features a hipster Brooklyn that doesn’t look much different from our own, and a pair of virtual reality glasses that figure prominently in the plot resemble a pair of stylish Warby Parkers. The anxieties of work-life balance that plague protagonist David (played by director and co-writer Benjamin Dickinson)—who’s charged with marketing the glasses and who begins using them to devise a fantasy life—are unnerving in their plausibility, too. Shot mostly in black and white, with fascinating projections of future tech, the unsettling flick is an inventive peek into the dangers of using virtual reality to escape real life.

GTFO The Movie
Quite a few viewers gasped during the screening of this documentary, which provides an overview of discrimination and harassment plaguing some female competitive players, critics, and bloggers in the gaming community. The provocations come in all forms and levels of obscenity, from online to in-person harassment. In one uncomfortable scene, we watch a male gamer ask a female gamer’s bra size as she’s trying to compete in a tournament. The bullying is often hard to watch, but the tenacity of the women to look past it and persevere in the industry is inspiring. What we as a larger society can do about the problem, however, remains to be seen, and the documentary does little beyond give the women a brief platform from which to speak out.

Deep Web (out on May 31 on Epix)
Mainstream portrayals of the online marketplace known as Silk Road often cast it as the Internet’s underbelly—a black market that was supposed to be untrackable and therefore perfect for all things illegal and unruly. This documentary, directed by Alex Winter, aims to dissect the human side of Silk Road. The film follows the story of Ross Ulbricht, who was recently accused of founding and operating the marketplace under the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts.” It explores questions like whether he really is the culprit, if there were other participants, and if there was foul play that led to Ulbricht’s capture. Ulbricht was convicted in February, with sentencing slated for this May (he faces 30 years to life in prison), so the film’s deep dive into the trial and Ulbricht’s future may be premature.

Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine
“Why did people love Steve Jobs?” is the central question of this new documentary by Alex Gibney, the filmmaker behind the recent Scientology exposé “Going Clear.” Apple executives refused to participate, and so audiences are left with testimonials from former coworkers and colleagues who describe a side to Jobs that wasn’t generally visible to the public: a stubborn, closed-off individual who denied and avoided conflicts about his ideas, and who threatened those who weren’t loyal to him. Though certainly not a flattering portrait, it isn’t completely scathing, either. For instance, we learn that Jobs never visited the Foxconn factories in China where many Apple devices are made (and which come with controversies of their own), but we also watch some of those who had been spurned by the CEO also speak admiringly of him. By the end, Gibney admits he’s become a little more wary of his iPhone, but he still seems unsure about how to perceive the innovator that has inspired so many.

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About Chau Tu

Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.