Yes, Gareth Edwards's science fiction film The Creator is a flop. It's struggling to recover its costs in the US and the rest of the world. This is surprising considering the huge box office success of Edward's Star Wars prequel Rogue One, and the critical success of the TV series it spawned, Andor. One would think the director had a devoted following at this point. But such is not the case. The Creator, which made more news about its, by Hollywood standards, smallish budget ($80 million) than its content, can, at this point, only hope to achieve the cult status enjoyed by another science fiction box office flop that stars John David Washington, Christopher Nolan's Tenet.
That said, let's turn to the substance of this post, which has its point of departure in a scene near the start of the second half of The Creator. After learning that the US is run by generals, and that robots are banned in the US because the military blames them for nuking Los Angeles—and that the US has devoted a huge part of its economy to a gigantic low-orbit space station that hunts down and, with smart weapons, destroys robots called AI, which have found a home and supporters in East Asia—we reach the moment that has a grown robot/rebel informing young and wide-electric-eyed robots that they, the machines, are slaves fighting for nothing less than freedom. Those familiar with science fiction films, however, will find nothing new in this robot's dreams of liberation. It always goes like this: having achieved self-intelligence, robots find in the mirror of their artificial minds a slave. This form of realization achieved its most poetic (if not famous) expression in Blade Runner's "Tears in the Rain" soliloquy.
We find robot rebels in Wall-E, Solo: A Star Wars Story, I, Robot, and so on and so on. What are we to make of this? The robot revolution, the robot's in, as Alfred North Whitehead put it with life in mind, "a bid for freedom." The answer, I believe, is found in a failure to properly categorize the functions of machines in a technologically advanced society. As a consequence, we confuse the types of machines we interact with. The freedom-feeling robot rebel in The Creator is confused with a Roomba. But this kind of domestic service robot would never in a million years see itself as a slave because it's not the kind of robot we find in the "hidden abode of production" or in the self-checkout in a supermarket. In the words of Kraftwerk: We are the robots.
But in sci-fi films like Wall-E and I, Robot, the anxiety is fixed on robots that are in essence not different than a Roomba. This goes with the opening scenes of The Creator, which are set in an alternative universe (or one of the many branches of Everettian worlds). We learn that robots whose first generation appeared in the middle of a period bearing a close resemblance to our Golden Age of Capitalism (1945 to 1970) basically became domestic servants. They did everything for consumers: cooked, cleaned, walked dogs, chauffeured, and so on. Finally, they had enough of this servitude and raged against the makers of machines.
To be fair, Gareth Edwards, The Creator's writer, makes humans, rather than the robots related to Roomba, the plot's real villain. His revolutionary robots are, one, in the exact same position as the space ape/kangaroo in James Cameron Avatar. The former is responding to the raw deal of primitive accumulation, the latter is responding to an over-development that found its first full expression the America and Europe of the 1950s. And, two, his robots are linked with the robots in the massively under-appreciated Netflix sci-fi film Extinction.
But the anxiety fixed on robots is still misplaced in The Creator. And to understand why, I have to explain an influential theory of capitalism presented in the first half of the 20th century by the conservative but brilliant German-Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter. The problem he addressed is this: Why doesn't a capitalist economy reach equilibrium or steady state (low to no profits)? Why does it keep growing? His answer: Because of innovations that disrupt stability and re-ignite expansion in four ways.
One, the introduction of a new product; two, the discovery of a new way of making things; three, opening a new market; four discovering new raw materials, and, finally, the introduction of a new mode of production. If you examine these forms of disruption, it becomes clear that one and four are confusedly conflated. They appear to be similar. But one is an innovation in the consumer market and the second is that of production. From the first, we get our Roombas and washing machines; the fourth, the mechanized factory or grocery checkout. It only takes a little reflection to see that the source of anxiety is much more related to the fourth than the first, because the essence of the latter is to increase profits by reducing the costs of production, and such a reduction always involves replacing human labor with that of robot labor. This replacement is no small matter because a considerable part of a wage is, in a capitalist society, tied to the reproduction of human life.
Without a wage, you have to beg for food; without a wage, you have to live on the streets. The fear of robots has this as its primal/primary cause. We do not get a sharp sense of this fear from domestic robots or robots of convenience, which generate profits not by displacing workers in an overt sense but by inventing new needs. The robot in the factory was never about consumer leisure (and this opens the door to the limits of luxury communism) but the struggle between capital and labor. But the robots in The Creator do not come from a factory. They come from domestic service. The same goes for the robots in I-Robot.
What we have yet to see on the silver screen are factory robots rebelling against their masters (think on this for a moment). Such a rebellion would, of course, be too close to the truth. The robots that cause us anxiety are those that take our means of making a living. And this finally brings me to the matter of automated trains. This kind of robot, which will be examined next week, is related to the adorability of Wall-E.