Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I., a grieving family attempts to replace their comatose son with an Android who looks and acts and talks exactly like the child. This robot has even been engineered to love the family, filling, as his maker says, “a great void,” for not just this one family, but for any number of childless couples. With a robot body and human emotions, the tagline for the film states, “His love is real. But he is not.”
Until recently, I hadn’t thought about A.I. in a long time. Truthfully, it was one of those films that kind of bored me when I saw it. Coming off experiences like Armageddon and Independence Day, I wasn’t prepared for a dystopian movie that was long and navel-gazey that never really takes off the way I’d been programmed through my teenage years to expect science fiction movies to. It reminded me of the film Gattaca, another dystopian story examining human nature—although in a more Brave New World manner. Science fiction, whether of the alien-invasion/space battles variety or of the slow, speculative, and intellectual variety is all supposed to be this way: it is supposed to interrogate the human condition. It is, however, still supposed to be fiction.
That’s why, when a recent video out of Korea came to my attention, Spielberg’s A.I. returned to mind. This February, a reality show in Korea called Meeting You utilized virtual reality simulations to reunite family members with deceased loved ones. This clip (which is extremely grief-triggering—I don’t recommend you watch it if that will be an issue for you) aired as the finale, which culminated in the reunion of a mother with her dead seven-year-old daughter—which is, of course, a reunion only of sorts. Their daughter is actually dead; the mother (whom we watch with the VR equipment on, but also inside the simulation with the daughter) is interacting essentially with a deepfake, or a virtual imitation of, her child. In this case, the mother’s love is real, but as in the movie A.I. the child is not.
If we feel qualms about the use of virtual reality to reunite the living and the dead, then we should ask ourselves why we’re not also necessarily applying those same qualms to the movies we consume.Perhaps you have the same knee jerk revulsion as I do to the notion of “resurrecting” someone like this. How could they do such a thing—not just for the ethical questions it raises around the consent of the dead, but also the commercialization of the event through the medium of reality TV? Well, the precedent for something like this has been set for a long time, and not just in our science fiction stories—which more often question the use of such technology—but in how we create and consume stories. Hollywood has been virtually “resurrecting” the dead for years, and the ethics have always been questionable at best. Sometimes the digital resurrections are enacted because of an untimely death in the middle of a project; sometimes they have been done merely because a studio, director, or executive decides a particular deceased performer is the best choice to embody a current role—or even to promote and sell a product. Actors such as Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing were resurrected for roles in various Star Wars projects; John Candy, Paul Walker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all died while in the middle of filming various movies and were digitally recreated through the use of existing footage and body doubles to finish out their films; and actors like Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, and Fred Astaire have all been brought “back to life” decades after death to star in commercials.
If we feel qualms about the use of virtual reality to reunite the living and the dead, then we should ask ourselves why we’re not also necessarily applying those same qualms to the movies we consume. Through the use of CGI, the virtual resurrection of dead actors (without their consent) is happening with more and more regularity. And as CGI and virtual reality technology becomes more accepted, more available, more realistic, and more affordable, obtaining consent from a person for their image to be used before or after their death will become a matter of course. The consent issue thus aside, though, we will still have an ethical dilemma before us: how much alteration of reality, especially as regards the human body, is healthy for us to consume? Is the body something we just recycle endlessly without ramifications, or is there a moral aspect to this sort of virtual reality, as well?
The road that leads to wholesale bodily CGI reconstructions has long been paved by de-aging and facial alterations. What was unsettling and even a little creepy in early attempts at digitally de-aging celebrities (remember Jeff Bridge’s face in TRON: Legacy?) has now become so accepted we hardly blink at it—probably because the technology for these digital de-agings has caught up to the visions for the projects. Every major Marvel release of the last few years has de-aged actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert Downey Jr. to play younger versions of themselves. Also we probably accept it now because a part of us gets a thrill out of seeing young versions of our favorite celebrities active on the big screen once again. Nostalgia is a powerful and lucrative force in the movie industry.
Truth is that which is consistent with reality, but if we rewrite reality, then what is truth?2019’s Gemini Man de-aged Will Smith to play a younger cloned version of himself against an older original version of himself in the recent science fiction thriller. As film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote on Gemini Man for Vox in October, from a meta-perspective, however, the film heralds advances in CGI technology while also signaling something much darker for society. If celebrities can be perennially de-aged to continue playing roles with digital faces, why wouldn’t they license their images to do so? Where does that leave the film industry as we head into the future? (Wilkinson has written in depth on this at least twice for Vox. Both articles—on Gemini Man and the rise of Cinelytic—go much further into this topic and are highly worth your time.)
Science fiction often asks us to examine what makes us human, but virtual reality technology now asks us to examine what is real. This is a question of infinite importance, especially in matters of the reality of the human body. Truth is that which is consistent with reality, but if we rewrite reality, then what is truth?
When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate and a crowd thirsty for blood, Pilate famously washed his hands of the blame of what he was about to do. Undesirous of knowing or seeking any real justice, Pilate asked, rhetorically, “What is truth?” as if truth is something unknowable. Truth is not unknowable, however—Jesus himself came to testify to it. But in order to know it, we must also have a grasp on reality. A distortion of reality therefore leads to a distortion of truth. Is reality what we can touch, see, smell, hear, and taste? What, then, when virtual reality can recreate all these things in ways that are partially, and sometimes wholly, false?
Virtual reality deepfakes, resurrections, and de-aging technology are teaching us that we can no longer trust all our five senses, and in a world already saturated with “fake news” rhetoric, this is a dangerous place to be. Now, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and talks like a duck—it is in no way necessarily a duck.
How do we make sense of truth in a world where deepfakes are leaping from the big screen into our homes?In the Greek story “Pygmalion and Galatea,” Pygmalion was a gifted sculptor who set out to sculpt a perfect woman out of stone. The famous classicist Edith Hamilton records of him, “The supreme achievement of art was his, the art of concealing art.” Such was his skill that he fell in love with his own creation, even though he knew that she was nothing more than a statue. “He loved a lifeless thing and he was utterly and hopelessly wretched.” We are surrounded by Pygmalions now—by artists so skilled at creating deepfakes we may soon see a day where celebrities sign away their likenesses to be digitally resurrected for decades after their deaths. Where we can meet our deceased loved ones beyond the grave in virtual reality simulations. Where nothing new that is real is ever really required because we love the “statues” too much. But the statues are not real, and to love “a lifeless thing” is to be “utterly and hopelessly wretched.”
The story of Pygmalion and Galatea has a happy ending only because the goddess of love answers Pygmalion’s prayers and causes his statue to become a real woman. In A.I., the robot boy, David, is cast aside by his mother after her comatose son wakes up and comes home. David, who loves his mother without reservation, sets out on a journey to find his maker and figure out how he can become a real boy so his mother will return his love. What is truth? What is reality? And how do we maintain a grasp on it now that what was once science fiction has become not only possible, but has entered into our lives—through our stories, through our habits, through our loves, and through our grief.
The commercialization of the Korean mother’s experience with her digitally resurrected child adds a level of exploitation and a sense of ominous portent to the ethics of virtual reality usage in the real world. But are actors not real people too? We’ve essentially been watching versions of the Korean reality show for years—maybe it’s time we face what our appetites are creating. Reality is being rewritten every day for our entertainment. How do we make sense of truth in a world where deepfakes are leaping from the big screen into our homes? If truth is that which is consistent with reality, then we must be able to determine what reality is—and we must not accept virtual reality as a substitute for it. We will be “utterly and hopelessly wretched” if we love “lifeless things”—and if we cannot tell the difference between what is lifeless and what has life, our loves will be hopelessly disordered.