For Monitor this week, Aaron Yap looks at Humans, AMC’s new elegant sci fi drama that examines the not-so-distant role of artificial intelligence in our everyday lives.
Artificial intelligence has long been one of the most commonly explored subjects of all science fiction. From the spookily prescient writings of Isaac Asimov and H.G Wells to seminal film masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, the multitude of conundrums that A.I. poses has equally gripped and unsettled us. We’re fascinated by its potential to better humankind, but lurking within that fascination is a deep-seated fear that we could all possibly be replaced by machines.
It’s perhaps grown even more potent and resonant in recent times, given that the fantasy is inching closer to reality with each day. You can definitely see an increasing preoccupation on film and TV. In the past couple of years, we’ve had a proliferation of similarly themed works – some intelligent (Black Mirror’s episode “Be Right Back”, Her, Ex Machina) and some not so much (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Chappie, Transcendence, the canned cop show Almost Humans).
So it’s not a huge surprise that AMC’s Humans, a British-American remake of the Swedish sci-fi drama Real Humans, feels somewhat familiar from the outset. Developed by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (Spooks), it’s an attractive, elegant repackaging of questions asked many times before: do androids have souls? can they dream? remember?
In the present of Humans, the use of creepily life-like robot servants called “Synths” has become the norm. 100 million units are operational worldwide, employed by everyone from healthcare to hospitality industries. Or you could be like Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill), Average Family Guy who’s just purchased a brand new synth (Gemma Chan) to help out with the kids as workaholic lawyer mum Laura (Katherine Parkson) is barely around.
The pilot is efficient in establishing the fairly generic Hawkins household as a microcosm of society’s greater relationship with the synths. Joe appears content with his costly investment, which will unburden him from domestic chores (it even comes with an “R18 adults-only” option, wink wink). Moody, rebellious teenager Mattie (Lucy Carless) treats the synth like a dumb slave, unfeelingly firing BB pellets at her for kicks.
Toby (Theo Stevenson) can barely contain his hormonal awe at having the alluring, emerald-eyed Chan living in close proximity. The youngest, Sophie (Pixie Davies), is quick to bond with the synth, affectionately naming her “Anita” after a friend. It’s Laura, suspiciously perceiving Anita’s presence as a threat to her maternal role, whom embodies the technophobic concern of being made obsolete.
Watching the curly, small-scale dynamics of the Hawkins/Anita scenario would’ve been sufficiently hooky for a single episode. A couple of scenes stand out for the way they create relatable, subtly insidious moments from human-bot exchanges.
The otherwise mundane breakfast scene where Joe cracks a lame dad-joke about cooking Anita “microchips” turns into something awfully awkward and weird for everyone as Anita begins to laugh repeatedly like a broken record that won’t stop unless told to. The second cuts deeper, with Laura hostilely reacting to Anita reading Sophie a bedtime story. “Reading is mummy’s job”, Laura tells Sophie, to which she replies, “But she doesn’t rush”. It’s a brief but nevertheless stinging illustration of Laura’s absence from her family and Anita’s perfectly modulated capabilities to fill that gap.
Alas, Humans, like all network genre shows these days, is in a rush to get its overarching thriller arc off the ground. The B-plot, involving Leo Elster (Colin Morgan), a fugitive on the lam with a faction of synths who are actually sentient, isn’t nearly as interesting, reeking of shadow-corp puppet-string-pulling conspiracies that we’ve seen far too often by now.
Wedged somewhere in there too is William Hurt, who plays Dr. George Millican, an ailing, retired scientist unable to let go of his nursing synth Odi (Will Tudor). His segments bring a sense of history to the synths (Odi’s an outdated model that needs to be upgraded, i.e. dumped), and exposes the emotional vulnerabilities that could ultimately lead to the humans’ downfall in the face of an android uprising.
To give the writers credit, the Leo Elster stuff is neatly threaded into the Hawkins plot (Leo and Anita have a past together), and when viewed simply as world-building, it’s fine. Glimpses of a larger synth-driven network – a black market, brothels, plantations – all help enhance the plausibility of this speculative setting.
As long as Humans doesn’t repeat the sins of Orphan Black at its worst, ensnaring rich, heady ideas in a maze of impenetrable twists, there’s plenty of room for it to develop into a brainy and exciting little show. The pilot is engagingly acted (Chan is a revelation) and stylishly photographed, with a doozy of a final shot that’ll no doubt have viewers hanging around for episode two.
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Humans airs on TV3 Tuesdays 8.30pm
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