RIORI Presents Installment #214: Rob Cohen’s “Stealth” (2005), Part Two

The Film…

The Intro…

Hey, welcome back. Glad you could make it. Pull up a chair and have some popcorn. It’s my special recipe. It contains rum.

Anyways, here we are at the landmark three-part shredding of Stealth. This time out we might actually get to deconstruct the dang film. Might.

For those of you who may have missed/ignored the prior installment

The Rant, part 2…

This is going to get long. Even more long. Make that long long. You have been cautioned, and don’t yell at me.

The awakening of Stealth‘s story came to light at the end of its second act. That was when K piped in, almost off the cuff. K suggested the Al jet needed an assist from a human pilot occasionally to “work out any bugs.” That would’ve been a smart idea. Following Act I I saw what she alluded to (even if she hadn’t), and it was ugly.

Trust me. I am not giving anything away. We all attended high school, and were all assailed with this reading assignment. It’s been declared as the first gothic horror novel, as well as the gateway drug to modern science fiction. It also happens to be the first story cautioning about messing around with nature to unwind nature. Read: AI running rampant against it’s creator against an unprepared society.

We’re not talking about The Matrix here, Neo. We’re talking about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Nothing that follows is a spoiler. Patient eyes can figure it out. Dig:

Shelly’s novel has been considered as the first Gothic horror novel, possibly the first and most seminal sci-fi novel and as of late I consider it the first cautionary tale about AI unchained. So for those of you who skipped school here’s a rough synopsis of the story: our titular Doctor Frankenstein (the name of the creator and not the Monster if you did read the book) supposed that harnessing electricity could raise the dead. So he got to grave robbing for parts, stitched his edifice to “scientific” immortality, engaged in crude neurosurgery, gave the cadaver a few jolts and—sure enough—his Monster came to life. With dear, dear consequences.

The Monster was very pissed about be jolted back to mortality and broke free of his master’s command, which resulted in an all too common horror faced my regular folks when confronted by a hulking, lonely beast. Not long before the good doctor began chasing down the albatross around his neck, the Monster befriends a little blind girl, immune to punishment of sight. Alas, the girl accidentally drowns at the Monster’s clumsy, awkward hands. Then come the torches, pitchforks and mob mentality. The Monster’s fear is greater, it being the embodiment of the unknown itself.

So it goes that the remorseful Doctor engages in a futile hunt to reign in his abdominal creation as to atone for f*cking around in God’s domain. The end? No. Shelly’s opus is a pernicious metaphor about hubris, prejudice and science gone mad. Overall it’s a fine metaphor for the panic and fear that hangs over all of us “normal” human beings just below the surface. It’s that damning fear of the unknown, which could doom us all (kinda like unbridled tinkering with AI). And like the Doctor we often come to rue our half-formed decisions the hard way. That fear ever so slowly may dawn on us all.

Frankenstein is—in a technical if not literary sense—also the first story about AI. Recall Doc was screwing around with the nature of things, and electricity was harnessed far after Shelly’s dabbling with her pen in such black arts. Zap, then sentient. Sure, almost a quaint conceit in our present and often too convenient times.

What was Shelly’s understanding of any science (fiction) content? According the historical record, electricity was effectively “harnessed” by the London Public Works back in 1878, where the gas lamps were eventually replaced by electric lamps to illuminate the dank Avalon nights. Shelly’s novel presaged such accomplishments 60 years prior, when the early control of electricity was something tantamount to magic. The subtitle to Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus, after all. I’m willing to wager now y’all skipped too much class. Maybe ignorance was designed to be blissful. Now place your smartphone up against the whiteboard.

Okay. Let’s reboot.  And fast forward from Queen Victoria’s reign of order to our age of calculated disorder. Again, not a Luddite.

K told me at the outset (she had seen this flick before) that it reminded her of Top Gun: Maverick but with a cool s/f bent, with just a bit of cheeze. I’m paraphrasing, but a pretty apt description in hindsight. She bases her fave movies on who is the principal cast. Smart move; better than the hunt-and-peck-and-peck-some-more trial and error approach here at RIORI. She’s a big fan of Jessica Beil and the TV series 7th Heaven, which is why the movie ended up in her library. As well as it met The Standard. Hot dog! We got to bond and have a real discussion and dissection about Stealth. I was the pupil to her teacher, which was a nice change of pace.

Stealth was an even moderner Modern Prometheus. Even though the film was released back in 2005 it aptly predicted our current affair with artificial intelligence. The Terminator conjectured what might happen to humanity if the machines achieved sentience. Would that in turn make humans obsolete? Expendable even? It’s a scary concept, and if you’ve been keeping up with current affairs 2029 is just around the corner.

In the cinematic universe, AI run amok has been an intriguing plot device as well a form of cautionary tale to those paying attention (akin to those who listen to a lot of NPR programming. Like me, durr). If you think about it most movies depicting AI as a window on he future seldom end on a high note. Even Spielberg’s execution of Stanley Kubrick’s script of AI: Artificial Intelligence—which was more or less a melodrama about the human condition—had a downbeat ending (some claim the final scenes were just tagged on to avoid an open ending. Guess most of us just was a sense of closure to our fantasy). Even in relativity recent films, people have had a tenuous grip on the concept of AI. Sure, such films make for good story, but also alert that primitive fight/flight/faint instinct that has kept our species alive.

By the by, AI was released in 2001. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey might be the most seminal of movies regarding our fear of AI going rogue. In the film our intrepid astronauts are on their way to Jupiter. Guiding their journey is the virtual HAL 9000 AI supercomputer, which is constantly aware of every action of the vessel. HAL is the literal nervous system of the entire spaceship Discovery and is a dedicated system programmed to complete the mission, communicate with Houston, navigation, complete the mission and maintain life support, and above all complete the mission. The last part sticks.

Long story short infallible HAL gets a glitch and the crew consider the idea of rebooting it to isolate the problem. HAL gets wind and does not like this idea. It would mean reseting its memory, and that is crucial to completing the mission. So HAL offs almost all of the crew to remain online to complete the mission. Which was paramount, although that did not happen.

An aside: I heard a story once that 2001 became a portent to NASA and their shuttle launches in the 80s. Thanks to the film every shuttle flight had at least three failsafes to ensure the smartest tech this side of Jupiter would never endanger the crew. Barring nature, no shuttle flight ever had a glitch like HAL had. Props to Stan Kubrick there.

There are a handful of other movies that are as cautionary as 2001, but not nearly as chilling. Consider Blade Runner, the first Matrix movie, the anime Patlabor as well as the more humane touch of Her, Deus Ex and even the kindly Bicentennial Man. All of them are keen on hammering it in that AI can be deceptive, dangerous and even damning to our society. To what end? Might be that lurking need for more convenience. The Monster had it easy; it just wanted solitude. In these days of Siri and Alexa beckoning our every call we now must hassle around deep fakes, influencers and Netflix cancelling their DVD rentals (which may destroy this very blog since I can’t afford streaming services).

“No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity…but I know none, and therefore am no beast.” That’s Shakespeare. His tragic social commentary, which was composed way before Shelley’s portents about the dangers of AI and absolute power corrupting. The play was written circa 300 years before Shelley’s landmark novel, Such concerns about power and presence presage Siri’s launch in 2010 transpired…a helluva long time ago.

Ahem. Sorry. Who wants an oat milk latte?

All cut and dried—and ignoring the social commentary. Thank you very little—viewing Stealth resulted in K‘s critique more than mine. It was her suggestion here, after all. So from now forth regard the following as K‘s review. With much paraphrasing from yours truly. Try and lasso in any gloom and doomspeak. The flick was decidedly not to be some warning about AI gone bad, but just enough for entertainment. Let’s just consider Stealth‘s metaphor angle on the back burner for now. It was a rather hot pot though, after all.

I really enjoyed the camaraderie amongst our principals. Hey, they’re a team, and their divergent personalities are always the stuff that gets one’s back. Sure, it’s a collection of stereotypes, but the three all blend well despite their differences. Recall the original Star Trek id/ego/superego of McCoy/Kirk/Spock dynamic. We have a fun triad here that informs the plot. Hey, if these aces are up to the task of showing an AI the ropes they better tie up any knots

So let’s boil it all down, shall we? This was K‘s show after all.

She loves action movies like Stealth. The kinds with jets and dogfights and are loud. She also loves police TV procedurals like NCIS, CSI, Bones any other series that revolves around a mystery to solve with a certain ickiness factor. Then again she turned me on to 7th Heaven. So go fig.

K likes big, noisy action flicks, and Stealth was no different. Cool fighter jet designs made ideal. The thrill of the flight. Smart tech unbound. She commented that all is smooth sailing as long as your feet are on the ground. Well put with flicks like these. Based on that observation Stealth came across rather flimsy. Lightweight, then again. She instructed me to shush so I did.

It’s uncommon that I keep my comments to myself with a film that is no more than popcorn fodder. Stealh had fistfuls to jam in one’s maw. It was a film designed to earn no awards, just dumb fun. However there was this too smart an undercurrent reflecting the smart Doctor’s intentions. Director Cohen was Victor here. Check it:

The jet fighter was “brought to life” via a lightning strike/deus ex machina. It had a greenish hue and its exhaust stank of methane.. to odor rotting corpses give off. EDI has large “bolts” on its cockpit securing AI hub to the jet’s body (still untested at the start of the script). Once self-actualized, EDI determines to understand all it can about humans, social interaction and ultimately what’s the purpose of fighting? Probably by accident our rouge jet is affectionally dubbed EDI. Recalls a popular nickname for Edward. That’s an old Angl0-Saxon name meaning “protector.”

Coinkydink?  Nah. Just like EDI was green in hue, retreats to icy climes to avoid radar detection and tries to rescue a female behind enemy lines. Green is the colour of jealousy, after all. No connection at all. The scenarist just got to falling asleep in AP English more often than any peers back in the day.

Fire drill! Last one out is a hard-cooked egg (they often smell like sulfur)!

*owl hooting*

I think I’m overthinking the subtext of Stealth (also with the thing about not much stealth tech in the movie). It was by accident that director Cohen made a pedestrian sh’mup* actioner into something with a bit more meat on its fuselage. Behind just cool jet designs informing our collective wariness of AI. The flick felt lightweight, but then again so does Siri in breadth a depth, and oodles of subs use her to guide daily activities. En toto Stealh was accidental social commentary. The best fables and/or cautionary tales are never intentional, and since Cohen’s best known popcorn fodder were the XXX movies (not porn you dolts) I highly doubt his muse was a cautionary tale regarding the forefront of the latest digital whatsit Alexa-esque toys reflecting any human factor.

All right. Shut up. We get it already. For real. Just because Stealth was the canard I implied it did have its merits. Like I hammered to death above AI can be a threat, but really only as threatening as those who direct it. Kinda like Mr Cohen’s muse on fire.

Now until next time…

The Intermission…
I’ll wrap up this mess somehow. Stay tuned…

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