June 15, 2016

by Mitch Ziems

The future is here…and it’s bordering on unintelligible.

On June 9, Ars Technica debuted Sunspring, a short sci-fi film with a twist; it was written by a text recognition neural network they called Jetson (until it informed them that it preferred to be known as Benjamin).

Sunspring was written for director Oscar Sharp, who produced the script for Sci-Fi London‘s 48-Hour Film Challenge.

Contestants were given a series of prompts:

Title: Sunspring.
Dialogue: “It may never be forgiven, but that’s just too bad.”
Prop & Action: A character pulls a book from a shelf, flips through it, and puts it back.
Optional Science Idea: In a future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood.

Sharp and his technologist collaborator, Ross Goodwin, fed these into the AI, along with dozens of mainstream sci-fi scripts that allowed its ‘long short-term memory’ algorithm to produce entire strings of sentences, rather than the individual words usually predicted by similar systems in devices like smartphones.

Benjamin then produced a screenplay, and the lyrics to a song that would be incorporated into the film.

This was the result.


Borderline babel, at first the film resembles the output of an avant-garde film student on psychedelics, but for the performances of Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch and his two co-stars. If we look deeper, however, the semblance of a professional screenplay can be found.

Middleditch plays H, who is seemingly our protagonist. His opening line, “in a future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood”, is directly taken from the festival’s prompts, but is quickly forgotten for what seems like a more traditional scene.

Like so many other protagonists who have taken the hero’s journey as set out by Joseph Campbell, H clearly feels powerless within his world. “I am not a bright light,” he announces despondently to H2, the scientist with whom he shares the scene.

It’s then that C enters sinisterly and declares that he is “going to the skull” before bathing his face in a green light projected from some kind of tablet device. C is clearly our villain; he holds answers to the questions that, in a traditional screenplay, would be spurring H on his journey.

Benjamin then inserts a twist: H2 has secretly been on C’s side all along! H is angry, but H2’s not surprised at his reaction. “I know it’s a consequence. Whatever you need to know about the presence of the story” seems to be referencing that classic moment when the traitor explains how it’s always been clear they’ve been on the bad guy’s side, as H scavenges for understanding.

H nearly buckles under the revelation, but ultimately finds the strength to stay on course. “I need to leave, but I’m not free of the world!”

C intervenes, but faced with H’s newfound resolve, concedes. “I’m not…going…to do something.” He then suggests H returns to the old world by focusing on the tech at his worktable, but the time for that has passed. H has changed, totally and permanently.

From there, the structure starts to unravel. We see H underneath his worktable (bound to his past?) and standing amongst the stars (free of his limitations?) simultaneously. A call from H2 reminds H of what he has lost, and he prepares to commit suicide until we a shown a vision of a possible future in which H enters a room to find C dead on the ground. He cries over his nemesis’s body while holding a ‘bag’ of dark red liquid in his hands.

This last scene is not portrayed exactly as it appears in the script. Benjamin does not explicitly state that the man in the room is C, nor does he say that the man is dead, only that H has come to protect him. Perhaps this man was meant to be the other version of H, the version still bound to the past. His journey has killed that part of him, and so he mourns the loss of the past, a past which presumably included H2.

It is with H2 that the film concludes. Her actress delivers a monologue that hints at the relationship she shared with H. “Well, there’s the situation with me and the light on the ship,” she says, referencing H’s statement that he was “not a bright light”.

“I just wanted to tell you that I was much better than he did,” she goes on to clarify. Is H2 justifying her reason for siding with C? Is this, in fact, not H’s story, but hers? She has doubts over what she’s done. She fears that she has given up happiness. But deep inside, a piece of her knows she’ll be better off.

This could all be the assumption of a writer who understands structure, but even so, the structure seems to be there. That doesn’t mean AIs like Benjamin will be taking jobs from screenwriters any time soon though.

Sunspring may very well represent the epitome of quality AI-scripted content for the foreseeable future. It’s not that well written, but it sure is entertaining.

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