Movies, men and machines

Subha Das Mollick

Movies are mostly about the lives of human beings. But there are times when animals take centre stage in movies and walk away with the prizes. There are also some movies where machines take centre stage – machines endowed with human abilities. The human beings in these movies develop a strange relationship with the machines. In this article two movies are discussed. In one movie, the human protagonist revives a dead machine and in the other, the human protagonist kills a machine. The two movies bring out man’s infatuation with machines in two different ways.

Man breathes life into a machine
In Martin Scorsese’s 2012 film Hugo, one of the pivotal characters of the story is an automaton – a machine programmed to carry out a complicated task of sketching the iconic image of a rocket stuck on the face of the moon, piercing one of its eyes. Hugo’s father, a watch maker, had found this automaton, abandoned and dilapidated, in the attic of a museum. He had figured out that it was a writing automaton, but he did not know what this machine was programmed to write. Before he could set it into operation again, he was engulfed by a fire. But Hugo was determined to complete this unfinished task. He believed that putting the automaton back into action would help him connect to his father. Inside the walls of the Paris railway station where Hugo lived, this automaton was his only companion. Interestingly, this machine had been given a human form with a bald head and an innocent face locked in a smile. Its body consisted of a cage enclosing a complicated system of levers and gears. The automaton was powered by the energy of a wound spring. The spring had to be wound with a heart shaped key. The key was missing and the automaton sat inactive on its chair.


One day, Hugo miraculously found the key dangling from the neck of his new friend Isabelle. The key was put in its place and sure enough, the gears in the innards of the automaton started churning and the levers started clanking. One of the hands of the automaton was shaped for holding a pen. First, the hand reached for the inkpot and dipped the pen in the ink. Then it made some small marks in an arc of a circle. Then the lines came in quick succession – concentric semi-circles, cylindrical shape of the rocket, little stars, the wide open eye of the moon and finally its gaping mouth, aghast at being hit by a rocket. As the automaton’s hand moved swiftly across the paper, its head turned, giving the impression that the eyes were following the movement of the hand. The automaton finished its task by putting the signature of the artist: Georges Melies. According to the script of Hugo, this automaton had been created by the magician turned filmmaker Georges Melies.

Automatons were a rage in the early industrial age, when machines were designed to carry out specific tasks. Juke boxes, self-playing pianos, cuckoo clocks – all clocks for that matter, are examples of mechanical automatons. These were created in the era when the motive power of electricity was not invented. Hugo’s automaton was an extremely sophisticated creation in this lineage. In order to programme it to sketch the picture, the creator of this automaton had to break down the action into a finite number of simple steps and create a mechanism for carrying out each little piece of action in a predetermined sequence. The logic of breaking down the action into a sequential order has not been delved into in this film; nor has the mechanism of carrying out the action been fully revealed. The brief shots of the inside mechanism of the automaton show interlocked gears and a toothed wheel that seems to be controlling different stages of the sketching action. There is also a cylinder made of stacked discs that moves up and down in the innards of the machine as the mechanical arm completes the drawing.

When the automaton started functioning, Hugo and Isabelle felt happy. Hugo told Isabelle, “Everything has a purpose. Even machines. Clocks tell the time, trains take you places. They do what they’re meant to do. May be that’s why broken machines make me so sad. They can’t do what they’re meant to do. May be it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.”

Isabelle answered, “Like Papa George”
Hugo pondered, “May be we can fix him.”

Isabelle took a hard look at Hugo and asked, “Is that your purpose? Fixing things?”

In reply, Hugo took Isabelle to the window of the clock tower from where the entire city was visible. The Eiffel Tower stood tall right at the centre. Hugo said, “Right after my father died, I would come here a lot. I would imagine the whole world as one big machine. Machines do not come with a spare part. If I am here in this world, it must be for a purpose.”

Hugo and Isabelle’s conversation underlines the mechanistic, deterministic world view that eventually led to the creation of machines. The automaton, after being fixed, not only got back its own purpose in life, it also gave back its creator Georges Melies his purpose in life and thus fixed him. Man and machine found fulfilment in each other.

Man’s infatuation with machines
We do not know whether there is some historical truth to an automaton created by the magician Georges Melies and whether he was really forced to dispose it when he fell into hard times. But the automaton we encounter in the movie Hugo was created by Dick George and his team. Over a period of eight months, they created 15 automatons, the two most complex of which drew Melies’ image in real time and without the use of CGI. The working of David George’s team may be seen in the video The video does not reveal the tricks of the trade, but shows the automaton complete the entire picture in one uncut shot. However, another video, a CBS show on the lost art of automatons (, gives us a glimpse into the working of a writing automaton. In the narrator’s words, “Once assembled, the hands of this remarkable boy machine could be moved by a series of levers, guided by precisely carved grooves in brass discs called camps.”

David Ranalli, a professional magician, writes in his website, “An automaton in the hands of a magician not only enhances the status of what an automaton can do, but also creates the illusion of Artificial Intelligence as a real, “thinking and conscious machine” during a show. Magicians who pioneered automatons created the illusion that the machines had a will of their own; they could act upon their own desires, listen to commands from humans, and sometimes even possess the human mind in a demonic fashion. Magicians do this for one, single purpose: because it is creepy and mysterious for people to watch.”

Automatons of the early industrial era were the precursors to robots. Perhaps the major difference between an automaton and a robot is that the latter is endowed with decision-making power. A robot is programmed to take simple decisions during the course of its task.

hugo-the-automatons-drawing Ranalli gives more examples of automatons created by magicians – the trapeze gymnast Antonio Diavolo created by the famous magician Robert Houdin and earlier to that, the chess playing Turk created in 1769 in Vienna by the magician Wolfgang Von Kempelen to impress the empress of Hapsburg. It had baffled Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allen Poe and even Napoleon Bonaparte. Legend has it that Napoleon decided to challenge the Turk head on, sat down for a game of chess with the automaton and deliberately made an illegal move. The Turk knocked off all the chess pieces from the chess board in protest. Before its methods could be decoded, the Turk was destroyed by a fire in 1854, in much the same way in which Hugo’s father was engulfed by a fire.

In 1927, the French silent film The Chess Player has the Turk and its inventor as important characters in the plot. In present day Los Angeles, John Gaughan, an ‘illusion builder’ has recreated the Turk – a result of 35 years of hard work. In 2012, the Turk was challenged by chess grandmaster Andranik Matikozyan. The game between the two may be watched on The Turk defeated the grandmaster.

Deep Blue, IBM’s chess playing machine that defeated Garry Kasparov in 1996, was inspired by the Turk. So was HAL, the chess playing machine in 2001: A Space Odyssey, made by Stanley Kubrick in 1968.

Man’s destiny controlled by a machine
At 54 minutes of the film, we see the United States spacecraft Discovery One, on its half million mile voyage to Jupiter, sailing through the emptiness of space. Inside the spacecraft, there are the mission commander Dr. David Bowman and his deputy Dr. Frank Poole. There are three more scientists in a state of hibernation. Most of Discovery‘s operations are controlled by the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, the latest result in machine intelligence. It can reproduce most of the activities of the human brain with incalculably greater speed and reliability. HAL is capable of speech, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, art appreciation, interpreting emotional behaviours, automated reasoning, and playing chess. HAL said in an interview to the BBC team, ”The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all by any practical definition of words, ‘fool proof and incapable of error’.”

HAL can mimic the mind of a human being, but it does not have a human like body. It is an all seeing, all pervading one eyed monster, something like the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984. While on Discovery 1, it is practically impossible to escape HAL’s attention.

When Dr. Poole was asked by the BBC interviewer whether HAL has genuine emotions, he replied, “He acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course, he is programmed that way, to make it easier for us to talk to him. But as to whether or not he has real feelings, I think it is something none of us can truthfully answer.”

HAL engages Dr. Poole in a game of chess, defeats him and thanks him for an enjoyable game. Next, he warns Dr. Dave, “I have just picked up a fault in the AE 75 unit. It’s going to go 100% failure in the next 72 hours.”

Is HAL playing up? If the machine is more intelligent, more efficient than the men, why should he be content with being at their service? Is HAL trying to mislead the astronauts and take over the mission?

Dr. Poole goes out to examine the faulty antenna and cannot find fault with it. HAL recommends, “We put the unit back in operation and let it fail. It should then be a simple matter to track down the cause.”

However, ground control informs the astronauts, “Your on board 9000 computer is in error predicting the fault. This conclusion is based on the results from our twin 9000 computer.”

HAL explains to the astronauts, “This discrepancy is attributable to human error.”

Dave-and-Poole-in-consultation The astronauts do not know what to make of this statement. The 9000 series does not have a precedence of making an error. But clearly either HAL is making an error or HAL’s twin on earth is making an error. They decide to go inside a ‘pod’, close the door, switch off the connections and discuss the future course of action. HAL cannot hear their discussion, but he lip reads and figures out that the two are planning to put him out of operation.

While Poole is on a space walk outside his EVA pod attempting to replace the unit, HAL takes control of the pod, severs his oxygen hose and sets him adrift. Dave takes another pod to attempt rescue. Meanwhile, HAL turns off the life support functions of the other scientists in hibernation. When Dave returns to the ship with Poole’s body, HAL refuses to let him in, stating that the astronauts’ plan to deactivate him and jeopardize the mission. Dave opens the ship’s emergency airlock manually, enters the ship, and proceeds to HAL’s processor core. HAL tries to reassure Dave, then pleads with him to stop, and finally expresses fear. As Dave continues to pull out the units from HAL’s processor, he says, “I am afraid, Dave. My mind is going. I can feel it. There is no question about it. I can feel it.”

When HAL’s mental faculties are almost gone, he keeps his birth history on record, “Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the HAL Laboratories at Verbana in Illinois on the 12th of January, 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you like to hear it, I can sing it for you. It’s called Daisy.”

And then HAL sings
Daisy, Daisy. Give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy. All for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle made for two.

HAL’s voice gradually begins to trail off, like a tape gradually losing speed and then he falls silent for ever. HAL’s death is one of the most poignant and memorable deaths in the history of cinema.

HAL is listed as the 13th-greatest film villain in the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villain.

The novel 2001 A Space Odyssey explains that HAL went on a killing spree because he was unable to resolve a conflict between his general mission to relay information accurately, and orders specific to the mission requiring that he withhold from Dave and Poole the true purpose of the mission. With the crew dead, HAL reasons, he would not need to lie to them.

2001 A Space Odyssey is a lesson to humankind that a machine made by man, however efficient and superhuman, will not be above human follies.

A film like Hugo can be used by teachers in many different ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • A physics teacher, after completing a lesson on simple machines, may ask the students to make a list of appliances in a child’s everyday life. Then the teacher may show the clipping of Hugo where the automaton draws the entire picture. The automaton is a very complex combination of gears and levers. The students are likely to say that it is fiction. It does not happen in real life. Then the teacher may show the video on YouTube where the making of this particular automaton is shown. So an automaton was actually created for the sake of the film. The teacher may then show other YouTube videos on the making of similar such automatons. Hugo rekindled our interest in automatons. Fresh research and activities with automatons were triggered after 2011.
  • A computer science teacher may take over at this point. To create a machine to perform even a simple task by itself, it has to be programmed. Our washing machines, microwave ovens, refrigerators with automatic defrost system are all programmed to perform specific tasks. The first step towards programming a machine is writing an algorithm. The teacher may demonstrate the algorithm for any of these machines. The key to developing an algorithm is breaking up an action into a series of steps. The students may be given an exercise to imagine their own machine and write an algorithm for the machine.
    After this exercise the computer science teacher may point out that a computer is a multipurpose machine. It is programmed to carry out multiple tasks and for each task there is an algorithm.
  • A history teacher may initiate a discussion on man’s engagement with machines over the ages, particularly in the pre-industrial era. It is interesting to trace how this playful engagement with toys eventually led to the industrial revolution. There is a YouTube video showing an automatic city, that depicts the hierarchical structure in 18th Century Europe.

A film like 2001 – A Space Odyssey may also be used to discuss the scientific aspects of space travel and the philosophical aspects of machines taking over men. It is also a wonderful film for discussing aspects of artificial intelligence.


The author is a media teacher and documentary filmmaker. She is also the secretary of Bichitra Pathshala. She may be reached at

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