It’s good news for AI enthusiasts and sci-fi fans: artificial intelligence has written a screenplay. The result is Sunspring, a surreal and occasionally hilarious eight-minute film. Director Oscar Sharp and AI researcher Ross Goodwin teamed up to make the movie for the Sci-Fi London film festival. The AI, which named itself Benjamin, was fed dozens of science fiction scripts. The selection included everything from classics like Blade Runner and Alien to Hot Tub Time Machine. Benjamin is a LSTM recurrent neural network, a system that can be trained to understand how a series of inputs are connected to one another. Using this knowledge, the system then generates output based on the patterns it has learned. Sunspring took a top-10 place at the festival, edging out hundreds of human competitors.
The film follows characters H (Thomas Middlemarch), H2 (Elisabeth Gray), and C’s (Humphrey Ker) futuristic love triangle. “Follows” might be the wrong word because there is no plot to speak of, just a series of disconnected and often bizarre events. We only know it’s the future because H and H2 are dressed in that mainstay of sci-fi costumes, gold lamé. The initial set is pure low-key science fiction, filled with computers and motherboards. After C declares “I have to go to the skull” he x-rays his face. There are also ray guns, black holes, and floating through space. It may not be obvious why any of this is happening or what exactly these objects are, but that’s all part of Sunspring’s weird charm.
Despite making no sense there still, somehow, manages to be a storyline. “I am not a bright light,” H says sadly to H2, just as C appears in the background. Although most of us, unlike H, don’t respond to the appearance of a romantic rival by spitting out an eyeball, it’s all strangely familiar. Everyone will recognize the body language of a relationship gone sour. It’s easy to feel H’s pain as H2 laughs along with C or rubs his arm. Even if all she’s just said is “I’m a little bit of a boy on the floor.” The actors do a wonderful job of chivvying the story along through their choice of action. Part of the fun of watching Sunspring is imagining how many ways it could have been filmed. With such an open-ended script the story could easily have looked very different.
Benjamin was also responsible for writing the stage directions, which included instructions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor” and “He picks up a light screen and fights the security forces of the particles of transmission on his face.” Because the screenplay veers from cliché to incoherence any narrative comes from the decisions of the people involved. It’s impressive just how much meaning the actors manage to wring from the nonsense script. Still, the effect is like overhearing a conversation that’s only half in English: you can’t shake the feeling that what you’re hearing should make sense but it never does.
The futuristic setting fits nicely with all this dystopian confusion. But Sunspring isn’t a dystopia because it isn’t really anything. Unlike some equally confusing avant-garde films, there’s no hidden message or meaning. At least for now, AI has no ulterior motivation. The consequence is that Sunspring feels like a Rorschach test, tantalizingly suggestive but nebulous. Together Sharp and Goodwin have transformed their clever concept into an equally clever film. And this experiment is also a smart riff on one of the enduring themes of science fiction, the intelligent machine. Only in this case, the machine has written the script. The experiment shows AI’s potential and also demonstrates, often to hilarious effect, its shortcomings.
However brilliant Sunspring may be, Skynet is still a long way off.