We all know what’s happening in Hollywood right now: both the writers and actors are on strike at the same time, and are seriously fucking with the studio’s fall release promotional schedules. Disruption is, of course, the point of any strike—but simply because these studios don’t have their stars around doesn’t mean that they’re going to miss an opportunity to promote the projects they spent millions of dollars producing.
Behold, the machine. We’ve been spotting actors dressed as AI robots from The Creator at sporting events, Ahsoka’s Chopper went on stage at Disney’s Destination 2023 to create buzz for the new Star Wars show, and Loki’s Miss Minutes, the slightly chaotic, Southern-accented AI in charge of the Time Variance Authority has been spotted in Inglewood. It feels like without the actual actors around to promote sci-fi projects, the promotion falls on the fictional AIs and “proto human” beings in these shows to do the work instead.
Which is, after all, what they’ve been built for. All of these machines, in each of the shows that have created them, are a part of a lower-caste, servant class. Despite having memories, personalities, and even full lives, they are treated like tools. While AI in the real world is certainly not advanced enough to be on the level of any of these fictional machines, it’s clear that we—the audience—are supposed to view these real-world analogs as human, at least in part. The narrative gulf that separates human and human-like machine is so slim that a child could cross over it, like jumping over a crack in the sidewalk.
There is a studio fantasy at work here; these fixtures of their investments-turned-media-projects are not real. Not like actors are real, not like writers, directors, and showrunners are real, not even like the puppeteers and engineers who control these automatons behind the camera, either. A robot’s likeness is owned by the company. A robot is just intellectual property that audiences care about as if it were human, as if it were real. It’s a character that we think of as human, but has none of the rights of the striking actors and writers because it’s just a machine, and it’s ownable.
As we see these “unreal” likenesses make more and more appearances—M3GAN is still doing work at Universal, dancing for her life in front of the crowds at Horror Nights—the work that humans do becomes more and more apparent. It’s the writers and actors who did this; it’s the commercial actors and working performers who are taking these jobs; it’s the costume department, the makeup artists, the prosthetics team, the props department… the people, human beings—creators who actually make what we see, who make us care about these machines—who give companies the leverage they need to continue running the marketing automaton.
In fiction, all of these made-of-machine characters are created as if they were human. For all intents and purposes, for the sake of the story, they are human, they just have a different makeup, a different biology, a different assigned part at birth. They are machines, but only as they are sorted into their most basic genus and species. But we are invited, constantly, to examine the allegory they represent—they do not act like machines, they act like humans. There is no functional difference in the narrative between what these fictional machines do and what the fictional people do.
Using these characters to promote shows is a trend we’re going to see more of as the strikes continue. Without actors and writers the studios will resort to the next best thing, the most near-human emotional investment we have. What we need to remember is that this is all the studios have: they have something that they think they made, that we love, that they can exploit for marketing stunts because in the real world, these machines are remote-controlled props or uncredited actors in makeup. But these fictional machines are people too—and they always have been.
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