Posts Tagged ‘film’

Kill Command is a 2016 film written and directed by Steven Gomez. The film’s premise [spoiler alert!] is a marine unit being sent to a remote island for an unscheduled training mission. They arrive without the typical greeting communications by human support staff, but they continue on with their mission and destroy the mostly oblivious enemy robots as expected. What they don’t expect is those gullible enemy robots are just a ploy used by a next-gen, mechanized combat robot referred to as a S.A.R. (Study Analyze Reprogram) unit and its contingent of more advanced robot foot soldiers to observe the marines, learn from them, and then apply their own tactics against them. This unexpected, second conflict unfolds with the marines gradually realizing they’ve been brought here under questionable circumstances and their survival is very much in question. The marines evolve from surprise, to dismay, and finally to grim concentration as they manage their retreat as best they can. The machines have them outgunned and outsmarted, and the humans know it.

The marines use some questionable military tactics. For the first third of the move or so, half the team neglects to even wear helmets. Under fire, they stand around or run upright—real soldiers would be hugging the ground, prone or crawling to keep as low a profile as possible. There’s a fair bit of one-handed rifle firing with dubiously high accuracy. The marines neglected to bring any heavy weapons, other than a mortar which is quickly lost. Unrealistic aspects apply to the robot side as well. For example, flying recon drones continually fly up to within an arms-reach of the marines. First of all, this makes their surveillance incredibly obvious when it doesn’t need to be—with today’s optics, a target could be visualized from kilometers away (not to mention what military satellites might be able to see from orbit). Even in a forest, where much of the action takes place, drones could detect and monitor targets from tens to hundreds of meters away and remain cryptic while doing so. Why reveal their presence and give up the element of surprise? In the film, the impression is the machines may not care about surprise—they don’t need it, but then why bother with this conflict at all? I suspect they come so close more for dramatic effect than anything else.

Only the white characters survive. The marines start out as a somewhat diverse group with two black soldiers out of six. That diversity is whittled down until only the white characters remain. While at least one of the two black soldiers dies a heroic death, I have to wonder about the plot choices and how they will be received by various film-goers.

The acting is adequate, but no one really stands out. The characters are all pretty thin—we never learn much about anyone. No soul-searching conversations while under fire here. No one asks any philosophical questions about the nature of artificial vs. biological beings, or how the murderous robotic soldier became self-aware or why it decided to study human combat in a live-fire, kill-all-humans format. The marines accept their fate with a surprising stoicism and not a single “game over, man!” (that could have been a nice homage to Bill Paxton, but oh well).

The film has a definite Terminator-esque  feel but without the unique appeal Arnold brought to his robot villain. The S.A.R. villain generates sufficient menace but without any memorable aspect (no interesting personality like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). The CGI effects are well done and almost seamless, yet lacking creativity. And in these days of CGI mastery, good isn’t good enough. To be fair, this could have been an intentional choice to remain faithful to the combat robot designs already being developed by today’s militaries.

In my opinion, the robots underperformed. In future conflicts involving ground robots (“foot soldiers” which I suspect we’ll see deployed in the near future), they would be the perfect snipers—no breath control necessary, no body movement to still, unblinking eyes that can see beyond the spectrum of visible light. In the film, the robot grunts (mostly four-legged, heavy machine guns) miss a lot, don’t fire at a rapid rate, and in some cases are easily destroyed by single shots from the marines.

Despite these quibbles, the film offers a good glimpse of the future of mechanized war, but it’s unclear what role humans soldiers will play going forward. How will imperfect humans participate in future warfare without being quickly exterminated? It’s not an easy question to answer—will humans be able to fight at all? Or will they be confined to a bunker somewhere waiting helplessly for the cold calculus of machine vs. machine to play out on the battlefield and seal their fate as victors or victims? I’ve blogged about this topic before and took it even further in a short story, Lonely, Lonely. My guess is future human soldiers will only survive by working intimately with their own robot protectors (I’m exploring this idea further in a new series of far-future novels). Yet in reality, I suspect we’ll see early answers to questions like these soon enough. Just like the marines in Kill Command, we may not like what we see.


The Last King (2016, available now on Netflix Instant Watch) depicts historical events in Norway in 1206—a Birkebeiner infant king must be transported to safety to avoid his being killed by the Bagler opposition (the Birkebeiners were so-named as they were originally so poor they wore birch bark shoes). The Last King serves up a good adventure. The plot is straight-forward and fairly predictable, but well-paced without descending into melodrama. It manages to give a brief flavor of Nordic life in the 13th Century—castles, hamlets, and an abundance of action scenes with the heroes skiing through the snow-draped Norwegian landscape.

For those seeking a Game of Thrones fix, The Last King does have its share of Machiavellian manoeuvers provided by treacherous royalty and brutal assassins, but while the violence is realistic, it’s never gory or gratuitous.

A warrior (Tornstein, played by Kristofer Hivju) is assigned the task of taking the young king to safety. I enjoyed seeing Mr. Hivju play a more nuanced part than his role as the Wildling leader, Tormund Giantsbane, from Game of Thrones. While still in a medieval setting, in The Last King, Tornstein is a brother-in-arms and a friend. Also giving a good performance is Jakob Oftebro, playing Skjervald, a warrior-turned-farmer seeking to redeem himself and obtain revenge in the process.

After watching the film and doing a little research, I was surprised to find Norwegians celebrate this heroic journey every year with races by foot, bicycle, and of course, cross-country ski. Sister cross-country ski races (Birkebeinerrennet) are also held in the United states, Canada, and Australia. So the adventure continues, and if I ever find myself back up in snow country, I may join a race and be a Birkebeiner for a day!

What is the trajectory of warfare? Using science fiction examples, we might assume the soldier of tomorrow will be fighting in a powered, exoskeleton suit like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. Edge of TomorrowOr perhaps piloting a giant, human-shaped mecha robot like those featured in many a manga/anime series and most recently in the film Pacific Rim. What about humans battling in space à la Star Wars’ X-wing fighters and Battlestar Galactica’s Vipers?

All these are unlikely to become a reality. Soldiers fighting in exosuits or inside giant mecha would be too unstable. Human pilots would be too slow. All of them would be too vulnerable to remain on the battlefield.

  • Stability: A two-legged, armored soldier or mecha  doesn’t make much sense from a stability standpoint. Vehicles and robots with four legs and/or wheels or tracks would be much more stable, allowing them to move more quickly over rough terrain.
  • Physical speed: Even with an exosuit, human soldierBigDog_Snows are unlikely to be able to move as quickly as future ground robots. Typical human walking speeds of 3-6 mph are already being approached by robots such as BigDog which can already move at up to 4 mph. Factor in physical limitations such as exhaustion and muscle fatigue, and a biological system will inevitably fall behind.
  • Vulnerability: The human body can’t take extreme accelerations. Even the best-protected organ, the brain, suffers from the relatively benign impacts encountered by boxers and football players (American football). IED victims suffer similar head trauma. Human pilots can take extreme g-forces (10’s to 100’s of g’s) for only very brief periods (seconds to minutes) before losing consciousness or suffering more severe injury. Their ability to survive impacts or endure vehicle acceleration will never compare to that of a machine (such as the drone fighter in the 2005 film Stealth).

Putting aside human limitations, war machines are more likely to decrease in size and cost than they are to get bigger.pacific_rim_banner-wide

“Defense Department agencies are researching and developing relatively inexpensive “swarm” systems, which humans could supervise during operations. ‘These efforts hint at the next paradigm shift in warfare — from fighting as a network of a few, expensive platforms as we do today, to in the future fighting as a swarm of many low-cost assets that can coordinate their actions,’ Scharre said [Paul Scharre, director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at CNAS].”1

Regardless of size or design, will humans operate these new attack machines? They won’t. Humans would be the weak link in command and control.

“ ‘Humans will not be able to match the capabilities of autonomous systems when it comes to certain types of operations such as missile defense or cybersecurity,’ Work said [Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work]. ‘When you’re under attack, especially at machine speeds, we want to have a machine that can protect us. … You cannot have a human operator, operating at a human speed, fighting back against a determined cyber attack. You’re going to have to have a learning machine that does that.’ ”1

Today, drone operators represent a small fraction of military combatants, but I suspect that fraction will gro800px-MQ-9_Reaper_UAVw and eventually eclipse the number of soldiers on the battlefield. Today’s drones and guided munitions require satellite-based communication.  Assuming enemy states will disrupt those communications, the potential for disruption will push for more drone autonomy and less human decision-making. Eventually, autonomous drones will command and coordinate other automata to carry out missions, making their own operational decisions according to previously established priorities, decision-making algorithms, and rules of engagement.

As autonomous drones become the prevalent combatants other aspects of warfare may change:

  • Increase in risk tolerance and aggressiveness as human soldiers are no longer in harm’s way.
  • Decrease in cost per combatant as drones become cheaper per Moore’s Law (cheaper computer components, materials, fabrication processes) vs. the perpetual rise in costs to train human soldiers, feed and house them, and heal and repatriate them once combat is over.
  • Military power will depend less on the ability to recruit and train citizens for military service and more than ever on the economic base, industrial capacity, and R&D to outproduce and outperform the enemy’s drone fleet.
  • Battles will be drone fleet against drone fleet.

Where does it go from there? Following this trajectory, military escalation will push towards greater AI, more machine autonomy, while squishy, vulnerable humans are relegated to defensible areas. But how well can those areas be defended?

Why use a human sniper when you can field a rifle placed by a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a video aiming system controlled by a marksman (or anyone, really) thousands of miles away, puts just needs to put the cross-hairs on target and make the shot flawlessly—no rifle vibrations from an unsteady hand, breathing, moving, trigger pull—no need for a trigger at all. And why bother aiming the gun at all once self-guiding bullets are worked out? Mount a rifle on a UAV and you have a perfect sniper/assassin without the aggressor’s life being put at risk.

Go one step further down the road of miniaturization, and a future terrorist may be able to 3-D print a thousand UAV mini-mines, each with just enough explosive to murder an adult human by rupturing the victim’s carotid or femoral arteries or some other vulnerable point (eye, ear, etc.). The book Robopocalypse did a great job of imagining how machines themselves, once sentient, could re-engineer themselves to exploit the vulnerabilities of the human form: walking, heat-seeking mines for example. However, I doubt we’ll have to wait for the Singularity for this to happen. Militaries and terrorists will be more than happy to design these weapons much sooner than that. When/if the Singularity happens, it may be a moot point for the humans inhabiting that bleak future.

As weapons become miniaturized, autonomous, and cheap, how can society protect itself? Human-scale weapons won’t be necessary to kill a human target, nor could an exosuit defend against micro-mines. Only a suit of modern-day armor or perhaps a portable, rapidly repeating EMP (if one could be constructed with enough charge using a battery light enough to carry everywhere one goes) might be a plausible defense. Or perhaps everyone will sport their own phalanx of defensive micro-drones as in The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Even with these potential defenses in place, if your drones are fighting enemy drones “face-to-face,” you have, in all likelihood, already lost.

All of this points to violence increasingly performed by machines. Human soldiers, behind the front lines, will be safely ensconced in bunkers of concrete and steel. But once terrorists embrace these coming technologies, how long will it be before we civilians go into the bunker as well? And when will we ever come out? Warfare will become a video game we play in our living rooms for very high stakes.

Taking it to the extreme, in my short story, Lonely, Lonely, humans have merged with and essentially become self-contained war machines: each person inside their own customized, all-in-one bunker, weapons factory, and command and control center. Only the most vicious of each generation survive until they have evolved to live permanently entombed in armored, metal shells, their bodies vestigial and their brains expanded out of their skulls to interface with the computerized components they control.

Given the difficulty of predicting the future, I hope I’m wrong and this is a future we avoid. I for one don’t look forward to life in an underground bunker, but maybe I’m being too pessimistic. We can always pretend we’re back on the surface under a blue sky—VR is about to break out, and maybe that’s all we’ll really need.

Do you see a different future ahead of us, or maybe a technology I didn’t consider? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



1Pentagon Seeks Smarter Machines for Future Combat, National Defense, March 2016, by Jon Harper.

Reaper image source: USAF Photographic Archives

BigDog image:


The Gunman

Posted: March 31, 2016 in film

(Spoilers ahead!) The Gunman (2015) is a moderately entertaining tale of a corporate mercenary/assassin, Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), who flees Africa after a particularly brutal assassination of a government official. Per plan, he flees the continent where he’d been posing as NGO security, and leaves his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) behind in the dubious care of a jealous boss (Javier Bardem).The Gunman

Eight years later, post-change of heart about the merits of assassination work, while working for an NGO back in Africa (this time legitimately), Jim escapes an assassination attempt and sets out to uncover the motives and identities of those who want him dead. In the process, he reconnects with Annie, now married to the former boss, uncovers a plot (again corporate) to kill him, and manages to escape with Annie while killing the bad guys and ultimately turning himself in to Interpol.

Just before the end, an Interpol agent tells him: “…but after what you’ve done. You’re going to serve time. It’s gonna be tough, Jim.” Luckily for our protagonist, his time in prison passes relatively quickly. So quickly, in fact, we don’t even see it. He goes from the funeral of a slain friend to (we have to assume, since we don’t actually see it transpire at all) a somewhat lengthy prison stay. He reappears a few seconds later (movie time), back in Africa, reunited with Annie, ready to resume a virtuous life doing good NGO things.

The part I’m stuck on is this: can a killer-by-choice really be redeemed? The film clearly wants us to believe he can, painting him in a sympathetic light almost immediately, allowing him to overcome his obstacles with hyper-efficient heroism, and transitioning to a happy ending so quickly the intervening prison term is but a dream.

But having irrevocably taken a life, even a fictional one, should we, the audience, applaud this antihero? I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion the film-makers have delivered. If redemption is possible, it shouldn’t be so easy. I wish the film-makers had worked a little harder to earn our approval/forgiveness. Robert De Niro did it in The Mission, and even then, I’m not sure he found the complete redemption he sought, but at least he tried. seeing The Force Awakens this weekend, I couldn’t help compare the film to its predecessors. For those nostalgic for the original three movies (episodes IV-VI), the Star Wars fan bucket list was mostly checked off:

• Tie in with original stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill (those three have visibly aged, but I guess Wookie’s don’t get old as fast, or perhaps Chewbacca uses hair dye).
• Destroy Empire’s massive weapon using X-wing fighters flying a gauntlet of tie fighters and laser cannons through a harrowing station-scape (but what’s left for the sequels? Will the Empire/First Order throw a black hole at the rebels and take out their entire galaxy?).
• Alien bar with musicians.
• Light-saber duel.
• Millennium Falcon battles tie fighters and wins despite its continuing reputation as a “piece of junk”.
• Cute droid companion carries secret plans/map (couldn’t they at least come up with a different McGuffin?).
• Scary guy in black suit and mask (except once he takes off his mask, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo isn’t that scary and somewhat resembles the Mad Magazine kid with big ears. They should have kept the mask on at least until the next movie IMO. Coupled with his defeat at Rey’s hands, he’s basically reduced to a failure. I’m sure he’ll come back in the next movie twice as menacing with his new scar, but for me, he’ll never be scary again).
• Someone kills someone else on a narrow bridge and that someone else falls into infinity.

Some additional observations:
• Why can people walk up and take a space ship in Star Wars, when I can’t even do that today? It would be one thing if they hot-wired the hyper-thingy to bypass the retinal scan lock, but they don’t even both with that. The Empire at least has the forethought to bicycle-lock its tie fighters with a cable. That’s more effective than some sort of key/ID/etc. apparently, although it obviously fails to deter Poe Dameron and John Boyega from simply shooting off the cable.
• Light-sabers are apparently much less lethal in the Force Awakens. You can get cut, slashed, and punctured with one and live. I’m wondering if they turned down the wattage to comply with new light-saber control laws.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy this latest Star Wars installment as much as I’d hoped, although it did have some of that original magic. I just wonder what they could have done if they’d taken the same amazing effects and great actors, and instead of repeating all the old highlights, come up with a new, original story to match.

image credit: First Order Troops via free images (license)