×

Plug & Pray

Superbly realized look at the promise, problems and ethics of robotics.

With:
With: Joseph Weizenbaum, Raymond Kurzweil, Minoru Asada, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Neil Gerschenfeld, Giorgio Metta, H.J.Wunsche, Joel Moses. (English, German, Japanese, Italian dialogue)

To robot or not to robot, that is the question in “Plug & Pray,” Jens Schanze’s superbly realized look at the promise, problems and ethics of robotics. A great conversation piece and a refreshingly open and nonjudgmental survey of scientists at work and in debate, the docu favors a more skeptical view of utopian visions of robotics, without stacking the deck. A fine festival run should continue in the new year, followed by solid vid and cable play.

A measure of the film’s intelligence is how it avoids the documentary form’s common pitfall of posing easy opposites to cook up a phony conflict in the eyes of the viewer. Thus, although Schanze clearly sympathizes with famed MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum’s view that the recent scientific and industrial shift toward greater emphasis on robots and robotic research is a potentially dangerous path, Schanze is also clearly fascinated with the missionary zeal of scientist/futurist Ray Kurzweil, who firmly argues the positives of a future where human and machine merge into a new kind of being.

Both men are, in their distinct ways, outstanding communicators, and the effect on the open-minded viewer is intellectually dazzling. Schanze displays his own curiosity by traveling to several countries to observe various robotic scientists and their visions, all of which seem viable and are pure eye-candy for cinematographer Borres Weiffenbach’s attentive camera.

Professor Minoru Asada is seen developing robots with extraordinarily human-like characteristics and appearances. Italian scientist Giorgio Metta (whose team strikingly resembles a group of artists at work in a studio) stresses the fundamentals of biology in his project to create humanoid robots, noting, “There are no limits to the possibilities.”

This is where Weizenbaum begs to differ; as the man who created “Eliza” in 1968, the world’s first great leap in artificial intelligence research, he early on recognized that robotics could potentially hatch monsters (not unlike a HAL 9000 machine run amok), and worse, become a fully owned subsidiary of government defense departments. Schanze’s visit to a European military showcase of robot-based weapons suggests Weizenbaum may not be paranoid. “Plug & Pray” unexpectedly concludes on an almost cosmic note, contemplating not Kurzweil’s notion of ultra-extended human life via nanotechnology, but the poetry and certainty of human mortality. Not just the idea of man playing God is raised here, but also the meaning of life, and whether such life has a beginning, middle and end, unlike robotic “eternity.”

Cinematic enough to satisfy the bigscreen viewer but conventional enough to please the more info-hungry audience, Schanze’s film strikes a balance between form and content, and is suitably technically polished in every department.

Popular on Variety

Plug & Pray

Germany

Production: A Mascha Films presentation in co-production with Bayrische Rundfunk. (International sales: United Docs, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Judith Malek-Mahdavi, Jens Schanze. Directed, written by Jens Schanze.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Borres Weiffenbach; editors, Schanze, Jorg Hommer; music, Rainer Bartesch; sound (Dolby Digital), Mauricio Wells, Helge Haack; sound designer, Rudolf Preusser; re-recording mixers, Klaus Peintner, Dieter Desinger; scientific advisor, Dr. Ingo Panke. Reviewed at Montreal Documentary Film Festival, Nov. 17, 2010. (Also in Seattle, Vancouver, Warsaw film festivals.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Cast: With: Joseph Weizenbaum, Raymond Kurzweil, Minoru Asada, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Neil Gerschenfeld, Giorgio Metta, H.J.Wunsche, Joel Moses. (English, German, Japanese, Italian dialogue)

More Scene

  • Taron Egerton Elton John Rocketman Live

    Elton John and Taron Egerton Duet at 'Rocketman' Awards Season Event at the Greek Theatre

    “Rocketman” has officially launched into awards season. Paramount hosted a screening of the film with a live-performance of the score by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra and a headlining performance by Elton John and the film’s star Taron Egerton. John and Egerton — who is in contention for best actor for his portrayal of the singer [...]

  • Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson Premiere

    Hailee Steinfeld, Jane Krakowski on What Modern Women Can Learn From Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson lived in the 1800s, but if you ask the team behind Apple TV Plus’ upcoming series, “Dickinson,” her story is more current than ever. Hailee Steinfeld stars in the the modern-day retelling of the poet’s young life. The actress — who makes her first full-time foray into television with the role and also [...]

  • Don Cheadle

    ACLU Bill of Rights Gala to Honor Don Cheadle, Feature Appearances by Selena Gomez, Regina Hall

    The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California will honor “Avengers: Endgame” and “Black Monday” star Don Cheadle at the organization’s annual Bill of Rights dinner on Nov. 17 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Cheadle will be recognized for his activist work as an advocate for racial and gender equality, immigration reform, reproductive and LGBTQ [...]

  • Helen Mirren attends the LA Premiere

    Why Helen Mirren Considers Catherine the Great to Be 'Superhuman'

    It’s no secret that Dame Helen Mirren has a knack for nailing regal roles. Following her Oscar-winning on-screen reign as Queen Elizabeth II back in 2006, the thespian brings yet another powerful ruler to life in HBO’s limited mini-series “Catherine the Great.” Just as she does on the small screen as Russian Empress Catherine II, [...]

  • Taika Waititi Jojo Rabbit Premiere

    Why Director Taika Waititi Decided to Play Adolf Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit'

    “Fox Searchlight blackmailed me into doing it,” Taika Waititi told Variety of playing Adolf Hilter in “Jojo Rabbit” at the film’s premiere at American Legion Post 43 on Tuesday night in Hollywood. Staying mum when asked which other actors had been on his wish list to play the role, Waititi explained why he eventually decided [...]

  • Jessica Biel Limetown Premiere

    Why 'Limetown' Star & Producer Jessica Biel Thought the Show Was Based on a True Story

    In a world of increasingly outlandish headlines, the story behind “Limetown” — in which an entire community in rural Tennessee disappears overnight — seems plausible. Even Jessica Biel, who executive produces and stars in the Facebook Watch television adaptation of the hit 2015 podcast, was initially convinced that it was real. “I just thought I [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content