Fast, Cheap & Out of Control proves, once again, that Errol Morris is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.
His newest documentary does not have the celebrity appeal of his Stephen Hawking bio A Brief History of Time, nor will it make headlines like The Thin Blue Line, which singlehandedly overturned an innocent man’s murder conviction. But it does represent a bold artistic step forward for Morris, and it explores crucial existential themes with a thoughtfulness and perceptiveness unlike anything Morris has done since his first film, Gates of Heaven.
In that earlier film, a study of pet cemeteries became an avenue for exploring different beliefs about the afterlife, the relationship between humans and animals, and even whether or not the mind is just like a computer.
These themes surface again in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. This time, Morris interviews four men who would seem to have little in common, apart from an interest in animals: Dave Hoover, a lion tamer; George Mendonça, a topiary gardener who shapes fauna out of flora; Ray Mendez, a photographer obsessed with naked mole rats; and Rodney Brooks, a scientist at MIT, who programs his robots to act like insects, then studies their social interaction with each other.
While the film resists any simplistic summary, Morris cuts back and forth between the interviews to ask, essentially, what, if anything, is the difference between humans and animals and robots. What is intelligence? What is consciousness? Is the “image of God” in all human beings no different, in the end, from a robot’s feedback loops?
Taken at face value, the film might indeed suggest that. Hoover trains his lions and Brooks programs his robots, blurring the line between animal and machine with a none-too-subtle hint that humans, too, may be part of some larger dynamic process over which they have no control. Mendez and Brooks go on to discuss the expendability of the individual among mole rats and spacefaring robots; the ability of both creatures to give themselves up for the greater good would almost be a virtue, if only they were more conscious of their actions.
But there are hints — unintended, perhaps — throughout the film that humans are somehow set apart. Our very individuality, represented here by the four men who pursue their singularly personal quests, points away from the pack mentality of beast and ‘bot alike. And Brooks notes that, even if “silicon-based life” does take over the solar system, it will never experience an “embodied” intelligence the way humans do.
Most of all, though, there is the film itself, which mixes the interviews in a hallucinatory collage of experimental cinematography (courtesy of Robert Richardson, who has worked on most of Oliver Stone’s films) and sets it all to a mesmerizing musical score by the Alloy Orchestra’s Caleb Sampson. The questions asked here are religious in nature, and Morris sinks his teeth into them with artistic enthusiasm. And it is these capacities — art and religion — which distinguish humans from the rest of creation.
Commenting on his work with the robots and how it has affected his own view of human life, Brooks remarks, “If you analyze it too much, life becomes almost meaningless.” But the fact that we can analyze it, and in such an exciting, thought-provoking way, is itself a ray of hope. See this film if you can, and be prepared to discuss it afterwards with your friends, the people in your Bible study, or whoever else you can drag into the theatre with you.
— A version of this review first appeared in BC Christian News.