Artificial Life

Human beings, as C. S. Lewis once put it, are amphibious creatures. We are both creations and creators; we follow instincts and hungers we cannot control, one of which is the impulse to make things in our image just as God made us in his. And so we feel a kinship with nature, as well as a pride of sorts in the things we create, yet they fill us with anxiety too.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, in a small but impressive body of work, has spent the past two decades exploring these issues, and his latest film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, is perhaps his most intricate and stimulating yet. In the film, Morris considers the worlds of animals and robots and asks how different we are from either of them. Are we, as computer scientist Marvin Minsky has said, simply machines made of meat?

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Review: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (dir. Errol Morris, 1997)

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.

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Review: FairyTale: A True Story (dir. Charles Sturridge, 1997); Anastasia (dir. Don Bluth & Gary Goldman, 1997)

IN ADDITION to the social and political havoc it caused, the First World War precipitated a sort of spiritual crisis. In a world rapidly giving in to industrialism and modernization, the war proved that science, far from saving the world, was just as likely to speed it along to its destruction. And with so many people killed or missing in the conflict, survivors were left to wonder if they would ever see their loved ones again, in this life or the next.

Two recent movies made for children, based on true stories set in this period, answer that question strongly in the affirmative. But in doing so, they play fast and loose with the known historical facts.

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Interview: Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, 1997)

Date: November 12, 1997
Place: Cambridge, MA (him) and Surrey, BC (me)

I conducted this phone interview as part of my research for an article I wrote for Books & Culture. I have liked the films of Errol Morris ever since I saw The Thin Blue Line in 1989, and the film which occasioned this article, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, was easily my favorite film of 1997. I had heard that Morris lets his interviewees ramble without interruption, the better to see what they reveal about themselves, so I tried a similar approach.

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The Bible Code — God’s fingerprints?

According to Michael Drosnin, author of the bestselling book The Bible Code, there are secret messages lurking in the Torah that only a computer can detect.

And thanks largely to his claim to have warned Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin of his impending assassination, Drosnin’s 15 minutes of fame have stretched out to three months and beyond, while his book continues to sit high atop the bestseller list.

But Drosnin has his detractors, and they have begun to speak out. The August 1997 issue of Bible Review featured sharp critiques of Drosnin’s book from two scholars: Ronald Hendel, an expert on the Hebrew Bible who teaches at Southern Methodist University, and Shlomo Sternberg, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches mathematics at Harvard University.

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Review: Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

THE CRITICS are hailing Contact as Hollywood’s sole voice of reason in a summer filled with dumb, mass-marketed duds, and they’re not far wrong. The film, adapted by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) from the novel by Carl Sagan, is this year’s most nakedly thought-provoking movie, and it does raise significant questions about the search for truth and the relationship between religion and science within that search.

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