If Disney's new science-fiction film, "Tomorrowland," has the feel of an action television series—replete with fight sequences, high concept technology and, naturally, robots—that may not be a coincidence. Of the trio that conceived the movie, one was a showrunner for the cult hit drama "Lost," and the other cut his teeth dissecting the show's notoriously complex minutiae.
Jeff Jensen, co-writer of "Tomorrowland," rose to prominence writing synopses of "Lost" episodes, and was eventually tapped by the show's creator, Damon Lindelof, to help bring "Tomorrowland" to life.
The big-budget movie, starring George Clooney and costing nearly $200 million to make, functions as both sci-fi whodunit and an optimistic call to arms. It exhorts its characters to reignite the imaginative spark that fueled the biggest technological advances of the last century.
Along the lines of some of the year's most talked-about films, "Tomorrowland" also makes heavy use of an increasingly popular trope: artificially intelligent (AI) machines—not all of which are malevolent figures hell-bent on destroying the human race. The movie lands in theaters at a time when thinking, feeling robots are becoming more commonplace, and playing central roles in movies like "Avengers 2," "Ex Machina" and "Chappie."
Proving that robots are the new black, all three films have earned more than $1 billion worldwide—with "Age of Ultron" pulling in the vast majority, according to data from Box Office Mojo.
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In an interview with CNBC, Jensen says Hollywood's fascination with high tech is the latest chapter in society's uneasy coexistence with automation. People are fascinated with what the future holds, yet still can't decide whether the steady encroachment of technology on everyday life will ultimately prove helpful or harmful.
"Science fiction writers are electrified by what machines can do, and concerned about a society that relies heavily on machines are doing to us, and at what cost to our humanity," said Jensen, a former comic book writer and author.
Yet unlike the genocidal Ultron in "Avengers 2," the bots at the heart of the action in "Tomorrowland" are mostly benign. Jensen told CNBC the movie's creative team made a conscious decision to avoid a "bad robot" scenario, which he felt is really a window into human insecurities.
Rogue machines are "not a new concern, but at the same time it is a renewed concern as we move into a world where we are constantly on our phones and online," he said.
"At a time when things are so hard for us in our ordinary lives, we like the thought of things being easier," Jensen said, adding that despite the risks, technology "makes our lives a lot easier."
Are we really that 'stupid'?
In the movie, "Tomorrowland" recalls a futuristic version of Galt's Gulch from the novel "Atlas Shrugged," where humanity's finest minds are plucked from society and gathered in one place. Their mission: to build on the present and make a brighter future. However, that optimistic vision quickly turns dystopian, leading Clooney and his co-stars on an action-packed spectacle.
In a way, some of the events in "Tomorrowland" amplify the fears of prominent voices like Bill Gates and Tesla's Elon Musk, who last year warned that AI was like "summoning the demon" in a horror movie.
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Jensen, however, had an entirely different take.
"Out of control AI taps contemporary worries like drone warfare, but they are an allegory for our own dehumanization," said Jensen. He scoffed at the idea that machines will eventually "take us over," in the same manner as the soul-sucking machines seen in "The Matrix" series.
"I just refuse to believe we would be that stupid to lose control over our robots," Jensen said, adding that "Tomorrowland" advocates "for a depiction of robots that are deeply invested in human flourishing but knew their place."
Although seemingly far-fetched, artificial intelligence in movies like "Tomorrowland" are taking place against a backdrop of a world where science fiction is making a rapid transition into science fact.
This week, a top AI researcher hired by Google to develop cognitive machines predicted that computers will soon develop their own form of "common sense" and may even be companions to humans.
As technology progresses, some say the fictional technology depicted in movies such as "Tomorrowland" can do more than just reflect society's fears along the lines of the apocalyptic scenarios of "The Terminator" and "The Matrix" franchises. They can feed creative impulses as well, they say.
"Films and TV generally inspire [movie watchers'] curiosity to dig deeper, and even choose careers that are derived from inspiration they've got from these movies," said Bert Ulrich, multimedia liaison for film and TV collaborations for NASA.