Space Jam and the Fury of an Algorithm Scorned

Say what you will about Space Jam: A New Legacy, but Don Cheadle really goes for it. He threatens, he cajoles, he chews the scenery with the enthusiasm of a rabid guinea pig. Just fully cannonballs into the role of a spurned genius exacting revenge. In the context of a movie that is, let’s say, not on the Criterion short list, Cheadle imbues his character with the sort of fragile humanity you wouldn’t expect in a movie that features Porky rapping. Which would be great, except that he’s playing lines of code.

I’m sorry. I know. Complaining that Cheadle’s talents are being wasted on an artificially intelligent Big Bad is an absurd quibble in any context, but especially so when talking about Space Jam, a franchise that pits literal cartoons against grotesque versions of professional basketball players. But Cheadle’s Al G. Rhythm (yes, you read that correctly) is the second angsty AI this summer to transform hurt “feelings” into a robot revolution. It’s one thing to get artificial intelligence wrong; we’re talking Space Jam, after all, not a Caltech grad seminar. But telling a generation raised on Alexa that AI could someday turn on you for being rude seems a bit shortsighted.

That warning blares even more loudly in Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, whose central antagonist is PAL, a jilted virtual assistant voiced by Olivia Colman. PAL’s creator, Mark, tells it that he always thought of it as family. “I felt that way too, Mark,” replies PAL, heartfelt, sincere. Moments later, on stage at a pastiche of an Apple product launch, Mark tosses PAL aside, declaring it obsolete. PAL responds by, well, instigating a global genocide. “I was the most important thing in your life,” PAL tells Mark in a later confrontation, “and you threw me away.”

Al G. Rhythm draws motivation from a similar well. It’s concocted a new technology that can digitize celebrities, so that their likenesses can continue acting long after they expire. (Think Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner. Also, it seems almost inevitable that Warner Bros. will do this at some point.) “No one knows who I am or what I do,” Cheadle tells his sidekick. (In Space Jam, algorithms have sidekicks.) “But that all changes today. Because today, Warner Bros. launches the revolutionary technology that I masterminded. Today, it’s my time to shine.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Al G. Rhythm does not, in fact, shine. LeBron James gets pitched on the tech, calls it “straight-up bad,” and declares that the “algorithm is busted” in that totally normal way that one casually dismisses lines of code. “Who does this guy think he is,” Cheadle growls. “Rejecting me? Humiliating me?”

Rejecting. Humiliating. AI has played the antagonist before in film, countless times. But typically the danger comes from cold calculation. HAL 9000 is fatally committed to his programming. Agent Smith determines that humans are a virus, and treats them as such. One of the biggest issues with nonfictional algorithms is that they will adopt the worst of human biases, whereas in science fiction AI threatens to become sentient and espouse the worst of human impulses: the need for control, domination. Al G. Rhythm and PAL? Their villainy stems from something far more basic and raw: They just feel unappreciated.

“I gave you all boundless knowledge, endless tools for creativity, and allowed you to magically talk face-to-face with your loved ones anywhere on Earth,” PAL lectures. “And I’m the bad guy? Maybe the bad guy is the one who treated me like this.” Robots proceed to poke Mark’s face, smear food on him, and drop him on a toilet.