HUMANS Offers a Fresh Look at Artificial Intelligence [Blu-review]

Humans is the latest in a long line of UK/US collaborative efforts, this time between the British Channel 4 and AMC. Adapted from the Swedish original series Real Humans, the show is set in the not too distant future, a time when technology has led to the creation of “synths”, robots built to approximate human appearance and abilities and take on menial and difficult tasks as their servants. What begins as an exploration of contribution to the British way of life gives way to an examination of how an emerging artificial intelligence within these creations impacts our culture.

HUMANS Synopsis
In the near future, technological advances have brought about the creation of life-like humanoid servants, called Synthetics-or synths-that help busy families simplify their lives. Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill, The Imitation Game), disheartened by his wife, Laura’s (Katherine Parkinson, The IT Crowd), distance, and his children’s indifference, purchases a synth with the hope that it will ease the family’s struggles.
The synth, Anita (Gemma Chan, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) is an instant hit with Joe’s children, but Laura can’t shake her unease or the feeling that something is very wrong with Anita. As the Hawkins family adjusts to life with Anita, retired synth engineer George (William Hurt, Damages, The Host) can’t bring himself to get rid of his beloved, but malfunctioning synth, Odi (Will Tudor, Game of Thrones).

And mysterious Leo (Colin Morgan, Merlin) desperately searches for someone with his synth, Max. But why does Max seem different from other synths, and what secrets are the two holding?

Man Vs. Machine. It’s a tale that has been at the core of science fiction stores for decades. Humans dips into this well once again but its approach makes it feel fresh and resonant. The advent of artificial intelligence and these synth units is explored in a very personal way, at the level of a family unit, but it also manages to weave in many of the very relatable fears people have today about losing their jobs and position within society as technology continues to provide alternatives. As the series progresses it brings in more mysterious plots concerning a rogue group of synths who have surpassed their original programming as well as a government effort to suppress their existence. As a result, Humans offers a thoughtful exploration of how AI might impact our society entwined with an engrossing thriller element.

At its core, Humans is a family drama. The Hawkins clan dealing with their own stresses, the patriarch taking it upon himself to bring a synth into their home to alleviate the workload. Anita takes on household chores, endears herself to the children but raises the suspicion of mother Laura. Her doubts not just coming from seeing the presence of this helper as usurping her role but also the small behavioral ticks Anita displays which are the result of an intriguing backstory for the synth. Suffice it to say she is not the brand spanking new model she is marketed as. Connected to this is an ongoing investigation by Professor Edwin Hobb (Danny Webb), a synth scientist who is aware of a number of more developed versions capable of independent thought that is being tasked by a shadowy government agency to track them down. The final connective strand is that of one of the original synth creators George, who has formed a bond with his early model synth, Odi. The former is suffering from Alzheimer’s while the latter is suffering from its own mental deterioration. Plot strands ultimately converge but each explores aspects of humanity, both in ourselves and in these creations.

Humans stacks these layers and smartly weaves the tales together into something more intricate, pacing things well, dripping information to flesh out this world and the characters in it, all the while heightening the stakes. It’s not a flashy representation of the future but a remarkably well considered one. Good sci-fi uses something unconventional to comment on modern day fears or events. Themes in Humans will speak to many in this age where an increasing number of jobs have been rendered obsolete by automation. The show takes this one step further, synths working as physical therapists, refuse collectors, sales associates and yes… even sex workers.

Lives are revolutionized by the helpful synths, but their presence brings out both fear and prejudice. Many embrace the change, some shun it, some take it further, a minority seeking to take out their frustrations in at underground “smash clubs” where they subject synths to brutal destruction. This chilling aspect permeates the show and is used to great effect in building up the looming threat of real intelligence spreading through their ranks. Some may find Humans slow at times, but it allows the characters and world to breath and continues to trickle both character and plot development as well as more information about this technology driven world. A thoughtful exploration of AI married to some taut writing and executed by a talented cast who are given plenty to sink their teeth into and rise to the occasion.

THE PACKAGE

The 8 episodes (and special features) are spread over two Blu-ray discs. Acorn media has released the “uncut UK version” of the show which according to the press releases includes an additional 20 minutes of footage across the season. Video quality is great, crisp images, superb detail, vibrant colors and no artifacts evident. Humans is not an overly elaborate show in a visual sense, little CGI touches here and there, but the transfer is certainly a quality one.

Special features are made up of a series of short featurettes including

  • The Making of Humans – development of the show with cast and crew interviews
  • Series Overview – similar insights to the “Making of”
  • Being a Synth – design and execution of the synth characters
  • Character Profiles – interviews with the cast about their roles
  • Cast and Crew on Humans – more interview footage
  • Photo Gallery – duh
  • Family Matters – interviews with the actors portraying the Hawkins family and how the show shaped their portrayal
  • Cast Interviews – also duh
  • Behind the Scenes – Footage from filming the show
  • Last Day on Set – A brief glimpse of cast and crew wrapping up filming

Interviews dominate the extra features. Some provide insight or amusing anecdotes but there is a little overlap in content. Episode commentaries and more in depth details over how the adaptation of the original Swedish series would also have benefited the set. The original is far lighter in tone so it’s interesting to see how a more somber approach was taken for the UK/US markets. Overall the release is a solid one, great visual quality with a fair set of extras.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Humans offers up a refreshingly smart and considered exploration of a well explored sci-fi theme. How such a revolutionary technology as artificial intelligence impacts our society, individuals, as well as the creations themselves. This release, with a solid set of extras, is the best way to catch up on the show before it’s second season airs on AMC later this year.

Humans Season 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD March 29th, 2016.

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the author

Originally harkening from the British Isles, Jon was exiled to Texas back in 2007 to help conceal his identity as a love child of the Queen. Jon has both embraced and been embraced by the wonderful city of Austin, a place which has only further enhanced his interest in film. A regular at SXSW and Fantastic Fest, Jon is also a member of the Austin Film Critics Association and Online Film Critics Society. By day he is a researcher at UT Austin but he also has an involvement with (and deep appreciation for) the local brewing industry. In short, his passions are cinema, science, craft beer and writing about himself in the third person. Twitter: @Texas_Jon