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By Peter T. Chattaway


Your Chip Is Showing

Four recent films show a battle for control among men, women, and machines.

Film is perhaps the most technological of artforms, and it relies increasingly on computers for its simulations of the real world. Not surprisingly, films have also expressed concern over the directions in which our technology is taking us, and these days, as spyware snoops around our hard drives and governments assume more powers unto themselves, the issue that crops up repeatedly in films is that of control. Who has it? Who uses it? And to what degree have the devices we created to serve us become our masters?

The dangers of blurring the line between man and machine are touched on in Spider-Man 2, one of several sequels this past summer that improved on their predecessors. Spidey's nemesis this time is Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a.k.a. Doctor Octopus, a formerly warm and sympathetic scientist who is consumed by his own pride after he attaches four artificially intelligent tentacles, or "smart arms," to his spine. Octavius, who is developing a new fusion-based source of energy, needs these virtually indestructible limbs to perform tasks too hazardous for human flesh, and he assures the people observing his experiment that the "inhibitor chip" built into the tentacles will protect his "higher brain functions" from being taken over by the arms. But then the experiment goes horribly awry, the inhibitor chip is destroyed, and the mechanical arms take on a life of their own—first killing the surgeons that try to remove them, and then pushing Octavius into a life of crime so that he can try his flawed experiment again in an even bigger, grander form.

Octavius is horrified, at first, by what the arms have done, and he recognizes that his own hubris is ultimately to blame; stricken with remorse, he even considers suicide. But then the tentacles, hovering like serpents near his face, tempt him to a different course of action. Octavius tries in vain to resist the voices in his head—"No, no, I'm not a criminal!"—but then his face changes to a wicked grin, and we know that ...

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