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AI-written film 'Sunspring' a surreal delight, upchucked eyeball included

All bets are off when you fill a neural network with sci-fi scripts and then ask it to write a movie for you. "Sunspring" is chaotic, super weird and still worth watching.

Thomas Middleditch in "Sunspring"
Thomas Middleditch stars in "Sunspring."
Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Filmmaker Oscar Sharp pulled together a cast and crew for a day of filming. He had actors, including Thomas Middleditch from HBO's "Silicon Valley." He had a set, props and special effects. Most importantly, he had a script written by an artificial-intelligence neural network. And the finished product, "Sunspring," is exactly as weird as you'd expect.

The AI responsible for the screenplay goes by the name of Benjamin. Sharp and his technologist collaborator Ross Goodwin originally named it Jetson, but, in a sci-fi move worthy of a movie, Jetson asked to be addressed as Benjamin instead. Anything you want, Benjamin, just please don't destroy human civilization if you get bored with us.

Benjamin got up to speed with its screenwriting chops by processing hundreds of sci-fi scripts, including classics like "Blade Runner," "Alien" and "Brazil." There are some entertaining oddballs on the list, too, like "Airplane 2: The Sequel," "The Rage: Carrie 2" and "Hot Tub Time Machine." The AI's education also included most of the Star Wars and Star Trek canon.

Sharp and Goodwin gave Benjamin some prompts, such as the title "Sunspring," a future setting with mass unemployment and a scene involving a character pulling a book from a shelf. Then Benjamin crossed over into a universe of its own making that feels like David Lynch and Ridley Scott got drunk together and wrote a movie while blindfolded.

If you didn't know AI wrote the script, you might excuse "Sunspring" as some avant garde art-house short with good production values. It's a credit to the actors, directing, soundtrack and cinematography that the movie makes as much sense as it does. There's a love triangle, a lot of angst and some fun star-field special effects, but I can't really tell you what the film is about.

Based on the script list, you might expect a lot of aliens and explosions from "Sunspring," but it really veers more into psychological drama territory. There are moments of profundity, as when Middleditch sadly says, "I am not a bright light." A short time later, he spits up an eyeball. That's what you get with an AI. Plot isn't a strong suit. Nor is dialogue continuity.

"Sunspring," which came out on YouTube through the Ars Technica channel on Thursday, probably won't start a rush for replacing human screenwriters with machines. Some day, neural networks may get better at imitating the art of coherent storytelling, but we're not there yet. That doesn't mean "Sunspring" isn't entertaining or worthy of viewing. It is. It's a thought experiment come to life, a novelty. A beautiful, bizarre sci-fi novelty.