Director – Steve Barron, Teleplay – Joseph Mallozzi & Paul Mullie, Producers – Daniel Clarke & Mary Anne Waterhouse, Photography – Joel Ransom, Music – Tim Phillips, Visual Effects Supervisor – Adam Stern, Visual Effects – Artifex Studios. (Supervisor – Richard Patterson), Graphic Design/Animation – Cokau (Supervisors – Achille Coquerel & Thomas Kauffmann), Special Effects Supervisor – Jak Osmond, Production Design – Ross Dempster. Production Company – Brightlight Pictures/Sonar Entertainment.
Keir Gilchrist (Daniel Gerson), Erin Karpluk (Jesse White), Ryan Robbins (Agent Max Hollis), Gil Bellows (Lieutenant-General Michael Overson), Matt Frewer (Arthur Bowden), Blu Mankuma (General Cassius Giles), Seth Green (Lucifer), Janet Kidder (Deputy Director Elizabeth Hardington), Andrew Airlie (Director Marcus Trumaine), Therese Russell (Fiona Gerson), Don Thompson (Miles Maxford), Michael Northey (Belphegor/Bryan Fisher), Agam Darshi (Dr Singh)
Journalist Jesse White defies editorial orders to investigate a story about a near-catastrophic system shutdown at an Iranian nuclear power plant. Contacting teenager computer geek Daniel Gerson, she is led to the certainty that it was the result of hacker activity. She pushes Daniel to put her in contact with the outlaw hacker group Dubito and is granted an audience with one of the members just as the agency behind the cyber-attack orders the elimination of all the members of Dubito. The same mysterious agency disrupts essential computer systems everywhere, including redirecting a missile launch onto a San Francisco neighbourhood. Suspected and tracked by both the FBI and NSA as being behind the attacks, Jesse and Daniel investigate on their own. Daniel concludes that what they are dealing with is The Singularity – an artificial intelligence that has spontaneously come to life on the internet and is able to affect any connected system. As they try to find a means of defeating it, the A.I. demonstrates frightening abilities to track them, feed false data, issue arrest warrants and mimic cellphone calls in its attempts to deflect them from opening a disk drive that contains vital information. All the while, the A.I. causing global chaos by shutting down essential computer systems.
Delete is a tv mini-series that I anticipated for several reasons. Firstly, it is the return of Irish director Steve Barron to genre material for the first time in about a decade. Barron, a former employee of the Jim Henson Creature Workshop, had an impressive run as director of creature effects driven films such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Coneheads (1993), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), Rat (2000) and Supervized (2019). From the late 1990s, he also started to work in television, delivering mini-series such as Merlin (1998) and hitting particular heights with Arabian Nights (2000) and Dreamkeeper (2003), all for the now defunct Hallmark Entertainment. And then, for no reason I have been able to determine, Barron just dropped off the radar after about 2003. I have been long awaiting his return to genre material as I think, his sometimes unevenness of projects aside, he has a good deal of talent. He reappeared after about a decade’s silence with a tv mini-series adaptation of Treasure Island (2012) followed by Delete.
The other reason I was interested in Delete is that it was filming in my backyard in Vancouver. Literally. At the time the series was shooting, I was working as manager of a hotel while the film crew were shooting out in our rear parking lot. You can see several shots of the frontispiece of the building – the Cobalt Motor Home where Keir Gilchrist lives with his mother Theresa Russell (although all the interiors of the building have been filmed elsewhere). I had the experience of wandering out to look at what was going on and watching the filming of a group of extras who were supposed to be rioting, which consisted of the surreal sight of a group of about thirty people all moving in unison without making a sound (the sounds of the rioting having been dubbed in in post-production). Various scenes with Erin Karpluk and Ryan Robbins being forced out of their car were shot by the adjoining off-ramp, while an old bank building across the street that has been abandoned for more than a decade doubles as a locked and gated building that rioting crowds are trying to break into. I didn’t get the opportunity to see Steve Barron as I would have shaken his hand to congratulate him for making a welcome return.
On the other hand, maybe it is a good thing that I didn’t, as Delete proves to be a colossal bore in every sense. I am of the opinion that a decent film about artificial intelligence is near-impossible to make. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) still holds up today but the likes of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969), Demon Seed (1977) and Barron’s earlier computer romance Electric Dreams (1984) looks hopelessly dated and impractical even a decade after they were released.
The great failing that Delete suffers from is its timing. It was released in August 2013, two months after Edward Snowden shocked the world with his revelations about the NSA’s massive campaign of spying on the general public. Thus when the mini-series has the NSA as semi-good guys trying to stop the menace, it now carries a probably unintended feeling of unease about it. Delete both seems a mini-series that sits atop these fears – in that it imagines all the mass surveillance turned against people by a malevolent entity – and at once badly outdated in only reaching for hoary A.I. cliches.
Delete suffers badly from feeling like it is a work about computing that has to dumb every single concept down so that it can be understood by people who know nothing about computers beyond how to play Solitaire. The script has appropriated Raymond Kurzweil’s concept of the technological Singularity and has characters nodding saying “Yes, I knew it was about to happen. Didn’t realise it was going to happen so soon.”
Although this is lip service more than anything. The mini-series seems to assume that A.I. will just spontaneously generate out of all the things out there on the internet. In reality, the internet is no more than a series of computers networked by phone lines and it makes no more sense to regard it as an actual place than to say assume that an intelligence might spontaneously generate out of the electronic ether where everybody’s phone conversations take place.
The other thing about the script’s misreading of Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge is that their idea of The Singularity is not one that just appears out of thin air but evolves out of machines becoming so sophisticated that they build more advanced machines that eventually go beyond human understanding of them. Delete has stunningly little to say about anything, least of all the subject of artificial intelligence. The most it ever seems to get together is the hoary old chestnut about how our world of hyper-connectivity has led to an over-reliance on technology.
Though Delete purports to be a mini-series about a rogue artificial intelligence, in every way it seems to appropriate the storytelling and style of the Syfy Channel disaster movie. There are scenes cutting away to the widespread destruction caused by the artificial intelligence (albeit cheaply rendered visual effects and disaster sequences). There are all the dull pieces of canned drama as people race to pass on/obtain a vital piece of information that will save the world. There are the cliches of the military who want to unleash a means of defeating the threat while oblivious to the devastating consequences this will have and the frenetic race upon the part of the heroes to launch an alternate, untested theory that will save the day without mass devastation.
The most ridiculous parts of the mini-series is its dramatic wrap-up involving the unleashing of another artificial intelligence against the first A.I.. First of all, this tends to make Delete unintentionally resemble a Godzilla vs _____ film of the 1970s. The other is the utter absurdity of the notion of unleashing an untested A.I. against another one with just the vague hope that the two will fight it out rather than, as we saw in Colossus: The Forbin Project, the two might instead decide to combine forces against humanity. This is only matched by the lunacy of the military’s blithe plan to deal with the A.I. by firing off a bunch of nuclear warheads to detonate an EMP pulse that will wipe out all technology. The small fact that this might reduce the world to the Stone Age seems to have escaped them.
I was really disappointed with Delete. It is full of cheap dramatics and pieces of contrived drama intended to pad a slim story out to a mini-series of two two-hour parts. I had hoped for more from Steve Barron. In fact, when it comes to works about artificial intelligence, I think I’d rather go back and view his hopelessly outdated computer romance Electric Dreams (1984) again.