Movie review: Pluto

posted: January 7, 2024

tl;dr: An eight hour-long futuristic anime that addresses one of the major themes from Blade Runner...

My all-time favorite movie Blade Runner probes two questions which are even more relevant to our society today: what does it mean to be human, and can artificially-created lifeforms become either human or indistinguishable from humans? Although the Turing Test had been around for decades, when Blade Runner came out in 1982 these were questions that seemed like they wouldn’t need to be answered until far off into the future; hence the post-apocalyptic, futuristic setting of the movie. Now, with all the excitement about Large Language Models and artificial intelligence, answering these questions seems a bit more urgent. Pluto, an eight hour-long anime, explores them too, although it also is set a considerable span of years in the future, judging by the architecture and flying vehicles of the cities and other places where it is set.

In Blade Runner, the artificial lifeforms (called “replicants”) were human-designed biological systems. In Pluto they are electro-mechanical systems (called “robots”) with computer-based artificial intelligence, so it is pretty easy to determine whether a given individual is a homo sapien or not. Pluto comes at the question from a different angle: what are all the aspects of intelligence, specifically emotions, which an artificial intelligence would need to have to perfectly replicate human behavior and hence, in that sense, become human? Given that there are strict rules, based on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, that govern the behavior of robots in the world of Pluto, the artificial intelligence units in the robots are supposed to have certain limitations. But things do not always function as originally intended, and therein lies the underlying impetus for the plot of Pluto.

Why even bother trying to make artificial versions of humans that are better in certain respects? The reason is that humans have constructed a world that is conducive to humans. This is not only true in the physical sense, in the design of buildings and cities, but also in the social sense. Human social structures, such as the family, corporations, and governments are designed to be populated by humans, so to the extent that an artificially created life form can emulate a human, it can operate within these structures.

A movie poster with the movie's title on a dark red and black background, featuring a drawing of a determined-looking boy with outstretched arms standing in front of a scared-looking younger girl, both of whom are looking up at a much larger monster with fangs and horns who appears to be about to reach down and grab them

Many of the heroes of Pluto are robots, some of the superhero variety, which may appeal to some audiences. Even though it is set in the future, there are references to the recent past which help make the world of Pluto more recognizable. One of the villains resembles deceased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and students of recent history will recognize strong parallels to the post-9/11 Iraq War. The U.S.A. and a generic future President make an appearance, as does Yellowstone National Park, although the names are altered. There are also references to other works of art, in particular Star Wars and the dark side of The Force. And Pluto’s first hero, Europol policeman Gesicht, has similar mannerisms to Blade Runner’s Deckard.

The plot of Pluto is quite complex. There is a mystery to be solved, but I wasn’t able to figure it out at all. The final one-hour episode spends much of the time explaining what was really going on up until then. There are some appealing characters: my favorites were Gesicht and two other robots: Atom and his sister Uran. There are several memorable villains, including, for some reason, a teddy bear. Some of the characters, such as the robot Mont Blanc, are simplistically drawn, but there also are bits of computer-generated photo-realistic images mixed into the animation.

The mood of Pluto is melancholy much of the time, as is Blade Runner, although Pluto does also explore the emotions of love and hate. Because it is an anime, the action in Pluto can be as extreme as in a comic book, whereas Blade Runner is more subtle and sophisticated in the way the story is presented. It’s very hard to displace my (or anyone’s) all-time favorite movie, but I did enjoy Pluto.