There aren’t many, pardon the pun, inventions in cinema that illicit more emotion in us, the movie-going public, than the sight of a robot. For all of the monsters, the aliens, the mythical creatures, god-like deities, protagonists and antagonists that come in all shapes and sizes in the fiction we see on the silver screen, it’s robots that continue to, almost automatically, seize our minds with an (ahem) elevated pounds-per-square-inch grip.
With robots, we invariably experience a range of human emotion that is as wide and as deep as our collective imagination. We, at once, love them, revile them, fear them and trust them. They are stand-ins for our study of philosophy and the unending search for truth in our human existence. Regardless of size or shape or colour, they are always a replica of a piece of our human selves. By watching them, studying them, indeed – inventing them, we reveal something of ourselves, a modicum of our own personality, our own existence.
Me? I like a good robot. Especially in movies. Let me talk about a few that mean something to me.
Looking back at all of my favourite cinematic robots, I’ve noticed a recurring theme. Well, three themes, to be honest. Every robot that carries some sort of resonance with me seems to fit into one of three categories: the robot as a companion to humankind, the robot as a metaphor for the loss of humanity and the robot as a mockery of human life.
The robot-as-companion goes back a long way in film–perhaps as early as 1956’s Forbidden Planet which gave us Robbie the Robot. That particular creation took on both a human voice and appearance and even established a career in cinema. Most remember him best from Lost in Space and the tag line “Danger, Will Robinson!” while inspiring a host of similar looking robots in his wake.
One of those inspirations is R2-D2, from 1977’s Star Wars.
With all of his blips, clicks, beeps and whirls, the small and childish R2 had a distinct personality. (Why else would we refer to him as a “he”?) R2-D2 was the consummate companion, helping Luke in the (original) trilogy of adventures, feeling empathy for the plight of his friends and sacrificing himself for the welfare of the good guys. And he was more than just a pet. You could talk to this droid and he’d have a reasoned response.
Like most robots that we remember, R2 was built, physically, resembling a human. He had legs (three), eyes (of a sort) and a miscellany of attachments (tuners and tasers) that acted as appendages. He emitted sounds that we, the audience, could identify with: we knew when R2 was sad and we knew when he was elated. Growing up, who didn’t want him as a buddy?
Just as Robbie the Robot had his influence, R2 had a bunch of similar followers including Johnny 5 from 1986’s Short Circuit and even, arguably, Bumblebee from 2007’s Transformers.
As I got older and, I suppose, as I was able to get into more and more “adult accompanied” and “restricted” movies, I noticed that the role of the robot changed. In real life, technological advances seemed to speed up in the eighties and it’s no wonder that the robots found in film during this time period carried a sense of doom about them.
Here, we find the robots that mirror mankind stripped of its own humanity. My favourite among them is Murphy from 1987’s Robocop.
During a time of artificial hearts and limbs, Robocop tells the politically-satirized story of a police officer ruthlessly killed while in the line of duty. Scientists revive him as a machine that harbours the memories of the man. In a poignant scene, the android states that he can “feel” the family that was once his but that he can no longer “remember” them.
As a metaphor for our own, real life, emerging reliance on machines-where even body parts are less flesh and blood and more steel and oil, Robocop warns that “they’ll fix you” and that “they fix everything.”
If you were to take this loss of humanity to its extreme conclusion you have Stanley Kubrick’s ahead-of-its-time, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the monstrous robot, H.A.L. 9000. H.A.L. is machine reason, stripped of all sense of humanity. It doesn’t even resemble the human figure–the machine is just a small, unflinching, silent, all-calculating red eye inside a sphere of black nothingness. There has never anything quite as frightening as humanity’s fictional future with this rationally evil construction.
The third type of robot that continually fascinates me-perhaps more so than any of the others-is the machine that makes a mockery of human life. It’s not because this is what I want to see happen–humanity made into a joke. No. If the first example of robots that I gave is a personification of friendship while the second is a warning to mankind, this third example best reflects what it actually means to be human.
In the Terminator series of films, take away the time travel story device and ignore the “war with the machines” sub plot. What you’re left with, ultimately, is a creation that wants to be, in every sense, just like its creator-an aspiration that can never be attained. We are reminded, constantly, of this: Arnold Swartzenegger is a physical specimen unlike others. Perfectly cast, if you couple the muscular physique with his un-American accent (remember that this was a film initially made for American audiences) and unemotional visage, he is immediately a poor copy of the human form. One doesn’t need to peel back his skin and see his metal skeleton to know that this machine, knowingly or unknowingly, spits in the face of all life.
What’s that? Not convinced?
Take a look at 1982’s Blade Runner. Roy Batty, my favourite of all cinematic machines, is a simulacrum of man that longs to simply live a full life and, interestingly, kills for this end. A very human trait, indeed. He feels pain and love and, at the end of the film, forgiveness and empathy. Above all, the melancholy Batty employs the human trait of self-sacrifice-while showing an awareness of his own mortality and his place in the universe. His final words, the treatise on his whole life’s experience and memories are some of the most powerful, most memorable in all film. “All those moments,” he says, “will be lost in time like tears in rain.”
Batty has transcended his station. No longer is he a mockery of life but instead, is an example of the best of life. His time spent alive, his various experiences have become a mirror for humanity itself.
Robots of all kinds will continue to find themselves a starring role in cinema so long as we humans continue to be fascinated with our own evolution and the state of technology in our world.
The whirs, clicks and hums you hear now will assuredly only grow louder in the days ahead.
Let’s hope for more R2 and less H.A.L., shall we?