Another blockbuster film season is upon us, which brings another showcase of robots. When one thinks about it, our images of them are as old as the movies themselves. Like the cowboy, was there ever a time when we visualised these mechanical beings before cinema existed?
Though these days we think of robots as shiny spectacles of technology, it’s fun to reflect on how we’ve come to envision them over the past century. Rarely do we care about machines that exist purely out of function. The ones that we remember the most are those that tend to reflect human qualities, be they figurative or physical, usually to significant degrees.
From the very first incarnation in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, robots have come to evoke wariness and distrust. Does this say anything about our capacity for empathy towards anyone who looks different? Female robots are often portrayed as sex machines infinitely more so than male robots, reflecting a longstanding and disturbing undercurrent against women in society as well as film. Alien robots tend to be met with extreme defensiveness usually by the US military. Does this reflect on how much America views the outside world? There are no absolutes to these questions, but they do beg us to consider the dark side of human nature.
But movie robots also earn our sympathy with their curiosity, especially for those with artificial intelligences seeking to understand what it means to be human. It is these kind of robots that are more interesting, like Data of the Star Trek (Next Generation) films or the learning computer that is the T-800 (when switch on “good”), serving as effective philosophical devices by forcing us to reckon with human behavior almost purely through logical reasoning. This is why I long to see the day Optimus Prime explain why being part of an altruistic mechanical alien race is the way to go.
Some robots are intriguing for the way they are designed, such as the Golden Army in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy 2, which look like giant fearsome windup toys courtesy of “Dante’s Inferno.” Or the Laputian guardians of Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, which are devoid of any menacing gestures or attributes, are voiceless, and care more for the plant and animal denizens of their kingdom. And even the heroine of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, who displays a ferocity, fearlessness and power that doesn’t detract from her womanhood in any way.
Other robots touch us in how they exhibit particular human traits, such as Marvin the Paranoid Android of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (not featured in the video essay sadly), who displays a witty dourness just because he was designed that way. There are also the post-human robots of A.I. Artificial Intelligence who seem to be in wonder of human beings, their creators, just as we might be of one we believe in. And then there’s David of A.I. and WALL·E, who for different reasons have a sense of affection, the former out of design, and the latter out of God knows what. Both endear themselves to us because of the bonds they developed out of what they feel, whether they know what those emotions mean or not.
For me, it is the last kind of robot that interests me the most, because though they are far from human, they have become so, in the sense that they somehow share the feelings that we share. Personally through two of my favourite “robot” films, this conveys two degrees of hopefullness. In A.I., though humanity might be outlived by its synthetic creations, it is those creations that will cary our best qualities beyond our existence. WALL·E is more hopeful, showing us that our creations will help us get through.
Could either become a reality? Such is the magic of movies with robots, the product of our electric dreams.