Our Favourite Robots
In honour of Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Jazz, Megatron et al (in case you hadn't noticed, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen hits cinemas any day now), LOVEFiLM presents a roll-call of our favourite robots.
Also androids. Cyborgs. Replicants. And mecha… Any dynamic, semi-autonomous machines, basically. The movies have given us quite a few to choose from, starting with the erotic "Maria" in Fritz Lang's seminal 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis, a movie that came only seven years after the first use of the word "robot" (actually "roboti", from the Czech word for hard work or drudgery, "robota").
If Maria embodied fears of industrialization and exploitation of the working class, by the time robots resurfaced in the 1950s there was more optimism about the brave new world scientists were planning for the future.
In 1942 Isaac Asimov had crafted what he called the "Three Laws of Robotics", three core programs that would safeguard humans from their own creations. (Law one, the most important, was that a robot must not injure a human being or allow a human being to be injured through inaction.) Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet was more than just a useful tool, he was a friendly sidekick, and while Gort may have been a scarily invincible presence in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, he (or it) was actually on a rescue mission; humans were the real menace to the planet. This user-friendly vision of robotics also holds sway in the nostalgic futurism of Star Wars, and the Laurel and Hardy duo of R2D2 and C3P0.
More recently, Asimov's injunctions – or prime directives – have been bypassed many times: in Michael Crichton's Westworld, for example; in Blade Runner; Robocop; and the Terminator films. But if these films recast machines as the enemy, perhaps reflecting our fears of rapidly evolving technology, the lines between Them and Us are also becoming blurred.
The notion of the sentient cyborg, capable of feeling – or at least, thinking it feels – seems to resonate in a culture where we're all increasingly self-conscious about so-called "emotional intelligence". As the Flaming Lips put it in their 2002 song "One More Robot":
"It's hard to say what's real/when you know the way you feel/is it wrong to think it's love when it tries the way it does/feeling a synthetic kind of love/dreaming a sympathetic wish/as the lights blink faster and brighter/one more robot learns to be something more than a machine."
If the robots are something more than machines, we're so interconnected with, and dependent on, technology in every aspect of our lives, we may suspect we're becoming something less than human. On the other hand, if films like AI and WALL-E prove anything, it's that we're still capable of empathy, even for something as unprepossessing as a waste disposal unit...
Rachel (Sean Young): Blade Runner
Dressed like a film noir femme fatale, Rachel thinks she's as human as you and me, and she has the memories to prove it. But they're not hers – they've simply been implanted in her circuitry. Which doesn't stop Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard from falling in love with her – a magnetic attraction most likely.
Johnny 5 (Tim Blaney): Short Circuit
Saint Number 5 is a military robot who develops consciousness after an act of God – it's stuck by lightning. But is this thing – an obvious prototype for WALL-E – alive, or is it just malfunctioning? Either way, it knows enough to change its name to Johnny and charm Ally Sheedy's humanoid. One of the writer's of Robot Chicken is developing a remake as we speak.
Huey and Dewey: Silent Running
Drones Huey and Dewey are another obvious WALL-E influence. They're squat, square machines, resembling a TV set with legs. Named after Donad Duck's nephews (Louie loses a leg and is lost in space), they're benign, helping Bruce Dern's space botanist cultivate his floating garden and never once threatening to go HAL-9000 on him.
Robby the Robot (Himself): Forbidden Planet
For anyone over the age of 40 (including George Lucas), Robby is probably the definitive image of what a robot should look like – a tin version of the Michelin Man, rather chucky around the caboose, with a fishbowl on his head and a couple of antennae for ears. Robbie is the ultimate valet, capable of rustling up a diamond-bedecked dress or 60 gallons of whiskey within minutes. He's also possessed of a dry sense of humour. "Where have you been?" demands his mistress (Anne Francis). "Sorry, miss, I was giving myself an oil job." He explains.
The Iron Giant (Vin Diesel): The Iron Giant
Brad Bird (who went on to make The Incredibles and Ratatouille) directed this underrated film version of Ted Hughes's story about a boy who befriends and shelters a giant iron robot. A tin man on the scale of the Angel of the North, the giant has a few secrets up his sleeve. Designed to destroy, he ultimately elects to model himself on Superman and saves the day.
C-3PO & R2-D2 (Anthony Daniels & Kenny Baker): Star Wars
The best comic double act in robotics: C3-PO is Abbott, and R2 is Costello. C3-PO is clearly a descendent of Robbie the Robot, a rather effeminate valet. His sidekick can't speak but is invariably the more practical of the two.
David (Haley Joel Osment): AI: Artificial Intelligence
Of all the futuristic movies in this list, AI seems to me the one that is truly ahead of its times. The notion of synthetic surrogate kids is not so far from our reality of artificial insemination and celebrity adopt-a-baby drives. David is like Pinocchio, he's not a real boy, and when his mommy and daddy conceive an organic child, well, he's just not needed any longer. The scene in which his mom (Frances O'Connor) dumps him in the woods is one of the cruelest you will ever see. Also worth seeing for Jude Law's walking talking sex doll, Gigolo Joe.
WALL-E (Ben Burtt): WALL-E
A rusty box sitting on caterpillar tracks, with a retractable binocular-shaped head, WALL-E is the last robot – and he's lonely. But he's also curious. A collector of bric-a-brac. Very organized. And brave, too. Can these qualities be hard-wired, or are they the product of intelligence? Whatever, WALL-E seems to me the most practically useful of these robots (who couldn't use a mobile trash compactor?) and also the most sympathetic. Not necessarily the one I would take home with me, but a close second.