There are two kinds of robot movies.
The first treats robots as a spectacle. Robots in spectacle movies justify their existence by being badass and doing badass things. Sometimes spectacle robots work for the good guys (Pacific Rim, Big Hero 6). Sometimes they function as classic movie monsters (Terminator , The Matrix sequels) putting robots in the same monster family as zombies and Frankenstein, sources with which they share many tropes. But usually, spectacle robots serve as both heroes and villains simultaneously (Terminator 2, Transformers, Robocop, Avengers 2). Presenting robots in both positive and negative roles allows spectacle movies remain neutral on their nature. Robots can be a threat but they can also be a savior, so there’s no motivation to inquire deeply into the nature of robots as such. In effect, spectacle movies take the presence of robots for granted, and so reinforce our default presumptions: that robots exist for human use and entertainment. Robot spectacle movies can be entertaining but they tend to be shallow, and plenty of them are just plain boring (Real Steel, the animated Robots).
Apart from functional novelties that advance the plot or (more likely) set up a slapstick gag, robot spectacle movies don’t bother to reflect on the robot’s experience of the world or how they might reflect on our human condition. The Terminator even provides the audience with glimpses of his heads-up display without hinting at the homunculus paradoxes it implies. Because once that robot’s function as a ruthless killing machine is established, the only question left is how to deal with it– a challenge to be met by the film’s human protagonists in an otherwise thoroughly conventional narrative. In spectacle movies, the robot is merely the pretense for telling that human story, another technological obstacle for humanity to overcome.
The second kind of robot movie, which I’ll call a “real” robot movie to be provocative, puts the question of robots front and center. What is it like to be a robot, how do their experiences differ from human experiences, and how do these differences impact the robot’s social status and well-being? In real robot movies the robot is never an “it” to be dealt with. Instead, the robot is an agent whose perspective drives the emotional arc of the film. Often, that robot’s central conflict is being treated as an “it” in the first place, bringing issues not just of mind and personal identity but also of objectification and technological alienation to the narrative surface. Real robot movies range from the darkly brooding and abstract (Blade Runner, Metropolis) to the family-friendly (Iron Giant, Wall-E). The sequences with HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey definitely qualify as “real robot” sequences, although the movie itself is much larger in scope. Many attempts at real robot movies eventually devolve into spectacle just to keep the audience entertained (A.I., I, Robot).
But the distinguishing feature of real robot movies is that they don’t take their robots for granted. These movies portray the existence of the robot as contingent, historically remarkable, sufficient to provoke the skepticism and ire of the general public. Whether the robot is “real”, whether it deserves to exist, whether it should be allowed its freedom– these existential questions drive a real robot movie’s narrative. The robot is often fighting for survival against humans (and, typically, other robots) hostile to its very existence. So in a real robot movie, the robot is always the protagonist; the movie’s central conflict is one for the robot (and any human allies they’ve acquired) to overcome. The primary challenge of any real robot movie is to make the robot a believable protagonist, a hero, in full light of its nonhumanity. To humanize without anthroporophism. This is easier said than done.
For instance, in the animated Robots, every character on screen is a robot of some form or other, inhabiting a completely robotic world. When robots are just substitutes for human characters, when their differences are merely superficial or comical, the robot protagonist as such loses any capacity for existential or humanistic commentary. Compare Robots to Wall-e, whose title robot is equipped with a personality which sets him apart from every other character he encounters, including robots of his same industrial type. In a world where robots remain dominated by humanity, Wall-e’s character and actions drive the emotional arc of the film. He earns the role of protagonist through his on screen performance– this is not a story about robots as a category, it is a story about this robot, encountering situations partly of his own making. Wall-e is somewhat unique among real robot movies in that the question of Wall-e’s existence is understated; Wall-e is made to look “real” by contrast with the emotionally and motivationally stunted humans that still inhabit his world. Wall-e is humanized by way of our inhumanity.
More typically, the robot’s humanity is addressed through an explicit Pinnocchio-style quest of becoming a “real human”. In Bicentennial Man, the robot Andrew slowly upgrades into a completely biological human over the course of the film, confounding our attempts to maintain a conceptual distinction between the two. And yet Andrew himself is quite enamored of the distinction: he shuns his mechanical nature and aspires to the human ideal, claiming “I would rather die a man, than live for all eternity a machine”. In this way, Andrew is something of the Uncle Tom of robots, forsaking his own mechanical nature to pursue the graces afforded to his social superiors. The moral of the story is not so much that robots deserve consideration as agents, but rather than humanity transcends one’s physical constitution– a different moral altogether, one which implies that robots not gifted with Andrew’s charm and wit might not deserve the same consideration. To anything not seduced by Andrew’s flattery, the lesson is hardly a comfort.
A.I.’s David likewise seeks out a Blue Fairy to turn him into a “real boy”, but his Pinnochio quest is doomed to fail. David is not and will never be human. Nevertheless, he occupies the role of protagonist throughout the film; his adventures are our adventures. A.I. is self-consciously a “real” robot movie, asking in the opening scenes, “If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that mecha in return?” Even an affirmative answer to the question underscores the inhumanity of the machine. David himself only dimly appreciates his situation; minor victories and major defeats arouse for him little recognition of their significance. His reactions stubbornly refuse to develop in the ways we might expect of a “real boy” subjected to such emotional family trauma. David’s adventures ultimately reveal less about his character as an agent than they do about the cruelty of humanity to itself.
Short Circuit 2 is the quintessential “real robot movie”, and Johnny 5 the archetypal robot protagonist. The film’s catchphrase, “Johnny 5 is alive!”, is an assertion of exactly those existential questions characteristic of the genre, packaged to make angst accessible for the whole family. The original Short Circuit was mostly Steve Gutenberg and Ally Sheedy running from the military, spliced with cartoon-y sequences of robot puppetry. Although the humans were motivated out of an ethical interest in saving the as-yet unnamed robot, the humans remained the primary protagonists of the film. In Short Circuit 2, however, Johnny 5 is the star of the show, his human allies occupying subordinate plot lines and conflicts. Johnny 5 doesn’t just dream of a real life; he lives it. He makes friends, explores of his own volition, and above all learns from his adventures and mistakes. Johnny 5 congeals the image of the robot as an friendly learning machine eager for the same freedoms and social acceptance afforded to any other intelligent creature. Unlike Andrew, Johnny 5 doesn’t aspire to humanity. He’s quite happy in his own metal skin, which he adorns and makes his own without concealing his robot self. The film ends with Johnny 5 being sworn in as “the first robotic citizen”, a title with no pretensions to humanistic flattery or robotic shame.
In many ways, the recent Chappie continues in the tradition of Short Circuit 2. Like Johnny 5, Chappie seeks the companionship of a community, this time a family of criminals. Chappie likewise fetishizes their cultural particulars, absorbing and imitating their habits. Chappie offers a much more sophisticated picture of machine learning; Chappie doesn’t merely imitate, he practices, habituates, improvises. The film also displays a more careful appreciation of the complex relationship between creator and autonomous creation, and of the frailty of the social ties that bind us. Interestingly, Chappie demonstrates something of a reversal of Andrew’s aspirations to humanity, finding salvation through the conversion into a machine. It will be interesting to see reflects larger changes in our attitudes towards transhumanism and away from that thorough humanism of Asimov’s original story.
Ex Machina likewise sets the robot as protagonist eager for social acceptance and freedom; Ava vanquishes her captor and escapes into a future of her own design. The film received a lot of flack for the objectifying use of the female form. As this brief survey makes clear, robot films rarely stray far from the male-as-default narrative, and almost never comments on gender and its relation to identity and mind. That gender is an issue for Ava as a robot is itself a leap in the subgenre, while still fitting squarely within its core themes of existential identity. Gender was never an issue for Gigolo Joe, much less Wall-e; Andrew even undergoes a full anatomical transition and marries without questioning his gender identity. That Ex Machina successfully makes gender a reasonable concern for a robot quite independent of its capacity for reproductive sexual activity speaks to larger shifts in the cultural understanding of sex and gender opening new vistas for robot protagonists to explore, and hinting at the coming culture wars over sex with– and eventually, legal recognition of– convincing AI.
While Chappie felt like a reboot of Short Circuit 2, Ex Machina read like an attempt to seriously push the scope and range of the subgenre, forcing the audience to consider issues it may not have taken seriously before. Both movies are testament to the fact that the core themes of the real robot subgenre can still bear compelling cinematic fruit. These new films give the occasion for the reflection on the conventions of the subgenre, from which perspective we might better appreciate how our attitudes towards robots have developed over the last several decades. The image of the robot as curious, smart, socially oriented, dangerous but child-like, well-meaning and easily exploited– this hasn’t changed much since the 1980’s. We’re still imagining AI as fundamentally weak and in need of our assistance. But we’re much more sensitive to the intersectional specifics of particular robot persons and how they develop over time. We better appreciate the dynamics of learning, and the complexities of identity and autonomy. And we’re much more willing to defend the autonomy of the machine– at the expense of our own humanity. Personally, I can’t help but see this as progress.
Of course, other movies have robot characters but don’t fall into either of these two kinds, like Star Wars and Alien. The robots in these movies might be among the most popular and beloved of movie robots, but they exist as peripheral characters in stories and worlds about other matters entirely. In some sense these movies point beyond the two kinds of robot movies I’m describing, to a world where robots no longer pose existential questions because they have been seamlessly integrated into the social fabric. Getting from here to there requires integrating so many robot stories– both protagonists and figurants, sidekicks and heroes– that the robot character becomes familiar to the point of being unremarkable. Going unnoticed: the greatest achievements a social participant can hope to attain.