Robots, androids, A.I. – concepts and characters we’ve explored almost since film was invented. With the Hollywood shift into ‘high concept’ movies came a real interest in showing us robots with personality, who could be as important as the people in movies. This gave us the sidekick androids in C3PO and R2D2, and later the antagonist robot in the Terminator. Over three decades later, we’re still exploring new areas of this technology, and the concept only seems to be gaining momentum.
I recently saw Robot and Frank and Big Hero 6. What’s interesting about these films is that their robots share an identical purpose – to monitor and maintain the health of their owners. Yet the films could hardly be more different. R&F has its robot help a retired cat burglar get back into the thieving game, while BH6 has its robot help a rebellious teen exact revenge. If there’s a common theme between the films, it’s ‘forcing robots to go against the grain’. It’s an interesting idea, having a character who’s programmed in a particular way trying to do something they don’t understand.
What most robot films have in common is the machine’s purpose – to serve their owners/makers. And this is perhaps why writers are so interested in crafting these characters. Robots have rules. And writers love rules, especially when they can break them. Though it does seem robot films should have long died out if there are so many conditions getting in the way of fully realising a character. Whereas there are an infinite amount of human characters that can be created, it appears there could only be so many varieties of robot. Though as we’ve seen with the above films, two almost identical robots can lead to two very stories.
The real problem with film robots is is that each has such a singular purpose, and it generally relies on a maker’s programming to determine what this is. The Terminator and C3PO will always be following someones orders. You can give them quirks and quests, but any decision they make will be dwarfed by their internal wiring, meaning they can never be a fully developed character.
I saw Ex Machina this week, and without giving anything away, I believe Ava’s character may have broken this mould. She is a robot who’s been made by a human. But the whole point of the film is that she was made with the goal of passing the Turing test, i.e. convincing a person they are interacting with a fellow human. And dammit if her goals didn’t reflect this. She was never a slave to her programming, and the problems she faced were the same a human would face in her situation.
And this is the basis on which I think the future of robots in film will be built. We’ll start seeing less ‘helper’ robots and more robot leads. Soon enough, they’ll transcend the sci-fi genre, and we’ll see rob-rom-coms (When Harry Met Cyborg, Android Hall), horror films (The Texas Cyborg Massacre) and dramas (Robo Gump, A Bionic Mind). Including a robot in a film will stop being a plot device, and start being a character choice as simple as ‘male or female?’.
Agree? Disagree? Plenty of room for comments below!