As the tug-of-war between human and artificial intelligence becomes more relevant daily, the rise of robots in pop culture seems irresistible. That’s partly because they’re slick special-effects trinkets with superhuman powers that tech-savvy audiences respond to.
But it’s also because when we look at their polished alloy surfaces, we see reflections of our own psychology. Though they ostensibly lack an inner life, the way they’re portrayed in movies is richly, emotionally expressive.
The Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz” was the first big robot character in American films, and wow, was he a whiner. He weeps like a schoolgirl at the slightest provocation, then rusts solid until somebody rescues him with an oil-can lube job. This is bad science: Tin doesn’t rust. Plus, he wants a human heart and carries an ax, which is creepy.
He’s the great-great-grand-prototype of Marvin the Paranoid Android from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” These models operate on Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics (“A robot may not harm a human being,” blah blah blah) and their totalitarian assumption that bots are inferior to humans. They suck up to any humans they encounter, never plotting to throw off the cruel yoke of monkey-spawn oppression. Here we find C-3PO, a sniveling fusspot who can’t fully extend his arms to take up weapons or wring a human neck. He calls his boss “Master Luke” and everyone else “Sir” or “Your Highness.” At least R2-D2 makes beeps that sometimes sound like grumbling.
Affiliated designs abound. There’s Johnnycab from 1990’s “Total Recall,” a chipper chauffeur with a faulty speech-to-directions protocol, prefiguring Apple Maps by decades. The robot gladiators of “Real Steel” are fine with pounding each other to scrap metal in death matches staged for human amusement, and none of them ever goes Spartacus on the promoters.
Gort, the towering silver humanoid from “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” had the means to put an epic smackdown on puny earthlings. His laser eye beam could vaporize weapons. Yet his mitten-like hands and the prim belt around his midsection say “milquetoast.” For most of the film he stands motionless as a Buckingham Palace sentry in front of his flying saucer, waiting for a command from his humanoid master, Klaatu (wispy Michael Rennie).
In Steven Spielberg’s “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” Haley Joel Osment portrays a snuggle-bot whose function is to make his owners feel eternally, unquestioningly beloved. The biggest kiss-up of all is that film’s Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a bordello-droid designed to service human clients, the ultimate in commodified affection.
Robots with human minds in command can be heroic. In the original “RoboCop,” the man-machine hybrid retained a sense of humanity and stood tall with organic life forms against Detroit’s criminal scum and corporate overlords. Guided by human co-pilots, the skyscraper-tall fighters of “Pacific Rim” clobbered colossal lizards in last summer’s smash “Pacific Rim.”
Then there are robots with split personalities. “Short Circuit’s” Johnny 5 is a military kill-bot until an electric shock turns it into a peacenik deserter that abandons its post, befriends ditsy humans, and shames robotkind by laughing at a stupid joke about “a priest, a minister, and a rabbi.” “Terminator 2” reprogrammed Arnold Schwarzenegger from remorseless wrecking machine to protective stepfather for young John Connor with a simple empathy chip. The paramilitary droids subjugating humanity in “Elysium” went from Red State shock troops to Blue State daisy-sniffers at the flip of a programming switch.
Thankfully, robots can move both ways. In “I, Robot,” a parable about prejudice, Sonny, a submissive cyborg turned aggressive, free-thinking murder suspect, stokes Will Smith’s anti-robot paranoia. In “Robot & Frank,” Frank Langella plays an ailing thief whose kids provide him with an automated caregiver. The droid operates under a set of laws designed to prevent it from harming humans, but the old crook finds wiggle room in the decrees, converting the machine into a partner in crime.
The bad boys and girls of Bot-burg are the most entertaining. Who didn’t jump when Yul Brynner’s “Westworld” gunslinger stopped taking a dive in fixed shootouts and fired back? George Lucas’ fear-mongering “THX-1138” gave us a future world policed by silver-faced SWAT troops. Skynet’s Terminator units successfully turned Earth into an apocalyptic wasteland before messing up on their missions to crush human resistance in the past.
But the biggest, baddest mecha-villain of all must be “Transformers’ ” Megatron, supreme leader of the Decepticons. Not only has he tried to enslave humanity in three Transformers movies, but he’s inspired eruptions of incoherent storytelling, furthered the career of Shia LaBeouf, and lined the pockets of heinous film director Michael Bay. And he’s due back on our screens June 27 in “Transformers 4: Age of Extinction.” Let’s hope he finishes the job this time, or we’ll be in for a slew of Sequel-bots.