Do the Robot
Online Screen editor Jim Norman discusses some of his favourite cinematic robots.
When I watched the first season of Westworld I thought to myself, ‘this is it. This is the peak of on-screen robots.’ The way that the actors visualised the minute glitches; the sudden freezes as the park went into lockdown; the metallic skeleton; each of these elements was just another chip in the motherboard of, what I thought to be, the best robots I had ever seen. Yet then the show changed. Instead of being concerned about the functions of the robots, it became a study of humanity – taking my favourite thing about the show and subjugating it almost to the level of a recurring joke.
The arrival of season 3 of the show, the intensifying of my thoughts during lockdown, or maybe both, has got me doubting what I was first certain of. I suddenly find myself thinking, these aren’t good robots, these are just good looking. It is with this in mind that I have turned my thoughts to the ‘classic’ robots. Those little cubes of joy who may not look lifelike, but who pack a punch of sheer human emotion far greater than any fleshy Westworld Host. This is a short defence of the metal guys.
What I do want to suggest is that sometimes, humanity can be better expressed through a metal tin than it can through flesh and hair.
Many would point to R2-D2 as the most robot-y robot to ever grace the screen. Sure, his beeps, boops, and piercing screams can convey a similar amount of emotion to what we get from a Michael Bay script; but I want to point to an even earlier example of cinematic machinery to really get the emotions going. This comes in the shape of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, from Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 film, Silent Running. In many respects, this is a film that is very of its time; yet, the three droids are perhaps some of the most humane to ever grace the screen and, critically, they manage it all without a sound. Through leans, jolts, and turns, the droids manage to create the figures of three children, simultaneously all-knowing and naïve to the work of their troubled ‘father’, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern). I will not detail the final shot of the film in order to avoid giving anything away. But I will say that Dewey’s final look to stars is one of the most bitter-sweet expressions one can imagine. The droids are wholly humane without ever being human-like.
The modern equivalences of such expression can be seen in the puppy-like eyes of WALL.E. Saying no more than two words, WALL.E’s wide-eyed awe at the changing world around him tells more than a page of dialogue ever could. The first act of Pixar’s film, which plays more like a piece of silent cinema than modern animation, is an incredible example of the company’s ability of storytelling. It relies on the intelligence of its audience to see the little robot’s life through subtle gestures such as rocking himself to sleep, copying dance routines, and dreaming of holding hands. If you do not claim to have been in floods of tears at the film’s uplifting end, then you are either lying or lost in the emotionless world of the central Axiom ship.
These short manifestos are not to say that human-like robots are necessarily bad robots. Alicia Vikander’s performance as Ava in Ex Machina is an incredible blend of humanity and machinery, and the Channel 4 series, Humans, gave an extremely interesting view of commercialised robots for the home, helmed by another great lead performance from Gemma Chan. What I do want to suggest is that sometimes, humanity can be better expressed through a metal tin than it can through flesh and hair. As technology progresses, so too will images of robots that look like humans, but this is not always the best way. Done correctly, a seemingly inanimate object can have the power to create a genuine human connection. A connection that is dominantly visual and purely cinematic.