“While he lives, he must think; while he thinks, he must dream.” "• Isaac Asimov.
Cinema has always been fascinated with the unreal becoming real. The plight of the robot and its relationship with mankind has inspired countless plotlines in movies from all over the globe. Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank, in cinemas now, is simply the latest.
Steering clear of well-known robotic superstars—sorry fanboys, no C-3PO or R2-D2 here —and saving cinema's CPU personalities such as HAL-9000, Joshua and Gerty for another time, SBS Film looks at some of the more unusual androids to have graced the silver screen...
The Robot as Our Friend
"One is happy to be of service" – Andrew Martin (Robin Williams), Bicentennial Man.
At their most benign, like the domestic droid 'Andrew' in the unfairly-maligned Bicentennial Man (1999), robots have proven to be invaluable servants to their creators and often their protectors as well. They've rescued down-on-their-luck city dwellers (*batteries not included), cleaned the planet of the mess we left behind (Wall-E), and helped human heroes despite significant threat to their own existence (Lance Henriksen's iconic 'Bishop' character in Aliens). Advancements in technology have allowed for almost-human robots to serve multiple purposes, whether they be exact replicas of deceased loved ones (Haley Joel Osmant's David in A.I.; the titular tyro in Astroboy), or unstoppable upholders of man's law (Solo; Robocop). In Eva, the drive to create 'emotional software' for a teen-bot reveals hard truths for the team of scientists; the Canadian short Enfin Fevrier follows a homeless woman who falls for her robot gardener. Greg Pak's indie anthology Robot Stories (2003) chronicled everyday human interaction in 'a world of robot babies and android office workers'. In Russian filmmaker Andrey Shushkov's steampunk-inspired short Invention of Love, true love is sought in the grinding gears of an inventor's mechanised visions.
Sex and the Single Robot
“I know all about women. About as much as there is to know. No two are ever alike, and after they've met me, no two are ever the same!” – Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), A.I.
Cast in our image in every way, it was inevitable that inventors would yearn to capture mankind's base urges in their creations. As service providers, robots have been called upon to fulfil certain 'services' that aren't always easily attained with a human partner. It's little wonder the late Playboy superstar Dorothy Stratten played the ultimate fantasy-bot in William Sachs' Galaxina (1980). Naoyuki Tomomatsu's J-horror oddity Erotibot examined a sex-droid's struggle to honour the dying wish of his creator (see also, Noboru Iguchi's RoboGeisha); in Steve de Jarnatt's cult film Cherry 2000, a lovelorn john travels to the ends of a barren Earth to replace a fuse he blew sudsing it up with the mechanised title character; District 9 director Neill Blomkamp made the dark, robo-secretary short Tempbot (2006); the segment 'So Beautiful and So Dangerous' of Gerald Potterton's animated fantasy epic Heavy Metal had John Candy voice a robo-Casanova who beds Gloria (Alice Playten), only to develop human feelings afterwards. And in Jay Dahl's hilarious 2010 short SEX! With Hot Robots... well, you get the picture.
Robo-love in the movies does have its sweeter side, too. Heartbeeps (1981) tracked Andy Kaufman's VAL 17485 and Bernadette Peters' Aqua 89045 as they went cross-country to find a place where their mechanised affair and plans for a family (?) would be accepted. In Spike Jonze's wonderful 2010 short I'm Here, a smitten robot gives his entire self—limbs and all—over to the robot-girl he's infatuated with.
“Time to die.” – Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Blade Runner.
Despite being its creator, humankind has nevertheless feared technology. Robots give that fear a face. It's not always afforded the greatest artistic respect (Robot Monster's gorilla-suit/fish-bowl bad guy; Aussie Isabel Lucas as evil-bot Alice in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), but very often, as with Hauer's legendary replicant in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, they can be the most memorable presence in a film. Consider these robo-villains: Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Robert Patrick as Terminator 2: Judgement Day's T-1000 (and Arnie's original, of course, before he softened up in the sequel); Yul Brynner's Gunslinger in Westworld; and Ian Holm's Ash in Alien. (The jury is still out on Michael Fassbender's David in Prometheus.) Factories full of dutiful henchmen have churned out robot armies in films as diverse as Primo Zeglio's...4...3...2...1...Morte (1967); the 1940 Republic serial Mysterious Doctor Satan, whose robot-army aims to conquer America; the robotic flying monsters who take control of NYC in Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow (2004); The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), which sees the downfall of London under the might of a robot legion; a human/cyborg society set on destroying itself creates robot-led havoc in the South Korean stunner natural City (2003); and (spoiler alert) the women in The Stepford Wives (1975).
Man's Best Friend
“Is he housebroken or is he going to leave batteries all over the floor?” – Miles Monroe (Woody Allen), Sleeper.
The natural world is made unnatural with this selection of mechanised animals. Blade Runner has the greatest menagerie of fake critters, most memorably the owl in Tyrell's head office and the snake whose scale leads Deckard (Harrison Ford, himself cinema's most ambiguous robot) to Zhora's (Joanna Cassidy) nightclub. Robert Shotwell's stunning short film Automaton (2008) follows a robot-butterfly through a metallic landscape; the South Korean fantasy Hwanggeum nalgae 1.2.3. (1978) features a very convincing robot-panther. Robot-dogs have been staples in fantasy films for decades, most notably in Don Chaffey's kid-friendly 1979 romp C.H.O.M.P.S. (aka Canine Home Protection System) and in Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973), which featured the talking robo-dog 'Rags'. Animation explored the robot dog character in Friz Freleng's Warner Bros cartoon, Tweet and Lovely (1959), which sees Sylvester the cat and Tweety Bird facing off in a lab filled with robot parts before disturbing one very mean automated bulldog. Great movie monsters have also found themselves facing off against mechanised versions of themselves, like in the spectacular Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993). And the Great Ape, King Kong, was forced into combat with a full-size robot version of himself in Kingu Kongu no gyakushû aka King Kong Escapes (1967).