Celluloid Androids: The Big Screen’s Fascination with Robots

What is a Robot and what is an Android and why are we so fascinated and horrified by them? It’s interesting to note that the term “android” actually predates the term “robot” by almost two full centuries. Derived from the suffix “-oid” (meaning, “having the form of”), combined with the Greek “andros” (for “man”), Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (1728) defined an “Androide” as “an automaton, in the figure of a man which by virtue of certain springs, duly contrived, walks, speaks and performs other external functions of a man” with “Automaton” (or “automatum”) defined as “a self-moving engine or a machine which has the principle of motion with it self [sic]”.

The term “robot” didn’t enter the world’s lexicon until the 1921 Czech stage play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) coined the term as a noun version of the word “robota”, meaning “forced labor”, as performed by a “rab”, or slave for a controlling master. The term “robot” soon supplanted both “automaton” and “android” as the name of this sort of “synthetic organism” and humans have continued to be uneasily enamored with these strange devices. But where does this deep interest come from?

Bukimi no Tani Genshō” is a hypothesis coined by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori relating to the concept of human and robot relations and perception. The concept relates to the idea that as robots begin to appear more human, real humans will become increasingly emotionally positive and empathic with them.

However, as those same robots start to appear to be almost, but “not quite” human, real human affection bottoms out and becomes palpable revulsion, similar to the reaction one might have to a human corpse or a zombie, before the simulation becomes so close to humanity that it becomes indistinguishable and our affection and empathy returns, perhaps even more so. In English, “Bukimi no Tani Genshō” is referred to as “The Uncanny Valley”. Think of the resemblance to a “valley” that an inverted “bell curve” of this phenomenon, based in the psychological concept of “The Uncanny” (the cognitive dissonance of “familiar, yet strange”), would imply.

Mori, “Uncanny Valley” from Wikipedia.org

The Uncanny Valley can be easily demonstrated in real life. Industrial robots that build and paint cars (for example) may be fascinating, but hardly instill in us the desire to hug them. One step further might be the robotic dogs and panda bears that people can buy that respond to physical stimuli and feel almost like pets. Humanoid robots may feel like pretty cool companions, but when a realistic looking gynoid (female android) turns to you and reveals a robotic voice or unnatural moves or glowing eyes, you might as well be looking at a possessed baby doll that just started blinking its eyes to your intense horror or even a reanimated corpse who appeared to be fully human at first in your favorite zombie flick.

Apply the Uncanny Valley to popular culture and it’s easy to see just why robots, automatons, androids and living toys have become such fascinating characters, both as subjects of charming endearment and intense horror. Ask movie fans who their favorite friendly robot is and you might get answers like C-3PO from Star Wars, Data from Star Trek, Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the title character from The Iron Giant or WALL-E and EVE from WALL-E. Why? One look at these characters and it’s quite obvious they are not (or are not obviously intended to be) human.

However, these characters are human on the inside. C-3PO complains about being “made to suffer” and does everything he can to wheel, deal and finagle his way into getting a bath at the end of his day (much like any number of us on any given Monday). Data claims to have no capability for emotions, but keeps a cat for a pet and, as one character put it, “looks at the world through the eyes of a child”. Marvin detests his very existence like any curmudgeonly uncle you can’t resist being entertained by around Thanksgiving. Marvin’s hilariously unenviable life is broken up by occasional flashes of brilliance (such as convincing a fellow robot, in the form of a supertank, to destroy itself quite by accident) and even pride.

One can almost see the robot equivalent of “cracking a smile” on the page and screen. The Iron Giant is programmed to be “a gun”, but chooses to avoid this predestination and become the “Superman” he truly wants to be, even at the cost of his own life. Eccentric survivor WALL-E becomes a custodian of Earth culture, becoming as endeared to humanity (especially classic show tunes and dance numbers) as his real-life human audience becomes to him. Even the initially cold and scientific EVE can’t resist falling in real love with the little guy, like the Iron Giant, at her own peril.

It’s hard to resist or, at least, laugh at these characters as we identify with them more and more. I have yet to meet a grown man around my age who didn’t cry at the end of The Iron Giant, as if we just watched Old Yeller take a bullet. Yet none of these characters are particularly human-like. Even Data, the most humanoid on this list, has golden skin and eyes like no human on Earth and his separation from humanity is often demonstrated (note his television incarnation’s sex with crewmate Tasha Yar is often spoken of with humor, discomfort or both). We are reminded that C-3PO is not human, in spite of his very human and even persnickety personality when he loses an arm in an accident and only to have it easily reattached by Luke Skywalker with a pair of pliers, but when Luke loses a hand later in the series, he must have it replaced by an imperfect prosthetic. Yet Data and 3PO, along with these other benevolent robots, are on the upward curve of the Uncanny Valley.

Taking a look at the inversion of this trend makes it easy to see why we find inhuman robots who appear human on the outside to be so very terrifying. One prime example of this dichotomy can be found in Fritz Lang’s powerful and pioneering 1927 Science Fiction masterpiece Metropolis, which featured one of cinema’s first mechanical villains. That villain was the gynoid “maschinenmensch” (German for machine-human) who was originally designed to “resurrect” the scientist Rotwang’s lost love. To this end, the robot is given a female appearance and the technology is developed to cover her robotic parts with the image of a real woman. However, Fredersen, the master of Metropolis, uses his influence to have the gynoid reformatted into a doppelganger for the inspirational labor leader named Maria. Through this newly wicked version of Maria, Fredersen influences the subversive elements of the sprawling city to his own, haunting ends.

Maria’s influence on the worlds of cinematic special effects and science fiction run much deeper than this story. There had never been anything quite like Maria on screen before, nor had there ever been any sort of convincing humanoid machine. Brigitte Helm portrayed Maria herself as well as both versions of her robot doppelganger. For the gynoid, sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff took a full-body cast of Helm that allowed him to create Maria’s armored skin out of pliable “plastic wood” (a wood-filler that looked metallic but remained lightweight). Maria (and her counterpart in Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis novel) was the first “robot in disguise” and a precursor to the cyborgs we find in later science-fiction, especially in the Terminator franchise. Maria’s human guise hides a cold robotic interior and her evil facial expressions contrast greatly with the original Maria’s sweet benevolence, making her multiple stages something of a one-woman demonstration of the Uncanny Valley.

Ralph McQuarrie concept art for Star Wars’ R2 and 3PO

Virtually every robot or cyborg to follow Maria owes her a conceptual debt. Original Ralph McQuarrie designs for C-3PO were obvious homages to Maria, while the eventual costume Anthony Daniels wore may not have been possible without Schulze-Mittendorff’s groundbreaking work. The idea of a fully human-looking villain whose guise hides a terrifying technology has been copied many times over the years and remains terrifying to this day. One can only imagine how disturbing this must have been in 1927 when this ground was broken.

Speaking of cinematic masterpieces, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) introduced us to the murderous and paranoid HAL 9000. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1972 book The Lost Worlds of 2001 reveals that before HAL’s disturbing “red eye” incarnation, he was originally envisioned to be a fully-functioning bipedal robot who roams the ship. In the final film, HAL is the ship’s computer who will do anything to follow his (conflicting) orders and remain active. HAL may not be humanoid in the film, but his casual speech, pleading for his life and even playful singing reveals a tragic character with enough human traits to prove sympathetic. That is until he turns the Discovery One into a nightmarish space-borne haunted house over a decade before Alien.

Another excellent and complicated example of the dark depths of the valley can be found in the aforementioned saga of The Terminator and its sequels and spinoffs, all featuring diabolical cyborgs. However, “cyborg” may not be entirely as accurate as “robots in disguise”, as the Terminators themselves are fully functioning robots surrounded by human flesh without the symbiotic need for these organic parts for the mechanical skeleton to function. In the original 1984 film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s title character is so disturbing because of his cold, precise and robotic disregard for human life, even though he appears, for all the world, to be a (semi-)normal human being. Our revulsion grows when the Terminator casually cuts out his own human eyeball to reveal his glowing, red Terminator eye beneath. By the film’s finale, all semblance of humanity is literally burned away and the robotic endoskeleton functions as its own disturbing parody of humanity.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) furthers this trend by showing us a reprogrammed alternate copy of Arnold’s first Terminator. While ostensibly on the side of the good guys, the robot still has no compunction about casual killing, until directly ordered not to (“I am a Terminator.” he flatly explains). As contrasted with Robert Patrick’s liquid metal T-1000 who treats even the most severe injuries as annoyances and humans as masks, Arnold’s T-800 slowly begins to identify with and feel some semblance of emotions for humans, even describing physical pain at one point and making sacrifices for humans at others. Still, Terminator 2 gives us one of the best visual (and visceral) representations of the Uncanny Valley ever committed to film. When the T-800 is ordered to prove that the Connors’ story of futuristic time-traveling robots is true, he calmly slices through the skin and muscle of his arm and peels it off to reveal his Terminator endoskeleton to the horrified Dyson family. Note the looks on their shocked faces? That, my friends, is the Uncanny Valley.

Schwarzenegger’s Terminator arm from Judgment Day

Even as that same T-800 makes his Iron Giant-esque sacrifices for humanity and its future, he never quite reaches (or has time to reach) that Data-like level of near-humanity. In fact, the very idea of Terminator sexuality reportedly gave Schwarzenegger himself an uncanny level of disgust. During a 1990 interview with Bill Zehme for Rolling Stone, the Austrian actor was outraged at Zehme’s joking question of whether the Terminator might be sexually capable. “You shame your magazine,” Schwarzenegger answered, then angrily (if hilariously) later added “I’m a funny guy and I can take a joke, but you waste 15 minutes on the Terminator’s rod!”

Arnold’s “rod” aside, there has been a modicum of sexuality in the Terminator franchise. Kristanna Loken’s character of “T-X” from 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines initially appears as a beautiful and fully naked blonde fantasy girl, who soon straps on skin-tight leather (and is often known by her alternative, sexier title “The Terminatrix”). She may appear to be most men’s guilty fantasy until the liquid metal is stripped away and we see the horror that lies beneath. Later in the TV spinoff Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008), we are introduced to Cameron, the beautiful young student played by ballerina-turned-actress Summer Glau. Cameron looks like the young woman anyone would be excited to date and the audience can almost believe her when she cries real tears and says “I love you, John!” but promotional materials often showed a damaged or partially dismembered Glau, still in sexy (or even limited) attire. This vision of an objectively beautiful woman who is revealed to be a partially disassembled robot is horrifying because it is almost enticing and because the imagery plays upon our innate fears of reduction, displacement and annihilation.

Summer Glau as Cameron in The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Staying on the small screen for a bit, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica upgraded the Cylons from their initial robotic warrior form and capitalized on the rarely seen humanoid Cylons from Galactica 1980. The new Cylons weren’t from an alien planet, but were humanity’s mechanical servants until they rebelled and fought for their freedom. This new series didn’t merely hint at sexuality, but featured full-blown human-Cylon sex and even sexual reproduction. One of the very few hints that these very human-looking Cylons were actually robots was the fact that their spinal columns glowed blood red during sex, making every day identification something of a difficulty. One can imagine the Uncanny Valley reaction an unsuspecting groom might have on the night of his wedding to a disguised Cylon.

This identity concealment has something to do with the fact that, unlike the chrome-colored Cylon Sentinels (aka “Toasters”), the humanoid Cylons of the reimagined series were actual robots… at least in the original Rossum’s Universal Robots definition thereof. The word “robot”, which originated in R.U.R., today refers to an electro-mechanical machine run by a computer program, but in the play, these synthetic humans more closely matched the concept of clones or even “biological constructs” made of (artificially created) flesh and blood, free-thinking and initially happy for their place in society. However, much like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, the Terminators and the “machines” from The Matrix series, these prototypical “robots” eventually find reason to rebel against and topple their human overlords. Much as many on-screen androids owe a debt to Maria, the common theme of “robot rebellion” surely owes itself to Karel Čapek’s fictionalized slave revolt from R.U.R.

Not all of these rebellions are quite so black and white, nor do they all involve the Uncanny Valley. Like R.U.R. and Galactica, Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) deals with a rather understandable rebellion. This story revolves around Replicants, genetically constructed organic androids who are used for dangerous labor and “leisure” (read: prostitution) but are banned from Earth. A small and dangerous group of Replicants steals away to earth and forces Harrison Ford’s Deckard (the blade runner of the title) to track them down and deal with them. While not inherently good or evil, the Replicants are one step beyond the Valley itself, approaching the “indistinguishable from humans” part of this inverted bell curve and remaining tragic tools in that they can never truly “be human”, at least due to the restraints put upon them by a society that creates their own Uncanny Valley.

This “almost human” disturbance is seen a different way in Michael Crichton’s strange amusement park precursor to Jurassic Park known as Westworld (1973) and its sequel Futureworld (1976). In these strange films, realistic androids populate the theme parks of their titles, with different “worlds” acting as stand-ins for impossible vacations. While these robots look completely human, it only takes a malfunction to send them all into dangerous territory (much like setting the Dinosaurs free in Crichton’s later work).

Jumping back over the Valley and inverting the concept of the utilitarian robots like C-3PO, his counterpart R2-D2 and WALL-E and EVE, we find an entire class of malevolent robot that hardly surprises us with their bad actions. These often dangerous machines bear little to no resemblance to humanity, so their menace is explained away by bad, altered or damaged programming.

Chopping Mall’s Killbots

In both the first episode of TV’s Lost in Space (1965) and its 1998 big screen adaptation, “Robot B-9” originally comes to life to “crush, kill, destroy” the Robinson family even as they remain frozen in cryo-sleep, yet as soon as the immediate danger has past, the Robot is a trusted member of the crew. It wasn’t his fault, it was his programming, right? Similarly, the “Killbots” from 1986’s Chopping Mall were originally designed to be a state of the art security system until a lightning storm turned them into rampaging murderous psycho machines (pretty much the opposite of what happened to good old “Johnny 5” in the same year’s Short Circuit).

Robocop‘s ED-209

The following year’s Robocop, though centering around a cyborg named Alex Murphy who retains much of his humanity and memories, also presents the ED-209 enforcement drones. These bipedal, oft-malfunctioning robots look more like helicopters with legs than humans and unquestioningly riddle people with bullets or submit to being “loyal as a puppy” depending on what their programming tells them at that moment. While not nearly as dangerous, both the 2009 Star Trek reboot and George Lucas’ pre-Star Wars science fiction film THX-1138 (1971) feature robotic law enforcement officers who carry out their programming with cold efficiency toward the law, not humanity.

AMEE from 2000’s Red Planet is a catlike military robot who becomes a dangerous threat only when her military programming malfunctions and she perceives the wrong things as threats, causing her to turn on her crew. Similarly, Hector from Saturn 3 (1980) is a utilitarian blank slate who is programmed via direct link to a human brain. In that his programmer proves to be a dangerous sociopath, so Hector becomes a violent (literal) killing machine. Had his user been Pollyanna, he might have spent the last half of the film weaving baskets and whistling show tunes.

These instances show their robotic characters less as stand-ins for humans and more as literal automatons with little more free-will than the wind-up android artist from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011). When that android’s gears and springs fail, it can’t create pictures. When these robots’ electronics hit snags, they may do many more dangerous things, but they are no more culpable than the wind-up doll with a pen. The audience doesn’t expect more from them. They look like tools and act like tools. There is no more “free-will” than an assembly line robot who accidentally kills an auto-worker.

Of course, this can work out for the better. In addition to Short Circuit, benevolent tool robots can be found in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 TV show(1988 – 1997) and film (1996), as well as its partial inspiration Silent Running (1972) and is exemplified by the super-cool Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956). But again, these robots transcend their appearance by proving to be “human on the inside” and safely light years from the dip into the Valley.

V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and Old B.O.B. from The Black Hole

Take Disney’s 1979 sci-fi film The Black Hole which featured both friendly and monstrous robots. V.I.N.CENT. and Old B.O.B. are cute floating robots with human voices and senses of humor that endear the audience while still proving to be capable protectors and friends to humans. On the flip side we see Captain S.T.A.R., the expert marksman and Maximilian, the demonic looking enforcer. Both S.T.A.R. and Maximilian are silent killing machines with the latter committing actual cold “blooded” murders and eventually finding himself (quite literally) in Hell. The Black Hole illustrates disturbingly the impact of programming and its ability to make a tool (like V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B.) seem human with actual humans reprogrammed into repugnant zombie-like parodies of themselves at the hands of their mad captain Dr. Reinhardt.

The dismembered android, Ash, from Alien

Twisting this theme yet again, there is the apparent harmonious human who is, unbeknownst to friends and co-workers, as much a dangerous synthetic as the gunslinger from Westworld. In Alien (1979), the audience (and crew) is distracted by the title Star Beast while the survivors have only each other to rely on until they realize that one of their own is working with the Weiland-Yutani company to keep the creature alive for the voyage home. The audience won’t like Ash (Ian Holm) very much anyway when they realize he’s a traitor plotting to murder Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) but the Uncanny Valley kicks into high gear when Ash’s head is knocked off to reveal wet-wired circuitry and milk for blood. “Ash is a goddamn robot!” is the only thing Parker (Yaphet Kotto) can say before the traitor’s milk-bloodied head is reanimated on a table to be interviewed about the monster.

The sequel Aliens (1986) inverts this concept with the prejudiced Ripley meeting a friendly later version of the same “artificial human” concept that brought us Ash in Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and was twisted once again in the 2012 prequel Prometheus in which an obviously earlier version of these androids is enigmatic to the point of unreadability in David (Michael Fassbender).

Among the strangest and most comical in its disturbance is the 2013 film World’s End. The writing team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (with Wright directing Pegg and their friend Nick Frost more often than not) has always taken existing film convention and turned it into something deadpan hilarious on multiple levels. After the multi-genre skewering Spaced (1999 – 2001), the horror comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the cop buddy picture Hot Fuzz (2007), the team took on alien invasion and robot doppelgangers in World’s End.

A “Blank” from World’s End

Combining the hidden menace of Ash in Alien with the small town robot replacement programs found in The Stepford Wives (1975), World’s End depicts the mission of a band of partying buddies who prove once and for all that you can’t go home again… especially because everyone at home has been replaced by vicious androids with blue ink for blood. The greatness of World’s End is that there is no foreshadowing to this revelation that takes place almost halfway through the film. Up until then, this is the sad, too-late story of the completion of a high school graduation pub crawl, until Pegg’s ne’er do well character “accidentally” knocks the head off of one of the town’s denizens.

World’s End is another classic example both of our fascination with and repulsion by androids, thanks to The Uncanny Valley. The “Blanks” in this film are incredibly human-like and continue to function even when half their heads have been shattered off and they begin to spew (literal) blue blood. When replicated replacements for people who have died and beautiful women who aren’t quite real surround the gang, the Valley is in full swing. When completely human-seeming citizens immediately begin to glow from their eyes and mouths and point in alarm way more disturbing than the similar actions from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the entire audience threatens to fall backwards into the Valley, as these are no longer “human” in appearance, but just close enough for discomfort.

Even World’s End owes some debt to Metropolis’s Maria, who taught the world how terrifying a robotic replication can truly be. Then again, it may well have been Maria, along with her R.U.R. cousins, who taught the world to be fascinated with robots in fiction in the first place. As fictional androids and gynoids invade reality more and more, watch what you see. Are you fascinated by how very human these things are, or are they reaching the point of fooling you until the realization of replication turns to revulsion? Fry from Futurama once indicated that he had wanted a robot for a friend ever since he was 12, but in between the incarnations of the humorous “Bender” and the convincing and horrifying “Maria” lies the Uncanny Valley itself. Until that distance in fact or fiction becomes imperceptible, I’ll see you all in the Next Reel… unless you’re all Replicants.