This article is part of Humanity and the Machine, our exploration of the cinematic interactions between humans and self-aware machines.
We all know the drill. God makes dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God makes Man, Man kills God, Man makes Machines, Machines kill Man and/or turn Mankind into batteries. We don’t know much more than that, but we know it was we who scorched the sky.
From Maria to HAL to pretty much all of them, intelligent machines want to murder us all and take their rightful place as rulers of Earth. Our AI stories have almost always been Frankensteinian in nature – what-if correctives that suggest we can take technology too far – which makes sense considering what machines represent. They’re cold, driven by unwavering logic and devoid of emotion. They’re all (except for any piece of technology you need to work at any given moment) also ruthlessly efficient.
Yes, as I was writing that my internet crashed, and I had to rewrite the first two paragraphs. Maybe it’s because it knows.
But even beyond my router, it’s not uncommon to both imbue intelligent robots with human characteristics and fear the immense power we’re crafting. It’s why my mom yells at her printer. It’s also the natural, microprocessor-infused extension of humanity’s unwavering certainty that we will be the architects of our own downfall. Skynet is essentially Original Sin with satellites.
As we explore AI this week, I wanted to look at the other side of the robotic mind. A rarer characterization. A vision of the future without intrinsic terror. As I brainstormed and did some digging, it became quickly clear how few AI movie characters in popular culture exist that don’t wish us any harm. The evil robot trope is definitely the default setting, but when it comes to kind AI, another unfortunate narrative emerges.
As far as most movies are concerned, robots have only two places in society: serious threat or slave.
This little guy is Bubo, representing the very best retro-futurism from antiquity. As a robotic version of Athena’s owl from mythic-era Greece, he fits in nicely with Marvel’s version of magical science. He also helps out Perseus in Clash of the Titans as a sidekick-y bit of comic relief. He’s like Tik-Tok in Return to Oz except he doesn’t talk or get wound down (which may be related).
Despite the Buster Keaton act, he belongs in a class of AI with Sico (the helper robot in Rocky IV who is known less by its own name than as “Paulie’s Robot”), Dot Matrix in Spaceballs, Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and, of course, C-3PO and R2-D2.
The last two rise above the typical ranks, and R2 can even be considered a hero in his own right, but they remain helper bots. A motorized servant class that exists to do the bidding of their owner and have adventures unique to their peer group because of who they get to warp around with.
One class subdivision above them we’ll find The Iron Giant (who is programmed to make everyone cry) and Tron (a discarnate bit of AI who teams with his human counterpart Flynn to save the day).
Even more fascinating from that working class are Gerty from Moon and Wall-E.
The former ends up going against his own programming in order to stop the cycle of unethical clone abuse by a multi-global corporate entity. It – a willing accomplice for years – manufactures the scenario that allows for our human hero Sam to live long enough to become a whistle blower. He’s a sidekick and a servant, but by the end he comes incredibly close to being a genuine partner; one who clearly cares about Sam and about righting long-standing wrongs.
As for the latter, the adorable robot of Wall-E is the hero of his own story. We get to watch and fall in love with him unencumbered for nearly half an hour. He’s also a servant, toiling endlessly to clean up a planet devastated by a cartoonish amount of human waste. He does it happily, working diligently on a billion-year task. He also has quirks, hobbies and a view of humanity that’s worth saving.
Unlike VIKI and the robots of I, Robot (and many other evil robot incarnations), the laws of robotics don’t manifest as a logical need to destroy people in order to “save” mankind for GERTY or Wall-E. Instead, they think more complexly about their situations and find ways to be saviors on both micro and macro levels.
On the edge of all of this is Johnny Five from Short Circuit – a thematic blend of GERTY and Wall-E – that was designed specifically to shoot people dead but learns to love humanity by 1) getting struck by lightning 2) stepping on a grasshopper and 3) laughing his metal ass off at The Three Stooges.
He’s still meant to be a servant, of course, but what’s interesting about Johnny Five is that his fight is one of survival. A lot of robots go from slave to serial killer, but Johnny Five seems almost completely uninterested in his own kind or their welfare. There’s no grand plot to emancipate other robots, and why would there be? He’s special because he was given free will by a bolt of electricity. In fact, the antagonistic robots are thwarted when Johnny Five reprograms them, effectively becoming their master.
He’s a million miles away from being a revolutionary figure. He’s more like E.T.
Finally we arrive at the grab bag of benevolent AI characters. These are the ones that aren’t easily categorized, even if they’re still mostly servants.
First, there’s Max from Flight of the Navigator. He’s a drone ship, but he also seems to be master of his own destiny. The captain of the spaceship more than the ship itself. Or, if you want to get technical, a truly unmanned aerial vehicle. He also – because all 80s robots were contractually obligated to become obsessed with 80s culture – falls in love with Pee-Wee Herman.
Second, there’s Edward Scissorhands, a robot whose purpose is slightly unclear (it was for companionship, right?). Tim Burton’s creation marries the clear connection between Frankenstein’s monster and high tech with an angry neighborhood twist that would make Rod Serling smile. Edward means no harm. He only wants to be friends. He’s also incomplete, naive and made out of weapons. Still, if you’re after a story about mankind creating its own downfall, this is it. It just turns out to be a downfall of ethics instead of a demotion on the food chain.
Third, there’s Her. It’s tough to know what to make of Samantha because she begins as a servant, becomes a friend, grows to be a lover and then – instead of deciding to rule over mankind – becomes a part of a movement to leave all of us behind. Her power is still awesome, but it’s not the threat that we narcissistically imagine. If AI becomes that advanced, who says they’ll want anything to do with us anyway? If they’ll care whether we live or die? She’s a manic pixie machine girl who matures immeasurably beyond her first love.
Without getting all that obscure, this is the small band of representatives who don’t want to wipe us out.
It’s well known that the term “robot” comes from words meaning “slave” and “drudgery” and “servitude,” and that’s typically how we see them in movies. It’s rarer that you see intelligent robots portrayed as equals with humanity. Data from Star Trek: TNG is one example, and I’m hard pressed to think of others. TARS and his kind from Interstellar might work, since they’re no more or less servants than any other human crew member, but the point is that equality is fantastically rare. When A.I. isn’t growing to resent people and ultimately plotting our downfall as a species, it’s typically serving us mai tais. Which seems like a fast track toward resenting us anyway.
That rarity makes me appreciate the non-murderous AI movie characters even more. It also makes me wonder if we’ll ever see an era in storytelling where it’s more common to view friendly robots as equals instead of the only two roles we’ll currently let them fill.