In anticipation of the UK release of Spike Jonze’s Her, we consider the five best human-robot relationships in film.
Considering humanity’s dual role as benevolent creator and Dr. Frankenstein in the creation story of most intelligent machines, it should come as no surprise that our relationship with robots is a complex one. In Spike Jonze’s upcoming Her, Joaquin Phoenix embarks on a deeply engaging relationship with a newly purchased AI-come-operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson – think Siri with an added psychotherapy suite. Whilst not all of our relationships with robots are as productive as that on display in Jonze’s latest, they are always fascinating – playing out in a manner not too dissimilar to enjoying a personal audience with God.
Here are five of Screen Robot’s favourite human-robot relationships in film.
Frank Weld and Robot – Robot & Frank
As restrained and unassuming as its name might suggest, Robot and Frank is about the burgeoning relationship between a caretaker robot and a retired cat burglar that is as naturalistic as it is charming. Frank Langella’s gravitas in the starring human role makes the tragedy of dementia all the more poignant and the reigniting of his criminal spark at turns witty and life affirming. The Robot’s undeterred desire to help Frank even in the face of extreme cynicism is admirable, even when the machine admits it was programmed that way.
Never descending too far into potentially soppy or emotionally manipulative territory, Robot and Frank is a refreshingly earnest sci-fi lite that is unconcerned with the usual notions of utopia or dystopia.
Defining moment: In the final moments of his exodus from the authorities, Frank is presented with a solution by his Robot – erase his memory banks so that the police cannot access the files and implicate Frank in a series of robberies. After much persuasion from the Robot, Frank remorsefully erases its memory.
John Connor and Terminator T-800 – Terminator 2: Judgement Day
As sickly sweet an example of Hollywood bombast as it is, Terminator is that guilty pleasure that does not invite complete disdain in public. With James Cameron’s penchant for hyperbolic set pieces and technical wizardry, Judgement Day is the very definition of a blockbuster and, as surface level as its themes are, it nonetheless portrays varying examples of human-robot interaction effectively.
The shifting position of a machine the audience had come to identify as an other in The Terminator into the puppy/protector/panzer tank of its sequel exemplifies the transient nature of human-robot relationships. The T-800′s programmed paternity is an optimistic display of the interactions between human beings and rapidly accelerating technology in action. The T/800 also carries the distinction of being the one ‘person’ in the film that did not want to strangle the infuriatingly snide and noxiously pubescent John Connor in his sleep.
Defining moment: “I know now why you cry,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger in his most iconic role, shortly before lowering himself into molten steel and repeating the thumbs up gesture that John taught him. Grown men will cry.
Ellen Ripley and Ash – Alien
The most blatantly antagonistic relationship on this list, Ripley’s relationship with Ash is one of the most enrapturing, primarily in the way in which Ash’s cover slowly unravels. The curtain of humanity is pulled further and further back until Ash attempts to asphyxiate Ripley with a rolled-up magazine.
Lance Henriksen’s portrayal of Bishop in Aliens also deserves special mention for allowing Ripley to get over the prejudices towards machines, as well as inspiring a generation of teenagers to try the infamous knife between the fingers trick. Countless digits were no doubt damaged or severed in the process.
Defining moment: Even after his disembodiment at the hands of Parker, Ash remains smug and arrogant. When he talks about admiring the alien’s purity and lack of conscience, remorse or morality, he is equating the alien with himself. “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies,” he says, before Parker fires up the flamethrower.
Roy Batty and Rick Deckard – Blade Runner
Fittingly, given Blade Runner’s position as a canonical cyberpunk film text, many of the themes the film explores via the relationships between its human and replicant characters have since become genre motif. In Blade Runner, the Voight-Kampff test’s determination by empathetic response in a world populated by people who possess little empathy is a perfect irony. The familial bonds and emotional range displayed by the replicants leaves the impression that they possess more humanity than the humans who hunt them.
The juxtaposition between replicant and human is brought to its logical conclusion in the final confrontation between Deckard and Batty. Rutger Hauer’s mournfully noble turn and amazingly ad-libbed self eulogy is a fitting ending to a film that took 25 years for Ridley Scott to finally perfect.
Defining moment: Batty pulling the thoroughly beaten Deckard from the rooftop just as he is about to fall to his death. As brilliantly rendered as his epitaph is, the play on Batty’s face as he silently deliberates over whether to save Deckard is his most haunting moment.
Hogarth Hughes and The Iron Giant – The Iron Giant
A modern fairy tale, The Iron Giant is an animated ode to Americana, coloured by a love of 1950s science fiction and comic books. Voiced by Vin Diesel prior to his being either fast or furious, the 50ft robot of the title is rescued by nine-year-old Hogarth, a comic book and sci-fi loving kid, and the two form a uniquely difficult though rewarding friendship.
Unwillingly transforming into a super weapon when attacked or threatened by a zealous Cold War-era US military, the Iron Giant’s struggles are richly humorous, gratifying and, at the film’s climax, heartbreaking. An animated film that rejects the notion that the definition of animated films starts and ends with Disney, The Iron Giant proves that animation is not just for children.
Defining moment: The idiocy of an overly aggressive and increasingly grey US Government agent leads to the launch of a ballistic missile – in a moment of self sacrifice, the pure sense of right and wrong bestowed upon The Iron Giant by Hogarth is made manifest when he flies into the warhead destined to fall on Hogarth’s small town. Superman indeed.
Honourable mentions: David Bowman and HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Monica and David in A.I., Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy.
Featured image: Entertainment Film
Inset images: Samuel Goldwyn Films/Stage 6 Films; TriStar Pictures; 20th Century Fox; Warner Bros; Warner Bros