“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All these moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.”
— Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner
MADISON, Wis. — The technological universe is moving blithely and inexorably into the age of robotics. In the tunnel-vision, full-speed-ahead tradition of Silicon Valley, the executives, engineers and marcom flacks of high-tech are accelerating their latest revolution without pausing long to consider the unintended consequences of a cybernetic future, much less its metaphysical implications.
However, ever since Karel Capek wrote the first robot drama, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920, writers, thinkers and filmmakers have been pondering the promise and pitfalls that come with cyborgs, androids, replicants, synthetics and various other faux forms of humanity. By 1950, Isaac Asimov, one of the giants of science fiction, had composed and immortalized the Three Laws of Robotics.
For the record: “1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
In Aliens, a “synthetic” named Bishop (Lance Henrikson) recites an abridged version of Asimov’s Laws as a sop to a fit of droid panic by Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who had been betrayed and almost killed by a robot run amok in a previous installment of the eventually overdone Alien franchise.
Which gets us to where I was heading — the movies. Sci-fi flicks are literally crawling with cyborgs, so much so that — in the current robotics renaissance — it’s long past time to assemble a Movie Robot Hall of Fame (including Bishop), and to take a stab at naming the three greatest movie robots of all time.
So, without further ado:
Number 3: The first machine to ever deliver a funny line in any movie was Robby the Robot, the Coke-machine sized mechanical butler in the1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet. To wit: Spaceship commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) commenting on the weather, says, “Nice climate you have here. High oxygen content.” Robby’s deadpan riposte: “I seldom use it myself. It promotes rust.”
Robby was such a milestone in movie robotics and special effects that his facsimile, also designed by Robby’s creator, Robert Kinoshita, was a cast member in the silly ’60s TV series, “Lost in Space.” Robby also had a guest shot in a 1970s “Columbo” episode. Needless to say, despite Robby’s primitive design and rust-prone chassis, he vastly advanced the sociability, mobility and variety of movie robotics — especially compared to the mute stainless-steel hulk who shuffled arthritically out of the flying saucer five years before in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Number 2: For sheer technical ingenuity, the T-1000 cyborg, played by fresh-faced but sinister actor Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is a hard-to-lick FX* milestone. As explained by an earlier Terminator model (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the T-1000 consists entirely of mimetic polyalloy — which, aside from sci-fi flicks, would be a cool name for a rock band.
The liquid-metal T-1000 spends the film melting down into a shiny puddle that resembles spilled mercury and then shape-shifting himself into any form that serves his evil mission to kill John Connor. He mimics humans, turns his hands into deadly weapons, sprawls on the floor and creeps under the door and, of course, kills anyone that gets in his way. Lacking moral judgment, he never deviates from his programming. But he possesses wits enough to solve problems and devise tactics that keep him hot on the trail of John Connor.
Best of all, he’s a cybernetic bulldog, all but impossible to destroy, able to reassemble his spilled and scattered globules after being blasted, broken, crushed frozen and totally disrespected. In sum, director James Cameron’s T-1000, flouting Asimov’s First Law and most of the Third, is the ultimate bad droid. But neither he nor Arnold would be a good interview on TMZ.
Which brings me to:
Number One: No film has ever introduced a more compelling robot than Roy Batty, played with anguish, malice and moral ambiguity by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner (1982). Roy Batty wasn’t the first movie cyborg composed of a mechanical skeleton camouflaged in lifelike human flesh. But he brought more nuance to this design than moviegoers had seen from Yul Brynner in Westworld (1973) and even the first two Alien flicks. Unlike his robotic forebears, Roy had memories — and nostalgia. He expressed both an awareness of his own mortality — the Nexus-6 models were programmed with a four-year lifespan — and a fiercely human reluctance to die. His duel with Deckard (Harrison Ford), the hitman sent to kill him, is a poignant brawl in which Roy fights to squeeze every last sensory second out of his fated, fleeting and artificial life.
Roy Batty and the other fugitive Nexus-6 replicants in Blade Runner convey a theme that Cameron delivered more bluntly in the Terminator series. Humans have the power to create humanoid machines whose “artificial” intelligence evolves to the point where the devices have independent minds and feelings of their own, until they harbor dreams and carry out plans to obliterate their human creators and rule the world.
Wait a minute, I hear you cry, what about Star Wars? Aren’t C-3P0 and R2-D2 the most famous and beloved robots of all time in any medium?
Of course they are, which is why I’m inducting them herewith into my imaginary (but authoritative) Movie Robot Hall of Fame. They enter as the No. 1 Robot Team of all time, the Laurel and Hardy of cybernetic showbiz.
The irony in this gesture is that if I’d left them out entirely, well, so what? They’re only machines — cold, digital and bloodless.
As C-3P0 has wisely said, “Nobody worries about upsetting a droid.”
* Definition: FX (archaic) — what we used to call CGI before there were computers. — ed.