The List: robots in film

Since Czech writer Josef Capek coined the word “robot” in his 1921 science fiction play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), cinema has been fascinated by the autonomous powers of our friends electric. Berkeley Professor Ken Goldberg, who leads a robotics and automation research lab, selects his favourite robots in film.

1. Robot and Frank (2012)

Jake Schreuer’s Robot and Frank really changed the way I think about robots. We’re still a long way off from making robots technologically sophisticated enough to match humans, but this really probes the psychological aspects. For the first time I could see myself getting old and having a robot as a companion – to keep me company with an incredible memory of my past, photos, videos, emails and jokes to draw on. The most impressive aspect of the robot in this film, who doesn’t have a name, is his holographic memory: he can process past material represents a very different thinking about robots.

2. Sheldon, I’m Here (2010)

This is a wonderful short directed by Spike Jones. It’s only 30-minutes long. The film’s not been widely seen because it’s never been released in movie theatres but I consider it a masterpiece. It’s a sci-fi boy-meets-girl romance, set in an LA cohabited by humans and robots. Sheldon’s a really sympathetic character, he’s willing to give up everything for his amorous companion. There’s very little dialogue but the film has an emotional arc so you can really identify with the protagonist.

3. Astro-Boy (2009)

When Toby, the brilliant son of a government scientist, is killed in an accident, his father recreates him in robotic form, complete with superpowers that allow him to fly. David Bowers’ remake of Osamu Tezuka’s manga comic-book character is my sentimental favourite because he’s a kid robot, and he’s also a superb example of the classic Eastern view of robots as friendly companions. Japan has a very different cultural view of machines which goes back to 17th-century mechanical puppets also known as Karakuri ningyōm. In Asian countries, robots are friendly. They’re considered more as beneficent “helpers” with superpowers; whereas the classic Western view is of dangerous creatures that exact revenge on their hubristic creators. Think of Golem, Frankenstein, the Terminator – the revengeful, threatening characters are not something that I’m personally interested in.

4. Star Wars (1977)

Long-time partner of R2D2, C3P-0 represents the robot as fallible, or imperfect, which is much closer to the reality of actual robots. Also, I like that C3P-0 has a sense of humour (at times, a quality I wish more humans had).

5. Metropolis (1927)

Maria is the classic example of the darker, hubristic side of Western tradition. Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece is a dystopian nightmare of a futuristic city-state built on forced labour and assembly lines. Maria, the “Maschinenmech” robot, is at once mother, virgin and Moloch. Metropolis is a film of the future, but taps into the origins of the word “robot” in Carek’s play, which links back to the Golem and Pygmalian.

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