I don’t remember when I became fascinated with robots, but recently it’s almost become a joke. Faced with a new TV show or movie, I’ll often say, “It has all my favorite things! Robots…” then trail off before listing anything else. The truth is, I do enjoy media about robots and artificial intelligence, likely for the same reasons others do. Stories about AI force us to examine what it means to really be human. After all, if a collection of wires and silicone can reason, what makes them that much different from us?
It goes without saying that I’m excited to play Detroit: Become Human, the new game from Quantic Dream, the French Canadian company that has produced designer David Cage’s visionary, often clunky games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. I’ve played these games and eagerly awaited Detroit since seeing Quantic Dream’s tech demo for the PS3 in 2013.
Yes, I’ve been waiting on this game since 2013.
The game isn’t out yet, and since I’m just a normal person I don’t have access to a review copy. Even without playing, I can tell you that this game is following in the footsteps of some of my favorite robot stories. Let’s run through a few of them and talk about what makes them great:
Ex Machina (2014, Dir. Alex Garland)
I went to see this movie with Emily after trying to go the previous night and being told they weren’t showing it because some big superhero movie was out. Not only was this my first encounter with Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, but it was the first time I’d thought about what the implications of gendered robots are. Sure, I’ve seen my fair share of RealDoll documentaries and episodes of My Strange Addiction, but I hadn’t thought about what it would mean for a man, specifically, to create intelligent objects. And the creator in Ex Machina does see them as objects, not people. In once scene, the unwitting protagonist (played by Dohmnall Gleeson), wanders into the bedroom of the inventor of all these robot women. Opening the various closets, he reveals women in various stages of completion--some without skin, some without various body parts, but all without clothes. It dawned on me that gender was a huge factor in how objects take shape.
Blade Runner (1982, Dir. Ridley Scott)
I didn’t watch Blade Runner until I was well into college, so there was no childhood fascination with Harrison Ford for me (but TRUST, I had a childhood obsession with Harrison Ford in Star Wars). This movie is the father of “are they a robot or not” stories, which are my favorite kinds of robot stories. I spent a good chunk of the movie wondering who was a replicant and who wasn’t, because somehow I hadn’t been spoiled in all my time not seeing this film. I have less love for the sequel, but I acknowledge it is beautiful, if slow.
“Be Right Back”--(2013) Black Mirror Season 2, Ep 1
Domhnall Gleeson is the king of robot movies, apparently. In this episode of British science fiction show Black Mirror, a woman gets a robot made of her dead lover, which seems like a totally great idea. The robot can speak and act like her lover, but...it’s just not the same. This episode answers the question “can robots replace people?” with a resounding NO. There’s an element of humanity that just can’t be reproduced in machines, and that leads to some uncanny valley situations. Domhnall makes an excellent android, though, doesn’t he?
AI-- (2001, Dir. Steven Spielberg)
I saw this movie when I was quite young, right when it came out on DVD. Because sweet little Haley Joel Osment was in it, my parents thought it was fiiiiine. Little did they know it had robot prostitutes and all sorts of too-risque things for me. The film follows a humanoid robot child named David, who is adopted by a family after their own son enters a comatose state. Since you can’t, you know, replace a child, things go terribly awry when the family’s real son is cured and David is booted out of the household. David travels to hopefully become a real boy (a la Pinocchio), and finds out that the world isn’t such a nice place for androids. This film has a lot to say about the ethics of robotics, and I am here for it.
The Alien Franchise
Yes, you heard me. Every Alien movie is on this list. Most Alien movies involve a group of people going to some space-place on behalf of a mysterious company and doing, you know, some things, that unleash ALIENS UNTO THE WORLD. Robotic humanoids accompany these crews on their travels, on behalf of the company, and, well, no one likes them very much. In the first Alien film, one crewmember named Ash turned out to be a robot, but passed as human for much of the film. In Aliens, the robot Bishop accompanies Ripley on a trip to take care of yet more aliens. Bishop didn’t do anything bad, but Ripley refuses to trust him anyway. In Prometheus, the robot David takes care of the ship while the crew is in hypersleep (or whatever it’s called in this particular franchise), but he, like Ash before him, does some hanky panky with the aliens and ultimately wreaks havoc on the crew. The alien franchise portrays robots as genuinely neutral, subject to the programming that humans imbue them with. So really, aren’t humans the bad guys?
This isn’t a comprehensive list of robot movies by any means. I haven’t seen some of the most famous ones, after all, and what would the genre be without animated films like Wall-E? And video games about robots are a whole OTHER list.
Robots often force us to think about what it means to be human and why being human is important. They also teach us how to be empathetic to others who aren’t like us, even if showing empathy is counterintuitive. Compassion isn’t always beneficial though, and there can be bad robots just like there are bad people. At the end of the day, I like robots because I like them and I think they make interesting stories. They’re just one of the narrative tropes that I enjoy no matter what, and really, I don’t have a good reason for it, maybe.
I’ve been waiting for Detroit to come out since 2013, and Saturday cannot come soon enough.