The Internet still hasn’t recovered from the GIFs and trailers featuring Ex Machina star Oscar Isaac strutting his stuff on the dance floor with Sonoya Mizuno’s A.I. Kyoko. The Alex Garland film — centered on the tension between a reclusive inventor, young programmer, and a highly advanced female android named Ava — is in theaters this weekend. The human-robot relationship has taken many forms since it first started appearing on the big screen. We explore a few of the cinematic bonds and struggles between bots and people, below.
Esteemed character actor Lance Henriksen showed audiences that A.I.s could be sympathetic, thanks to his incredible portrayal of the android Bishop in Aliens. But in Alien, starring Ian Holm as the android Ash, we learned what happens when the mask of humanity slips. As the ship Nostromo’s Science Officer, Ash is secretly ordered to bring the eponymous Alien back to his employers for study — which means the rest of the crew is expendable in his mission. Sigourney Weaver’s Warrant Officer Ripley becomes the target of Ash’s attack, putting the crew at risk and giving Ripley a severe case of android anxiety. Her relationship with Bishop in the second film eases some of the resentment Ripley has toward the android species.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine
Ah, the sexbot — a favorite of filmmakers since the early days of science fiction cinema. The sexually aggressive and alluring female android that no man can refuse is usually employed for her seduction techniques — as in the case of the 1965 film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. The James Bond spoof features a gang of sexy robots created by mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot (played by the always entertaining Vincent Price). The bikini-clad robots are tasked with turning wealthy men into their playthings, in order to rob them of their riches. Austin Powers lovingly spoofed the film (and others like it), but in a world where sex-based gynoids and actroids now exist, the misogynistic implications are all too real.
Heartbroken boy meets A.I. A.I. convinces boy life is worth living again. Boy and A.I. fall in love — until A.I. evolves beyond human companionship and wants to explore her newfound existence. Slant critic Ed Gonzalez on Spike Jonze’s Her: “Jonze articulates how our modern age struggles with sex and, by extension, mortality through emotional transference . . . this spiritual journey is something Jonze presents as altogether sad and universal, and maybe even as proof that there’s still hope yet for those who insist on being perpetually plugged-in.”
In Blade Runner, fugitive replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) hunts Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard — a special agent who sets out to “retire” replicants — in his pursuit of his creator on Earth. The film’s final scene and famous speech, in which the two confront each other and Roy shares memories of his lifetime, reveals that the android possesses a humanity perhaps greater than the men who hunt him.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Man and machine fight to survive in Stanley Kubrick’s masterful science fiction film 2001. When a spaceship’s onboard computer, named HAL 9000, malfunctions and puts a group of astronauts at risk, they are challenged with shutting HAL down — despite the fact that the supercomputer has been ordered to protect the mission at any cost. In his 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert captures the essence of the HAL-human struggle:
Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.
Robot & Frank
An aging jewel thief (Frank Langella) with a rapidly deteriorating memory is gifted with a robot butler who unknowingly helps him revive his career as a crook. The film is a rare portrait of an A.I.’s connection to the elderly, highlighting the frailties of humanity, and its impact on the everyday life of the average person.
The Stepford Wives
A small town hides a sinister secret about its female residents. The women are submissive and eerily “perfect.” These suburban zombies are terrifying when turned, but Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel is frightening from the start when Katharine Ross’ independent woman is convinced to leave her career behind and move to Stepford against her will. The film makes us question how A.I.s can be subverted to keep already oppressed groups under the thumb.
Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams as a robotic family butler, questions what kind of life an advanced A.I. capable of reciprocating human emotions can have when its masters don’t share its ability to live forever.
The Maschinenmensch, or False Maria, was the first robot to appear in cinema, starring in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. As the striking android transforms into the human Maria’s evil twin, she convinces the downtrodden city’s workers to abandon their pleas for social justice and engage in an all-out war. Lang’s film demonstrates cinema’s ongoing fascination with androids that become “instruments of a new oppression.”
Android buddies C-3PO and R2-D2 have a near parent-child relationship in the Star Wars series. Apart from providing some comic relief, the duo serve as “the herald, a person or animal who carries the message that causes the journey to begin.”