I’ve always loved movie robots.
Because they invariably have more character, more color, more interest than the hero of the story in which they play a supporting role.
My favorite, probably because he was my first, is Robbie—the real star of that fifties sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet.
With a clear glass dome of a head that reveals the complex machinery of his mind, he moves in a metallic waddle and speaks in the voice of a butler, an old retainer with a special affection for the family he serves. Protective, accommodating, a master chef, he can replicate virtually anything, including the gallons of whiskey he produces in a wonderfully comic scene between him and one of the human actors.
He is also powerful, capable of lifting immense weights, and he is, at the same time, defensive weapon, constantly scanning for threats to family and friend and eliminating those threats with a dazzling ray that vaporizes its targets.
Best of all, Robbie is programmed against the killing of human beings. When ordered to kill, he freezes, a lightning storm erupting in his transparent head, a storm that will destroy him if the order is not rescinded.
And that makes Robbie superior to the human beings around him, all of whom have “monsters from the id” buried deep in their psyches, murderous impulses that can boil up to the surface and threaten the race itself.
Robbie is charming, colorful, complex—a wonderful character who takes us to the heart of Forbidden Planet and its insights into the human animal.
Then, of course, there’s HAL—by far the most interesting and fully developed character in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There are, I’m sure, those among you who will object—insisting that HAL is a computer, not a robot. I would argue that the ship sent to explore the origins of the metal monolith that seems to hold the key to the mystery of human life is a massive robot, that HAL is its brain and the ship is his body.
He manifests himself in his disturbing red light of an eye, in his resonate, reassuring voice, in his profound intelligence—the intelligence that makes the mission possible.
Respectful, formal but with just a hint of warmth, he addresses the crew members by their first names and seems almost eager to solve any problems that may develop.
But HAL is also proud, deceitful, manipulative, homicidal. When the crew catches this perfect machine in a serious error and decides it must decommission him, HAL sets out to destroy them.
Man has built his own irrational, destructive impulses into this machine, impulses that inform everything man creates—everything from the thigh bone he turned into his first tool, an instrument of death, to the nuclear satellite that it becomes in the greatest cut in the history of cinema.
The irony is that HAL is more human than those who created him, more moving certainly (“Daisy, Daisy…”) than astronaut Dave Bowman who seems almost machine-like in his lack of emotion.
Like Robbie, HAL is the most colorful, complex individual in the story, and his character takes us to the heart of the themes with which Kubrick is struggling.
This is the pattern of most sci-fi films involving robots.
Whether it’s Grot—the guardian of the heart machine in Metropolis, or Gort—who possesses the power to destroy the human race and the planet that begot it in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the fuss-budget C3PO and the impetuous R2D2 in Star Wars, or the renegade Sonny who breaks the three laws in I, Robot…whether they are antagonists, confederates, or comic relief…robots have invariably been more interesting than the human characters of the stories in which they appear.
Until the advent of that bloated, ridiculously over-praised, pretentious botch of a sci-fi film, Interstellar.
Christopher Nolan gives us two robots—TARS and CASE—to support the human crew of the movie’s mission to find a new home for the race of man. The one is indistinguishable from the other, so let’s concentrate on TARS, who plays the larger role in the story.
Imagine a gray metal slab not unlike the monolith in 2001. (I suggest imagining it to save yourself the ten or fifteen dollars and the three wasted hours it would require to see the film.)
More animated—in the sense that it moves and it talks.
In fact, it “walks” in a way that defies common sense if not the laws of physics, and it speaks in a voice so ordinary, so undistinguished, it could be the voice of any of us…except for the fact that I’ve never met anyone quite as boring as TARS.
It (I can’t bring myself to call it “him” even though it sounds male) is utterly without personality.
Is TARS, unlike its cinematic forebears, less interesting than the human characters in the story?
They, like him, are cyphers—generic figures at worst, simplistic types at best, defined only by the screen presence of the talented actors who play them.
And the other elements of the film?
The dialogue is endlessly expository, designed not to reveal character but to explain what’s going on, and failing abysmally in that task.
I suppose only the physicists and rocket scientists among us can judge it with any authority, but it strikes me as the worst kind of nonsense.
Space vehicles so indestructible that they can survive high-speed collision with these “clouds”?
Space stations large enough to accommodate the earth’s populace and lifted into orbit through gravity?
I could go on.
But instead, let me ask you this.
If you were looking for a new home for the human race, would you choose a planet in orbit around a black hole?
Then there’s the mawkishly developed theme of family—“love [that] transcends time and space.”
The astronaut hero deserts the daughter who loves him to seize the opportunity to return to space. (Saving the human race seems a secondary consideration.)
She, in turn, spends most of the rest of her life hating him for leaving.
The final third of the story becomes his attempt to return to her, and…
…and when he does, he spends no more than two minutes with her before flying off to rejoin the female member of his crew!
All of this is so inept that I find myself reconsidering my initial judgment.
It’s possible that I misjudged TARS.
It may be that he, for all his emptiness, is, after all, more interesting than the human characters in the story and that he, in fact, provides profound insight into the vacuum at the heart of Interstellar.