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kill, he freezes, a lightning storm erupting in his transparent head, a storm that will destroy him if the order is not rescinded.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.
Engaging and informative review Dan… HAL is indeed the best robot of all time, too!
Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
My husband and I saw this movie. I agree with you about it. It was confusing and that robot was stupid. I remember thinking the same thing. The robot in I robot was far better than the one they had in this movie. Also, Matthew Mcconaughey as an astronaut ? I don’t think so. I like him in some his other movies, but in this one he was mumbling a lot. Plus, my understanding of a black hole is that it sucks in everything near it because of its gravitational pull. I once saw Stephen Hawking say that if anyone ever went into a black hole they would end up like strands of spaghetti. I believe him.
I remember those other robots you mentioned to. I was the original “The Day the Earth stood still” on TV. I definitely remember gort. I remember Hal the computer because it frightened me.
“Open the pod door Hal” Hal ” I’m sorry Dave I can not comply.” Made up lines “What do you mean you can’t f***ing comply! You better comply youf ***ing piece of S***! Hal “Dave this conversation serves no purpose. Dave “Serves no purpose!” I give a piece of purpose you f***king piece of garbage.
Come to think of it the robots I saw on TV shows I watched as a kid where better than this robot. There was the” Lost in Space Robot” “Warning, Warning, Danger” and Rosie the Robot on the Cartoon called “The Jetsons.” http://www.boomeranghq.net/sites/www.boomeranghq.net/files/imagecache/character_image/characters/the-jetsons-rosie.gif
The LOST IN SPACE robot was designed by the same man who designed Robbie the Robot for FORBIDDEN PLANET. It’s easy to see the similarities, though I’ve always preferred Robbie.
Speaking of robots I was reminded of a Pixar movie that was made a few years ago. It is called Wall-e.
Wall-e is a robot that was left behind to clean up Earth, He develops a personality and is lonely. He meets EVA who is sent to look for plant life. This whole movie has all sorts of robots in it and yes, it was a animated children’s movie and a very charming one at that. The humans have left the earth and live in space. They have become so reliant on their machines that they are all very obese. So there is a good message in this movie too.
Wonderful film. Yet another in which the robot is the most interesting character.
Hi, mister Bronson. I own a french blog about John McTiernan, the director you worked for in the glorious (?) nineties. I need informations about the rewrites you made on the third Die Hard, and more informations about Juggernaut and Flyboys, the two scripts you wrote for Tongue River Productions. Maybe we can make an interview via mail box or you can tell me everything you want about it in a mail you can send at firstname.lastname@example.org. Best regards. A curious guy from France.
Ok, I bought your book for the kindle application and it seems you answer to a lot of my questions
in it. It would be great if I could translate it in french for my blog !
A French translation! We should talk. Why don’t you contact me at email@example.com, and we’ll continue this conversation.
A John McTiernan blog! I’ll be sure to check it out. I see in your next message that you’ve got my book and that it’s answered many of your questions about John (known to most of his friends and associates as “McT”–a sobriquet I never used). Let me know if you have any remaining questions. I’ll be glad to try to answer them.
I was so so sad to have read your review of my favorite movie of the year,”Interstellar.” After the film I stayed behind and read all the credits until the last words scrolled by. Tears rested in my ducts poised to fall from the moments between the space fabric and bookshelf, and a father light years gone and his daughter, who is literally preserved in the time space continueum, is aware of him knocking dust off the shelf in morse code. i was transfixed in the true possibility of transcending love, life, emotion and mortality itself through time and space travel with a robot companion; one that helped the protagonist brave the hardship and brutal decision he had to make to save the planet, and most especially his ranch house with the porch swing. Also, the depth and breadth of Matt Damon’s character gave the film such tension connection with the inner self, displaying the conflict one naturally feels, especially those who have been left behind at shopping malls for long periods of time without a ride. And finally, who would forget the relevance and depth of Topher Grace’s character! I was so moved by his inclusion that even now I can’t remember why he was in the movie at all–his performance was that stealth. In short, I just thought it valuable to share that after seeing this movie at least 10 times now, that it has changed my life forever and driven me to my life purpose—to be an astronaut-farmer. I hope you’ll realize that there are still some movie goers out there who resonate with real life stories like this one and thank goodness that there are still some movie studios out there who are willing to spend millions and millions of dollars to bring brilliant stories like this to the screen. And now This is MY confession…. “NOT!!!!!” Congratulations on your book and your blog Colonel Dan DFWLY Always your biggest fans— R,P,H,H Jones
I know how eager you must be to follow Cooper’s pathfinding trail through time and space (and equine waste), but I’d like to suggest that you settle on an earth-like planet rotating around a sun-like star rather than on a hunk of ice circling a black hole. I think you’ll find life easier there, primarily because you won’t have to deal with nut-case Cooper and his soulmate Brand. Thanks for the laughs, Rusty.