Though I haven’t seen it yet, the trailer for this week’s new film Surrogates leaves little doubt: robots are evil, and they will destroy the world. The film apparently depicts a futuristic world in which people live vicariously through attractive robot versions of themselves. If the trailer can be trusted, the movie begins with an unexpected murder and eventually moves toward more serious, possibly cataclysmic events. Waiting villainously at the heart of said cataclysm are the robots. If the details of their involvement remain unclear, the ultimate point is that they’re bad.
In so arguing, Surrogates joins a long pedigree of robot-hating movies. While the stories vary, the basic formula repeats itself over and over: humans create robots, humans become super excited about the robots, something goes horribly wrong (surprise!), humans have to fight the robots. Some movies, like Blade Runner (1982) or Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), manage to discuss deep ideas within this pattern, while others are less ground-breaking. Still, even a casual look at sci-fi shows that this pattern pops up in all sorts of stories, ranging from Battlestar Galactica to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Frankenstein.
The most obvious problem with this formula is that if advanced robots did exist, they probably wouldn’t want to kill or subjugate humans. For example, the titular robots in I, Robot decide that, to protect humanity from itself, they have to take away people’s freedom, which in turn sparks a battle that the humans eventually win. If the robots were so advanced (or if they had ever watched a movie) they would have seen that result coming and subsequently been more diplomatic. At the very least they could have been subtler than unloading legions of shock troops in the streets.
Other stories are equally unlikely. In The Matrix (1999), for example, the characters take for granted the fact that they need to get into the “real world” where they’ll be “free” of their robot overlords. Yet, after they escape it turns out that the only thing they’re “free” to do is wear dirty clothes all the time and live in a cave. Personally, I’d take the virtual matrix world over the “real” one any day. Ultimately, however, the point is that in all of these movies the humans are either fighting an enemy they don’t need to fight, or the robots are absurdly evil. Robots won’t be the purveyors of apocalypse because it will get them killed. No one will use robots to take over the world, because they are apparently so easy to beat. In other words, if someone wants unlimited power or violence that person is going to have to use something much better than a robot to get it.
Conversely, a world filled with robots might potentially be very cool, because the very things that usually go awry in movies would work just fine. Besides superhero strength, we could also have butlers a la Woody Allen in Sleeper (1973); we might find a humorous and knowledgeable buddy like C3PO; we could even be more attractive, which is one of the premises of Surrogates. In any case, robots aren’t going to want to kill us any more than the technology we already have wants to kill us (and the last time I checked, the self-checkout kiosk at Smith’s hadn’t strangled anyone).
While the robots-taking-over-the-world idea might make for implausible stories, it also poses a much bigger problem by portraying advanced technology as something to be feared in the distant future. In fact, just the opposite is the case: the robots have already arrived. They build our cars and dispense our cash. They control our transportation and fight our wars. Even if they don’t have free will or beady red eyes, they’re already impacting the way we live. A more complex robot movie, then, might address the difficulty of living side by side with robots without one side blowing up the other. Admittedly, such a story might sell fewer tickets, but it would also expose the problems that arise as aspects of people’s lives become more limited in the face of greater automation. After all, self-checkout kiosks don’t strangle people, but they do take away someone’s job.
In the end, if the only problem with robots is the potential of a violent mechanized uprising, there really isn’t any problem with robots. In reality, however, the way we interact with technology is complicated and difficult to address in two hours of gunfights and explosions. Still, Surrogates is already on my Netflix waiting list and, if the reviews are good enough, I’ll go see it this weekend. Whatever it adds to the discussion, hopefully it’ll hold us over while we wait for the robot revolution.
Jim Dalrymple is a pop culture correspondent for Rhombus. He seems to have indulgent quite thoroughly in robot-related cinema. You can follow his non-mechanized postings on Twitter @jimmycdii.
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