The enduring fun of robot movies.
Rajinikanths latest,buzzy offering,Robot,is the story of a scientist who creates a robot in his own image,for use in combat situations. But what it lacks is a beating human heart. Once the scientist upgrades the robot to feel,it takes on a rebellious life of its own. It falls in love with the scientists girlfriend,and it begins to operate out of possessiveness and rage,becoming a monstrous force that turns on its own progenitor. The story reverberates with other old,familiar storylines of mutinous androids and uncontrollable creations. Its a mash-up of a million movies and books we have already experienced,and yet,the idea still holds us in thrall.
The thought of a toy or a thing with human impulses has always been with us,from Pinocchio to the Velveteen Rabbits,or even the Tin Man. Then theres the cyborg,a fictional entity that combines the robotic and the real,with fabulous mechanical enhancements,which brings up fundamental questions of what it is that makes us human.
Why do self-willed robots fascinate us the way they do? Part of it is the way we demonise technology Blade Runner,Terminator,etc. take us to scary futures where machines have outstripped humanity.
Scientific hubris is held up as dangerous,even sinful,from Frankenstein onwards; an attempt to rival the gods. In Fritz Langs 1927 movie classic,Metropolis (an early,brilliant blend of science fiction and social message),the robot is a malevolent version of a beautiful labour union leader,who embodies male fantasy. The technological creature is all power and no responsibility,and it takes on the distorted urges of its creator.
At another level,the reason we love robot/cyborg themes is the dream of perfectibility,the urge to get out of our own limited skins. It can do everything that we can think up. Watching a robot on a rampage,we revel in its extraordinary capacities. Its a playful and destructive joy,watching this awesome power on the loose.
At a third level,the robot is meant to estrange the ordinary,or show us a fun-house mirror into our own lives. The Stepford Wives,for instance,was a suburban dystopia where the men have programmed their wives into beautiful,pliant fembots. Science fiction worlds,after all,are an angle into our reality,they get their frisson from the ways they parallel and twist our social norms. Then there was Wall-E,which fits no previous mould for sentient hardware. The sweet Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class) is an industrious little robot that compacts trash,hoards human souvenirs and watches old movies with bug-eyed fascination. Both Wall-E and Eve,its sleek white love-interest,are simply robots,not fantasies of skill or power. Interestingly though,in many of these movies,it is love that tricks and unravels the robots strict,pre-programmed destiny.
My favourite take on artificial intelligence is Galatea 2.2,a novel by Richard Powers about a writer and a neurosurgeon who train a supercomputer to take an oral exam in literature. As the novelist trains Helen,the machine,he has to convey the depth of real experience. He talks to her,sings to her,pours himself out into her,tells her of his own love story Ill tell you the story that makes me human. Helen is a quick study,but literary similes baffle herA pretty girl is like a melody. How? She starts asking more difficult questions What races do I hate? The novel is a brilliant meditation on what it means to have a human mind; on imitation and reality.
But the weird thing about still using robots as a vessel for our projections is the extent to which they have been naturalised into our world now. When theyre good,theyre very,very good performing intricate surgeries,bringing you breakfast in bed,working on factory floors and laboratories.
And when theyre bad,theyre horrid and lethal. The US militarys reliance on robotics has turned wars into video games for their own side,making the whole enterprise more ethically fraught than ever.
Whats more,its hard separating machine and organism in our times when I,wearing contact lenses,look into a screen and work out my thoughts,theres a certain melding of body and prosthetic and mind. Pacemakers and pumps,and now robotic limbs,are a step towards making us bionic men and women.
But no matter how diverse robots are now,as the Rajinikanth movie shows,our cinematic imagination is still stuck on that hunk of metal and silicon and sorcery.