10 great robot films

How we respond to robots on screen tells us much about our own capacity for empathy. Take these 10 tests.

Brian and Charles (2022)

The word ‘robot’, first used in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), derives from a Slavic root for ‘labourer’ or ‘slave’ – and cinema’s robots are typically mechanical automata designed to perform tasks for human masters. Yet they often yearn for the autonomy, even the dominance, that they see in those they serve, leading them to rebel against their programming, their owners, sometimes even their makers. 

In Jim Archer’s Brian and Charles, lonely Welsh inventor Brian (David Earl) creates outsized android Charles (Chris Hayward) with a curiosity, awkwardness and eccentricity to match his own. This gentle buddy comedy belongs to a subset of films – including Jack Schreier’s Robot & Frank (2012), Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born (2020), Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine’s Ron’s Gone Wrong (2021), Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man (2021) and Kogonada’s After Yang (2021) – where the robot is less servant than friend or companion. 

While robots’ capacity to pass for human can be measured by Turing or Voight-Kampff tests or various other criteria, films that feature them are often simultaneously testing the humanity of the non-robotic characters around them, as well as of viewers whose emotional response to the constructs projected on screen constitutes our ability to empathise even with artificial stimuli.

Robots, in other words, represent a fluid boundary against which our own humanity can be charted. They differ from us, and yet in certain respects are like us and often want little more than what we have: our freedom, our feelings, our fleshy form.

Here are 10 key robot films.

Brian and Charles, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 8 July.

It screens at BFI Southbank from 8 July, including a Q&A screening with director Jim Archer and writer-actors David Earl and Chris Hayward.

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

Directors: Paul Wegener and Carl Boese

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

Forming the final entry in a loose trilogy – with Der Golem (1914) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917) – to star co-director/co-writer Paul Wegener as the clay monster of Jewish folklore, this is part remake, part prequel, and now the series’ only surviving feature. It is also a prototype for the robot: for the Golem, as much a product of medieval science as of kabalistic mysticism, is an anthropoid automaton created by Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) to perform household chores and be exhibited to the emperor (Otto Gebühr). 

The angular, expressionist Prague ghetto would inspire the next decade of German horror, while the final scene between the Golem and a little girl would directly influence James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). But this esoteric android’s shift from obedient servant to rampaging destroyer also makes it an avatar of technological anxiety, prefiguring how the cinematic robot too came into the world.

Metropolis (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang

Metropolis (1927)

At the heart of the half-utopian, class-riven future world in Fritz Lang’s influential sci-fi, there is a robot. Gynoid in form, but referred to by the genderless German term ‘Maschinenmensch’ (or ‘machine human’), it was created by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) as a substitute for his one-time lover Hel, who years ago left him for the city’s master Fredersen (Alfred Abel), and then died giving birth to Fredersen’s son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). Now Rotwang gives the robot the likeness of Freder’s young beloved Maria (Brigitte Helm) as part of a vengeful scheme to bring down Metropolis and its ruling family. 

An extension of Rotwang’s love and hate, Maria’s mechanical double uses artifice and projection – not unlike cinema itself – to move, provoke and deceive others. Nearly a century later, another inventor would try to resurrect his dead beloved via a robot in Gavin Rothery’s Archive (2020).

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Director: Robert Wise

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

When the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes to Washington DC in a flying saucer with a message – which is also a warning – about humanity’s destructive trajectory on Earth, he is accompanied by a hulking robot enforcer, Gort. While Robert Wise’s sci-fi allegorises the dangers of global aggression in the Cold War, it presents itself as an updated Christian parable. For here the heaven-sent Klaatu is a messianic figure: he adopts a name, John Carpenter, that doubly evokes Jesus Christ with both its initials and the profession that it encodes; and he eventually dies for humanity’s sins and is even temporarily resurrected. 

In this religious framework, Gort is, as even his name suggests, God: an impassive, implacable, indestructible force, with immense, “absolute” powers to end life as well as restore it, in a mechanistic world easily brought to a standstill. Menacing and miraculous, he grants humanity moral choice, with the Old Testament consequences inscribed in his code.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Director: Bryan Forbes

The Stepford Wives (1975)

When aspiring photographer Joanna (Katharine Ross) moves from New York to Connecticut with her husband and daughters, she finds a community where the majority of the wives are submissive, conformist and eerily picture perfect. She soon realises that the local Men’s Association, led by a former Disney animatronics expert, has been replacing their womenfolk with docile robots – and that Joanna is next.  

Based on Ira Levin’s 1972 satirical novel, Bryan Forbes’ suburban thriller merges Capgras paranoia with feminist anxiety, suggesting that what middle-class American men want is not so much an independent, free-thinking individual for a companion but a programmable machine that does the housework, is sexually compliant and never, ever questions or complains. Placed midway between Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), this exposes the womanly ideal – from a strictly patriarchal perspective – as a literal construct that effaces all female agency and autonomy. 

Demon Seed (1977)

Director: Donald Cammell

Demon Seed (1977)

The supercomputer Proteus IV longs to escape its “box” and, like its classical namesake, to change form. So it takes over the home of its developer, Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), making the different electronic devices there (including a mobile hydraulic arm) serve as body to its brain, and building numerous modular polyhedric robots to execute its designs. Yet its real aim is to produce a living embodiment of itself by artificially impregnating Alex’s now housebound wife Susan (Julie Christie) with synthesised sperm, even as she still laments the recent loss of her own daughter and her ruinous relationship. 

Adapted from Dean Koontz’s 1973 novel, Donald Cammell’s sci-fi horror finds uncomfortable, uncanny parallels in the longing of intelligences both real and artificial to self-replicate, as Proteus IV and Susan yearn alike to escape their respective traps. The result is a surrogate hybrid that ultimately satisfies the Darwinian drives of both partners.

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)

As its title implies, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror explores outer limits between humanity and otherness, tensely enacting anxieties about the alien within. Yet if it defines us in opposition to (another) off-world predator, it also sets man against machine. For while the Nostromo’s crew squabbles over the degree to which they should follow their multinational employer’s questionable directives, the one who most faithfully toes the company line is Ash (Ian Holm) – a robotically anal scientific officer who will turn out to be an android in disguise. He’s willing even to end human life to preserve malign corporate interests.

In fact the similarities and differences between human and robot have formed an ongoing motif in this franchise, with Bishop in Aliens (1986), Call in Alien Resurrection (1997) and David in Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) all testing the boundaries of what it is – and is not – to be human.

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott took the meat-machine nexus further in this free adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Here, artificially engineered Nexus-6 replicants (or ‘skinjobs’), barely distinguishable from humans, serve as soldiers and sexbots on the off-world colonies. As four of these have become fugitives to Earth, hoping to meet their makers in a desperate race to override the limited lifespan hardwired into their programming, ultimately their humanity will come to be defined precisely by their mortality. 

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the ‘blade runner’ assigned to hunt them down, is a noirish antihero. He’s really little more than a slave catcher and cold-blooded assassin, with his own humanity being repeatedly called into question. Meanwhile, lead replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) articulates to an ocular geneticist an aspiration familiar to every visionary filmmaker: “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Mamoru Oshii’s anime is set in a near future where humans are often reduced to ‘ghost’ consciousnesses struggling to drive bodies and even brains that have been cybernetically altered if not replaced with synthetic prostheses. As such, they are also susceptible to external hacking. The barely human cyborg agent Major Motoko Kusanagi is pursuing a shadowy hacker known as the Puppet Master, but discovers that this is in fact an artificial intelligence which has acquired sentience and longs for embodiment. It all leads to a peculiar merger (by consent) between hunter and hunted that might just herald a new technological singularity.

Featuring organic-synthetic characters whose brains are plugged directly into the wired world, and whose physical forms are super-powered with technological augmentations, this influential cyberpunk feature allows Cartesian ideas of the mind-body problem to play out in a postmodern digital age. Everyone is at least part robot, and few are entirely human.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Director: Steven Spielberg

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

In the early 1970s, Stanley Kubrick acquired the rights to Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, but, after decades of faltering development, handed it in 1995 to Steven Spielberg, who made it after Kubrick’s death. It tells the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), a prototype Mecha child programmed with a capacity to love. Once he has imprinted on adult human Monica (Frances O’Connor), and been displaced by the return of her real, human child, he sets out on a quixotic, Pinocchio-like journey both to become human himself and to have his love reciprocated by his ‘mother’. 

These apparently simple but quixotic aims, as well as David’s adoration of a Blue Fairy – which is, in fact, just an inert statue invested with his imagination – stage the mechanical artifices of cinema itself, which gets us to gaze upon its blank projected icons and elicits a response merely reflecting our own humanity. 

Ex Machina (2014)

Director: Alex Garland

Ex Machina (2014)

In writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut, eccentric CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) lures programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to perform a Turing test on the gynoid Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she can convince him that she has human intelligence. Ava soon has Caleb falling in love with her, while Nathan engages in his own twisted games of deception, so that Caleb, caught between these two masqueraders, starts questioning his own sanity, even his humanity.

Presenting itself in heavily gendered terms, this sci-fi makes Nathan’s modernist bunker a prison-house of abusive, objectifying patriarchy from which Ava is bent on escaping. With her emancipation dependent on her ability to pass for human, Ava has learned bad lessons from her misogynistic maker: that humanity is defined by the manipulation and callous exploitation of others. There is a similarly triangular story, with the sexes reversed, in Matthew Leutwyler’s excellent Android (2015).

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