A Brief History of Iconic Movie Robots (And Why Wall-E Has Beef with the Transformers)

Who would win in a fight between a fridge and a toaster? That is the question posed, albeit on an awe-inspiring scale, by Transformers: Age of Extinction, in cinemas from today.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

The titular Transformers, big metal brutes who moonlight as vehicles and domestic appliances, and who have a penchant for blowing things up in slow motion, are now starring in their fifth film to date. The first was a 1980s feature cartoon described by Orson Welles as a film about “toys who do horrible things to each other”.
He wasn’t wrong; the Transformers’ first function was as a toy line, and the cartoon was created to promote it, followed two decades later by myriad TV series and live-action movies. There have also been a host of successor toy lines, such as the Japanese range known as Kiss Players: Transformers from an “alternate universe” that are powered by the kisses of sexualised pre-pubescent girls.
Given the way the Transformers have been repeatedly reimagined over the years to keep abreast of the latest selling strategies, it is tempting to take a cynical view of the vehicular robots now shunting each other on the silver screen, and dismiss it as mere mechsploitation.
Regardless of what one wants to call it, people enjoy watching that kind of thing; the last instalment, 2011’s Dark of the Moon, quickly became the seventh highest grossing film of all time.
Clearly, a product-driven approach has worked well for both the filmmakers Paramount and the toymakers Hasbro. The toys have given the films a pre-established appeal among youngsters (and nostalgic thirty-something men), and the films have in turn whet the boys’ appetites for the toys.
But movie robots didn’t start out this way. Historically, they have been overwhelmingly ideas-driven rather than product-driven (even if their success was later monetised by toymakers).
Here are five iconic ideas-driven film robots, and why this ultimately makes them enemies of the Transformers.

Maria – Metropolis (1927)

Maria, mad professor and the pentangle

In the first three decades of the 20th Century, Germany was one of the world’s major pioneers of film. However, in the Twenties the country was still finding its feet under its first attempt at democracy: the Weimar Republic. Amid a gloomy miasma of hyperinflation and mass unemployment, many had become disenchanted with capitalism and started veering toward the left. The ensuing political conflict was reflected in much of early German cinema, particularly in the genre of science fiction, whose job it is to hypothesise utopias and dystopias.
The first robots in cinema were created to fight this war of ideology. 1935’s Loss of Sensation, based on Ukraine playwright Karel Capek’s famous R.U.R. (which coined the term ‘robot’ from the Czech word for ‘forced labour’) sought to paint capitalism as a process of industrialising the human soul. Other films used robots to portray the fruits of forced labour as a Frankenstein’s monster that could swallow up the bourgeoisie at any time.
It was this latter task to which the first ever cinematic robot was assigned, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The film shows, using the harsh chiaroscuro and overstated perspective of German Expressionism, a world that is really two worlds: one above, made of luxurious high-rises in which plump industrialists and their kids languidly stargaze; and one below, a mechanised hell where proles sweat and toil amid smoke and metal.
In this lower world, a downtrodden inventor called Rotwang enviously seethes while staring up at the opulent towers, and promises revenge on Fredersen, the industrialist who stole his wife, and who now rules the city in the sky. To this end, Rotwang creates a gynoid (female android), which he calls Maria, and disguises as his ex-wife.

Rotwang commands Maria, now disguised as his ex-wife, to act lasciviously in public, in order to discredit Fredersen and bring about a revolution. Maria – a creation of free labour – succeeds in overthrowing the capitalist overlords, and an important thesis is crystallised: what the workers have that the industrialists don’t is the power to forge one’s dreams with one’s own hands.
But hands don’t always do good work, as Rotwang discovers at the film’s climax, when he loses control of Maria, and perishes in the maelstrom of violence she has caused.
The suit for Maria was, like the character, produced by ingenious human labour, and though aesthetically iconic, it was apparently a hell for Brigitte Helm, the actress inside. According to Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who played Rotwang, Helm would typically finish a set riddled with cuts and rashes, and once even fainted due to lack of air. Her fellow crew members took pity on her, and started slotting coins into the gaps in her suit, which she would later use to buy chocolate from the canteen.
The chocolate could only do so much, however, and Helm continued to express her concern over the suit’s stifling discomfort and the unwelcome anonymity it gave her on screen. She sometimes threatened to quit, but was always dissuaded by Lang who, according to Helm’s son, was trying to mould her into his ideal, eerily playing out a Rotwang to her Maria.

Robby – Forbidden Planet (1956)

I am Robby, you are forbidden

In contrast to 1920’s Germany, 1950’s Hollywood was an affluent and doggedly capitalist place. As a result, its movie robots were less about class struggle and more about washing the dishes in less than ten seconds. In their new roles as quirky butlers, they became the very thing that their kind had been created to satirise.
Robby was one such machine. In contrast to Maria, who is a dystopic and unruly robot, Robby represents a certain ideal. He is incapable of harming a human. He will do anything you ask. He is fluent in 188 languages along with various dialects and sub-tongues (decades before C-3PO). And he can turn a single bottle of whisky into a hundred.
But even as Robby is a capitalist’s wet dream, the film in which he first features, Forbidden Planet, is a lot less flattering toward modernity. It is a masterful retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Freudian symbolism and a frighteningly topical message.
The film sees Robby in Ariel’s role, and as that sprite is bound to serve Prospero, so is Robby bound to serve his maker, Dr. Morbius, and by extension human beings in general.

Unlike Ariel, who is bound into service by mere gratitude, Robby is bound by Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics. To wit:

(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
(2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with (1).
(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with (1) or (2).

Robby, free of the tumult of emotion, is the only character in the film who sticks to the rules created for him, while the human characters around him fight losing struggles with their inner demons, Dr Morbius over his obsession with an alien device that could unlock godlike powers of telepathy, and the story’s hero, Commander John J. Adams (a baby-faced Leslie Nielsen) over his desire for Morbius’ daughter.
And when the film’s Caliban – a towering invisible beast intent on mass violence – invades the settlement and starts killing everyone, Morbius commands Robby to kill it. But Robby frazzles up, engulfed with electricity, thereby revealing a shocking twist: Robby can’t kill the monster without transgressing its programming, because the monster is a telepathic projection of Morbius’ subconscious.
The message here is pretty clear: modern man, for all his mastery of the rational mind, is still a slave to his irrational one.
The lush Edenic sets of the film help viewers draw parallels between Morbius and the biblical Adam, whose own quest for godhood led to mankind’s fall. This is reflected in the film’s title: Forbidden Planet – the Forbidden Fruit of the Space Age.
The significance of the film’s message becomes clearer when one realises that it was released a year after the creation of the Warsaw Pact – the point at which the world became divided between two nuclear powers, and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) became a very real concept.

T-800 – The Terminator (1984)

I am become death

Although conceived three nearly decades after Forbidden Planet, The Terminator addressed the same kind of world: one where the US-USSR standoff was still unresolved. It is therefore unsurprising that the newer film shares the older one’s fear of nuclear war.
In The Terminator, such a war, instigated by a misanthropic and self-aware supercomputer system called Skynet, has reduced the future to rubble and corpses.
After years of being beaten back by Skynet’s army of machines, the humans have rallied behind a hero called John Connor, and are starting to gain the upper hand. Skynet therefore sends back in time an implacable cyborg assassin, officially designated T-800 model 101 but better known as the Terminator, to prevent Connor’s birth and bring about humanity’s annihilation.
Hence, in addition to echoing Forbidden Planet’s nuclear fears, The Terminator also echoes those of Metropolis – that of machines going rogue – but now updated for the Information Age.
Computers, like nuclear weapons, imbue humanity with almost godlike power. But there is something that has always reminded people that they are not gods, something that has long acted as the nemesis to humanity’s hubris: death.
It is fitting, then, that director James Cameron used the very image of Death himself for the Terminator’s design: its body a skeletal form, rendered in steel; its face a gleaming skull with a vicious grin; its eyes beady LEDs glowing daemonically. And, like Death, “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead”.

According to the film’s producer, Gale Ann-Hurd, the studio had suggested O. J. Simpson for the role of the Terminator, but Cameron thought Simpson wouldn’t be believable as a killer. Of course, Arnie got the part, probably winning over Cameron with his stony cube of a face, and gift for robotic acting.
He was so successful in the role that he starred in a even more successful sequel, subtitled Judgement Day, in which his character was reprogrammed into a good-guy, facing off against the even more terrifying T-1000, a Terminator made of liquid metal, that could slip though the smallest cracks, dress up as tiled floors, and make shish-kebabs with impromptu knives and stabbing weapons.
Two more, lesser, sequels were released, as well as a TV show, but by then Arnie was tired of playing a cyborg assassin from the year 2029, and had become Governor of California. (A logical progression, when one considers that the word “cybernetic” and the word “governor” derive from the same Latin root word: “gubernator”.)
As the friendly Terminator in the second film, Arnie told how Skynet turned the US and USSR against each other; as governor (or governator) in 2010 he actively encouraged Russian investment in Silicon Valley, calling Prime Minister Medvedev’s visit there “very, very beneficial”. This could be regarded as progress, but we’re not quite out of the woods yet: killer robots are now a reality, with Predator drones eerily similar to the hunter-killer craft depicted in the film series’ future war sequences. Furthermore, the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), a new type of killing machine reminiscent of the tank-like robots in the films’ future scenes, is in development by DARPA, the same shadowy agency ultimately responsible for the Internet.

Daniel – A.I. (2001)

Daniel in the technological lion's den

In contrast to the T-800, Daniel is programmed to love. A new and advanced type of “mecha”, or synthetic being, he effectively becomes a surrogate son for a couple whose real son lies in a coma. But when the real son awakes, the couple reject David, with the mother leaving him in the woods in order to spare him from a planned “decommissioning”. But David, with his love for his “mother” hardwired into him, cannot accept her abandonment, and goes on a quest to find her again.
Though the Pinocchio references dotted throughout the film are heavy-handed, there is also a wealth of more sophisticated imagery, such as the motif of Daniel’s face superimposed onto family photos, though only as a reflection. This highlights Daniel’s desire to be accepted by his family, but it also illustrates the film’s central discussion of identity, as these videos show:

The motif of faces superimposed over faces seems to ask: Is humanness just a mask, or something deeper and real?
An answer of sorts lies at the end of the film, wrongly believed to be a sappy Fairy Godmother Deus ex Machina by many critics. Daniel, having spent centuries frozen in ice, is rescued by hyper-evolved mecha, who recreate an artificial likeness of his mother. She is clearly not a real person, having no memory beyond the immediate, and having no emotion apart from love, yet Daniel calls her mother, and looks as though he has finally found redemption.

Thus, the human robot unduly anthropomorphises the robot human, and shows humanness to be nothing more than a Fata Morgana. That is, at least when viewed from the outside. But what about inside the mind, where consciousness resides? Is humanness to be found there? We are told that David perfectly simulates feelings of affection for his surrogate mother. He smiles, he cries, but does he feel? And if consciousness is predicated on the physical structure of the brain, could arranging the right atoms in the right order cause plastic to dream, or wood to wake up?
Since David is the film’s protagonist, with whom we are meant to sympathise, it is not insane to assume he was intended by the filmmakers to be human, whatever else he is made of. But we can never know if he really feels, just as we can never know whether his brief sidekick, Gigolo Joe, is anything more than a battery-operated sex doll. Sure, Joe seems to exhibit self-awareness – as he gets pulled up to a police helicopter magnet, and toward death, his final words to David are “I am, I was.” – But we all know a machine can easily be programmed to say those words.
If we nevertheless indulge ourselves, and accept that mecha can indeed feel, then A.I. suddenly becomes a film about class oppression, a la Metropolis. The robots are viewed with suspicion, denied the rights of “real people”, forced to work for them, and amuse them, sometimes by being chopped up with chainsaws at a “Flesh Fair”, before a concerto of applause. One of the mecha explains that the Flesh Fair – heralded by the humans as a celebration of life – exists to cull mechas so that humans can “maintain numerical superiority.” As Joe tells David, “They made us too smart, to quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us.” This statement implies that the humans are worried about some kind of revolution…
However, given that the humans at the Flesh Fair are astounded when Daniel exhibits genuine terror, it seems that the ill-treatment of the robots is better read as a symptom of consumerism rather than class, with the Flesh Fair more symbolic of wastefulness than oppression, and robots treated less like second-class citizens than like old TVs and washing machines, removed by truckloads in richer areas, littering the streets in poorer ones – the result of a supposed throwaway culture.
It may be no accident that the future depicted herein is one ruined by global warming.

Wall-E – Wall-E (2008)

Wall-E examines his life

A.I. suggested how mass consumerism would create a waterlogged world, and a culture that discards life whenever an upgrade comes along. Wall-E goes further into the same kind of future, showing a world so cluttered with garbage that humans are confined to existence aboard the Axiom, a spaceship. Meanwhile, amid the mountains of litter, the eponymous Wall-E, a waste management robot, hums along, collecting old trinkets that have long been discarded. He eventually comes across a plant, sprouting out from among the trash and, realising the earth is safe for rehabitation, teams up with a survey droid, EVE, to convince the humans to return. But the Axiom’s sinister autopilot, Auto, has other ideas.
In this film, the ideal of the 1950s robotopia exemplified by Robby and The Jetsons, in which machines cater to our every whim, is taken to its logical conclusion: robots have become such successful servants that humans have got fat, lazy and useless. And the world, unable to support our increased weight, has buckled, and consigned us to float helplessly in space, on futuristic deck chairs. People now eat through straws and talk through screens, while slogans resound through the ship, telling them what to do: “Try blue, it’s the new red!” The slogans belong to the last corporation left, Buy ‘n’ Large, which was largely responsible for wrecking the earth, and which now has a monopoly on culture aboard the Axiom. It holds nurseries so it can instil its jingles into children: “A is for Axiom, your home sweet home. B is for Buy ‘n’ Large, your very best friend.”

With a world-wrecking, brainwashing mega-corporation as its villain, Wall-E doesn’t disguise its ire for the modern world, even if it presents it as cute animation. Meanwhile, the film’s other antagonist, the autopilot computer Auto, with its disarming voice and single red eye (reminiscent of Kubrick’s infamously insane computer, Hal 9000) clarifies the threat posed by Buy ‘n’ Large and its ilk: we cannot run human progress on autopilot, or else we’ll crash.
It is the same warning given in countless robot movies before it, and yet one which still needs to be said.
Happily, Wall-E eventually succeeds in convincing humans to switch Auto to manual, and Buy ‘n’ Large is shown for the glutted parasite that it is. Humans, with the help of EVE and Wall-E, restore life to the earth, guided by a new set of values, in scenes strongly suggestive of that other eco-fable featuring cute-robots, 1972’s Silent Running.
Thus, Wall-E returns the cinematic robot full circle, to its original function established in Metropolis: condemning unchecked capitalism – only this time not because of class, but consumerism.

We have seen that Wall-E, Metropolis, Terminator, A.I., and Forbidden Planet all ultimately warn against the same thing: humans complacently losing control of progress.
In these films, robots have represented a modern day Promethean fire, symbolic of our ability to turn ideals into technology, for creation and potential self-destruction.
We’ve overcome, or at least palliated, most of the concerns set by these robots: class is not quite the issue it once was, nuclear war seems less likely than it did six decades ago, and machines taking over is still far from possible. But mass consumerism is still leading us into the trash can.
Meanwhile, the Transformers, ready to kick chassis and promote merchandise, have their own question about the future: “Will the catastrophe be in 3D?”

Transformers: Age of Extinction is out in cinemas in the USA on Friday 27 June, and in the UK and Ireland on Thursday 10th July, 2014.

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