Discuss: 8 Best Android/Robot Characters in Movies with Jon Spaihts
by Alex Billington
May 31, 2012
"Certainly the Alien franchise has given us some of the most memorable androids in history." With Ridley Scott's Prometheus, featuring Michael Fassbender as the android David 8 (introduced in this viral video), arriving in theaters over the next few weeks, it's the perfect time to delve into a character discussion with the co-writer of Prometheus — Jon Spaihts. A few weeks back we featured a world building, storytelling in-depth discussion with Jon, this time we talk characters. We discuss what makes androids so interesting in sci-fi stories, and which ones stand out the most to him in cinema history. Read on for his list and more!
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts, who is an avid science fiction fan with an impressive grasp on the concepts that make the genre so fascinating, starts by explaining the origin behind this concept of the "artificial man" in sci-fi storytelling: "The Pandora's Box story of almost all artificial man stories, is the Frankenstein — that the artificial man might not play by your rules. You raise your golem, you build your android, you summon your spirit, and it might not do what you want it to do when it comes." Which is kind of the area that Prometheus gets into with David, following in the footsteps of the androids in the other Alien movies.
"I do think the ultimate connection is to the 'summoning mythos', which is much older than technology. Whether you are raising the golem, or summoning a demon, or taming some beast, it is an ageless Pandora's Box parable of calling forth something stronger than you to do your bidding, only to find that it might not want what you want and that your power to control it may be limited. That story goes back very, very far. And I think the android parable of our time is the new limb of that very old mythology." Now that we know where these ideas come from and why they're important, what are some of Jon's favorite androids/robots?
Ash (Ian Holm) from Alien (1979)
Spaihts: "Ian Holm, who is this marvelously nuanced and menacing Shakespearean actor, gave us a complex artificial man filled with a sinister agenda that's never completely known. And in his performance and in that script, you see the terrifying prospect that the artificial man that we create might, in some ways, relate more to the inhuman than to the human. We make an android we expect it to love us like a dog, but Ian Holm's android was halfway infatuated with an inhuman killing machine."
"I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." Ash is the science officer of the Nostromo, a Hyperdyne Systems 120-A/2 android, who is acting upon secret orders to: "Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded." A perfect choice for this discussion, but all Prometheus connections aside, a near perfect android character created by Dan O'Bannon in one of the best sci-fi films. The imagery of him beheaded covered in that milky fluid is still unforgettable even today.
HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Spaihts: "In [a Pandora's Box way], Ian Holm is kind of a personification and a humanization of HAL - one of the great, original disobedient genies of modern science fiction. Incredibly seminal in the same way that The Matrix and Trinity's wall kick was echoed 27 times in other movies in the following years, HAL's implacable eye and robotic voice and refusal to comply has echoed through dozens of films since then and cast a long shadow in cinema."
HAL, which stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, is an artificial intelligence that interacts with the astronaut crew of the Discovery One spacecraft. HAL became operational on 12 January 1992, at the HAL Laboratories in Urbana, Illinois, as production number 3 (from Wikipedia). In addition to maintaining the Discovery One spacecraft systems during the interplanetary mission to Jupiter, HAL is capable of speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, art appreciation, interpreting and reproducing emotional behaviours, reasoning, and playing chess. Need we say any more?
R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) & C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) from Star Wars (1977)
Spaihts: "I guess you have to kind of high five R2 and C-3PO as counterpoints to the genie myth [with 2001's HAL]. They are the faithful servants who remain faithful servants. They never turn. They are the counterargument for robots. But if you think about it they haven't been terribly seminal, I don't look around and see a swarm of robot mascots in their wake. Maybe in the first few years after Star Wars we did. We saw a lot of pet robots for a little while…"
Of course, these two! Who doesn't love R2-D2 and C-3PO? Who doesn't want to own an R2-D2 droid of their own? Jon makes some interesting points though, regarding how seminal they are as characters, but also how they're almost the opposite of all other androids/robots that we usually see in darker sci-fi movies. But they've gone on to remain two of the most well-known, easily-recognized characters in all of cinema, appearing in almost any/everything having to do with Star Wars anywhere, even the theme park rides.
Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) from Westworld (1973)
Spaihts: "For pure terrifying-ness, although it hasn't aged well, I think Yul Brynner's hunter in Crichton's Westworld was really scary. One of the first times we saw an authentically humanoid android unmasked and saw a mechanized and hideous skull revealed beneath the skin, which prefigured the Terminator's revealed face. And again, although the film looks hokey in retrospect now, it was very scary in its time."
Another unique character, unfortunately forgotten in history as the film itself doesn't really stand the test of time nowadays, which Jon states. But still a great character to mention. The Gunslinger's appearance is based on Chris Adams, Yul Brynner's character from The Magnificent Seven (1960). The two characters' costumes are nearly identical. If you have never seen Westworld, now is the perfect time to check it out.
The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from The Terminator (1984)
Spaihts: "Certainly, the Terminator from the first film as the unstoppable figure of menace. It's the android that never pretended to be your friend in the first place. It just looked like you to get close, but it was out to kill you from go. That was its constructed intention. And that is a very scary thing, because it's a thing without any human weaknesses, either in strength of limb or strength of will. The Terminator cannot be reasoned with and has no heart, has no mercy. And that's frightening."
We all know that Schwarzenegger's Terminator established quite a legacy with multiple sequels, multiple iterations/versions of robots sent from the future (T-800, T-1000, T-X, etc), and even attempts at figuring out how Skynet was able to create them (as seen in Terminator Salvation). But, as Jon states, the original Terminator from Cameron's first film still stands out as one of the most iconic 'bots in movie history.
Maria (Brigitte Helm) from Metropolis (1927)
Spaihts: "The famous mechanical woman from Fritz Lang's Metropolis."
The Maschinenmensch - the robot built by Rotwang to resurrect his lost love Hel - was created by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. A whole-body plaster cast was taken of actress Brigitte Helm, and the costume was then constructed around it. Maria's robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis is unquestionably one of the most well-known and seminal robot characters in film, and predates almost any other robot character.
Gort (Lock Martin) from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Spaihts: "Arguably, Gort [from The Day the Earth Stood Still], is an important player here."
"Klaatu barada nikto." Everyone knows, and loves, Gort! The robot Gort, who serves Klaatu, was played by the naturally tall Lock Martin, who worked as an usher at Graumann's Chinese Theater and stood seven feet tall. He worked carefully with the metallic suit, for he was not used to being in such a costume. Director Robert Wise decided that Martin's segments would be filmed at half hour intervals, so Martin would not face discomfort (from Wikipedia). Another important inclusion on this list, especially considering his power and the fear he elicited amongst the people of Earth (both those in and watching the film).
David 8 (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus (2012)
Spaihts: "Certainly the Alien franchise has given us some of the most memorable androids in history. Quite honestly, even in this moment before the film has come out, I think on the strength of the trailer and the pre-release materials, we can say that Michael Fassbender is going to leave a mark in cinema as the android David. I think his performance is already indelible. And that's really saying something. He is standing on the shoulders very much of Ian Holm from the original Alien, and to a lesser extent, of Lance Henriksen in the Cameron film. I adore, frankly, all of those performances and the way in which they reflect one another."
We are just being introduced to Michael Fassbender as David this year, created by Jon Spaihts and co-writer Damon Lindelof, but he's likely to become a seminal android character. We've already seen some intriguing glimpses of him in the introductory viral video and there will be lots of breakdowns and analyses to come as soon as Prometheus arrives in theaters, but I think David is an excellent character to include here as well.
Runner Ups: "I think I'd have to accept the Replicants from Blade Runner for the category. They're artificial biological people, but they're not robots." "Maybe even Mary Shelly's Frankenstein as kind of the primal generator of all of them." Sonny from I, Robot as well: "It's evocative. It's stamped in my mind. That's the robot we've already seen before… But it is a beautiful design and it is evocative, although I'd call the movie, at best, an interesting failure. Like [Spielberg's] A.I., which I would class as a noble failure. I think that movie is a bit of a train wreck. Maybe more than a bit. But it has some stunning images in it."
Even in mentioning these other "runner up" characters, Jon gets down to the root of what makes androids and robots so interesting and yet also terrifying in science fiction stories. Spaihts mentions regarding the mind of these robots: "The extent of their interior life is unknowable. That they may harbor jealously or resentment or rage. They may become infatuated or obsessed with some person or idea. They may simply not give a damn about you, like certain cats I have known. People may convince themselves that there's love there because the exterior was cuddly and familiar. But, in fact, it's never demonstrated." Apt comparison.
While the merits of David 8 in Prometheus will be discussed endlessly over the many coming months, there are many other great android and robot characters in film history on top of the ones already mentioned. It's an exciting time for sci-fi and I'm very excited to get into these kind of discussions with moviegoers and cinephiles. Which other android/robot characters from movies are your favorite, and why?