I used to think there was some kind of evolution in sci-fi movies. For example, that robots started with awkward boxes and blobs as seen in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or Forbidden Planet. One only needs to see Fritz Lang‘s silent-era Metropolis (1927) to learn there is nothing new under the sun not only in terms of robots but of the overall structure and themes of sci-fi films.
The thing to keep in mind is what happened when enlightenment and research left no space for existence of trolls or elves on Earth. What we did was take the myths and folk tales one step further, to unexplored frontiers. Instead of fairies in the forests, we have aliens on other planets. And the magic-wielding wizards are not that different from scientists and their technology: they are exclusive classes whose occupation is to defy “natural” laws. And creating artificial intelligent beings gets dangerously close.
The science can get out of hand, and when it does in stories, it is back to the robots representing the monsters and forces of “nature” standing against the order imposed by humans who created them. Interestingly, the word ‘robot’ first appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word robot is derived from a noun meaning “serf labor”, although the concept of artificial beings itself is, of course, much older.) by Karel Čapek in 1921, and the story follows an uprising of robotic laborers and the extermination of the human race. The theme of robots raising against their creators has a strong resonance. The artificially engineered ‘replicants’ of Blade Runner closely mirror the theme of humans revolting against their Creator (in Western culture). And they also make us wonder what it is that distinguishes genuine humans.
Robots are flexible. They can be the villains, or the good guys. To keep the stories interesting, the box-shaped robots frequently display human traits and sentience while the ones indistinguishable from men tend to be not so friendly, and soulless. When we take the friendly ones, there is not much difference between a person cursed and trapped in a non-human body (e.g. Beauty and the Beast), and the unfortunate Johnny 5 (Short Circuit) who is “blessed” with the essence of being human but remains trapped in his robotic body. On the other hand, the cyborg seen in The Terminator is only a sophisticated piece of machinery and software disguised as a human which does not stop until it achieves its programmed goal.
Another source of the fascination is because of the rapidly advancing technology. The concept of autonomously acting “spyders” seen in Minority Report is quite out of reach yet but people are manufacturing autonomously driven vehicles or basic robots such as asimo, and cloning and genetic engineering are a reality. These things hold many promises but they also raise ethical questions and fears even in real life. Sci-fi, just as fairy tales, feature ordinary heroes who find themselves in situations where they need to battle the ill consequences of science, technology and corporate greed. While I do not think we will be fighting kitchen robots any time soon, the questions raised in the movies are thought-provoking and valid.
There was supposed to be an article on a different topic here but the publishing schedule was derailed by my business trip, and though I thought I had regular updates covered with the article on Czech heroes prepared in advance, the trip also caused me to switch away from reading for the—hopefully—next article to another fascinating book. Luckily, one of the movies (Ghost Town, The Clone Wars and wall·e) I watched on the planes provided the inspiration for this article. It is not difficult to guess which one.
That brought back fond memories of the American Sci-Fi Movies course run by Tomáš Pospíšil at Masaryk University (When I chose the Department of English and American Studies at the Faculty of Arts, there were internationally recognized linguists Jan Firbas and Josef Hladký, and for students of English this presented a superior choice even over the Charles University in Prague.) who also thought the courses on American History. (I wish I still remembered all I had read and learned during those!) I am digressing even more now but this brings me actually back to that new book that I have started reading: Doc Maynard: The Man Who Invented Seattle by Bill Speidel, the historian who is also the author of Sons of the Profits. Recommended.