Quick question – is it possible to have a robot protagonist? I’ve always been intrigued by this question. Obviously, Wall-E’s weekend success answers that, doesn’t it? Perhaps a better question might be - Are there any limits to the idea of a robot protagonist?
Now there are, of course, many famous robots in cinema history. R2D2 and C3P0, naturally. There was Robby of the Forbidden Planet, Maria from Metropolis, The Iron Giant, Ash from Alien, Lt. Commander Data from Star Trek, The Terminator, The Transformers, perhaps the Fembots of Austin Powers, and Johnny 5 of Short Circuit.
None of them were protags, were they? I believe they were all supporting characters with the exception of one really cool antagonist. But can any of those characters actually carry a 90-plus-minute film in the lead role? How feasible is it to have a robot protagonist?
Matt Prigge over at the Philadelphia Weekly listed Six Movies Featuring Robot Protagonists. Here’s his list:
Infra-man (1975): Robots have always been a staple of cinema, but it’s a touch unnatural for moviegoers to follow around an artificial, non-carbon-based lead character incapable of real emotions. But it happened and it required baby steps—say, going to bionic hybrids first. Shortly after Steve Austin stormed America, Hong Kong was met with this colorful and cheerfully silly Shaw Brothers production—a proto-Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in which a part-robotic superhero smacks around alien invaders, including skeleton bikers and guys in rubber demon suits.
D.A.R.Y.L. (1985): Long before Haley Joel Osment was even born, there was Barret Oliver, star of The Neverending Story and this family sci-fi about an android boy adopted by Michael McKean.
Making Mr. Right (1987): Right up there with the Lea Thompson-Howard the Duck romance in the realm of creepy cross-species film hookups, this Susan Seidelman comedy romantically pairs scientist Ann Magnuson with a space-bound android, played by a young and arguably never more eccentric John Malkovich.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001): Osment was already robotlike even when he was Murphy Brown’s toddler, so casting him as an actual robot feels a bit redundant. Still, no film has so seriously treated an artificial lead with the sensitivity it would a human one, or played so intriguingly with audience identification figures. With a lead whose emotions are as artificial as the rest of him, AI—rather than such desecrations as Bicentennial Man or I, Robot—is the true filmic heir to Isaac Asimov.
Daft Punk’s Electroma (2006): Hand it to the French electronica duo to make their film debut with a painfully slow and wordless portrait of a world just like ours populated only by metal-headed robots.
I might be able to think of a few more. I hadn’t seen Bicentennial Man, but Robin Williams, the robobutler, WAS the protag in that film, wasn’t he? There was also Robots (2005), which had a robot protag called Rodney Copperbottom. Robert John Burke, aka Robocop, was the protag, too, wasn’t he? Not sure about that one. Of course, if they ever get around to making it, you can add to the list the Six Million Dollar Man (or Woman, whichever comes first – like the chicken or the egg). With respect to A.I., I used to be obsessed about the ideas (and the now famous Kubrick legends) at the time regarding the creation of that story. When I sat through the finished film, though, I was never fully won over by Haley Joel Osment as a robot protag, and if Spielberg and Osment can’t win me over, it can’t be done.
Here’s my conclusion. Nowadays, robot protags are possible, but only if it’s designed to be an animated film or CGI. Hence the reason I felt very strongly that they should’ve made Optimus Prime and his Transformers the protags. People can easily buy into it if it’s CGI just as easily as kids bought into it when they were cartoons on television. There’s just something about humans playing robots that doesn’t work well enough to have that compelling lead you need for a film.
But then again, if you mix up the Six Million Dollar Woman with a bunch of Fembots... I don't know. That could be a really good show.