Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Wall*E & The Robot Protagonist

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.


Your thoughts?


Scott said...

I would like to add my own hypothesis about robot as protag. Robots as protags can work if they were human (ROBOCOP), act like humans, trying to be human or struggling with the disconnect between being a robot in a human world.

Mystery Man said...

Yeah, I would agree with that. I guess there's a sub-genre of humans-turned robot, which certainly would work. Thanks for that.


James said...

I'd also add, being an animated feature makes a big difference.

Animation makes inanimate objects into protagonists ALL the time.

Live-Action is a much tougher thing to pull off.

I'd also add C3PO and R2D2. They carry the first 20+ minutes of STAR WARS before we even meet Luke Skywalker. It is their plight that drives the opening of STAR WARS. And really, if you think about it, the plot revolves around R2D2 getting the battle plans to the Rebels which drives Act 3.

GimmeABreak said...

I think 5 was the protag in Short Circuit. The others either supported or obstructed him, as I recall.

Robbo said...

For now CG and animatronic puppetry are the only effective way to realize a fully robotic character and while an audience can suspend its disbelief for a "cartoon" character it's a lot harder to do the same for a live-action/animatronic equivalent.

I suspect we'll soon be seeing some cultural shift that will allow for audiences to accept and embrace a fully robotic live-action character. That will likely happen around the same time as people start getting more comfortable having romantic relations with inanimate objects - "Lars And The Real Girl" doesn't count but it's a foot in the door.

Johnny 5 wasn't really the protagonist of "Short Circuit" so much as he was the McGuffin for the human leads. He stole scenes and got all the laughs and drove the plot forward but even with the truck loads of pathos they ladled onto the screen he was still just a device to bring the two human romantic leads together on a thrill ride and love conquers all conclusion.

The sequel was pretty much the same, with a bank heist thrown in for good measure, even if the robot did have more meaningful scenes.

Full Disclosure: I was one of the robot puppeteers on the sequel.


bob said...

I keep thinking of robots and maybe even clones in terms of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The myth of the creator and the abandoned creation. I think a story line of a robot, a really intellegent robot, trying to come to grips that it's creator is not immortal and not only doesn't love it's creation but for one reason or other loathes it. I think that could make for an interesting story. Has it been done?

jfd said...

#5 is the protagonist in his movies. After looking at wall*e, i'm thinking that #5 is the protagonist in this movie as well.

Danny said...

Wasn't there an 80s Disney TV show, or maybe it was just a movie of the week, called More than Human? I remember an Alan Thicke-type dad/scientist creating a robot who looked like a teenage boy, and the robot had to go to high school and learn to adapt.

Also, how do clones, or Bladerunner replicants, fit into the discussion?

Mystery Man said...

James - Dammit, that brought to mind a point I meant to make in the article. (Never drink and blog.) You may recall my May '07 article on Star Wars in celebration of the 30th anniversary. (Found here: http://mysterymanonfilm.blogspot.com/2007/05/long-time-ago.html). In any case, I went through ALL of the old drafts of Lucas. It was a great lesson in rewrites because the man was never afraid to completely look at the story from a different perspective. In some of those middle drafts, I think the 1975 ones, he tried to make the robots the protags and it didn't work. In the finished film, they certainly play a large part in the story, which came from those earlier drafts, but you always got the impression that they were just the preshow to the big event, which was Luke's hero arc. Thanks for that.

Pat - You may be right. For some reason, my gut kept telling me that Steve Guttenberg was the protag, but dammed if I'm going to sit through that film again to get the answer. Hehehe... Hope you're well.

Robbo - Great point, man! I mean to include puppetry. I completely agree with your thought on the cultural shift that will audiences to embrace fully robotic live-action characters. I think we will see a return to that more, or at least I'd like to see that. I think people have grown tired of CGI, and puppetry will have a giant return down the road. I've had a lot of conversations with various people about this, and everyone has unanimously told me that they emotionally respond to puppetry more so than CGI characters. There's just something about the fact that you KNOW that puppet is REALLY there that works better than CGI. A few months ago, I watched Spielberg's E.T. redo, and I responded more to the puppet E.T. than I ever did the cartoonish E.T. in the extended scenes. It only takes one movie, and puppetry will be back in a big way. It's great to meet you.

Bob - We got some of that in Blade Runner. That's a great kind of mythology to try to explore, though.

jfd - Thanks for that.

Danny - Not sure about the show. Of course, Harrison being a replicant has been a source of much debate. The thing is, audiences support him because they think he's human. It's one thing to have a twist in the end, which is great, but it's another to know upfront that the lead character is a robot, which is what I was kind of questioning. Clones aren't really robots, though, are they? I don't see anything wrong with a human clone as a protag, do you?


James said...

Another "robot" movie I find interesting in terms of believability is THE TERMINATOR.

There are so many different directions that the premise could have gone -- that imo -- would have radically altered the movie, probably for the worst.

What I find truly unique, is here is this premise, where the protagonist really does not know whether or not the guy chasing her is a robot or not.

One decision could have been to play this up. Is Sarah Connor crazy? Is Arnold really a robot from the future? Is Reese a good guy? Is he lying to her?

But James Cameron, very early on, lets us know. There is no doubt in our minds that Arnold is exactly what Reese says he is. But he maintains that doubt for Sarah, which is cool.

The exact same script, same dialogue, simply shot differently would have yielded a much different movie.

Terminator, really is an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story, where this killer sentinel robot will stop at nothing until it finishes its mission of killing its target.

The biggest difference, is that the Terminator, being a cyborg, can actually blend in with the humans around him.

That's what makes the premise unique -- and yet, Cameron has no problem letting the viewers know this right off the bat.

I think he made the right decision. For numerous reasons. One being, the hook really is the cyborg stalking her.

Something similar, happened with T2. As great as the twist is that Arnold is the good guy, you knew that going into the film from the trailers. And that is the sequels hook.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks for that, James. I completely agree. Another friend, Alan, over at Burbanked had posted some really great thoughts on the exposition in the Terminator, which you might enjoy. Thanks for that.


John Beck Hofmann said...

A robot can only be a protagonist if it has free will. If it is merely an extension of a human at the other end controlling it, then that human at the other end would be more the protagonist and the robot, simply his tool. A robot such as the current Mars rover, cannot be a protagonist in a story unless in the story it was anthropomorphized to move under it's own power. The Mars (MER) rovers have no autonomy, other than simple hazard avoidance. Robots like R2D2 certainly can be the protagonist - just maybe not a very good one for engaging an audience for several hours, since it's emotional range is limited.

Mystery Man said...

John - Thanks for that. Would you agree that the only style where people would buy that a robot had free will would be animation or CGI? Thanks for your comments.


John Beck Hofmann said...

Interesting question, MM,
I definitely think CGI helps create the broad range of facial expression necessary to have the audience "buy" the character. I do think there have been some live action robots that got their intent and emotion across with just body movements and sounds. R2D2 I think is the best example. The little guy made you laugh and cheer and worry about him a little - mostly I think in Ep.4. There was another movie that got me engaged in boxy little robots in a big way and that was the movie "Silent Running" with Bruce Dern. There were these 3 robots called Huey, Dooey and Luey who looked liked modern day atm machines with legs. The only sound they made was a whisping sound and they had no faces. Yet somehow I fell in love with them and when one of them died I practically cried. It was very strange. They definitely had free will of their own as they would walk around the ship and even relax with each other and play a game of cards.
In another odd kind of connection to this subject, I just finished working on a music video a couple weeks ago. The video was about a guy dressed in a cardboard robot costume. Even though it was a real person underneath and not trying to be portrayed as an actual robot, the costume still lacked any facial expressions. Every emotion/intention had to come across in the body movements and I thought the two actors who were behind the mask did an amazing job. I've attached the link to the video in case you're interested.
Anyway, fun discussion - I'm glad I stumbled on it.

Mystery Man said...

Very cool! Great to meet you!


Chopper said...

And Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. As you say the key is that they have to be ignorant or in denial of the fact that they are synthetic which means they share the fantasy of having a soul with the rest of us.

Mystery Man said...

Chopper - Yes! Great point!


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