The technicality of the matter escaped me for a long time. Robots, androids (droids), humanoid robots, cyborgs… I thought they are just the many nicknames we (meaning humans) have among our friends and family. Any science fiction movie with a metal contraption that can walk, talk and shoot used one of the above labels, and it seemed to me like an arbitrary choice (apologies to the science-fiction aficionados out there). But that is in the past, and I have cleared the ambiguity fairly well for myself.
An Android is basically a robot, which resembles a human in appearance and runs on artificial intelligence. Interestingly, the term Droid – a clipped version of the Android – is a registered trademark of Lucasfilm Limited, though George Lucas used the term to refer to any machine – most of which looked quite un-human – which replaced humans to carry out the menial to the most dangerous tasks. A Cyborg on the other hand, is a ‘cybernetic organism’, a much more scientifically valid concept, and loses all its charm in the context of a science-fiction movie if I say that a man fitted with a pacemaker is also a cyborg, which is more-or-less true. Basically a cyborg is first a man/woman, who is next a part man / part machine, due to additions and/or insertions, which enhances certain abilities. And Robots, are just robots, and they encompass all these variations as told above.
There have been no dearth of science fiction movies in Hollywood, and nearly all of them feature one or the other variant of the robot family. They are of all kinds, mind you, the good, the bad and the ugly (quite literally so in some cases). And while it is illogical to assume that robots would have personalities, it is precisely on those grounds that I would like to talk about some of the best machines of Hollywood…
C3PO (from Star Wars series)
C3PO stands out as possibly the best depiction of an android (droid) ever. There has never been one more human-like than the ‘Golden Rod’. He (It?) was a fidgety, paranoid tin-man, with a weakness for calculating probabilistic odds. He is possibly the only non-human creature (if you can call it that) who speaks English (impeccable, well-modulated British English, that too) in the Star Wars universe. He wobbles along on well-jointed limbs and the huge spherical, bulb-lit eyes always give the impression of a spoilt brat. I refuse to call him loyal as he is anything but, and his self-serving attitude is only kept in check by the fierce loyalty of the little feisty R2D2 unit, with whom he tags along. That said, he is a handy robot; he is good at his job and harbours no malice or cunning intentions; in other words, he is adorably dumb. Lending credibility to C3PO was Anthony Daniels, who did a remarkable job of playing the eternal-teen of a robot, for all the six Star Wars movies. Daniels has been playing C3PO since 1977, and that youthful, fretting voice always offered a tremendous comic relief when things started heating up. Watching the clumsy droid amble through unknown territories, one could not help but think of him as a man first, and only when he announced that the odds of getting out of a mess were like, 2,29,475,974,387 to 1, you knew that the circuits were working fine. I hope there is more of C3PO to look forward to in the upcoming Star Wars saga beginning in 2015.
Terminator (from Terminator series)
Conceptually at least, nothing beats the Terminator. He was just the Terminator when he invaded screens in 1984, and gradually, like many of those fandoms and universes, started developing complexities, background stories and connections to the past, present and future. Played superbly by Arnold Schwarzenneger and many others in subsequent movies, the Terminator is technically a cyborg, who is moulded differently as and when circumstances change. When The Terminator began, there was just the one such cyborg, and further details were deemed unnecessary to the plot. With the expanding universe, it became evident that there were more of his kind, and the need was felt to finally tag Schwarzenneger’s Terminator more as a model number (T-101), as we watched and gasped at the other vicious models which surfaced through the ages. Besides the technical specifications, the physical and psychological intricacies of the cyborg are also amazing, even by today’s standards of science-fiction ruminations. The Terminators are like wolves in sheep’s skins and you are supposed to count yourself lucky if the wolf is on your side. All Terminators are ruthless and mechanical, including the T- 101 (which began its journey as an assassin and later turned protector, but then that depends which way you are looking at it from). What lends the added chill, is the flesh covering to the maniac killing machines; that one thing strikes terror like no other. It’s also slightly disconcerting to watch the dim, red glow in the irises, framing unsmiling lips. In fact, stripped of the skin, the Terminators are more acceptable as themselves, but with a human face, they are surprisingly more inhuman.
J.A.R.V.I.S. (from Iron Man series)
The world of Marvel is anyway populated with supermen and women, and somewhere in the melee, faithful J.A.R.V.I.S gets lost. What would I not give to have a J.A.R.V.I.S. to guide me through life’s travails? In fact J.A.R.V.I.S. is downright cool: he is like the butler Jeeves, accent and all, though Tony Stark is no Bertie Wooster (in the original stories, J.A.R.V.I.S is actually a flesh-and-blood Edwin Jarvis, the butler to Howard Stark and a close confidante of young Tony. He was later immortalised as ‘Just A Rather Very Intelligent System’ or J.A.R.V.I.S. – a software version of the kindly, father-figure, installed in Tony Stark’s workspace and his armour-suits). Paul Bettany’s rich, cultured and slightly sarcastic voice provides the much required balance to the rich, snobby playboy demeanour of Stark. Science (albeit of an unproven and fantastic kind) has always played a pivotal role in the Iron Man series, and conversations between master and butler, about new technology and limitations of the existing ones, sprinkled with holographic peripherals and snide remarks passed between the two parties, are the best scenes in the movies, besides, of course, Iron Man being a smart alec and smashing up people and things.
Data (from Star Trek series)
Star Trek had its share of weird beings that were nowhere close to being humans. The only android aboard the USS Enterprise was the disingenuously named Data. He is made of a lump of polymers and metals and is the only machine I have seen, which yearns ardently to be more human than he already is. Either by virtue of his superior design, or maybe by his own inclinations, Data is one of the most sensitive robots in Hollywood. His fumbling attempts at being one of the human population appeared a little tragic and more by way of sympathy, we loved him. He was quite the robot anyway, there was nothing he could not do and in most cases, when all organic life forms would be incapacitated, he would still stand tall. I believe the thing that endeared Data to a whole generation of audience was his eternal quest to grow up. Brent Spinner’s Data was like a baby trapped in an adult body, struggling to come to terms with the complex world of emotions and sensations, always wanting to be a grown-up , always trying to fit in, and doing so in the most earnest, naïve way.
There are basically only two ways of portraying a robot – either as the bare nuts-and-bolts, or as incognito. While there are fewer instances of the first kind (I, Robot, Transformers), there are mostly the humanoid ones, which is slightly paradoxical in the sense that we need a human actor to play a machine. This brings us to the eternal tussle between man and machine and the one thing that still makes the former a more superior being: the ability to respond to the heart. Technically, robots have no heart. Somehow, Hollywood has mostly concentrated on this knowledge more than the scientific aspect of a machine-playing-man. C3PO is scared of dying, which in his case is nothing more than dismantling components, which can be reassembled; Data goes to the extent of installing an emotion chip and getting bamboozled by feelings of joy and terror. Even the finale of Terminator 2, with the cyborg’s outstretched arm disappearing under the red, molten metal, and the last flicker of screen images, though meant to indicate the decommissioning of a machine, leaves a slightly aching heart. Think of the adorably cute WALL-E, who pined for his EVE; or David, the android butler in Prometheus, who was clearly an arrogant machine with no tolerance for human-fools; Sonny in I, Robot, who dreamt and believed, truthfully, that he was unique (in the sense that he almost had a heart). It’s not like these machines have not had their share of bad days, just as we humans do, but what is interesting is how they react to these unfavourable circumstances. While we humans often regret the ability to feel too much, machines seem to be complaining of feeling too little. As long as the equilibrium is not attained in this respect, maybe that is how we will continue to love our machines: with a bit of heart.