by Melissa Strong
Practically since the invention of the motion picture, movies have imagined worlds where humans are threatened, surpassed, and replaced by androids, cyborgs, hybrids, and machines. Metropolis (1927), the seminal silent film written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou and directed by Lang, anticipates Blade Runner’s replicants as well as the alt- and post-humans that follow in the twenty-first century.
Additionally, Metropolis has become a touchstone that demonstrates the power of movie robots in other forms of culture. The music video for Madonna’s Express Yourself (1989), directed by David Fincher, riffs on Metropolis with Madonna standing in for the femme fatale robot Maria in a desolate urban landscape. More recently, the album ArchAndroid (2010) portrayed Afrofuturist musician Janelle Monáe as a near spitting image of the Metropolis poster. The image, and the ArchAndroid persona, substitutes the Metropolis robot’s face for Monáe’s black, human face, which is the point of Afrofuturism.
Given the rich film history of androids – machines that look sort of human, like C-3PO, or really human, like Jude Law’s sex-robot Gigolo Joe in A.I. (2001) – this piece will focus on them. Androids are not the same as cyborgs, which are part-human, part-machine, like RoboCop, the Six Million Dollar Man, and the Bionic Woman.
The many post-apocalyptic films of the 1980’s regularly featured androids, the most memorable of which include the time-traveling assassin portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) and the replicants of Blade Runner (1982). Blade Runner begins with an interrogation that functions as a Turing test: the means by which to distinguish between human and artificial intelligence. The fictional Voight-Kampff machine used in the test is crucial to Blade Runner; its title refers to the hit men who rely on it as they track down and decommission renegade replicants. A line from Rick Deckard, the blade runner played by Harrison Ford, concisely conveys the attitude humans have towards replicants: “How can it not know what it is?” A replicant will always be an “it,” a thing, a non-human, despite being physically indistinguishable from a human and gendered male or female.
Some humans in Blade Runner disparagingly refer to replicants as “skin jobs,” a term that emphasizes their non-human thingness. Yet the desolate, neo-noir film, and Deckard himself, develops a hopeless sympathy for these androids that the Tyrell Corporation manufactures for disposable labor. They perform dangerous and undesirable tasks, such as mining and sex work, so humans don’t have to, and the latest models expire after four years.
Since replicants work without pay, are they slaves? Can a machine be a slave? Does it matter to us, since humans created androids? Do we care that it matters to them, and that they run from their dirty jobs in the off-world colonies to Earth seeking freedom and longer lives? Does creating androids make humans their parents, or does it make us their gods? How do we feel about this?
The best films about androids address questions like these. Ex Machina (2015), written and directed by Alex Garland, hinges on a Turing test. A creepy genius named Nathan uses the guileless Caleb to test the verisimilitude of his latest creation. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) resembles a post-Zuckerberg Eldon Tyrell. Like the eccentric megalomaniac in Blade Runner, Nathan engineers a remarkable female android who seems to have human thoughts and emotions. Both men are rich and powerful CEOs, and both produce androids so good that their work backfires: the creations cannot be controlled and they turn on the creators, like Victor Frankenstein’s monster.
Ex Machina takes the qualities of the Blade Runner’s menacing replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and vulnerable replicant Rachel Rosen (Sean Young) and combines them in a single android, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava needs Caleb’s help to escape from Nathan and the prison where he confines her. However, she is more powerful than Caleb and Nathan realize, and she exploits her vulnerability to manipulate Caleb. Thus, Ava achieves the freedom that eludes the replicants.
Yet Ava’s escape is unsettling: should we cheer for her or do we fear what happens next? Ex Machina strikes an interesting parallel with Prometheus (2012), in which Michael Fassbender plays the android David. David corrupts the mission of the humans he is meant to serve, like the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he is just one of the creations gone wrong. Aliens engineered the humans in Prometheus, then decided to destroy what they created. While we don’t know why, perhaps these circumstances make the movie’s human characters, and viewers, more sympathetic to David.
In any case, the future will surely bring more movies with post-humans that may challenge us to relate to androids, assess threats they pose, or question what makes them different from us. And maybe some of those androids won’t be white. Movies can shape or alter our understanding of the past and its people, as in The Birth of a Nation (2016) and the upcoming Hidden Figures with Janelle Monáe, which tells the story of black female mathematicians who contributed to NASA during the Space Race. Movies also influence our vision of the future and the people, or non-people, in it.