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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Almost Human (originally published 1/00)

In his recently released vehicle, "The Bicentennial Man," Robin Williams plays a robot who spends his two-century life span becoming increasingly humanoid. Like Pinocchio, he seems to want to wake up one day and be a real, live boy. Although the current level of robotic technology is limited to the construction of units that only vaguely mimic the morphology of the human body, it is easy enough to imagine the eventual capability of creating thinking machines that could be distinguished from the human form only by close inspection. Although such machines do not yet exist, they have been used as common currency in science fiction stories for so long that we already have a universally accepted name for them. When they do become a reality, we will call them "androids."

Over the last couple of weeks, we've been looking at movies featuring non-humanoid robots. The truth, however, is that filmmakers have generally shown a preference for stories about androids. I suspect the reason is a simple and practical one: an android can be played by an actor, whereas a more primitive type of robot must be constructed and made mechanically functional through stagecraft and/or special effects. Here, then, are a few of the many android movie titles that can be found on home video.

"Metropolis" (1926). German director Fritz Lang's epic silent classic was in many ways the grandfather of all science fiction movies. It tells the story of a futuristic city in which the upper classes have become so isolated from the workers who run the city that many are simply unaware of the workers' existence. When a peasant woman named Maria becomes an influential spiritual leader among the workers, the scheming master of the city decides to undermine the workers' faith in her. He has her kidnapped and sends a look-alike android in her place to sow discord among the workers. Both Maria and her android double are played by Brigitte Helm.

"Twilight Zone: I Sing the Body Electric" (1962). Ray Bradbury's one and only contribution to the original "Twilight Zone" television series was this adaptation of his own touching story about an android grandmother and the family she cares for. A widower, wanting to provide at least the semblance of a nurturing female presence in his childrens' lives, purchases an android nanny. She looks, sounds, and acts like an ideal grandmother, and two of the three children take to her instantly. The third child, Anne, backs away. Anne has never forgiven her mother for dying and leaving her, so she's unwilling to form another such attachment. This episode can be found on the "Twilight Zone, Volume 8" video release.

"Westworld" (1973). Long before Michael Crichton imagined "Jurassic Park," a park where the exhibition of newly-cloned dinosaurs goes horribly wrong, he dreamed up an earlier nightmarish amusement park. "Westworld" is a recreation of an old Western frontier town, where guests can dress in period costumes and experience a fully realized replica of life in the Wild West. They can even engage in gunfights with the town gunslinger, an android who is programmed to lose every such confrontation. Naturally, the programming goes haywire, causing the gunslinger to start winning his fights.

"The Stepford Wives" (1975). When a young couple leaves the Manhattan rat race to move to the tranquil little town of Stepford, Connecticut, they expect life to be different. What they don't anticipate is that the wives in the town look and sound as if they've stepped right out of a 1950's magazine ad. Utterly devoted to their "wifely duties" and entirely submissive to their husbands' whims, they seem to be content to live only to serve. Eventually the truth comes out: the real wives have been replaced by more compliant android replicas. Ira Levin's novel was adapted for the screen by William Goldman.

Android pictures of more recent vintage include "Blade Runner" (1982), with Harrison Ford as a bounty hunter who eliminates renegade androids, and "The Terminator" (1984), with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the perfect killing machine.

The 20th Century will undoubtedly be the last century in which androids exist only in works of fiction. Perhaps one day we'll even see android filmmakers. In view of the variety of ways we've portrayed them on the screen, it would be fascinating to see what kind of films they would make about us.

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