One of the seminal stories in the literature of fantasy and science fiction is "Frankenstein," Mary Shelley's shivery tale of man's own creation turning against him. Its moral is that by endowing our creations with intelligence and, even more significantly, with consciousness, we trespass too near to the exclusive province of God. Victor Frankenstein pays for this sin of pride with his life.
Among the natural heirs to the Frankenstein theme are the many science fiction stories about robots. Like Frankenstein's monster, robots are intelligent, mobile, and capable of acting on their thoughts. If we assume that they might also develop a genuine consciousness, complete with the will to power, we've got the ingredients for dramatic storytelling.
Not all robot stories are derived directly from the Frankenstein mythology, however. I mentioned last week that the acknowledged godfather of the treatment of robots in science fiction is the late Isaac Asimov. His story, "The Bicentennial Man," which provided the basis for a recently released Robin Williams picture of the same title, presents its robot character as sympathetic, as did many of Asimov's stories. As we saw last week, movie treatments of robot characters have drawn on both traditions, from the menacing Gort of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) to the helpful and benign Robbie of "Forbidden Planet" (1956). Here are a few more robot movie titles titles to look for on home video.
"Silent Running" (1971). This fascinating film was the brainchild of Douglas Trumbull, who had been primarily responsible for creating the eye-popping special effects in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." The main storyline concerns Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who is the caretaker of the last remaining natural vegetation of Earth. The forest has been launched into space, presumably because there's no more room for it on a paved-over Earth, with a skeleton crew of horticulturists to maintain it. When the order comes from home to destroy the forest and end the mission, only Freeman is opposed to the idea, so he disposes of his shipmates and takes over the preservation of the forest in defiance of the authorities. Although he is now the only human on board, he does have the companionship of three small robots, whom he calls Huey, Dewey, and Louie. As their names suggest, these machines bear no resemblance to Dr. Frankenstein's creation. To the contrary, they are cute, helpful, and loyal. They are, in short, very much the forerunners of R2-D2 and C-3P0.
"Runaway" (1984). If there's a fertile theme to be exploited in science fiction, you may be sure that Michael Crichton will get around to it sooner or later. In this film, written and directed by Crichton, Tom Selleck plays a future cop whose task is to hunt down dangerously malfunctioning robots. In the movie's near-future society, robot assistants in one form or another are ubiquitous, but sometimes one goes dangerously haywire. That's when Selleck's character goes to work. Gene Simmons (better known in his role as a member of the rock group "Kiss") plays an archvillain who wants to gain control of all the robots in order to force them to do his evil bidding.
"Short Circuit" (1986). Of all the movie robots of the cute and friendly variety, none is cuter or friendlier than the subject of this clever comedy. A robotics genius, played by Steve Guttenberg, has created a series of military robots for a defense contractor. When the fifth robot of the series is struck by lightning, it is endowed with consciousness. Heading out on its own, Number Five seeks to discover what the world is all about, beginning from a state of primal innocence. Its guide is a young woman named Stephanie (Ally Sheedy), who believes him to be an alien life form.
Each of these films presents us with robots in the classical sense, in that they are clearly and unmistakably machines, notwithstanding the fact that they can mimic certain human traits and capabilities. The robot played by Robin Williams in "The Bicentennial Man," however, becomes more and more humanoid during his two-century lifespan. The archetypal story that primarily informs the film is therefore not "Frankenstein" but "Pinocchio." Next week we'll consider some films in which robots have become nearly indistinguishable from humans, thereby coming ever closer to realizing Pinocchio's dream of being a real, live boy.