by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Scientists and Futurists continue to debate the role that artificial intelligence will play in our future. Will we see technologically-crafted beings that are indistinguishable from humans? Will they eventually overcome us and force us into their servitude? Storytelling on the screen has long been concerned with the relationship between humankind and our machines. Robots have played an important role in our narratives. They have served us, befriended us, loved us, and even saved us. They’ve also warned us, fought us, and even killed us.
Some of the most striking images in all of cinematic storytelling are of robots. Who can forget the sight of Maria in Metropolis? Or Gort in The Day The Earth Stood Still? What can we learn from the ways these beings are used in films? Here are five ways to use robots in your story.
1. THE ROBOT AS COMIC RELIEF
Early storytellers who brought robots into their tales quickly realized that there could be a great deal of humor when machines tried to replicate, emulate, or understand normal human interactions. It can be easier to laugh at the foibles of a robot than it might be to see the same struggles in a human being. Robots remove us one step from our own humanity. That separation can allow us to see interesting idiosyncrasies that we might never notice otherwise. In Star Wars, C3PO and R2D2 brought a robotic twist to the “straight man/funny man” trope that had long been a standard in comedic storytelling. In many ways, they build on the foundation laid by Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet.
2. THE ROBOT AS “THE OTHER”
Another basis for many stories has been the presentation of a “fish out of water.” We laugh at but also empathize with a character who struggles with feeling like they are out of place in their own life – mainly because most of us relate to such feelings at some point in our own journeys. Robots are obviously different than us. They sometimes hail from other worlds. They sometimes are constructed from other materials than the skin and bones we know. They often long to find connection of some sort to the world they now inhabit. Chappie gives us a metaphor for our own thoughts of alienation. Robots presented as “the other” often seem very human, complete with emotional feelings, desires, and shortcomings. In I, Robot, the plot sparks from the possibility that a robot has committed a murder.
3. THE ROBOT AS PROTECTOR
Robots can embody many things in our stories. Sometimes, their metal bodies represent the impenetrable skin we wish we had. When we find ourselves vulnerable, we fantasize about someone else less exposed stepping in to save us. This metaphor can go a variety of ways and make a multitude of statements. For example, a story where a robot saves a human could be interpreted as making the statement that we believe our technology will save us. In The Iron Giant, we see a robot not only protect a boy, but eventually save him and many others, laying down his own existence in the process. With The Terminator franchise, we experience robots that both seek to destroy humans as well as those hell bent on saving them.
4. THE ROBOT AS FRIEND
One of the most compelling roles that robots have played in stories is that of friend. Much like a faithful canine, robots sometimes serve us with a loyalty we rarely see in human interactions. This loyalty might force the robot to sacrifice themselves for their friend, though rarely is the situation reversed. Robots who befriend humans often struggle with their mechanical restrictions, seemingly wishing to fully give their love to their friend in a human way. We see examples of friendly robots in Big Hero 6 and with the incomparable Johnny 5 in Short Circuit.
5. THE ROBOT AS US
The most powerful way that robots are used in stories is when they represent us. We can relate to beings that often feel mechanical, segmented, and not quite the sum of their parts. When robots desire the things we desire, when they travel similar journeys to the ones we know, when they struggle with their purpose and finding meaning in their existence – we see ourselves in them. Ava in Ex Machina desires freedom from her captor at any cost. Who among us cannot relate to that? The internal journey of Wall-E is one many of us know well. The slow process of watching Bicentennial Man become more and more human reminds us of the ways we sometimes vacillate in the nuances of our own self realization.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.