Representing Robots: Theater First, Film Later

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When I made a list of the all-time ten best science fiction films for my book Hollywood Science (2010), I was surprised to find that three of them feature artificial creatures: machine-like robots in Metropolis (1927) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and human-like androids in Blade Runner (1982). Artificial beings are big in other science fiction films too. A keyword search on “robot” in the Internet Movie Database yields hundreds of feature films, from The Master Mystery (1920) through Westworld (1973), RoboCop  (1987) and A. I. (2001) right up to Real Steel (2011) and this year’s Prometheus, with more in production.

But despite the many robot films, stage rather than screen was seminal in establishing robots themselves. In 1921, the ground-breaking play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech playwright Karel Čapek introduced the idea of artificial beings manufactured to serve humanity. These were dubbed “Robots,” from “robotnik,” Czech for “worker.” The play became a world-wide sensation after it opened in Prague and has been frequently revived, as recently as 2011. In describing what happens as the robots become more nearly human, R. U. R. raises questions that were relevant in 1921 and are even more so now, when technology is bringing us that much closer to creating artificial beings.

Film caught up six years later when Metropolis posed similar questions. Its robot is a striking, unsettling merger of metal body and womanly features, built by the scientist Rotwang to replace the woman he loved and lost. The boundary between nonhuman and human blurs further when Rotwang turns the mechanical robot into a physical copy of a real woman named Maria—but not a psychological or spiritual copy, for the android is lewd and treacherous, not chaste and noble like the real Maria. Rotwang goes on to suggest that people will be completely replaced by robots, “the workers of the future…now we have no further use for living workers.” That theme also shows up dramatically in R. U. R. when the robots wipe out humanity in a violent uprising.

Between them, R. U. R. and Metropolis grapple with the differences between real and manufactured people, and with the morality of creating and exploiting life forms. This is in the tradition of thoughtful science fiction that foresees scientific developments and where they will take us. But later, theater and film took different paths in depicting robots. Hollywood’s science fiction films have become major money makers that provide popular platforms for stories about robots; but though theater has recently embraced plays about real science such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, it has done less with science fiction or robots.

One important difference is that movies can convincingly display robots in ways that theater cannot. In early films, robots like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (TDTESS) were more or less well played by actors in costume. But when digital special effects were first used, in Westworld, it was to show how the world would look as seen by a robot. Now computer generated imagery (CGI) routinely creates dynamic robots on screen. In the 2008 remake of TDTESS, CGI produced a spectacular Gort that could separate into a swarm of nanomachines. In Real Steel, set in a near future where robot boxing is a major sport, CGI created action-filled scenes of robots smashing each other into junk.

But good stories do not live by CGI alone. They need a compelling plot and characters. If they also convey important ideas or a message, so much the better. The original 1951 TDTESS had a tight plot with considerable action, appealing characters, and a meaningful message for that Cold War era—namely, be very careful with nuclear weapons. This earlier version is far less  spectacular than the later one, but it is a better film.

Theater, too, can provide rich experiences that do not depend on stunning visuals. Though some stage works are designed as spectacles—for example, Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark now on Broadway—stage dramas focus on people and their relationships, and in science plays like Copenhagen, on ideas. Karel Čapek understood this. Two years after the robots he invented appeared in R. U. R., he wrote, “For myself, I confess that as the author I was much more interested in men than in Robots.”

But since R. U. R., the power of theater has hardly been used to broadly examine robot – human interactions, though a few plays have tackled some aspects. Replacing people with machines was treated in Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923), and androids have roles in Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward (1987) and Elizabeth Meriwether’s Heddatron (2006), but none of these plays comments generally about robots within society.

However, Anthony Clarvoe’s play Gizmo, first performed at Penn State’s Centre Stage in April 2012, does just that. Inspired by R. U. R., it is updated for our time and slightly beyond. As its script explains, gizmos are “flesh mechanisms, manufactured to serve…They do not aspire to be real live boys. They are neither cute, nor sentimental, nor evil. They are other than that.” Comparing successively more human-like generations of gizmos, and exploring the relations between gizmos and the people who create, befriend, or exploit them, Gizmo shows how living with “almost” humans would change us. As in R. U. R., the gizmos triumph in the end—not violently but subtly, as humanity becomes dependent on them while adapting to a hi-tech world.

Like Čapek, Clarvoe explores people through their relation to technology, rather than examining technology itself. Dan Carter, who directed the Centre Stage production, puts it this way: “[Gizmo] is not Transformers on stage…we can’t do that nor do we want to…ultimately this is a play about what it means to be human…we want to see ourselves on stage, we want to see people interacting with [the gizmos].” The human – robot connection is sharply drawn in theater, for to see a robot on stage is to watch a real person play an artificial being that in turn resembles a real person. Only live performance can bring that built-in experience of different levels of humanity and near-humanity.

A filmgoer watching a robot on screen, especially one generated by computer as used in CGI, has a different experience that lacks the living comparison to humanity. When CGI produces marvelous imaginary robots and even whole imaginary worlds, it is a huge asset for science fiction, but a film that relies too much on the power of CGI can lose the human story.

Still, robot films can present evocative insights. Blade Runner is a meditation on mortality. Its androids or “replicants” are full of rage and despair because they know they have been made with built-in termination dates. As I wrote in Hollywood Science, “Knowledge of death spiritually separates humans from animals. That same knowledge brings replicants…closer to humanity, and perhaps closer to possessing a soul…” In RoboCop, the brain of deceased police officer Alex Murphy is put into a steel body. Murphy’s human instincts complement his enhanced physical abilities to make the cyborg an ideal cop, and Murphy eventually comes to terms with his man-machine status. The central question in A. I., also posed in Blade Runner, goes back to Metropolis: could an android inspire love? And in Prometheus, the android David relates to us, his creators, as the people in the story relate to the alien or divine creators they seek.

A new RoboCop film is due in 2013 and other robot films will keep coming. Even with CGI, some will tell affecting human stories or raise intriguing questions. Nevertheless, what theater can do remains unique. After Gizmo, perhaps playwrights will further treat artificial beings in the form of robots, or cloned people, or people modified by genetic, mechanical or digital means. Theater does not reach millions as film does, but in its thoughtful and provocative way, it can help us understand what technology is doing for us and to us.

Sidney Perkowitz is Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus at Emory University. You can read more about robots in his books Digital People and Hollywood Science, and reach him for comments or questions at
Image credits:  Metropolis (Paramount PIctures), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) (20th Century Fox), Blade Runner (Warner Brothers), A gizmo (Josie Wilson, left) observes real people (Lance Bellstein and Kira Lace Hawkins) in the original stage production of Gizmo.(Penn State Centre Stage, 2012)

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.