9 Hollywood Robot Archetypes
by Marissa Steingold
What sort of ‘people’ are robots? Reliable worker bees or power-hungry brutes? Today’s domestic robots Roomba and Jibo are still simple machines, but more sophisticated bots have graced the Silver screen for over a century—and Western literature for millennia. References to “mechanical servants” even occur in Homer’s Iliad!
From Greco-Roman folklore, Hollywood also inherited character archetypes, such as the “femme fatale” (Venus) and “eternal child” (Peter Pan Syndrome). These universal “mythic” types, as Carl Jung called them, enable audiences to identify characters and ambitions quickly without resorting to lengthy exposition.
Similarly, Hollywood robots have been typecast. We have been conditioned to expect certain tropes from robotic characters, such as monotonous vocoder voices and dispassionate Asbergerish logic. Along with familiar archetypes and tropes, changing technology, politics and social mores also affect robotic portrayals.
Without further ado, here is a list of the Top 9 most common robot archetypes in Hollywood:
“Robota” was originally a Czech word, meaning “forced labor.” As laborers, robots are intended to carry out the “3 D’s”: dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that humans can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do themselves (think: cleanup at Fukishima). In Hollywood, worker robots often serve as allegorical critiques of human slavery (Almost Human (2013), Blade Runner (1984), Bicentennial Man (1999)). Toiling robots often gain our sympathies, such as robotic Wall-E (2007), sentenced to eternal clean-up detail after prodigal humans trash the planet. 700 years later, Wall-E has gained sentience, leaving him bored beyond measure.
Not all robotic servants are forlorn, however. As the ebullient housemaid and cook for the Jetsons family (1962), Rosie whistles while she works. She has a social life, complete with her very own robot boyfriend. Note that Rosie is not dating a human, because Hanna-Barbera wasn’t about to expose 1960’s American kids to “interspecies relationships” like Star Trek did a few years later with its “interspecies” (code for interracial) kiss!
8. Killer robots
Certain robots become unsatisfied with their lots in (metaphorical) life. These machines tend to choose one of two paths in Hollywood: either they acquire round, human-like traits, or rise up violently and seize the power directly from their makers à la Frankenstein.
Killer robots are the ultimate cautionary tale, tapping into our fears of nuclear holocaust, drone strikes and Big Brother-style surveillance. We worry that robots will render us obsolete, but some Hollywood robots fast-forward the process by annihilating us directly. Human hubris typically leads to a power vacuum, a robot accomplishes enough machine learning to re-program itself with new, evil ambitions…and POW! We’re goners.
Early computers were entirely self-contained vessels. That meant that villainous machines required excessive intelligence and power to threaten us. But in the later 20th century, computers began to pool resources as networks. Hollywood portrayals of networks reeked of that Cold War bogeyman, communism—in which individuals are subservient to the state.
In the Terminator (1984), Cyberdyne Systems’ “Skynet” network was built for the U.S. military with the noble purpose of reducing human error in combat. After the military gives Skynet free reign over all military operations, the network seizes control, self-awareness and attempts to exterminate all humans with U.S. weapons, drones, cyborgs and other slave forces. Arnold Schwartzenegger stars as a cybernetic android assassin disguised as a human—a brutish villain to be sure, but only an agent of a larger axis of evil. In classic capitalist/Judeo-Christian fashion, John Connor—a “chosen” solitary man—must deliver humankind from domination and extinction.
Humans in the Matrix (1999) are reverse-puppeteered by machines harvesting their bio-electric energy. Though 99.99% of these people are unsuspecting, mankind now exists in a “matrix,” or simulated web of societal structure. Machine-made “agents” with generic Anglo-Saxon names like “Agent Smith” exterminate human resistance in the name of quality control. Much like Terminator assassins, Matrix agents are merely weapons of a machine-based menace, while humankind’s savior, Neo,—a.k.a. “the One”—is a woke singularity.
Praying on 1990’s insecurities concerning virtual reality, cloning and the internet, the Matrix’s machines haven’t merely replaced us; the fabric of time and space has been eradicated, and the Idiocracy is clueless. French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, whose work inspired the screenplay, asserts that modern reality is an illusion, since our ability to reproduce reality (i.e., audio and video recording) destabilized reality. In Baudrillard’s view, the Matrix simulation is happening now! Forget about robots’ sentience; we may not even be self-aware.
Much like servant robots, sexbots are built specifically for human pleasure. While envisioned as an ethical solution to sex trafficking and STD’s, sexbots like Westworld’s (2016) android “hosts” are regularly raped and murdered by humans at a Western-themed park. Since these androids look exactly like humans (big surprise: they’re played by human actors…), it’s not a stretch to imagine them as conscious beings.
Fem-sexbots merged with the classic Hollywood femme fatale archetype to form the ultimate generic seductress, as in the 1997 comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. When Frau Farbissina, Dr. Evil’s henchwoman, yells in her shrill Nazi voice: "Bring in the Fembots!”, everyone gets the gag. Alicia Vikander’s recent portrayal of a seductive Fembot in 2014’s Ex Machina is a bit more empathetic, but ultimately rekindles the trope.
Fem-sexbots cater to the historical suspicions that women are 1) greedy (we can thank Eve for picking that apple), 2) incapable of rational, Cartesian thought and 3) not fully human (‘How could anyone who bleeds for five days a month be a healthy individual?’). When women are particularly symmetrical/youthful/well-endowed, we suspect they’ve been assisted by technology. Of course, Fem-sexbots are always freakishly attractive. After all, why would anyone cyber-engineer a 6, when she could blow Miss America out of the water? Like Aphrodite herself, the femme fatale profits from the sheer power of beauty. Thus, the heartless sexbot Maria from 1927’s cyberpunk Metropolis uses her body as a weapon rather than a temple.
In 1977’s Stepford Wives, the townswomen didn’t start out as robots; they were pants-wearing, breadwinning, free-thinking ladies, until their husbands chose to reinvent them as perfectly coiffed, mindless servants in stilettos. Initially, it appears that the Stepford Wives are stifling womenkind, but the men turn out to be the real monsters.
One notable sexbot gender reversal is Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe from A.I. (2001), a male prostitute robot servicing lonely women. Prone to locker room boasting, Joe only desires what he was programmed to do: rack up notches on his bedpost.
6. Obsolete robots
What happens to a rusty old robot when a newer, more advanced model comes along? Rosie from the Jetsons—a demonstrator model from “U Rent A Maid” purchased on sale by the Jetsons family—is already outmoded when the show begins.
After a new line of robots is released from Mom’s Friendly Robot Company, self-aware Bender from Futurama (2003) is required to get a system upgrade. When he sees another robot’s personality change after the upgrade, Bender flees. During his exodus, he meets a group of obsolete robots eschewing technology in favor of older, wooden parts. It seems oxymoronic that technology would stand against technology, but protecting our own self-interests is a human trait. It’s also the third of Isaac Asimov’s “Three laws of robotics”: 1) robots may not harm humans, 2) robots must do what they were programmed to do, unless that directive hurts humans, and 3) “a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” By evading updates, it could be argued that Bender and the other robots break rule #2.
The Jetsons and Futurama cartoons poke fun at robotic obsolescence, but A.I’s monster truck-esque “Mecha Fair”—in which disenfranchised “orga” round up and kill outmoded “mecha” for sport—is downright chilling. Like xenophobes accusing foreigners of stealing their jobs, these humans fear that robotic workers, companions, nannies and supertoys will replace them. The root of the problem: humans eventually die, but (serviced) robots can live forever. Mecha Gigolo Joe explains, “When the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us.”
Serving as foils for white male protagonists in earlier Hollywood, dehumanized minority sidekicks uphold the existing power structure. Take, for example, Tuco in The Good, Bad, and the Ugly (1966), played in brown face by a diminutive Eli Wallach, whose blabbering buffoonery contrasts Clint Eastwood’s cool lankiness. Sidekicks like Tuco are often kicked around onstage, to comedic effect.
The sidekick trope paved the way for robots, often confined to servile or silly roles: C-3Pio, an uppity, priggish diva in Star Wars (1977), complains constantly. Worker bee robots don’t usually grumble, but ignoble sidekicks often do. When C-3Pio is abused by various villains, it’s supposed to be humorous. Though it might not be so funny if Princess Leah or Luke Skywalker were treated similarly poorly, C-3Pio is a dehumanized character,
Sidekick pals in animated Disney films tend to be animals (“Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder…”), so robots seem like a logical extension. Bubo from The Clash of the Titans (1981) is Perseus’s robotic owl sidekick. As a cute little animal, Bubo is no threat to human sovereignty.
4. Childish robots
Corresponding to Carl Jung’s “naif” archetype, robots are often portrayed as childish blank slates in “learning mode.” Sweet and trusting, they must learn hard lessons about life.
Johnny 5 from Short Circuit (1986) begins his nameless existence as an experimental military robot. Gaining sentience after a lightning strike, he is mentored by an altruistic animal trainer. After accidentally crushing a grasshopper to death, Johnny 5 comprehends his own ‘mortality’ (he almost does die, but his “shock” back to life blurs the lines between jump-starting a car and defibrillation). At the end of the film, he names himself “Johnny 5”—confirming his self-awareness and “coming of age.”
As the robotic companion of a grieving woman with an ill child, David from A.I. looks and acts exactly like a child. He is even programmed to love his mother unconditionally. Once his human ‘brother’ returns to health, the family throws him out on the streets. Hoping and praying that his mother will love him again as a human, David spends the next millennium learning about the horrors of the world and trying desperately to transform himself into a real boy. Though this never actually happens, sophisticated robots from the future engineer a dream for David reuniting him with his loving mother. On a virtual level, David does get his fairytale Pinocchio ending. By the time the robots discover David, humans are long gone, so David is now the closest remaining connection to humanity.
3. Computer-like Robots
Back before the average person had access to PC’s with Wikipedia, information was valuable. To learn things, we visited libraries and purchased pricey encyclopedias, while gigantor computers were the exclusive domain of horn-rimmed dudes in white coats.
Hollywood robots, like R2-D2 from Star Wars (1977)—a mobile data storage unit with a holographic projector—and “Data” from Star Trek Next Generation (1987)—an alien synthetic machine with massive data and computational power—dazzled us with their portable knowledge. Resembling the fourth member of the Blue Man Group, Data struggles to process emotion. Surely, he would clean up on Jeopardy, but Data is socially clueless—reinforcing the idea that humans—and only humans—possess special, inimitable emotional intelligence and chutzpah. That’s why human Captain Jean Luc Picard is in charge. A similar dichotomy exists on the 1960’s show between nerdy alien Spock and fallible-but-human Captain Kirk.
Hal 9000, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is often confused with a robot, but is actually a disembodied computer with A.I—a novel concept in 1968. Hal’s malfunction is to blame for breaking all three of Asimov’s laws. Rather than some inherent “evil” in the biblical sense, his instinct for self-preservation ultimately costs human lives.
2. Alien Robots
Without concern for breathable air, procuring food or death, robots make particularly efficient aliens. Alien robots are also convenient plot devices, for their existence doesn’t require explanation; they’re not bound by our history. The most provocative question of all: who created them? Sometimes their maker is never revealed—an enigmatic take on deism (the idea that God created us and promptly got out of dodge).
The Robot from the recent Netflix Lost in Space (2018) hails from another planet, but we never learn who made him. What we do know is that he was programmed as a killer, but reformed due to malfunction—a reversal of HAL 9000’s trajectory. For this robot, going “rogue” ironically means behaving well!
In Star Trek the Next Generation, the alien Borg collective assimilates both living and synthetic matter into a massive hive mind/power source. Having evolved over thousands of centuries, the Borg are constantly refining and perfecting their ‘biological’ process. This noble aspiration for progress gives the Borgs a leg up on run-of-the-mill communism, as the next logical step for information gathering (i.e. the internet) and cyborgian improvements to humanity (prosthetics, machine-learning). Undoubtedly, the Borg are villainous, but their philosophy is seductive, and model-gorgeous Seven of Nine (an escaped Borg), epitomizes the Borgian drive for perfection.
1. Trans-human robots
In traditional narrative, ‘round’ protagonists are supposed to face challenges, overcome obstacles and grow as people. But for external and internal conflict, a character requires self-awareness. Numerous Hollywood robots have this ability (Wall-E, Bender, Johnny 5, Ava from Ex Machina). But here’s the rub: passing a Turing test doesn’t actually make a robot human.
In the Asimov story-turned-film, Bicentennial Man, Andrew Martin begins his existence as a robotic butler, and gradually becomes his own man. Emotionally exhausted from watching loved ones perish over 200 years, Andrew wishes to ‘die’ himself. In an ironic application of Asimov’s 3rd Law, this robot’s emotional self-preservation is achieved by destroying his body. Andrew’s conversion is achieved through legal emancipation from his human owner, a trans-human operation and a court decision granting him human status. In this story, a robot literally becomes human, but most progressions are more nuanced.
What happens when a robot is programmed with human-like ambitions, such as love? David from A.I. is a machine who wants to be loved. A very human desire indeed, but consider that love for our parents and children is pre-programmed just like David’s. Though David never technically becomes human, he experiences a simulation in which the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ seems inconsequential.
Allegorically speaking, trans-human robots may also reflect progressive views toward marginalized groups lacking equal rights and opportunities, such as minorities, women, homosexuals and transgendered people. In Western society, those who change bodies, professions and social positions are increasingly accepted. Inspired by science fiction, the popular cultural movement known as “transhumanism” looks forward to a future in which technology extends our lifespan and intellectual capabilities.
Depictions of trans-humanism and the grey zone between are au courant these days. In 2013’s HER—a futuristic depiction of emotional connections between humans and disembodied A.I. workers—Spike Jonze asks us to reconsider which tasks to delegate to non-humans. Though today’s A.I. can’t “feel,” it does possess the ability to analyze our emotions. Robots and A.I. aren’t just doing hard labor anymore; these are budding intellectuals with the potential to fill certain gaps in our lives.
Whether shape-shifting and marriages between “orga” and “mecha” will occur in our lifetimes remains unclear, but the 2020’s are likely to be a breakthrough decade for robots and A.I. As technology becomes integrated into our lives, we will be forced to grapple with issues of agency, eugenics and civil rights that were the stuff of science fiction a short while ago.