Tuesday, November 27, 2018

FilmLight - Whose Robot?

Silent Running. Image source: IMDb

On a much lighter subject than my previous article for FilmLight, this time I take a look at... robots! Whether they be service androids, or killing machines, there have been plenty to stir the imagination and entertain. But what are your favourites? "Whose Robot?" aims to check out some of the best, least known, or most dangerous... Though Star Wars legends R2-D2 and BB-8 are obvious, it is my mission to reveal some surprises or two (in no particular order), and take a look back at childhood memories. As an adult, I have equal respect for the following characters...

"It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth... and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in - you could go to sleep in..."

My first choice is 1972 sci-fi drama "SILENT RUNNING", starring Bruce Dern as a resident botanist aboard space freighter Valley Forge, whose job it is to maintain the last remaining plant life from planet Earth, now protected in geodesic domes, one of which is attached to the freighter. Following orders to destroy the domes and return to Earth, Freeman Lowell (Dern) acts against orders, sacrificing the lives of his three colleagues in order to preserve at least one of the enclosed forests. Though it is ultimately Dern who makes the movie, my heart will always remain with one of the drones (service robots) designated to serve aboard the freighter: Dewey (Drone 1), whose very last scene had this viewer crying. Hard to believe, I know, but true. I was young at the time of watching, but the sentiment I feel is present during every viewing, enhanced by the beauty vocals of folk singer Joan Baez - if you have not yet heard the song "Rejoice in the Sun" then please try and listen at some point, it is simply divine!

"If there's any justice at all, the black hole will be your grave!"

My second choice is for the 1979 Disney classic "THE BLACK HOLE". Forget friendly robot V.I.N.CENT (which stands for "Vital Information Necessary CENTralized"), my choice here is Maximilian, one of the most frightening killing machines in cinematic history. Styled as a galactic red Samurai, the creation of Dr. Hans Reinhardt has a will of its own, clearly disobeying orders when necessary. If I was to compare it in any way then I would perhaps say there was a deep malevolence similar to that of 1977 movie feature "The Car", a faceless menace whose motives are unclear and monstrous. Following the film's release, a number of action figures were launched - I can just imagine owning one in my childhood, of Maximilian, the nights spent wondering whether the toy box would open of its own accord, a glowing red eye staring back at me from the end of my bed...

"The quickest way to end a miracle, is to ask it why it is and want it wants."

My third choice for this FilmLight special is the beautifully-filmed "BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED", released in 1987 and starring then real-life married couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as an ageing couple whose apartment and business (a cafe) are under attack from a property developer whose plans for construction are hindered by their refusal to sell up. The origins of the "The Fix-Its" is uncertain, and perhaps they are not even strictly regarded as "robots", but they are too adorable to miss out from this list. They are living "machines", alien life-forms who have a desire to repair everything in sight. Director Matthew Robbins is good friends with the magic circle of film makers including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and the warmth that is associated with many of their own movies shines throughout this emotionally-touching masterpiece.

The future? Image source: Robocop

"I am now authorized to use physical force!"

Though clumsy and unreliable, my fourth choice comes in the form of ED-209, the armed Enforcement Droid seen in 1987'S "ROBOCOP" (and subsequent sequels). It will forever stand out in my memory simply because of that one scene in which, malfunctioning, it kills a company board executive during a demonstration of its abilities. There is something deeply unnerving about constructing these type of machines as "officers" of the law, and the thought of seeing one in any city is nothing less than a nightmare scenario, "You have 20 seconds to comply." You can see its potential in warfare, but as a peacekeeping droid it is both unpredictable and far too terrifying to approach for the average citizen. Could you even ask it for directions? Not everyone will have satellite navigation...

"Number 5 is alive."

Coming fifth is the wonderfully charming 1986 comedy "SHORT CIRCUIT", the story of a prototype military robot ("Number 5") that becomes self-aware after a freak accident and escapes the top secret project installation. The now-sentient robot eventually befriends Stephanie Speck (played by the fabulous Ally Sheedy) and a fun-packed movie unfolds. To my joy, a sequel followed, in 1988, both being written by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson (also involved in previously mentioned "Batteries Not Included") - the casting of actress Cynthia Gibb in the follow-up is a welcome change, though a cameo from Sheedy would have been the icing on the cake! Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler said, "We need a Hero" (listen to the song "Holding Out for a Hero"), and Johnny 5 (as the robot became known) is the most heart-warming of them all!

"I wish you would talk! You know you can; why won't you talk?"

In sixth place I had to go with another killer machine that, in my opinion, is just as memorable as "The Black Hole"'s Maximilian: 1980's "SATURN 3". Starring a cast of three (Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel), the setting is Titan, Saturn's third moon, where colleagues and lovers Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett) work in a research station. Their peace is soon disturbed by the arrival of Captain Benson (Keitel). The newcomer's mission is to build a robot that will, it is believed, replace one of the scientists. This is where everything changes... The captain isn't who he claims to be, and the robot, now named "Hector", turns deadly! Though the movie didn't match up to other great sci-fi of its time, there is something intriguing about its simplistic style and pace.

This list could go on and on, with so many wonderful robots out there in cinema. So, for now, I will leave you to consider your own favourites. And perhaps, this subject will return again with "Whose Robot 2?"