Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Politics of Pacific Rim Part 2: The End of the Killer Robot in Pop Culture

It is fitting that the giant, slavering kaiju of Pacific Rim are biological in nature.  The true enemy of any city, after all, is its inevitable reclamation not by radical forms and alien architecture, but by natural forces.  Be they modernized desert paradises like Las Vegas and Abu Dubai facing looming water crisis or the ancient ruins of once huge population centers like western Illinois' Cahokia Mound, every city is eventually faced with the reality of its resource needs.  Pacific Rim is hardly the first recent science fiction story to preach transhumanism as a solution to the threats of biology.  It is, in fact, part of a continuing trend in popular fiction that recasts the once ominously robotic as the means of humanity's salvation. 

From the beginning of the modern age of science fiction, robots have been cast as threatening and adversarial.  In Fritz Lang's Metropolis, perhaps the earliest example a cinematic automaton, the art-deco Maria  is created to replace a human political leader and subvert a populist uprising.  

Chaplin's modern times depicts a man brought low by the inhuman scale of industrial production.  The "robot" assigned to feed him during his time on the assembly line is an inept, useless attempt to simulate humanity.  

From the Day the Earth Stood Still's Gort to 2001's HAL 9000, cinematic robots were alternately inhuman or murderous.  The greatest achievement in HAL's portrayal may have been having "him" express more humanity than any of the human beings he shared screen time with, but he was still a distinct entity unto himself, a villain to be defeated before the biological hero could move onto the next stage of humanity.  

The fact that Darth Vader was more "machine than man" was symbolic of his faded humanity, while Alex Murphy's final achievement was overcoming his Robocop programming and reclaiming his human name.  

Even when played for comedic effect, our robotic counterparts were portrayed as benevolent usurpers whose ultimate goal was using their superior intellect to replace us.


The prototypical killer robot emerged in 1982's Terminator, the T-800 not just a ceaseless killing machine, but the herald of a futuristic society where humanity had engineered its own destruction though the creation of superior robotic beings.  And though it still functions as a well known pop culture joke, the days we feared Sky Net becoming self aware seem to be long behind us.  At least, this is the case if the stories we tell are any indication of where our fears lie.  Even as quickly as its first sequel, the Terminator mythology began to play with this same idea of the blurry line between human and inhuman.  It was now possible for the once unstoppable robot from the future to "know now why you cry", his humanity proven by the ability to overcome a technologically superior model with the all too human traits of ingenuity, cooperation and, yes, love.

But over the last twenty years, the ranks of killer robots in popular culture have dwindled to the point of near non existence.  In the updated Battlestar Galactica, the once robotic Cylons are indistinguishable from human beings.  Prone to the same struggles for identity and spirituality of their human prey, their investment in our destruction becomes as complicated as their attempts to define themselves as a new species.  The struggle between human beings and machines may have been more clear cut in The Matrix films, but the series' eventual decent into metaphorical incoherence somewhat disqualifies it.  And while Avatar may have sold a lot of tickets telling people a story about nature defeating technology, it did so only by relying on massive amounts of technology itself.  Meanwhile, when evil robots do exist, like the recent Transformers films, they are countered by equally robotic good guy adversaries.  This is not the battle between humanity and robots so much as another iteration of tired Manichean "good vs evil" operatics. 

Meanwhile, in India.


When not trying to wipe us out, robots were once also the source of existential parable.  From the ambiguity of Bladerunner's replicants to AI's revisionist take on Pinocchio, Star Treks' The Measure of a Man all the way back to the original publication of Frankenstein in 1818, synthetic humanoids have been used again and again to call into question the definition of humanity itself.  But our popular stories seemed to have also abandoned this issue as well, instead turning to a new model in which the question is not what make a human being but to what extent the biological can be fused with the synthetic.  Where fusing man and machine once created Sith Lords and existential nightmares, its now rejuvenates Robert Downey Jr.'s movies career.  And, with Pacific Rim, the fusion of the biological and the robotic is made even more explicit by the need to defeat massive biological kaiju.  Nature is the threat and technology the savior.  Simply put, robots aren't the villain anymore.  More accurately they are us.  


2 Warps to Neptune said...

This is an interesting take. I think you're right, and I think it has quite a bit to do with the techno-messianism of insiders like Bill Gates, Clay Shirky, Kevin Kelly, et al.

Run down schools? No problem. Add more technology. Infrastructure crumbling? No problem. Add more technology. Poverty got you down? No problem. Add more technology. And so on.

Have you ever read Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Avatar?


It's brilliant, and makes the same point from a different angle:

"The message of what is now James Cameron’s most popular movie thus far, and the biggest-grossing movie in history—like the message of so much else in mass culture just now—is, by contrast, that “reality” is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. There’s no need for home. Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie for our time."

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