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Unfair to Androids? A history of androids on screen

Unfair to Androids? A history of androids on screen

Blog • • Professor Ian Christie FBA

On-screen, which is where most of us have formed our impressions of androids, there’s little doubt that they have a bad image. At the British Academy’s recent Late event 'Love, Sex and Marriage...with a robot?', I found myself speaking between an engineer confidently predicting an increasingly android future and a philosopher asking ‘Are men human?’ on the evidence of their sexual appetites. As a film historian, my contribution was to review the history of screen androids; and one theme clearly stands out. Female androids are typecast as dangerously alluring seductresses.

The most famous android in film history was indeed designed to destroy. In Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic fantasy Metropolis, the ruler of the great city of the future is so concerned by his son Freder being attracted to a worker’s daughter that he authorises the creation of a ‘false Maria’, who is secretly programmed to lead the underground workers to their violent subjugation. This Maria, played like the original by Birgitte Helm, is seen first as a chunky robot, but then transformed in a spectacular sequence into a highly convincing, truly seductive figure who can drive a night-club audience into a frenzy of collective desire. But when she impersonates the saintly ‘real’ Maria to incite a workers’ revolt, this leads to tragedy, and the workers capture and burn her, in what can be read as a modern version of witch-burning. Once the wicked android is destroyed, Freder achieves a somewhat unconvincing truce between ‘hand and heart’, supported by the real Maria.

The next most famous screen androids are probably the main characters in Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, based on a story by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Existing in no less than six subtly different versions, Blade Runner has become a cult text, with much speculation devoted to which of its characters are truly 'replicants' or androids. Although we are left in no doubt that the rogue replicants 'retired' by Harrison Ford's character Deckard have been manufactured, the character he falls in love with, Rachel , is apparently a more evolved model, with greater emotional capacity and simulated memories. But the question of whether Deckard himself is a replicant has been mooted, and indeed appears to have been deliberately left open by the film's makers. Whether or how a sequel due later this year, Blade Runner 2049, will tackle this existential issue has become a source of renewed speculation.

Before Metropolis and Blade Runner, the most famous fictional android was probably Olimpia, a clockwork dancer capable of deluding the love-struck, in E. T. A. Hoffmann's 1817 story 'The Sandman'. Best known from its incorporation into Offenbach's opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, the original story has its hero, Nathanael, finally driven mad by Olimpia's eyes, which become detached from her body after a violent dispute between the co-creators, Spallanzani and Copelius, over who should take credit for her creation. And on screen this eerie image of ocular castration is brilliantly evoked in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1951 film of the opera, with Moira Shearer as Olimpia.

The idea of an automaton that is convincing enough to attract desire is a thread that runs from Hoffmann, through Villiers de l'Isle's 1886 novel L'Eve future, responsible for popularising the term 'android', in which a fictionalised Thomas Edison creates Hadaly as a companion for his love-sick friend Lord Ewald, to modern times. In the novelist Alex Garland's debut film as a director, Ex Machina (2015), Alicia Vikander plays a disturbingly plausible android, whose sentience is being 'tested' by a young computer geek, invited to a remote research laboratory to apply a performative version of the 'Turing test' of machine intelligence.

Without wishing to spoil this highly accomplished work for those yet to see it, the crux of Garland's film is precisely how far his hero and we are prepared to believe that a visibly artificial, yet also highly attractive, android is capable of true emotion. In previous versions of this dilemma, the issue has not been so challenging. In what is perhaps the oddest iteration of the Alien franchise, Alien: Resurrection (1997), a resurrected Sigourney Weaver is helped by a character, Annalee Call, who we discover is an android. However, as played by Winona Ryder, Call can be regarded as human for all practical purposes - indeed perhaps more so than Weaver, as they contemplate the post-apocalyptic ruins of Paris in the director's preferred ending of the film. And in Mel Brooks' irreverent travesty of Star Wars, Spaceballs, the robotic Dot Matrix is given most of the film's best lines. She may look like a female version of Robbie the Robot, performed by a noted mime artist, but as voiced by Joan Rivers, she offers a knowing, bathetic commentary on space opera absurdity.

These, however, stand outside the tradition I sketched earlier. So what do dangerously seductive fictional androids tell us about attitudes toward humanoid robots? Across nearly two centuries, from Hoffmann to Garland, they seem to express anxieties which might certainly be diagnosed as misogynistic: fears of being infatuated, deceived, humiliated. A fear that female desire can be simulated, manufactured. If the anthropologist Kathleen Richardson is right, in her recent study Anthropology of Robots and AI, subtitled Annihilation Anxiety and Machines, these fears may indeed underlie what many men more generally think about women - 'that they're not fully human beings; what's necessary about them can be replicated'. Perhaps. After all, in our real world, the android functions we actually experience most commonly today - the voices of Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and most sat-nav systems - are, to a woman, female.

Professor Ian Christie FBA is Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History, Birkbeck College, University of London. 

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