If you plan on going to the movies this weekend, or this month, or at any point this summer, it might help if you like robots. Not robots with nuanced personalities. Or ones whose relationships with their organic counterparts are symbolic of some larger societal issue. No, just robots. Robots that are BIG, that are LOUD, that shoot laser beams from their FACES. You must have a desire to watch ones that fly across the screen and make weird noises while changing shape, and ones that can withstand thunderous blows from superpowered heroes and shrug off artillery fire from the U.S. military. You must adore their enormity and strength and apparent steel-shell invincibility. You must quiver with excitement over their overwhelming clankity-clanking awesomeness.
Moviegoers got their latest robotic fix with Transformers: Age of Extinction. Michael Bay’s latest robo-saga comes mere weeks after Edge of Tomorrow, in which Tom Cruise’s military man – trapped in a time-loop that forced him to relive the same battlefield day over and over again – combated extraterrestrial foes with the aid of a heavy-duty mecha-suit. And that was preceded by last month’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which found the persecuted heroes traveling back in time to yada yada yada look out for those Sentinels! While they’re the impetus for the action in Days of Future Past – which is based on one of Marvel Comics’ greatest stories (first told in 1981) – the Sentinels have finally gotten their proper due on-screen because, over the past few years, blockbusters have decided that nothing provides a “wow” factor quite like a cinematic frame awash in hulking war machines. Whether they’re sentient automatons or human-controlled weapons, robots have become the 21st century’s go-to action-spectacle cliché.
And those three movies (as well as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with Paul Giamatti’s robotic exo-skeleton) come on the heels of Iron Man 3 (robot armor), The Wolverine (mecha samurai villain), Pacific Rim (people-operated robot Goliaths), Elysium (mecha exo-skeleton), the new Robocop (cyborg hero), Thor (alien robot) and even Man of Steel, whose penultimate set piece involves Superman battling two opponents, one of whom is a faceless giant in head-to-toe armor whose appearance and behavior make him a robot in spirit, if not fact. And did I mention that Ultron, the villain of next summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is also an evil robot? This is overkill, pure and simple. And it’s a prime reason so many superhero and special effects–saturated extravaganzas feel the same.
We’ve come full-circle, in a sense, as 2007’s original Transformers is to blame for this trend. While it’s altogether too easy to pile onto Michael Bay and his Hasbro toy-based franchise, part of its legacy was providing proof to studio executives that there were untold millions to be made from fundamentally basing films on CGI giant mechanical creatures. And moreover, that those creatures didn’t need to have distinctive traits, or even be visually lucid, to satisfy audiences. Bay’s Autobots and Decepticons make only passing attempts at personality – sure, Optimus Prime is noble and Bumblebee is loyal, but that’s like giving credit to a Superman movie for making the Man of Steel courageous. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that most of the other Transformers are buzzing, rotating, pointy-edged contraptions indistinguishable from one another, giving the films a visual schema defined by blurry metal moving fast through fiery explosions in metropolitan centers.
Of course, science fiction, fantasy, and superhero films have always been fascinated by robots. Yet from Metropolis, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Westworld to 2001, Blade Runner, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and A.I: Artificial Intelligence, robots have been capable of serving as more than merely token elements to amplify a movie’s gee-whiz quotient. Rather, they’ve been most compelling when their nature, their personalities, and their relationships to their makers or users have spoken to grander ideas about man’s dependence on technology. Often, as in Alien and The Terminator, they help a story touch upon the dangerous unreasonableness of expecting machines to comprehend and exhibit feelings of compassion and mercy, and to be relied upon to safeguard people’s interests. Or, as in 2009’s underrated Moon, in which computer system Gerty 3000 (voiced by Kevin Spacey) acts as both an emotional friend and foil to Sam Rockwell’s astronaut, they help shine a light on issues of solitude, loneliness, and what it means to be human.
What they don’t do, when at their best, is simply function as special effects to be oohed and aahed at for their size, their volume, and the neat-o technical wizardry that went into creating them. While robots are sometimes necessary as suitably strong, larger-than-life adversaries for superpowered he-men like Superman and the X-Men, their ubiquity has rendered them not just dull, but downright unimaginative – an easy way to provide some been-here, done-that computerized bang for one’s buck at the expense of genuine thrills. The Sentinels may rise up to carry out a murderously intolerant agenda in Days of Future Past; Edge of Tomorrow’s power suits may help humanity defeat invading E.T.s; and the Autobots – and Dinobots! – may help humanity temporarily stave off extermination in Age of Extinction. Yet for the health of our current CG-overloaded big-budget action cinema, it’d be far preferable if it were all these massive mechanical Goliaths who were wiped out.