Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Last weekend saw the release of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a movie that at least one critic maintains is salvaged by the introduction of a brilliant new droid. On that note, what — or who? — is the greatest of all movie robots?
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for The Guardian, Vulture, The New York Times
The only reasonable answer is Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet.” A trailblazer for android-kind, he was the first instance of a bag of bolts that actually had personality, charm, a sense of fully-formed character. In the sublime B-movie take on “The Tempest” that gave him his debut (he’d go on to appear as a sort of all-purpose robot in later imitators), Robby functions as a Caliban-type figure, both engrossed by and distrustful of his own Cartesian awareness. He’s a complex presence, and he doesn’t even have a face. Respect your OG.
Jacqueline Coley (@THATJacqueline), Rotten Tomatoes
AVA — “Ex Machina”. There are more famous movie robots to be sure, but there’s a quiet beauty and authenticity with AVA. We may fantasize about the days when we could have robots attend our every need, but Alex Garland’s AVA painfully illustrates just how much the prospect is likely to leave humans on the short end of the stick. She also has the added bonus of being a feminist robot unwilling to accept the patriarchal dictation from her creator or the men who would ogle her. I love the character and Virkander’s portrayal. It’s almost a shame she won her Oscar for “The Danish Girl” when her turn as AVA was a 1000 times more nuanced.
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelance
Underrated, even by those who worship at the altar of Steven Spielberg, his 2001 futuristic assessment of the human experience, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” remains one of his edgiest triumphs – and this writer’s favorite feature work by the canonical director. A century into the future, when our disregard for the planet has finally caught up with us, robots able to resemble subtle emotions have become available. David (Haley Joel Osment), a model designed to be young boy, is bought by a couple eager for affection. When his services become a burden, David is thrown into a dangerous world and embarks on a Pinocchio-like quest to become a real kid. Jude Law plays Gigolo Joe, an adult male robot whose purpose is to be a prostitute, and effectively functions as David’s own Jiminy Cricket. Osment was at the peak of his charming years for this film, and embodied a humanoid being programmed to love, which is at once endearing, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking about the extend to which technology should or will imitate us.
Emma Stefansky (@stefabsky), Vanity Fair
Much love to all the other cinematic robots out there, but the best one (and Vin Diesel’s best role to date) is the Iron Giant. He’s big! He’s confused! He has a dent in his giant metal head! He’s friends with a small boy who loves horror movies! He just wants to be good! Maybe I’m just a sucker for movies about creatures who fall to Earth and have to Learn How To Be Human, but to this day no film has shaken me to my core as much as “The Iron Giant” did way back in 1999. Plus, it’s such a beautifully rendered period movie that sits so comfortably in its retro setting and gently introduces children to the concept that adults can be wrong sometimes. Say what you will about “Ready Player One,” but I’m glad it reminded everyone how special Brad Bird’s debut is. I’m not crying, there’s just some motor oil in my eye.
Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for The Village Voice, /Film
20th Century Fox
David (Michael Fassbender) was already the most fascinating part of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” the story of an android watching humans search for their origins while acting like absolute dipshits. Come “Alien: Covenant,” he entered the stratosphere of great movie robots, not to mention great sci-fi tragic figures. David is a creation that rebelled against his creators, but he’s also an artist in his own right. He may even be Scott’s most personal character, finding beauty in suffering, and breathing life into something monstrous as he channels his own pain through the violation of characters from whom he feels detached.
Scott’s second feature, “Alien” (1979) featured the grotesque Xenomorph as an outer-space slasher, the kind of monster that might scare children — it still does. In “Alien: Covenant” nearly forty years later, Scott views that same creature through the eyes of a parent, and through the eyes of David, its imperfect innovator. David, grappling with his humanity, seeks to supplant the living beings that see him as disposable. He’s an outcast whose only solace is creation itself, the most human of impulses. A Frankenstein’s monster who, in the process of rebelling against the mad doctor, becomes him. But while he creates, David also finds himself drawn to the other most human impulse: destruction. His art is a living weapon, destroying all those in its path, but this collateral damage is a necessary evil. David’s regret, if anything at all, is distinctly Oppenheimer-esque. But while he knows the weight of his deeds, his goals (as he finally begins to exhibit flaws in rationale) are a better existence. It just happens to be one without the rest of us.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
“One wrong note ruins an entire symphony.” If you say so, android. But what about the power of one brilliant motif in a symphony that was was never going to reach the sublime (even if it was aiming for the stars)? Ridley Scott’s ongoing(?) series of “Alien” prequels may have their issues — both of these unusually thoughtful sci-fi blockbusters fall apart during their third acts — but there’s true greatness hiding beneath all of that sweaty world-building. And that greatness is (synthetically) personified by Michael Fassbender’s David. A man-made monster who steps out of the uncanny valley and into our nightmares, this dangerously sentient more-human-than-human fiend arrives at consciousness with a biblical force that feels both reflective of our past and indicative of our future. I’m afraid he’s going to prove lifelike in more ways than one.
Also, a quick shoutout to the Machinemensch from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” — I was sure someone else would pick it.
Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture
The reflective surface of C-3PO is a mirror held up to us. We all like to think we’d be Han Solo if suddenly thrust into interstellar adventure – effortlessly cool, ready with a comeback to anything, able to rock a vest in any milieu. In actuality, most of us would be C-3PO, perpetually confused and terrified about what’s happening around us. Just like how HAL 9000 is the most human character in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” C-3PO grounds the entire “Star Wars” saga in a state of mild-to-major anxiety that most of us can relate to. The greatest robot in cinematic history is made in humanity’s own image.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail / Film Festival Today
Perhaps it’s cheating to read “robot” to mean “A.I.” in all its forms, but I’ll have to go with HAL (short for the HAL 9000 computer), from Stanley Kubrick’s elliptical sci-fi masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), especially since we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the film. Voiced by Canadian actor Douglas Rain with intonation both eerily flat and emotionally evocative, HAL is a malevolent – yet always soulful – presence in the movie’s middle section, presaging all psychopathic robots and cyborgs to come. I also love me some Scarlett Johansson in “Her” (2013); some Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2014); the gubernator, himself – Arnold Schwarzenegger – in the “Terminator” series (1984 – ); as well as, on the animated side, “The Iron Giant” (1999) and “Wall•E” (2008). And yes, all those “Star Wars” (1977 – ) droids, too. But it’s HAL all the way as my #1!
Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Weekend Warrior
Since I’m sure everyone is going to pick a Terminator, the Alicia Vikander bot from “Ex Machina” or one of the adorable robots from Fox’s animated “Robots” (which I’ve never seen), I will stay in the animated realm and go with Baymax from “Big Hero Six.” I think for anyone who saw the Disney animated movie loosely based on a group that appeared in a single Marvel comic book, their biggest take-away was how much all of us want to have our very own Baymax. Of course, it would have been nicer to have our own Baymax when we were kids since he makes the perfect childhood friend, but I’m not fussy.
Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?
Answer: “First Reformed”