Amongst the many impressive achievements in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is the most original take on movie robots in years. Prior to seeing the film, I had begun to worry that there was perhaps nowhere left to go in this area, but TARS and CASE (and KIPP), with their quantifiably-defined wit and no-nonsense symmetrical design, emphatically proved otherwise.
Interstellar yanked me out of a Transformers-induced robo-malaise, and the possibilities for big screen robots now seem especially boundless.
Those possiblities inform more of this year's blockbusters than usual, with a surfeit of potentially great robo-centric films making 2015 very much The Year of the Robot.
I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords, so here I will cite this year's major androidal offerings, and attempt to assess the nature of the robots featured in advance.
Writer/director Neil Blomkamp's third film, which all signs point to being a return to the form of
after the relative disappointment of 2013's
, which had its moments, but ultimately failed to build on District 9.
NZ Release Date: March 12th
Robot: The title character, a police enforcement droid reprogrammed by Dev Patel to think for itself. Voiced and performed via motion capture by Sharlto Copley (Maleficient), Blomkamp's longtime pal who played the lead in District 9 and the bad guy who got his faced replaced in Elysium.
Cute or Evil?
Cute, with a notable sideline in righteous, gun-toting bad-assery.
Feelings? Based on the trailers, Blomkamp appears to be hanging much of the drama here on Chappie's journey to self-awareness. I am very ready to feel all of this - the latest trailer had me close to tears.
Original? Chappie bears a strong resemblence to the robot cops from Elysium, and other elements glimpsed in the trailer provide an aesthetic throughline going back to District 9's eye-popping hardware. It's cool how Blomkamp has carved out his own robo-niche and continued to evolve it.
Potential for Greatness: Chappie Five is alive!
The directorial debut of novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland, who wrote
28 Days Later
and the hugely underrated space thriller
. Domhnall Gleeson (
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
) plays an employee of a Google-like company who travels to the isolated retreat of his reclusive boss (Oscar Issac) to participate in an experiment with a lady robot.
NZ Release Date: TBC. Fingers crossed this gets a big screen berth here.
Robot: Ava, played by a CGI-enhanced Alicia Vikander (Seventh Son, The Light Between Oceans).
Cute or Evil? Well, she is undeniably cute-looking (in the face at least), but Ava's true nature appears to be one of the secrets of the film.
Feelings? Like Chappie, this is tapping into the artificial intelligence debate, but from a more philosophical, less frenetic, angle. Garland has mentioned things like qualia while doing press for the film. The whole affair oozes classic sci-fi ambition and curiosity, which often feels lacking in modern genre cinema. Interstellar aside, of course.
Original? Ava's bold appearance is undeniably startling and the execution looks practically flawless. But she's also heavily reminiscent of this robot from Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick's A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
Potential for Greatness: This is predominantly giving off the vibe of a big screen episode of Black Mirror and I can't wait to see its mysteries unfurl. Hopefully on the big screen.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Writer/director Joss Whedon's follow-up to his 2012 mega-hit
and the culminaton of the second phase of Marvel's cinematic strategy. Also known as Phase Two.
NZ Release Date:
Robot: Ultron, a vengeful, power-hungry, self-replicating robot whose comic book origin has been altered to involve Tony Stark and alien technology. Voiced and performed via motion capture by James Spader (Bad Influence).
Cute or Evil? Evil up the wazoo.
Feelings? The specific nature of Ultron's gripe is not quite clear yet, but he seems very angry in the trailers, and it's bound to involve creator hate/daddy issues on some level. It will be interesting to see if Ultron's 'personality' is attributed to anything more than just zeros and ones. Several aborted Superman films over the years featured Brainiac - Ultron's equivalent in the DC Universe - as the villain. The idea of a big screen Brainiac has always intrigued me, and nobody could ever have predicted that Ultron would beat him to the big screen. Except Ultron himself probably.
Original? In line with Ultron's amended backstory, he's giving off more of an Iron Man suit vibe in the trailers than he ever did in the comics. His maniacal perma-smile is in place, however, so all good.
Potential for Greatness: Spader and Whedon are bound to have a lot of fun with the character, but I remain a touch skeptical of Ultron's origins here. I just hope The Vision (Paul Bettany) has a significant role to play.
NZ Release Date: July 1st.
Robot: 'Pops' a classic model T-800 Terminator who looks old because he's spent the last few decades raising Sarah Conner (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke). Played once again by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who apparently will face off against both a CGI version of his 1984 self, and some other robots whose full abilities haven't yet been revealed. I hope. Or else they are pretty lame.
Cute or Evil? Pops is cute, insufferably so from this vantage. Young CGI Arnie probably evil. Other robots all evil.
Feelings? One of the most interesting deleted scenes in the special edition of Terminator 2: Judgement Day shows John Conner switching the T-800's brain chip from 'Read' to 'Write', which allows Termy to learn about early '90s disses and why humans cry. The theatrical version of the film instead contained a line of dialogue which suggested that T-800 was more or less always in 'Write' mode. Having changeable settings in his head always seemed more interesting to me. The subsequent franchise entries haven't had much interesting to say about artificial intelligence, but there's a strong suggestion that Matt Smith's mysterious character in the new film has some robot-related secrets. Or maybe it's just that he totally looks like a robot. So does Jai Courtney come to think of it. And Jason Clarke. Not Emilia Clarke.
Original? Almost the opposite of original. As mentioned above, I am really hoping the bad Terminators can do a lot more than what we've seen in the trailers released thus far.
Potential for Greatness: Even with a wrinkly old robot named Pops front and centre, it's pretty much impossible to fight the goodwill that Arnold brings to the Terminator franchise. That said, the CGI 1984 Arnie glimpsed in the trailer looks every bit as crummy as the CGI Arnie from 2009's Terminator Salvation. This future is not yet set.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
film made since creator George Lucas sold the property to Disney.
NZ Release Date: December 17th
Robot: BB-8, the adorable little rolling ball robot glimpsed from about the 29 second mark in the teaser trailer. There will no doubt be other robots in this film, but he's the only one we've met so far.
Cute or Evil? If this instantly lovable little sphere turns out to be evil, we will all be very surprised.
Feelings? He (she?) has barely 3 seconds of screentime in the trailer, but BB-8 already feels like the most fleshed-out character in the new film, bobbing about with the spunk of a young R2-D2.
Original? Creating a memorable robot in the shadow of R2-D2 is no small achievement, and it's credit to JJ and his collaborators' Star Wars-ian instincts that BB-8 comes across as such a natural and unique evolution of the classic droid aesthetic. Plus, instead of relying on CGI, they shot BB-8 using practical methods! I wonder if that means there's a hamster in there.
Potential for Greatness: This charming little tyke has already won me over. Although it's hard not to see BB-8 as the Olivia to R2-D2's Rudy. Or the Eve Harrington to R2's Margo Channing. The Nomi Malone to R2's Cristal Connors.
To finish on an incidental note, although we haven't seen any in the trailer, it's a pretty safe bet that Tomorrowland will feature robots of some kind. Director Brad Bird did awesome things with robots (if not artificial intelligence as such) in The Incredibles, and I'm looking forward to seeing to what extent that specific retro aesthetic informs Tomorrowland. Hooray for robits!
* Are you amped for the year of the robot? What is your favourite of those mentioned above? What are the other notable robo-movies on the horizon? Comment below!