Five Essential Movies About Human-ish Robots

TV Party

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TV Party is a Friday feature in which Film Editors Dominick Mayer and Justin Gerber, alongside Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, suggest one movie apiece to enjoy over the weekend. Joining them each week will be two rotating film staff writers to help round out the selections. Seek out any of the films via Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, Hulu, OnDemand, or abandoned Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores — however you crazy kids watch movies these days! Enjoy ’em for the first time, a second, or maybe a redemptive third.

Dominick’s Pick

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

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Rarely has Steven Spielberg made anything as disturbing or terrifying as the Flesh Fair sequence in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. After his family casts him out, the hyper-realistic David (Haley Joel Osment) is left an unregistered Mecha, a young boy in a world that exploits robots at every turn yet remains in near-constant unease around and fear of them. The Flesh Fair is where abandoned, human-like Mechas are violently, cruelly destroyed in front of crowds. Or are they human enough that we can call it murder? This is the question at the heart of A.I., which spent decades in Stanley Kubrick’s brain and fell to Spielberg after Kubrick’s passing.

David wanders the inhospitable, futuristic Earth with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) as his only companion, and a desire to know where he came from, who he is, and how he can see his beloved mother again. The film interrogates what it is to be human, and what it is to be a good human in particular. By the time the film’s heartbreaking climax takes David to a place that neither he nor we can possible recognize, it’s clear that David might be more than human. He might be better than most any of us.

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Justin’s Pick

The Iron Giant

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This is a no-brainer. Mismarketed to Hell upon its release back in 1999, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is my favorite animated film of all time. Yes, I like it more than Beauty and the Beast and The LEGO Movie. The story is simple: a boy discovers a giant robot living in the woods behind his house. A government agent (a slimy Christopher McDonald) suspects something is amiss, and a story of a boy and his robot is underway.

Using animation that recalls The Brave Little Toaster more than it does Tarzan, The Iron Giant is a movie full of hope and loyalty, and features some light war commentary for the adults in the audience. In addition to the vocal talents of McDonald, it boasts a cast starring Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., and Vin Diesel as the robot (his best performance, and that isn’t meant to be an insult). But above all, it’s about innocence lost and found again. Brad Bird hasn’t had a misstep in his career, so if you haven’t seen where it all began, please check out this film ASAP.

“Superman!”

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Michael’s Pick

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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Long before James Cameron’s T2 hit theaters (and pretty much laid siege on any neighborhood convos), I grew up on its predecessor, The Terminator. Now, if you couldn’t tell from my op-ed/love letter about/to Kyle Reese last October, I was pretty much shattered when Michael Biehn exited stage left. So much so that I would stop the VHS right when he blew up the truck with the pipe bomb, escaped into the dumpster, and finally embraced his lover, Sarah Connor (a bushy-haired Linda Hamilton).

Well, then T2 actually came out, and I couldn’t ignore the ending. Couldn’t. There was the rebellious John Connor (a Public Enemy-repping Edward Furlong). There was a new baddie worth marveling in the hawkish T-1000 (Robert Patrick). And there were “newish” heroes to champion: a very strong Sarah Connor (a straight-haired Hamilton) and a very huggable T-800 (Arnold Schwartzenegger). To say this film was influential on my youth is like a Texan admitting that BBQ is messy — it’s an inherent truth one carries for life.

Still, few blockbusters have a shelf life like Terminator 2: Judgment Day. What’s telling of this is how there still hasn’t been a proper followup. Not even Nick Stahl, who remains the best John Connor to date, could elevate Jonathan Mostow’s troubled yet ballsy sequel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. And, no, the same goes for Christian Bale or whatever mess is coming out later this year. The story ends here and has always ended here and that’s totally fine.

Some might criticize the film, arguing that Cameron turned an exceptional sci-fi horror film into an accessible sci-fi family adventure, and they would have a point if the film weren’t so damn effective. The action sequences are worthy of haunting film school halls today and the visual effects kick today’s glut of CGI into a well of magma. More importantly, there’s so much heart to this story that Cameron somehow managed to out-Spielberg Mr. Spielberg himself.

One solid thumbs up. And no, she’s still not my mom, Todd.

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Rebecca’s Pick

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

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Is Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey better than its predecessor, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Maybe, maybe not. But it definitely has robots. Evil clone robots to be exact. In this sequel, we see the loveable Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reaves) go on a most unprecedented expedition to defeat the evil Chuck De Nomolos who wishes to rewrite history and destroy them by sending Evil Bill and Evil Ted back in time. Meanwhile, the real Bill and Ted are just trying to win the San Dimas Battle of the Bands, of course.

The robot clones don’t really look like robots at all, but that’s kind of the beauty of it. They look, sound, and act as dumb and hilarious as the real Bill and Ted. And what else could we want from a sequel but more of our favorite duo? Evil or not, they’re going to be entertaining. They play a video game with the Grim Reaper and defeat him, go to Heaven and Hell, and have a pretty excellent adventure. So sure, this isn’t the most scientifically stimulating robot film, and yeah it’s not the smartest of them all either. But it’s not trying to be. This is Bill and Ted to the core, and it’s damn enjoyable.

Honestly, how many robots have you seen that are this funny?

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Blake’s Pick

Westworld

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Saddle up, partners! Yul Brynner’s the malfunctioning, black-hatted Gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s camp classic sci-fi actioner, Westworld, and he’s got glitchy trigger fingers, y’all. Tourists are caught in the cross fire as suddenly self-aware robots go crazy, turning the titular environment into a survival scenario.

Directing and writing from an original concept, Crichton spins a cautionary yarn about the futuristic perils of destination theme parks with highly innovative, poorly tested gimmicks going haywire. It’s the spiritual pre-cursor to Billy and the Cloneasaurus, yes, but it fits right into his oeuvre of work based on the fear of systemic failure (The Andromeda Strain, Airframe, and, like, dozens of other best-sellers). Between technophobic robo-drivel, and optimistic AI studies, Westworld was very much the former, and while Crichton’s heavy hand and hilariously dated structure may get in the way, the film stills works as a nifty and thrilling piece of technology-induced paranoia.

Think, all technological innovations have shelf-lives or forced obsolescence. Our tech will break down, and who knows how disastrous the end results might be? Ever go apeshit over losing files and work when your laptop goes to pot? Imagine the Hall of Presidents at Disney World freaking out and jumping over the line to attack some oaf in a Mickey cap in five years. Who knows when a pissed off Yul Brynner will start playing shoot-out to establish dominance? It scares the hell out of me thinking about this, and perhaps that’s why HBO gave Jonathan Nolan’s mini-series reboot the go-ahead for later this year, with James Marsden and Ed Harris as the Gunslinger.

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