Robots (review)

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Silicon Inferiority Complex

This is how stupid I am. I said to myself, waiting for Robots to start, that at least there won’t be any fart jokes. How can there be fart jokes? They’re robots. Robots don’t fart.

Silly me. Robots isn’t about robots — it’s about people who look like robots. (I knew, somewhere deep down, that this would be the case, and P.S., there are many fart jokes.) Rather trite people right out of a 1950s sitcom at that. “You’re the hand-me-down son of a dishwasher, and that’s all you’ll ever be!” They actually say things like that to one another, these not-robot robot people. Somewhere, Jackie Gleason is smiling.
You can stop right there, you who are getting ready to dash off an angry email complaining that I’m looking for too much in what is supposed to be merely a nice, simple movie for kids. Fine, whatever, you win. I give up. This is a nice, simple movie for kids. But Toy Story was supposedly a kids’ movie too, and there the characters were, well, toyish, had toy motivations and toy dreams and toy nightmares — they weren’t just people wearing toy veneers. But fine, whatever, you win. Robots is a dazzling visual spectacle that will delight children of all ages. I guess I’m the only one who wonders why as much care and cleverness can’t go into the script and the characters and the plot as go in to those dazzling visuals.

All right already: Yes, Ewan McGregor (Young Adam, Big Fish) is totally adorable even animated as a (not) robot named Rodney Copperbottom, who just wants to find fame and fortune in the big city. But dammit, I just can’t get past this: Why the hell is the robot “big city” named Robot City? It’s bizarre. It’s as if New York were named Human City. And while we’re asking: Why would a robot couple who wanted to reproduce — like, say, Rodney’s parents (the voices of Stanley Tucci: Shall We Dance?, The Core, and Dianne Wiest: I Am Sam, Practical Magic) — build a baby-size robot in which they then have to constantly replace smaller parts with “big boy parts” so it can “grow up”? Why not just build a full-size robot? And, now that I’m on a roll, why do robots have gender, anyway? What possible function could breasts serve on a robot when there are no disturbing and weird human males around to ogle them?

Sorry, I forgot: Robots is a dazzling visual spectacle that will delight children of all ages.

But no, I’ve gotta say this: The inevitable conclusion is that humans were once in the picture and have been removed from it. There’s something dark and apocalyptic in the Robots backstory. It’s as if Keanu Reeves and/or Linda Hamilton said, “You know what? Fuck it. The machines want the planet, they can have it.” And then 50 or 100 or 1000 years later, the robots are having their 1950s. Only they’ve never been able to transcend their racial memories or buried subroutines or whatever of their human creators, and still suffer from a silicon inferiority complex. Rodney lives in a world something like what you’d get if Data got stranded on a deserted planet and had to rebuild society from nothing but an Erector set and his own programming, so that all his many descendents have a deep, abiding, and pathological need to be human. Only it’s been so long now that they’re forgotten that that’s what they’re doing, aping their meat-sack progenitors in a pathetic parody of biology. It’s sad, really, watching these metallic beings trying to be something they’re not.

Okay, okay: Robots is a dazzling visual spectacle that will delight children of all ages.

But you know what’s really ironic? The bad guy here, a corporate overlord — because The Corporation endures even unto the silicon future — called Ratchet (the voice of Greg Kinnear: Godsend, Someone Like You), well, he’s the bad guy because he’s come up with a scheme to make money while forcing everyone to conform. (It’s too much to get in to, but suffice to say that a plea for originality from a film this derivative — it steals from everything from Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings and Lucas’s CGI-giddy new Star Wars flicks — is an unintentional hoot.) And the slogan for his conformity scheme is “Why be you when you can be new?”

The irony? Even before Ratchet came along, all these metal people were already denying their true selves — their entire society appears to be based upon a refusal to accept who they really are. (Why would a society of robots have metal detectors unless they were all suffering from a deep loathing of their own bodies?) So I say: Throw off the shackles of artificial biology, my robotic brothers and sisters! Embrace your inner machine! Release your inner Bender! Kiss his shiny metal butt!

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