A Brief Cinematic History of Why We’re Afraid of Robots

HAL 9000 - Source: Warner Bros.
Source: Warner Bros.

Ever since the very first sci-fi movies, humanity has found themselves possessing an innate fear of machines in all their forms. It all began with 1927’s silent film classic Metropolis, featuring a murderous robot made from the image of a human being, and since has only escalating into present-day filmmaking. It’s an odd ethos that’s transcended generations, shared just as strongly by modern writers and directors as with those of the mid-1920s.

But what is it about machines (and more specifically robots) that terrifies us so profoundly? The simple fact of the matter is that we as their creators have the ability to have them not exist in the first place. In our movies in television though, it always ends up happening for the sake of scientific advancement. Inevitably, the machines we fictionally build almost always end up turning on their masters with the eventual goal of world domination. From The Matrix to Terminator, it seems to end the same way.

This fear that manifests in our movies is shared by some of the greatest scientific minds we have today. Stephen Hawking has come out and matter-of-factly stated that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk, sharing that sentiment, likened the development of A.I. to “summoning the demon.” It’s an issue that people are actually taking seriously, especially given our dependency on automation that does things like land airplanes, make the Internet function properly, and quite literally keep the lights on worldwide. It’s no wonder the idea of Skynet seems like a future that could only be too real for humanity.

This year especially seems to be rife with this fear in Hollywood. In 2015 alone, we’re seeing the release of Ex Machina, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Terminator: Genisys, all three of which paint a morbid picture for the future of artificial intelligence. You’d be hard-pressed to find a theme in film that’s been so profoundly ingrained in Hollywood in virtually every decade. The 1950s had The Forbidden Planet. In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey brought us HAL-9000. 1979’s Alien had a similar theme of a robot turning on its astronaut masters. 1982’s Bladerunner multiplied that tenfold as the defining sci-fi movie of the ’80s. Hollywood’s been nothing if not thorough in its efforts to show that that the robot apocalypse is upon us.

What seems odd is that despite this prevalent theme running through cinema for almost an entire century, we still haven’t reached the evil machine future promised to us for all these years. Many feel as though we’re steadily creeping in that direction, as more and more movies attempt to capitalize on and voice this sentiment. The Terminator movies will keep on rolling in, and we as a society will always fear the monsters of our own making. More often than not humanity’s arrogance is to blame in all these movies, turning us into own worst enemies. Sure, the machines have a singular goal to extinguish the human race, but none of that is possible without our increasing dependence on automation and technology.

The “boogeyman” of film typically changes with the era. Right now our villains are Wall Street bankers in the wake of the recent financial collapse. Before that, it was terrorists following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. But one monster has consistently remained in the forefront of cinema throughout the years in the form of machines. As long as humanity continues to push forward with technology, we’ll continue to fear the unknown (and potentially dangerous) future being created right in front of our eyes.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest

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