Evolving Depictions of Robots in Film and TV

October 12, 2023
Siya Khanse

From silent films to streaming series, robots have captured our imagination on screen for over a century. These depictions reflect our evolving understanding and relationship with artificial intelligence, ranging from fear and caution to awe and wonder.

Arguably, one of the first AI beings wasn’t even a robot. Way back in 1818, Mary Shelley released the science fiction novel Frankenstein, and its 1931 film adaptation is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. While the creature, referred to in the novel as “the monster”—and known by everyone else (incorrectly) as “Frankenstein”—isn’t made of metal, he was artificially created, capable of learning and adapting, and had his own thoughts and feelings. He was also, by the way, feared and misunderstood by a lot of people. Remind you of anything?

Many of the earliest depictions of robots, of course, were machines made of metal, such as Rosey, the family maid from The Jetsons. Yes, she looked a little humanlike, but you would never confuse her for George Jetson, his boy Elroy, daughter Judy, or Jane his wife. Soon robots would come in various shapes and sizes, from realistic androids like the T-800 from The Terminator to droids like Star Wars’ R2-D2.

How we name robots seems to have evolved too. In the past, more often than not, robot names consisted of letters and numbers. Blade Runner and The Matrix upgraded robot naming conventions by featuring "replicants" and "sentinels." While they still weren’t real names, at least they looked like real words. More recently, robots and AI in films have been given human names like Sonny (I, Robot), Marvin (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and Samantha (Her). This shift might be viewed as an attempt to bring out these machines' human-like qualities, fostering a sense of familiarity and empathy among audiences.

Early depictions of robots portrayed them as simplistic, one-dimensional machines with limited capabilities and motivations. Consider the painfully stiff performance of the actor portraying V.I.C.I. in the 80s TV show Small Wonder. However, as technology evolved, so has our portrayal of robots. They have become more human-like, not only in their appearance, but in their behavior—both good and bad.

Robots, if their onscreen representations are to be believed, have a strong reputation for being cold and calculating, and endangering the humans around them. Negative portrayals of robots and AI as malevolent entities include HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ash from Alien, and the title character of last year’s M3GAN. In M3GAN, an artificially intelligent doll that was meant to be a young child’s companion becomes dangerously protective of her, with gruesome results. The hit TV show Black Mirror has been exploring the dark side of AI for over a decade, stoking important discussions about the ethical implications of these groundbreaking technologies. (Plus, there was that one episode where the Prime Minister has sex with a pig.)

While evil robots will probably always be a staple of film and TV, recent years have seen a refreshing trend towards fictional robots that are capable of deep emotional connections and working for the good of society. For example, Wall-E is a diligent waste-collecting robot who cleans up a polluted Earth. Baymax from Big Hero 6 is a healthcare companion who can diagnose and treat medical issues, and he becomes the superhero's closest companion. Samantha from Her is a virtual assistant who has deep, meaningful conversations with her human owner. And the newly released film The Creator features an AI child who wants the same things we do: freedom and the right to live. As our relationship with robots and AI continues to evolve, our depictions of them will continue to evolve too.