Hollywood’s Most Uncanny Portrayals of Robots

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 9 2012 9:00 AM

I, Actor: Cinema’s Finest Robot Performances

David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus
David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus displays emotion.

Still from the Prometheus promotional video "Meet David."

For all the blood and tentacles in Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi horror film Prometheus, the creepiest part may be Michael Fassbender’s wonderfully uncanny performance as the robot David. Many actors have leapt into the discomfiting chasm between the human and the inhuman, known as the uncanny valley, but few actors have as gracefully danced to-and-fro across the divide. He’s such a robot! He’s such a human! That eerie territory has never been so much fun.

Of course, Fassbender isn’t the first actor to stake his claim on the uncanny valley. Many actors, in fact, have turned in their very finest performances while playing androids. There are several reasons for this. First, it’s fun to play nonhuman. Playing people can get old, while playing a robot offers the chance to show off: I can convey life, and I can convey lifelike! Then there are the layers. There are so many! Rather than merely simulating emotion, you have to play someone who simulates emotion. (One suspects that many actors relate to androids for just this reason.)

But in the treacherous territory of the uncanny valley, there are many pitfalls. The first and most common mistake is to assume that because you’re playing a robot your performance must be robotic—stiff, impassive, and, thus, dull. Who says that the robots of our fictional future can’t be wildly expressive! Ironically, in assuming that robots will be more boring than us, many actors reveal only that they themselves are a little boring.

To explore the art of robot acting, we’ve rounded up ten of the most notable performances, and ranked them on a binary scale. After all, when aiming for the uncanny valley, actors are given the opportunity to perform at the highest level, but ultimately they can only hit (nailing a wonderful and sometimes even Oscar-worthy 1), or miss (fritzing their way to a dull and disappointing 0).

1. Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) in A.I.

Law has always been better at doing showy and calculating than conveying soul—which does not make him a worse actor, though it may make him less likable. Few roles have fit his faculties more snugly than that of A.I.’s android prostitute. Law’s animated performance as the robotic lover man earned him his second best supporting actor nomination from the Golden Globes. (His previous nomination was for playing the manipulative Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley.)

There are few better examples of how to construct a robot character who is at once expressive and robotic as the scene below. In making friends with Haley Joel Osment’s David, Joe, who is programmed to have a perpetual bounce in his step, performs a wonderfully graceful moonlit dance. (While many actors play robots as stiff, Law learned ballet for the role.) In a perfect, creepy twist, Joe’s moves are copied straight from Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (note especially his splashing in the puddles around 3:05): He—or should we say it?— doesn’t know where his dance repertoire came from, but his programmer presumably did.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

1. David (Michael Fassbender) in Prometheus

Gigolo Joe isn’t the only movie android to steal his moves from the movies. In Prometheus, Michael Fassbender’s David steals his mannerisms (and his hairstyle) from Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia. But while he’s a keen observer of humans, there’s always something odd about David. He doesn’t  feel fear, so he recklessly presses into dangerous situations without a moment’s hesitation. He wears a spacesuit even though he doesn’t breathe oxygen (to put the humans more at ease). He tends to do everything—pouring vodka, palming a basketball—at too-perfect right angles. As he says says in the promotional clip below, “I understand human emotions, although I do not feel them myself.”

And David has a sense of humor. At one point, an annoyed Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) observes, “You can get us pretty close, huh?” David, who doesn’t much like Holloway, answers, “Not too close I hope.”

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1. Robot Maria (Brigitte Helm) in Metropolis

In this, one of the earliest and greatest of sci-fi masterpieces, Brigitte Helm wears many hats, but none so delightfully as that of the evil Maschinenmensch that impersonates our hero Maria (also played by Helm). While Maria is impassioned and even prophetic, the wild-eyed Robot Maria is actually more erratic and tempestuous than her human counterpart, and this—in addition to an arthritic stiffness, and her lazy eye—is ultimately what gives her away.

1. Lance Henriksen (Bishop) in Aliens

Before there was David in Prometheus, there were the various other corporate androids of the Alien franchise. After David, the most transfixing is Bishop, from James Cameron’s Aliens. An antidote to Ash (more on Ash in a moment), Bishop is revealed to be an android fairly early on—and, like Michael Fassbender, Lance Henriksen maintains a delicate tincture right between human and robot (or, as the politically correct Bishop would say, “artificial person”).

1. Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner

Perhaps no movie has planted itself down as firmly in the uncanny valley as Blade Runner: Even when it comes to the movie’s protagonist, the titular detective played by Harrison Ford, no one seems sure whether he’s human or robot.

But the film’s most magnetic embodiment of this uncertainty is the “replicant” Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer. As a replicant, Batty is an unusual and ultimately unknown mixture of organic clone and robot, full of memories both real and artificial; he seems almost confused at his own apparent emotion. While we often think of robots as incapable of understanding beauty, Batty spontaneously speaks one of the movie’s most poetic lines, and somehow Hauer sells it.

1. The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Terminator 2

Of course, some actors are genuinely robotic, and, when taking on the role of a robot, this is an asset. Not only does the part come more naturally, it makes the robot’s performance as a human more believable. After all, actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger spend their whole lives in the uncanny valley. (See also Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier.)

0. Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien

Some readers will want to tear my head off for this one. And I would have agreed with those readers before I recently rewatched the movie. Ash is an unforgettable character—the moment we learn he’s a robot is jaw-dropping—but it’s the screenplay and the makeup that make the scene so stunning. After you know that, Ian Holm’s performance becomes unremarkable: He mostly plays Ash like just a dickish human.

0. David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.

Haley Joel Osment got the role of a lifetime as the robot-boy David in A.I., but David seems more like a child struggling with Asperger’s than a machine that conceals a metal skeleton. And, like Robin Williams’ performance as Bicentennial Man, this only gets worse as the movie goes along, and the character becomes (supposedly) more and more like a “real boy.”

Osment does have a few scenes of fine robot acting. The best come early on, when he’s still learning to pick up on social cues:

0. Call (Winona Ryder) in Alien: Resurrection

Like Holm as Ash, Winona Ryder mostly plays Call as a human (in the scene below, Call even gets drunk), and she lets the surprises in the screenplay do the work. She’s not bad, but the performance lacks the extra layer of the finest robotic performances.

0. SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe) in Virtuosity

It is also possible to take the whole flamboyant robot thing too far. Before L.A. Confidential, The Insider, Gladiator—and the subsequent stretch during which he could get just about any role he wanted—Russell Crowe played the ultimate robotic psychopath, SID 6.7 in Brett Leonard’s sci-fi thriller Virtuosity.

Looking back, there’s something delightful about how over the top the Oscar winner’s performance is. (As he says himself, with some acrobatics and a flip of the hair, “I’m a 50-terrabyte self-evolving neural-network double back-flip off the high platform. I’m not a swan dive.”) But it really only works as camp.