The Crystal Ball: Frightening Futures

A tour of Scary Sci-Fi Movies

Realising that an entity of pure logic might pose a threat to humanity, science fiction author Isaac Asimov penned the above three laws for robots… they seem sensible enough, but what if, when the time comes, these laws are ignored?

What if the robots rebel?

Sounds like a great premise for a movie!

To begin, we need to start with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Sure, Hal isn’t a robot per se, but he basically controls an entire spaceship so, close enough. He can still suck all the oxygen out of a room and watch intently as you suffocate. Dead is still dead!

But still, it’s a bit scarier when the computers are mobile, in a chasing-after-you sense. So let’s move on to Westworld (1973) – a theme park of sorts where humans can freely abuse the robot inhabitants. Well, you can guess that the robots aren’t going to take that sort of treatment forever! They don’t, and mayhem and murder ensues (although in the original movie, not the HBO remake, this is simply blamed on some sort of robot virus… yeah, okay, we can see why HBO changed that a bit). Anyhow, fun times.

Back out in space, there followed The Black Hole (1979) – this ‘kids’ film featured a killer robot named Maximillian, who would happily chop up humans for general amusement. In the end (spoilers) Maximillian goes to Hell – literally. This is a Disney film? Whoa.

Apparently Disney ordered a script for a remake earlier this decade and shelved it because it was too dark! The writer was like, “this is The Black Hole, right? What did you expect?” Kids scarred for life!

1982 brought the world Blade Runner. Based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Blade Runner is set in a dystopian future Los Angeles of 2019 (hey, wait…) where synthetic humans known as ‘replicants’ are engineered by evil corp. Tyrell to slave away in off-world colonies. But when a group of them, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, left) escapes back to Earth,  it’s left to former cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, right) to hunt them down. Deckard used to be a ‘blade runner’, someone whose job is to hunt down replicants and ‘retire’ them. One of the replicants has infiltrated Tyrell and shot another blade runner, and there are worries that more mayhem may be in the offing.

Blade Runner is a slow film that questions what it is to be human – questions are even raised about Deckard’s humanity, both figuratively and literally!

There were two killer robot movies in 1984 – one famous and one not-so-famous. Let’s start with the not-so-famous one: Westworld writer / director Michael Crichton returned with a flick called Runaway, about a cop (Tom Selleck, of Magnum PI fame) whose job is to deal with malfunctioning robots (Runaway is set in a parallel world where robots become common by the mid-1980s). But one day he encounters a robot purposefully programmed to kill, and uncovers a conspiracy to create an army of killer robots. Oh my!

The other was:

which is kind of the grandpappy of killer robot movies.

You can say what you like about Schwarzenegger, but The Terminator wouldn’t have been quite the same had it been played by someone else – he nails big, dumb and single-focussed to a tree, then carves it up like a Jack O’Lantern. He’s one scary dude, who does scary things to kill his target: Sarah Connor, whose son John will, in the future (he’s a time-travelling robot, even?) cause all sorts of trouble for Skynet, an artificially intelligent defense computer network in charge of all the nukes that has taken the Earth over with robots that are systematically eliminating its organic inhabitants. Anyway, the Terminator, model T-800, has been sent back to kill her, but she ain’t having it!

With the help of Kyle Reese, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) flees from Arnie – for a while, at least.

Made for a mere US$6.4 million, The Terminator would make close to US$80 million at the box office, ensuring a sequel:

because Skynet has a time machine, and plenty of Terminators, so it just sends back another one – except this one is more advanced, because technology in the future keeps marching along. Time has also marched along in the past, so this time it’s a young John Connor it’s after. But the rebels have sent back an ‘old’ T-800 to protect him. So Arnie’s a good guy this time! With more punch lines.

The robots even invaded the 80s teen horror genre in 1986’s Chopping Mall, a comedy wherein a young group of shopping mall employees stay late to party, but are unaware of the new ‘high tech’ security system the mall’s owner has installed, featuring roller shutters over all of the exits, and three robots, equipped with tasers and tranquiliser guns, which are programmed to apprehend thieves using all means at their disposal.

As the teens have their fun, a lightning storm rages outside. Lightning strikes the mall and damages the computer that controls the robots; the robots then kill a janitor and some technicians before roaming the mall, aiming to kill anyone they encounter. Fun times.

Originally released as Killbots, it didn’t do well at the box office – but then a janitor at the studio suggested Chopping Mall was a better name, and ticket sales improved somewhat. But it did much better on video.

Next stop: Detroit.

So, it’s the future and Detroit is a hole. Crime is rampant and the streets are run by gangs.

One of these gangs kills police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who is subsequently turned into a cyborg by conglomerate Omni Consumer Products (OCP). They call their new creation RoboCop.

OCP has agreed to take over the police force in exchange for the right to redevelop part of the city into a gated community for the rich called Delta City. In addition to RoboCop, OCP also creates the ED-209 (right), a pretty dumb robot that has a bad habit of inadvertently killing people.

Anyway, despite erasing his memories, RoboCop begins to remember his previous life as Murphy, and tracks down the leader of the gang that killed him, who (surprise, surprise) reveals that OCP paid him to find a cop they could convert. RoboCop/Murphy is pissed!

Lauded as one of the best films of 1987, RoboCop would spawn two sequels, a TV series and a remake.

“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated!”

1987 also brought the revival of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNG featured the usual Star Trek baddies: Klingons and Romulans, but also brought in some new foes, most notably the Borg, a race of collective cyborgs that take over organic civilisations and convert their members into more Borg drones.

The Borg travel around in cubes, because cubes are cool, right? Anyway, our heroes have a number of tangles with the Borg, one of which temporarily led Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard to experience what it was like to be a Borg first-hand (right).

The Borg are a reoccuring villain throughout TNG and subsquent Star Trek spinoffs and movies, including Star Trek: First Contact (1996).

“Resistance is futile.”

Fast-foward to 1999 and you’ll encounter The Matrix, the Wachowski siblings’ science-fiction masterpiece. The core concept of The Matrix is that humanity is trapped inside a virtual reality created by an artificial intelligence that has enslaved them in reality, using their physical bodies as a power source.

A computer programmer, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), known in the hacking scene by his alias Neo, begins to suspect something strange is going on with his reality, and he pursues mysterious online mentions of “the Matrix”, eventually leading him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), leader of a group of rebels that fight back in both the virtual world of the Matrix and the real world, a barren wasteland ravaged by a war between humans and artificially intelligent machines.

Morpheus brings Neo into the real world in order to help him defend the last city of free humans, Zion, from destruction. He also teaches Neo how to manipulate the Matrix so that he can perform extraordinary feats of speed and strength inside of it. The ease at which Neo adopts these abilities leads Morpheus to suspect he is “The One”, a human prophesiesed to eventually free humanity and end the war.

But to do this, he has to battle the AI both inside and out: inside the Matrix he faces the Smiths, a series of clone ‘agents’ who are as powerful as Neo is, and will do anything to eliminate the threat he poses.

Outside, there are the Sentinels, octopus-like robots on a perpetual seek-and-destroy mission, whose object is to eliminate all remnants of unenslaved humanity from the face of the Earth.

To save themselves and defeat the AI, Neo and crew will need to wake up all of humanity to its predicament – a process that (spoilers!) will take a couple more movies.

The Matrix was extremely successful both critically and commercially, grossing US$463 million worldwide  but only costing $63m to make. Some critics have described it as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time, and the most influential movie of its generation. However, its philsophical undertones have been underlooked by many viewers, some of whom have described the film as pretentious and “overlong, high-concept hokum”. In any case, The Matrix portrays a sufficiently nightmarish world of robots-gone-wrong to earn a significant place in our gallery of technological futures we would rather not have any part of.

There’s just one more stop, the planet Skaro…

We save, arguably, the best for last. The British science-fiction program Doctor Who has featured a number of villanous aliens during its 56 years of slightly on-and-off existence, but there are two particular baddies that have made regular appearances on the show: the Daleks, and the Cybermen.

The creation of Doctor Who writer Terry Nation, the Daleks first appeared in the show’s second story, which began airing in late 1963. Nation wanted an alien enemy that was more than a simple ‘man in a suit’, one that had no legs. Designer Raymond Cusick was given only an hour to come up with the Dalek’s design, which he based on a man sitting in a chair (something that would become more apparent in the presentation of the Dalek’s leader, Davros). Nation said that the name Dalek simply “rolled off his typewriter”, in any case, their creation would go on to a long life of infamy, appearing in dozens of Doctor Who episodes, comic books, stage plays, movies and more. Daleks are more recognisable worldwide than the Doctor him (or her)-self!

A Dalek is actually a mutated Kaled (a creature native to Skaro) in a robotic suit, a product of a thousand year war with another species, the Thals. Daleks have no personality, beyond an utter hatred of any other lifeform, which they see as a potential threat to them and must be “exterminated”, the Daleks’ catchphrase. They are conditioned to obey the orders of their superiors without question, and are easily provoked. Not something you want to meet in a dark alley!

The Cybermen, meanwhile, are a race of cyborgs, technologically augmented humans who ‘convert’ others into Cybermen against their will. They first appeared in 1966; the Cybermen were created by Dr. Kit Pedler (the unofficial scientific advisor to the show) and story editor Gerry Davis. In some Doctor Who stories, the Cybermen originated on another planet, in others, a parallel version of Earth. In either case, they’re still scary customers! Getting exterminated by a Dalek is a more appealing fate to getting sliced-and-diced into a Cyberman yourself. And so the Cybermen appear in Doctor Who often.

Both Daleks and Cybermen are the result of technology being used to adapt an organic species for conditions that they are otherwise unsuited for: the Daleks for war, and the Cybermen to survive a harsh life in space. While these portrayals are designed to shock and frighten, there’s no denying the potential for technology to advance the evolution of the human race.

However, cyborgs and artificially-intelligent robots pose interesting questions about the future that may not be answered until after we’re deep into their existence – do cyborgs maintain their humanity, or will they lose it to their techological components? Can robots develop sentience and by extension empathy? Will either consider unaugmented humans to be inferior, a waste of resources, or a potential threat that needs to be eliminated? Or will they become caretakers of humanity, recognising the value of its pure form?

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