I love robot movies. I cry at robot movies. More so than at movies where the humans are the ones getting blown up, oddly enough. I used to think that there was something wrong with me, but then I realized that I was just experiencing a form of high-tech Smiley syndrome, and I started to feel a little more normal.
Have you ever asked yourself why the smiley is such a well-loved, internationally-recognized symbol? Sure you have. That’s why you’re reading this blog, remember? The theory (which I first came across in Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics) is that everybody on the planet can relate to a smiley face. Everyone has two eyes and a mouth, and unless you’ve got some really uncooperative facial muscles, you probably know how to crack a smile. The smiley could be anyone, therefore, the smiley is everyone. The converse of this theory is that the more detailed and figurative you make a rendition of a human, the less relatable it becomes: Now it’s got pronounced lips and eyelashes, so it’s probably a female. Now it’s got long, black hair, so it’s probably Asian. Now it’s got twin pigtails, a pleated skirt and knee-high boots, and suddenly we’re cosplaying.
Like the smiley, robots are abstractions of human appearance. When we look at them, we see something that could be us, but since it doesn’t look like any particular one of us, a shared ownership is formed amongst the viewers. We start to focus more on their actions and our emotional responses to those actions. This focus is magnified further by the lack of facial expressions that would ordinarily help us figure out what the robot is thinking. Suddenly every small gesture, and every oddly-enunciated word, takes on a weight that a human character would be hard-pressed to achieve. (Exempli Gratia: Compare the Iron Giant’s final heroic act to, say, Leo diCaprio freezing to death in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and tell me if you aren’t more moved by the former than the latter. I mean, never mind that Titanic had about as much story as your average telenovela.)
And so, I cry at robot movies. Vigorously. If your robot-movie knowledge is limited, I’ve provided a list below of the best tearjerkers I know of:
1. The aforementioned Iron Giant.
Also one of my favorite animated movies of all-time, this Cold War period film about a boy and a giant robot is perfectly-written and brilliantly-directed. The final scene, in which the Iron Giant rumbles, “Soo-per-mannn” before flying to his death still has me reaching for a hanky every time I see it.
2. Transformers (1986)
TremendousNews put it best when they said that this was “the first time someone important to me died.” In the pivotal scene, Optimus Prime is shot to bits by Megatron because of Hot Rod’s grandstanding. As he lies dying, he admonishes his loyal Autobots: “Do not grieve … Soon, I shall be one with the matrix.” Prime was like a father to me growing up, and losing him was a coming-of-age experience.
3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
T2 breaks the robot-abstraction rule that I mentioned above (although there was a considerable dearth in facial expressions), but I happened to see this movie during a time in my life when I so wanted to be the young John Connor. Finally having a friend with guns, who wouldn’t let anyone hassle you, and would even say stupid shit like “Hasta la vista” because you ask him to, was every adolescent boy’s dream. I was crying throughout most of the final battle: the T-800 gets his face pounded so badly that he goes offline, then locates a backup power source, then proceeds to take down the techologically-superior T-1000, only to then sacrifice himself for the good of the future conflict. If James Cameron had shot Titanic like this, I think I would have liked it a heck of a lot more.
You know the scene. Robots are extremely handy lead characters because screenwriters can put them through so much punishment and just write it off by saying that they don’t feel physical pain anyway. So Wall-E being cruelly crushed to a pancake is visual agony for the viewers; the scene is less than 10 seconds long but it successfully squeezes every last drop of emotional investment from our collective tear ducts. (Try to imagine how that scene would have worked if Wall-E had been a dog, for example.)
5. Edward Scissorhands
People sometimes forget, when they talk about this movie, that the lead character was a machine. He wasn’t a guy with scissors for hands, he was a human-sized toy. Tim Burton’s fairytale has a mean-spirited denouement, and we are treated to a rather chilling view of how humans can be less humane than the humanoids they persecute. The dude just wanted to trim hedges and stuff, why won’t you assholes leave him alone???
Other minor tearjerkers include Roy’s sad expiration at the end of Blade Runner, Data’s sacrifice in Star Trek: Nemesis, Bishop getting summarily ripped apart at the end of Aliens. I cannot help but look back on all these heartwrenching sequences with a sense of wonder: why is it that we experience such intense emotional connections with the apparently emotionless? Bots don’t cry, but we do.