In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it
Last month, fat-cat futurist Elon Musk announced the Tesla Bot, a general-purpose robotic humanoid designed to tackle “boring, repetitious” tasks. Suspiciously, there was no working prototype. Instead, Musk’s jokey proof-of-concept was a human in a cyber bodysock who did the Charleston on cue.
That dancing gag was likely because robotic R&D is both arduous and wildly expensive. But there is already a ton of useful data out there: humankind’s utopian hopes and existential fears about droids have been explored in films for the best part of a century, from magnetic Maria in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis to hi-tech courtesan Dan Stevens in last month’s I’m Your Man. We’ve seen strong bots, scary bots, cool bots and sexy bots. But what about the criterion that really counts: which movie robot has proven itself to be the most useful?
To narrow things down, let’s remove any cyborgs with human brains – bye-bye RoboCop and au revoir Alita: Battle Angel – plus all those bodiless, neutrally inflected AI programs that turn out to be sociopaths. A seemingly bulletproof choice might be Arnie’s steely protector from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but even a pet T-800 contains the potential seeds for humanity’s annihilation in their Skynet-designed diodes, a threat that surely outweighs any burly usefulness.
Demobbed kill-droids are a recurring film theme, from Johnny 5 in the 1980s Short Circuit movies to naive cop-bot Chappie (2015). They mean well, but that latent lethality would cause anxiety on Civvy Street. Despite being an intergalactic tool of conquest, the Iron Giant (1999) successfully overcomes his ruthless programming but – like robo-daddy Optimus Prime and his ear-splitting Transformers gang – the noble Giant is too colossal to be useful day to day: perfect for intercepting a nuclear missile, less helpful with an Argos click-and-collect.
Here, fans of a certain lowly maintenance droid might pipe up: rebel roustabout R2-D2 impressively turns spy and saboteur to bring down a galactic empire. But the beloved Star Wars dustbin is clearly too headstrong to be reliable. His stiff counterpart C-3PO, a finicky golden butler with Duolingo capability, might be a more useful model for any Tesla designer.
After so many techno-parables in which robots achieve self-awareness – notably forever-child David in AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Ava in Ex Machina (2014) – imagining them doing scut work feels disrespectful. Ideally, you want a robot who just loves being a robot. Which brings us to Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi survival saga Interstellar (2014). The tactical robots on the crew of stressed astronaut Matthew MacConaughey – busy coping with limited fuel and time-dilation effects while searching deepest space for habitable planets – are faceless metal slabs combining Swiss-army-knife versatility with companionable chat. Their functional design, splitting into “legs” akin to a KitKat, is more plausible than a breakdancer in a bodysock.
McConaughey’s right-hand bot Tars, in particular, is smart, methodical and fearless. As cosmic crises pile up, Tars calmly launches itself into a black hole without a second thought. Retrieving a Domino’s order would be a well-deserved holiday.