Batty, Bender and WALL-E: Science Fiction Depictions of Robot Existential Crisis

(This was a university essay for a Sci-Fi Film course I took in 2010, hence the more formal tone)

Batty, Bender and WALL-E: Science Fiction Depictions of Robot Existential Crisis

In many science fiction properties, artificial intelligences such as androids and robots are used as symbolic representations of humanity.  For centuries, humans have wondered why we act the way we do, and what will happen when we die. Androids and robots share these same philosophical behaviours and musings, developing recognizably human emotions as a result.  Blade Runner’s Replicants, Futurama’s Bender, and WALL-E are three androids/robots who emulate humans in two significant ways: near-human emotional experiences and fears of obsolescence and death as they grapple with their existence as an artificial being.  The resonating message for the audience, then, is a reflection on what it means to be human.  The robots and androids in these films and series contemplate an existential crisis that all humans eventually confront within themselves at some point in their lives.

The Nexus-6 unit Replicants of Blade Runner are indistinguishable from human beings by sight, and must be identified using a psychological examination known as the Voight-Kampff test.  Supposedly, Replicants are unable to feel empathy, and this is what separates them from humans.  Throughout the course of the film, however, this separation of Replicant and human by a subjective lack of empathy is subverted; the human (or at least he believes himself to be human) Deckard relentlessly pursues and kills (“retires”) sentient beings seeking answers, but the last remaining Replicant, Batty, shows a great deal of compassion and empathy when he saves Deckard’s life at the end of the film.   Peter Lev argues that, for all intents and purposes, Replicants are emotionally human:

“…The replicants are also angels fallen to Earth; human-like beings with their own     histories, needs, emotions, and morality. The link to angels is made explicit by a near     quote from William Blake uttered by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), leader of the replicants:     “Fiery the Angels fell, while thunder roared around their shores, burning with the fires of     Orc.” As the conflict between the two myths suggests, Deckard’s job as a blade runner is     brought into question. Is he killing “skin jobs,” i.e., non-human criminals? Or is he killing     angels, i.e., human-like or more-than-human beings whose differences are to be     respected? The film suggests that the replicants, despite differences of genesis and     history, are emotionally and morally human.”

The human emotional experiences displayed by Replicants is most easily displayed in the relationship between Batty and Pris.  Their quest to extend their life spans is a codependent struggle.  As Richard Armstrong points out, Batty gets sympathy for himself and for Pris by stating that his lover hasn’t got long to live.  The deserved sympathy, in this case, is because Batty’s time is running out as well, but has selflessly placed her needs above his for the time being.  This struggle between human and android empathy extends to the audience as well.  When Pris attacks Deckard in an act that is arguably self-defense or self-preservation, Deckard shoots her (and depending on the version of the film, shoots more than once).  She screams and thrashes in agony, with electrical sparks pulsing from the bullet holes. Richard Anderson then asks,

Why do we feel a twinge of sorrow when the Robot lies dead? When was the last time you felt pity when a machine failed?

The electrical sparking serves to remind the audience that Pris is not human, but her agony and her pain tell us that she is.  We do not feel pity for failed machines because they are not sentient or emotional enough to demonstrate an awareness of their failures.  Pris’s fate, on the other hand, is a deeply empathetic experience for the audience because she visually showed us her suffering.

Futurama’s Bender, as far as robots go, is a highly unusual one.  Rather than being an emotionless husk perplexed with the irrationalities of emotional human behaviour (as shown by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data) he displays, perhaps, the worst qualities of humans in a Westernized society.  Steve Bailey compares Bender with his human best friend Fry:

“Perhaps the most prominent textual element of Futurama, though, is the interaction of     Fry and Bender, characters that provide contrasting but thoroughly cartoonish – in both     the literal and figurative sense – versions of human weakness.  Fry is presented as     sexually undesirable, addicted to television and junk food, naive, relatively unintelligent,     and supremely lazy. Bender is relentlessly carnal, chain smokes cigars and relies on     alcohol to power his system, enjoys robotic strippers and prostitutes, and has a taste for thievery and violence.”

Bender’s largely hedonistic behaviour can perhaps be explained in that, as a machine, he will not suffer the physical consequences.  Accordingly, in a non-canonical “what if” story in “Anthology of Interest II,” when Bender is transformed into a human, his excesses kill him within a week of his transformation, as he has become dangerously overweight and his liver is failing.  Unlike the Replicants who are meant to copy humans as closely as possible, Bender is theoretically not supposed to have emotional experiences.  In “I Second That Emotion,” an empathy chip is installed in Bender in order for him to replicate his coworker Leela’s emotions. He then displays emotionally irrational behaviours, putting himself in danger in order to rescue Leela’s pet, Nibbler.  When it is discovered that the empathy chip was running at triple capacity, Bender pretends that he was not affected at all by it: “And I still barely felt anything!” However, this early episode demonstrates that Bender is more capable of human-like emotions than he wishes to admit, suggesting an inner struggle between empathy and sociopathy.  In an interview with the New York Times, creator Matt Groening establishes that Bender’s wildly diverging emotional reactions were deliberate:

“We initially gave him antennas where he would have ears, but we decided it was more effective to make him more streamlined,” Mr. Groening said. ”He’s not streamlined as a personality, and that’s part of what makes him funny.”

Mirroring Pris and Batty’s relationship, Bender also demonstrates a surprising capacity for love, both erotic and emotional.  In a recent episode satirizing the opposition to the same-sex marriage movement, “Proposition Infinity,” Bender begins a relationship with his human coworker Amy Wong, which is a Thirtieth Century social taboo known as “robosexuality.” This application of real-life human experiences to science fiction artificial intelligence experiences is a common trope, argues Kirsten Strayer:

“Real-world robots, cyborgs, and clones – the corporal technological progresses that have     defined the computer age – are as much a part of the posthuman as human biological     entities. … However, they also can be easily transcribed to the fictional milieus of     television and be imagined in a much more exaggerated manner. The prospective world     of science-fiction television extends current technologies from their realistic application     to extreme potentials. The medium’s prevailing trends of serialized narratives, multiple     story-arcs, and sprawling, ensemble casts allow for the creation of complex new societies     in which advanced futuristic technologies can exist side-by-side with common social     concerns (such as racism and sexism) and political acts (such as terrorism).”

Bender and Amy attempt to get robot-human marriage legalized, which turns out to be surprisingly difficult (despite some comically absurd legalized pairings, such as ghost-horse marriage).  Subtextually, the sociological implications of this opposition suggests that relationships where one partner’s emotions are “natural” and the other partner’s emotions are “synthetic” are less acceptable than relationships where both partners are either “natural” or “synthetic.”  Robosexual marriage is eventually legalized, but in a callback to Bender’s struggles between his sociopathic and empathetic halves, he ends the relationship with Amy because he would have to be monogamous.   However, a Sci-Fi Weekly interview with producer/creator David X. Cohen establishes that there is a conscious effort to make Bender act in ways that are emotionally resonant with the audience:

“One of the basic operating premises, which is a credo of Matt Groening, is that you can put the characters in any sort of crazy, bizarre [situation] you can dream up, but they have to react in a way which people can sympathize with, even if we’re talking about robots and lobsters. They still count as people. If something really crazy is going on they have to react like it’s crazy. And if it’s scary, they have to be scared. And if they’re in love, they have to be in love. That’s one of the things we’re most careful with, is to try to get people     wrapped up in a story which they actually care about. And once we have that, we start to [add] on the futuristic sci-fi stuff.”

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of WALL-E is that he is a robot that has developed the purest and most positive of human emotions.  Despite being alone for centuries on an Earth that humanity has long since vacated, he has a childlike curiosity about the “junk” humans have left behind, and a creative impulse to transform his mundane job (crushing garbage into cubes) into tremendous artistic achievements (he has built enormous skyscrapers out of the garbage cubes). He has had the time and the ability to learn human impulses and emotions because he is solar powered, which is an interestingly ecological technological trait in a world ruined by excess.  In an interview with the New York Daily News, writer/director Andrew Stanton states that it is time that has made WALL-E develop:

“”I figured all the other robots eventually ran out of power,” says Stanton. “For whatever reason, WALL-E just kept going, took care of himself and charged up every day. Over time he acquired a fascination with the artifacts of humanity. I think if you did the same thing for 700 years you’d say there’s got to be more to life than what I’m doing. It just made sense to me.”

Once the technologically advanced and beautiful EVE returns to Earth in hopes of locating a sign of restorative vegetation, WALL-E falls in love at first sight with her.  This is not because she is the first intelligent being WALL-E has encountered in 700 years (not counting his pet cockroach), but because WALL-E recognizes his own curious search for understanding in her.  The human ship Axiom’s autopilot, aptly named Auto, takes complete control of the ship in an attempt to keep the remaining humans complacent (an obvious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL), but WALL-E and EVE have a natural impulse to want to help an apathetic humanity to regain its independence and learn to “live” again. Film Journal International’s interview with Andrew Stanton reveals that WALL-E is a robot that is perhaps more “alive” than his human masters simply because of his insatiable curiosity:

“I always knew I wanted Wall E to indirectly affect humanity. In a weird way, he’s the most truly alive character in the universe. This little robot has the desire to understand what living is all about while the people who truly have the gift of being alive have lost it. I loved the poetry in that.”

EVE and WALL-E’s shared desire to return “life” to the human “living” eventually manifests into a deep love, despite EVE’s not having lived centuries contemplating what it means to be alive.  In a reflection on the lessons of the movie, Hrag Vartanian observes that EVE, a supposedly emotionless robot single-mindedly dedicated to her directive, realizes that she cannot “live” without WALL-E:

“…Wall-E, our heroic Prometheus, is punished for returning plant life back to humanity by being electrocuted and crushed until he is a lifeless husk. Fortunately for Wall-E and Eve, who finally realizes she can’t [function] happily—is that what robots do?—without him, humans overthrow their robotic keepers and return to Earth where Eve refurbishes and reboots Wall-E and they live happily ever after.”

Returning to the world of Blade Runner, the Replicants’ second human-like characteristic lies in their very understandable struggle for survival, and, perhaps, instinctual procreation.  Despite their sentience intelligence, ability, and capacity for emotion, Replicants are still reduced to consumable machines through their planned obsolescence; these near-human beings have a maximum lifespan of a cruelly short 4 years.  Batty’s resentment against his creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, eventually becomes so passionate that he violently murders the man he calls “Father.”  This desperate and irrational action is not justifiable, but is perhaps explainable in that the Replicants’ “Father” has rather cruelly ensured that he will always outlive his own “children,” despite gifting them with emotion and sentience.  Batty’s murder of his “Father” is perhaps in retribution for his soon-to-be-ended life, as he has cut Tyrell’s life short as well.

The Replicant hope for survival is further sublimated, as when they dared to return to Earth in hopes of finding a solution for their imminent deaths, they faced Deckard’s ruthless Blade Runner whose sole job is to eliminate Replicants attempting to share space with Los Angeles’ remaining humans – cutting their lives even shorter.  In his article on Blade Runner, Mike Wilmington points out that in Roy Batty’s last moments, he mirrors the ways that human beings define themselves and their histories not by regrets over things that didn’t happen, but by memories of things that did:

“When the expiring Roy talks about all the memories–fantastic, violent, bewitching–that will perish with him, he’s clinging, for those last instants, to the validity of his strange, desperate, deadly life.”

The lingering ambiguous question as to whether Deckard is a dehumanized human or a humanized Replicant has varying answers.  Wired Magazine’s interview with director Ridley Scott has him answering firmly that Deckard is a Replicant:

“Wired: It was never on paper that Deckard is a replicant.
Scott: It was, actually. That’s the whole point of Gaff, the guy who makes origami and leaves little matchstick figures around. He doesn’t like Deckard, and we don’t really know why. If you take for granted for a moment that, let’s say, Deckard is a Nexus 7, he probably has an unknown life span and therefore is starting to get awfully human. Gaff, at the very end, leaves an origami, which is a piece of silver paper you might find in a cigarette packet, and it’s a unicorn. Now, the unicorn in Deckard’s daydream tells me that Deckard wouldn’t normally talk about such a thing to anyone. If Gaff knew about that, it’s Gaff’s message to say, “I’ve read your file, mate.” That relates to Deckard’s first speech to Rachael when he says, “That’s not your imagination, that’s Tyrell’s niece’s daydream.” And he describes a little spider on a bush outside the window. The spider is an implanted piece of imagination. And therefore Deckard, too, has imagination and even history implanted in his head.”

Conversely, a fan interview with screenwriter Hampton Fancher offers the opposite opinion when asked if Deckard is a replicant:

“No. It wasn’t like I had a tricky idea about Deckard that way. Until the last draft. It kept     ending in different ways. We were already in pre-production when I wrote the last draft. In the last draft, which wasn’t in the movie, I finally came to the last and best conclusion about the ending of the movie which was that Rachel is going to die. And they’re in love, and he’s become kind of human through this. He was less human than the people he was after, because they were machines. He was more of a machine. And he becomes less of a machine through the ordeal of falling in love with her. She’s smarter than he is and she’s better than he is, and at the end, he kills her. And it’s not an outright execution. It’s     elliptical. But you hear the shot, and you see where it took place, and you saw her face,  and she wanted it, and it was an act of love.”

Since, for the most part, subsequent recuts of Blade Runner attempt to establish Deckard as a Replicant, his actions can thus be interpreted as the actions of an android with human emotions and a likely awareness of his imminent death.  Gaff’s message to Deckard (the origami unicorn) is to tell him that his time is short and attempts at lengthening his life are futile.  Subsequently, Deckard runs away with his love, the Replicant Rachael (who believes herself to be human), knowing that they will have an ambiguous and likely tragic future, but choosing to spend their remaining time together – an incredibly human-like gesture.  Fancher’s declaration that Deckard’s love for Rachael is what makes him truly human can be interpreted in reverse; Deckard is not a human made machine-like by violence, but a machine made human-like by love.

Fears over death and planned obsolescence of technology is also present in Futurama.  Two significant Bender-centric episodes are themed around this human-like existential worry.  In “Obsoletely Fabulous,” Bender resents a more technologically advanced robot known as 1-X, and exiles himself from human society.  He begins living with obsolete robots, including one robot who must constantly insert audio tapes in order to talk, and another who must continuously refill her water-powered mechanisms or be stopped forever.  Bender, more technologically advanced than any of his companions, downgrades himself to a wooden form to show solidarity with them.  In a surprising inversion of his usual lack of compassion, Bender has knowingly reduced himself to a more vulnerable, useless, and finite existence; his body is eaten by termites during a moment when his Planet Express crewmates are in danger.  His experience with obsolescence turns out to be a vision caused by an upgrade designed for compatibility with 1-X, so Bender is left not only with an acceptance for new breakthroughs in technology, but also an understanding for his own eventual obsolescence.

The second episode, from Futurama’s most recent season, is more concerned with Bender’s presumed immortality.  In an echo of the lack of foresight about consequences shown in “Anthology of Interest II,” Bender believes that, whatever happens to him, a back-up copy of his personality and memories placed in a new body will ensure a continued existence.  It turns out that Bender has a terminal malfunctioning defect in that he does not have a back-up unit, and therefore, he will eventually “die.” Despite the fact that, unlike the Replicants with a defined expiration date, Bender may continue to live for an indefinite period of time, he resents the quality control inspector (known as “Inspector #5”) for allowing him to exist with such a terminal flaw.  Inspector #5 is revealed to be Bender’s coworker Hermes Conrad, who explains to Bender that it was more important to have the chance to live, especially since the inevitability of death makes life more precious.  This, then, gives an existential purpose for Bender’s continued vices and displays of human weakness; Bender derives incredible human-like happiness from his promiscuity, chain-smoking and alcoholism, so he “lives” exactly as he was created to.

Since WALL-E is essentially immortal thanks to his being solar-powered, he heavily contrasts with the Replicants and Bender. While the Replicants and Bender theoretically waste their remaining lifetimes resenting their creators, WALL-E continues doing the work he was designed for, and adapts to his lonely existence by exploring and collecting the departed human artifacts.  On the Axiom, he does meet future “editions” of himself (enormous, technologically advanced garbage compacting robots), but does not resent or fear them as visual signifiers that his “life” should have ended centuries ago, as his main concern now is helping EVE with her directive of assisting their human creators.  His apparent obsolescence is reaffirmed by Auto when it cruelly crushes WALL-E in his attempt to save the precious plant from being destroyed.  However, as mentioned by Vartanian, in comparison to Bender’s replaceability of body but irreplaceability of mind/personality, EVE is able to repair and refurbish WALL-E’s ruined body using discarded remains of his robotic “brothers.”  Initially, it appears that WALL-E’s personality has been wiped, but in an archetypal display of the power of love, EVE is able to restore WALL-E’s memories with her very human emotions.

The Replicants (as led by Batty), Bender, and WALL-E all share some decidedly human characteristics.  Their existential crisis mirrors a human’s through their abilities to display empathetic human emotions and selfless, devoted love.  Pris and Batty’s relationship suggests a co-dependance reliant on hopes of their mutual survival and continued co-existence, Bender often fails to suppress his emotional capacities (instead pretending to be sociopathic), and WALL-E’s life is changed forever when he falls in love with a robot who shares his passion for learning what it truly means to be alive.  Mortality, or lack thereof, is a constant concern for the robots/androids; Replicants have a definite date of death, Bender will die someday, and WALL-E has already “lived” through death.  It is the existential possibility for morality that makes these robots/androids act in very human ways; they choose to devote themselves to love in order to truly “live.”

Works Cited

Blade Runner. Screenplay by Hampton Fancher & David Peoples. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf.
Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, et al.  Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982. DVD.
“Anthology of Interest II” Futurama. FOX. January 6, 2002. Television.
“I Second That Emotion.” FOX. November 21, 1999. Television.
“Lethal Inspection.” Comedy Central. July 22, 2010. Television.
“Obsoletely Fabulous.” FOX. July 27, 2003. Television.
“Proposition Infinity.” Comedy Central. July 8, 2010. Television.
WALL-E. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Perf. Ben Burtt, Sigourney     Weaver, et al. Walt Disney Pictures, 2008. DVD.
Alter, Ethan. “Robot romance: Pixar and Andrew Stanton launch a cosmic love story.” Film Journal International. (July 2008). p. 16-19.
Anderson, Jeffrey M. Hampton Fancher Interview.  5 December 2010. <http://www.ctv.es/
USERS/canetor/hampton.htm>
Bailey, Steve. “Virtuality and the Television Audience: The Case of Futurama.” Communication Review 5:3 (2002) p. 239-257.
Greenwald, Ted. “Q&A: Ridley Scott Has Finally Created the Blade Runner He Always     Imagined.” Wired Magazine. 15:10 (2007). 5 December 2010. <http://www.wired.com/
entertainment/hollywood/magazine/15-10/ff_bladerunner?currentPage=all>
Huddleston, Kathie. “David X. Cohen boards the Planet Express to find meaning in Futurama.”     Sci-Fi Weekly 568 (December 2001). 5 December 2010. <http://web.archive.org/web/
20080610080245/http://www.scifi.com/sfw/interviews/sfw7897.html>
Lev, Peter. “Whose Future? ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Alien,’ and ‘Blade Runner.” Literature/Film Quarterly.     26:1 (January 1998). p. 30-37.
Sterngold, James. “Bringing an Alien And a Robot to Life; The Gestation of the Simpsons’     Heirs.” New York Times. (July 22, 1999). 5 December 2010. <http://query.nytimes.com/
gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0CEFDF173EF931A15754C0A96F958260>
Strike, Joe. “‘WALL-E’ is a real character.” New York Daily News. (June 22, 2008). 5 December     2010. <http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/    2008/06/22/2008-06-22_walle_is_a_real_character.html>
Vartanian, Hrag. Wall-E as a Return to the Promise of Animation. (October 21, 2008). 5     December 2010. <http://hragvartanian.com/2008/10/21/wall-e/&gt;
Wilmington, Mike. “The Rain People – Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott.” Film Comment.     28:1 (January 1992). p. 17.

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