The tragedy of RoboCop, Terminator and other AIs

We love RoboCop and Terminator 2 for their action and characters. But there’s also tragic element that makes their stories soar...

NB: The following contains spoilers for Terminator 2, Terminator Genisys and RoboCop.

Imagine you’re Detroit cop Alex Murphy. You’re an ordinary man in every respect: a loving husband and father with a home and a mortgage. But then you wake up one day and you aren’t Alex Murphy anymore. The hands you look down on are no longer your hands. Your memories have been replaced by directives.

The cinemagoers who made Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop a hit in 1987 probably weren’t expecting a film about the nature of human existence, and some may not have consciously noted its philosophical undercurrent at all. But it’s this existentialist edge that, when coupled with its searing violence and black humor, makes for such an irresistible sci-fi movie.

RoboCops opening third is like a cybernetic reworking of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis. Just as young salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to disover himself transformed into a giant insect in Kafka’s tale, so RoboCop sees law enforcer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) effectively “wake up” from an execution as an altogether different being.

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He can still think, yet he’s no longer a man. He’s conscious, but his old personality has been suppressed by the programming imposed by his creator, the Omni Corporation. Clad in his suit, which is at once armor and a form of life support, he’s cut off from the functions of an ordinary human being: he “sleeps” in a special throne of wires and sockets, his diet appears to consist exclusively of baby food. 

RoboCop’s loss of humanity is underlined by his dislocation from his wife and children – he never sees them again, except in his fleeting memories – and through the platonic relationship with his old partner Anne Lewis. In a diversion from usual ’80s cop fare – see Michael Crichton’s 1984 genre film, Runaway – it’s never suggested that RoboCop will have a romantic relationship with Lewis – something Verhoeven says he deliberately wanted to highlight.

RoboCop therefore has an inherently tragic element at the core of its story: Murphy was once human, but has become something else. To paraphrase Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (a story which also takes its inspiration from Kafka), “I’m a machine who dreamt he was a man and loved it, but now the dream is over, and the machine is awake.”

At the film’s conclusion, RoboCop succeeds in overriding his programming and rediscovering the old Murphy within. But even here, there’s a note of poignance: his body is still encased in metal. 

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron created a similarly tragic story which runs counter to RoboCops. In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role as the T-800 cyborg from the 1984 breakout hit, The Terminator. This time, Schwarzenegger’s killing machine is reprogrammed to protect human life rather than destroy it. Through his contact with the teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong) he begins to understand the value of human life, and what makes people fundamentally different from machines.

“I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do,” is perhaps the film’s key line, and cuts to the core of Terminator 2s emotional impact: here’s a machine that has begun to understand what it means to be a human, and expressing, with a hint of regret, its own limitations. The T-800’s understanding and emulation of what makes a human can only take it so far. 

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This summer’s Terminator: Genisys aimed for a similar note of pathos but flew wide of the mark. “Take care of my Sarah,” says Schwarzenegger’s now quite haggard T-800 near the end of Alan Taylor’s action sequel. But the line doesn’t work, because the Terminator in Genisys doesn’t have the same voyage of discovery as the one in T2. We don’t see the transformation from soulless killer to protector with a hint of humanity. The arc in Genisys is that the T-800 is a disapproving father figure who has to learn to trust Kyle Reese – hardly a compelling character transformation by any yardstick.

But there’s another element to these films: the tragedy many AIs face is the same as our own. In Blade Runner, the most moving scenes are about memories and mortality – the realisation that the experiences we’ve stored up over an entire lifetime will one day disappear for ever. It’s revealed to Rachel (Sean Young) that her childhood memories are not her own; she’s not a woman, but a machine made to look like a woman.

Roy Batty’s burden, meanwhile, is living a human life on fast-forward: like us, he’s a finite being. The difficulty the replicants face is that they’ve been built to last only a few short years; unlike an ordinary human, a replicant doesn’t have decades of life to absorb the realisation that death is inevitable. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Batty’s reaction to his impending fate is at first so angry and childlike – at the age when most kids are coming to grips with the meaning of death, he’s already facing the end.

In AMC’s Humans, we see its alternate-present Synths trying to come to grips with what it means to be a conscious, each in their own way. Former pleasure robot Niska (Emily Berrington) has been programmed to feel pain and experience emotion, and she’s struggling to deal with unfamiliar feelings and impulses: trauma, disrust, anger. She’s learned to survive but she hasn’t yet learned empathy – that’s something Dr Millican (William Hurt) subtly teaches her by demonstrating that not all humans (particularly the male of the species) are violent and abusive. 

RoboCop, The Terminator, Humans – all of these stories can be traced right back to Frankenstein, a story in which a scientist essentially creates his own artificial lifeform out of purloined body parts. The curse of Frankenstein’s monster is that he can think and feel like a man, but doesn’t have a man’s status or – as the book half implies – his soul. Angered by his place in the universe, the monster becomes like Caliban, raging at what fate has made him; “You taught me language and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”

The whole notion of the artificial being, or automata, was a particular obsession of the Enlightenment era. The 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, famous for his phrase, “I think therefore I am” was fascinated with automata. There’s an oft-told story that, when Descartes’ daughter Francine died at a tragically young age, he had a life size mechanical version of her built, which he also called Francine.

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On a boat trip to Sweden in 1649, Descartes apparently told the ship’s sailors that he was travelling with his daughter, who would remain in her cabin and shouldn’t be disturbed. When a storm broke out, the sailors rushed into Descartes’ quarters and discovered the Francine automata, which promptly sat up and looked at them. The sailors were so terrified that they threw the automata overboard.

Our fear and fascination with automata and robots is, therefore, nothing new: a clear line can be drawn from the sci-fi stories of the present, back through Frankenstein, to the philosophy of Descartes, and back yet further to ancient myth.

Through these stories, we can wrestle with the questions surrounding our own existence. In a sense, we’re all like RoboCop or the T-800, trapped in our own biological machines which will sometimes malfunction or behave in ways we can’t predict or understand. It’s the old Cartesian mind-body schism thing: what is consciousness, and what happens to it when our body fails?

These stories also let us work through the fundamental tragedy of what being human means: we are mortal, finite. We were born, and some day we will die. Our knowledge of our finite nature is what makes us unique on this planet, but it’s also what makes us all tragic beings like RoboCop, each in our own way.