A creepy child robot tells Ben Kingsley and Gillian Anderson “Robots do not lie.” Hmmm...Trust it?
Robot Overlords (2014) manages to accidentally illustrate issues in trust, deception, and the Uncanny Valley while on its mission of keeping the PG crowd entertained with a scifi movie. Perfect for STEM babysitting 8-12 year olds (assuming their dads are not high school teachers) while you watch Sexy Beast on your tablet (with headphones) so you can imagine Ben Kingsley’s foul-mouth, amoral R-rated Don Logan from that movie replacing his character in Robot Overlords. Win-win! If you are interested in more serious exploration of trust in robotics, see the 2022 Science Robotics article here.
Let's go with a summary of the movie first, then a synopsis of actual robotics research about trusting robots (and whether they should lie to us).
In Robot Overlords, robot aliens with a creepy child robot spokesperson take over the Earth in order to study it for a period of 2 years and then they will leave. As soon as the creepy child says “Robots do not lie,” you know that the robots are lying and are up to No Good. Oh, wait, just like the annoying prologue in Dune, there is one other pronouncement. In this case, in order for the nice robots to study the Earth, everyone will have to stay inside or be killed. Apparently the robots have flunked their Ph.D. qualifier in ethnographic research methods where the idea is to study people in their normal environment, not locked up.
The dubious likelihood of useful scientific results aside, the prohibition does set up a scenario in which group of acne-free teenagers and the smart younger brother tag-along sullenly violate the house arrest, resume the resistance movement which the adults had given up on, and transfer their video game skills to flying real airplanes and controlling space ships. Thanks to the little brother, the teenagers can circumvent their tracking devices, albeit in a painful manner similar to the short story, and Star Trek (the old show) episode of the same name, “Arena.” Unlike “Arena,” the protagonists are so annoying, you’re glad it hurts when they have to electrocute themselves to short circuit their trackers.
The real hero and innovator is the little brother, representing the target demographic for this movie: 8-12 year olds who wish they were sullen, acne-free teenagers and that their parents weren’t divorced. (Little do they know that can have the sullen, but not the acne-free part, by waiting a few years.) This movie is for tweens: a world in which they can earn the respect of their older siblings, save their pretty Mom, find their Dad, and never have to worry about how they get food and electricity if no one can go outside or go to actual jobs like, say, running power plants or farming.
So why are Ben Kingsley, ahem Sir Ben Kingsley, and Gillian Anderson in this movie? Sure, X-Files fans knew Gillian moved to the UK. It may take a few minutes to find her in the movie, as she dropped the red hair and is now an unremarkable blond, putting her squarely in the pantheon of other faintly familiar and interchangeable blond actresses. Maybe she did Robot Overlords because she has kids and it would be nice to be in a kids’ movie. Or maybe for the money. Whatever. You won’t find Scully’s spark and intellect in this movie’s portrayal of the average Mom, so maybe this is a sign of Anderson’s very real acting chops- she can play uninteresting people as well as captivating people.
The bigger question is what possessed Ben Kingsley, again that’s SIR Ben Kingsley to us, to be in this movie? It wasn't the plot or production values, trust me. Money? Couldn’t he do a cash run as a corporate bad guy in a non-kiddie movie, like he did in Sneakers?
Regardless of why he took the role, he’s definitely the most watchable human or robot in the movie. His character, Robin Symthe, is the ultimate traitor. A detested milquetoast high school teacher (yes, the writers went there in sucking up to the tween and teenager market), he’s now gone bipolar with power as one of the few humans who collaborate with the robots. In his role as a trusted intermediary with the robots and all the privileges that entails, he kindly intercedes to save children (and presumably puppies) from the big hulking Iron Giant style robots that show up to laser the life out of anyone found out of doors. But it isn’t bad enough to be a collaborator with the creepy robots, he commits a bigger crime: He is hitting on Gillian Anderson, the notionally widowed (notionally only, since Dad is presumed dead and by presumed dead, we mean he will be found alive and rescued at the end) mother of the lead mouthy teenager and the brilliant younger brother).
There’s a menace and desire in Sir Ben that makes his character almost, but not totally, a completely fleshed out character. You can imagine Sir Ben and Gillian doing the dirty, and Sir Ben coming up with very naughty games. Robin Symthe is like what Don Logan, the wildly amoral gangster that Sir Ben played in Sexy Beast, would be if his only career option had been to be a high school teacher in a pleasant small town in Wales that offers tax breaks to the movie industry.
But wait, where are the robots? Isn’t this a movie about robots or at least called Robot Overlords? Well, there’s not a lot of screen time devoted to robots. The title implies that the robots serve as monsters to be overcome, one of Booker’s 7 basic plots, but the movie plot is a really a quest- in this case, to get Dad and the Good Old Days back. Sure, an Iron Giant humanoid robot or a jump jet robot appears from time to time. And of course the creepy child robot shows up as needed to convey that the robots are actually studying humans by killing them and uploading their brains and experiences. But only at the denouement do we see lots of robots in the CGI chase scenes and resistance-versus-robot final showdown. (Spoiler alert: the good humans win.) Dramatically, the robots are really just props or external motivation for why Dad is gone and male high school teachers are scum.
Robot Overlords does offer a couple of teachable moments about real robots.
A particularly nice production touch is that the movie deliberately exploits the Uncanny Valley, the actual scientific term posed in 1970 for how robots get creepier the more realistic they are- unless they are perfectly realistic. The “Succession” episode of “30 Rock” has a brilliantly funny and accurate explanation of the Uncanny Valley. One of the writers brings out a copy of Mori’s original graph and explains it using examples from Star Wars movies on why a pornographic version of Grand Theft Auto might not work. Look for it on YouTube.
A big topic in human-robot interaction is trust. Seriously, who thinks robots never lie? Especially if they say they never lie? How did the inhabitants of the states of New Jersey and New York react to that, I wonder. But back in Wales, they seem to buy into it…
Robots lying is plausible. Dr. Ron Arkin at Georgia Tech is exploring ways that robots can be programmed to manipulate people into following directions or taking better care of themselves.
However, as shown by Dr. Cindy Bethel at Mississippi State, we don’t lie to robots. In her studies about reporting crimes, adults seem to treat robots as slightly stupid and literal, so the adults work hard to explain things in great detail- and in the process remember more about an incident. This could change how witnesses are interviewed, as telling what you saw to a robot may produce more, and more correct, information than telling a police officer. Kids also tell the truth to robots, intuitively understanding that the robots are not people so any prohibition on keeping secrets doesn’t really apply. What a great discovery for working with kids who may have been molested but are scared to talk!
My recommendation is to park the tween-agers on one couch in front of the TV with Robot Overlords playing, while you sit in the big stuffed chair next to them watching Sexy Beast on a tablet. Everyone wins!