Enthiran (2010): Singing and Dancing Through the Uncanny Valley
Robots: Humanoids, both androids and more mechanical-looking service robots
What it gets right about robotics: the Uncanny Valley and schemas. Unlike HBO's Westworld, it does make the mistake of assuming emotions or something that can be added later.
Recommended watching: Watch Enthiran with the entire family and share the movie’s cheerful Bollywood musical romance optimism. Or with a group of fellow students so you can root for the put-upon lab assistants.
Enthiran, which means “robot” in Hindi, is a lightweight confection of a robot movie that follows the Bollywood convention of musical romances (although to be precise, the movie was made in Tamil not Bombay). I had heard about Enthiran for a few years from my Indian students. Whenever I present science fiction stories in my robotics class, I ask if the students know of any other books, stories, or movies that I should include. Enthiran is always the answer from the Indian students who were sad that I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. It was the top grossing Indian movie in 2010, which sounded impressive, but I couldn’t find an English version until recently when Amazon added it to its library.
The plot is a mashup of two tropes. One is the “my best friend’s girl” trope where the robot, named Chitti, falls in love with its creator’s girlfriend. The other is the “evil scientist turns a good robot into a bad robot” trope seen in Runaway (with Gene Simmons from Kiss as the evil scientist) and in Chappie (but substituting a group of South African punk rockers for the evil scientist). In Enthiran, Chitti does not get the girl in the end but winds up in a science museum. Could this be robot heaven? It’s a thought to ponder…
The movie is loaded with campy jokes, heavy-handed direction, and over-the-top cheesy special effects that would normally sink a movie. For example, Chitti is bit jowly and pudgy, not the more common lean, mean fighting machine. This odd look is because the robot, and the robot’s creator, is played by a famous middle-aged Tamil actor rather than a younger hottie. You know how Russell Crowe has put on some weight since his Gladiator days? Now imagine older, heavier Russell Crowe with lots of makeup, wigs, and loose fitting suits playing younger SID 6.7 in Virtuosity. No, no, no, the point here is not to fat shame Russell Crowe, who could so pull off a mature-figured SID; the point is that the look and feel of the movie has a kind of internal logic and genial sincerity that somehow works.
One surprising aspect of Enthiran is that it uses the Uncanny Valley to good effect. The Uncanny Valley was described by a Japanese researcher Masahiro Mori in 1970 to explain the dip in comfort/warm fuzziness that you get when a robot becomes realistic but is off somehow. This figure is clever version of the plot Mori published.
Mori proposed a graph to capture the following: A robot that looks like WALL-E and moves like an industrial manipulator is fine but a robot that looks like a person but doesn’t quite look like a person or moves and talks almost like a person- but not quite- is creepy. There is a cognitive dissonance that is unsettling. The child robot that I talk about in my Robot Overlords review had a slightly too big head and didn’t blink- it was creepy and no one would have trusted it. If you fake a human with a robot (or CGI) and don’t get the right balance between what the robot can do and how it looks, the results are creepy (yes, that was the word Mori used, much to distress of scientific journals who want a more objective term). The absolute best, most accurate explanation of the Uncanny Valley is the hysterically funny bit in the Succession episode of 30 Rock where one of the writers uses Mori’s diagram to explain to Tracy Morgan why a pornographic version of Grand Theft Auto was unlikely to succeed on its merits. Really nice slam on The Polar Express and a clever tie into Amadeus. Search for it on YouTube, NBC keeps taking it down but like whack-a-mole it pops back up.
In Enthiran, the slightly out of proportion skeletal versions of the good and evil robots exploits the Uncanny Valley. The Chitti skeleton, before it is covered with a latex body sporting about 30 extra pounds, initially gives an uncomfortable dissonance between intelligence and movement, especially as it slaps the human lab assistants around. It is mechanical but it is acting like a human. The disconnect between the robot’s physicality and its capabilities are not bad special effects but rather visual plot device. We don’t know if Chitti is going to be a good robot or a bad robot. But as the robot’s movements become more fluid and the same skeleton transforms into a dancer and martial arts specialist, the cognitive dissonance dissipates and the unease with it. On the other hand, the disproportions of the evil, glowering military robots and their slightly out-of-synch movements shout “creepy!” at every turn.
Enthiran gets points for name-dropping the word “schema” but then loses said points by throwing in a plot devices where the scientist adds emotions to the robot. Schemas are a knowledge structure used by psychologists and AI researchers to model behaviors. For example, a toad has a feeding behavior where its visual neurons are sensitive to small, dark moving blobs. A blob causes the toad to turn and snap its tongue out. The small, dark moving blog normally corresponds to flies (but it can be objects dangled by grad students because the visual system in toads really isn’t sophisticated). This snap at small, dark moving blobs is the feeding schema- literally a scheme or template that gets tailored based on the immediate stimulus (which way to turn, how far to stick out the tongue, etc.). So it was reasonable that Chitti would be programmed with schemas. However, emotions would have been hard to add without a complete rewrite. Emotions have been examined and replicated in AI since the 1990s. In psychology and biology, emotions are basic and they regulate schemas. That’s why they are so hard to overcome, emotions start at the older, more primitive parts of the central nervous system- that whole fear thing. Chitti’s entire behavioral coordination system would have to have been replaced in order to retrofit it for emotions.
Regardless of nitpicking, you have to love a movie where the songs are all about robots bringing change and offering the possibility of making the world a better place. Share the movie’s bright optimism and watch Enthiran with the family. Or with a group of fellow students so you can root for the put-upon lab assistants.
For the audio review of 'Enthiran', simply click below...