A Fighting Machine Fights Back

The Iron Giant

Clanking tin-pot robots go back in the cinema at least as far as the '30s, and they've been befriending little boys ever since the '50s, in movies like Tobor the Great, The Invisible Boy, and The Colossus of New York. It's a classic daydream of American boyhood: On an episode of the TV sci-fi comedy Futurama, a robot asks the hero if he'd want a robot for a friend, and the hero says he has wanted one since he was about seven years old.

Robots have also been developing their own feelings and desires quite literally for as long as the term robot has existed. (The word, which derives from the Czech robota, or "forced labor," was coined by dramatist Karel Capek for his 1921 play R.U.R., a story of a futuristic class of artificial workers seeking the right to self-determination.) In The Iron Giant, the title character realizes he was intended as a fighting machine -- "a gun," in his vocabulary -- and through Hogarth's humanizing influence he decides he doesn't want to be a gun. Bird and McCanlies have adapted the material in the best sense; they use the American idea that you can choose to be whatever you want as the moral of the story.

Stanley Kubrick, much on everyone's mind these days, gave a computer an independent humanity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the machine promptly turned into a murderer. Bird's Giant might be called the anti-HAL. Reputedly the project with which Kubrick hoped to follow Eyes Wide Shut was called A.I. -- short for "Artificial Intelligence" -- and was about the relationship between a robot and a boy. It's pleasant to speculate that, just maybe, Kubrick's pessimism might have lifted over the years, and that this unrealized movie might have had some of the same spirit as The Iron Giant.

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