True Blood creator Alan Ball said that vampires are a metaphor for sex. Others have gone deeper and wider, expanding the vessel, stating that vampires represent domination, even our quest for immortality. One thing is certain: vampires have dominated pop culture for something like a decade. To suggest that reign is definitively coming to an end would be to scoff in the face of The Vampire Diaries’s prosperity and the impending slate of Underworld sequels. Still, the bounty of bloodsuckers appears to be waining a little these days, if only from creative exsanguination. Call me crazy, but I see another bipedal symbol on the horizon, all set to be filled with our ever-mutating plasma of hopes, dreams, insecurities, and phobias. Witness the rise of the robot.

A robot is an automatic mechanical device often resembling a human or animal. Modern robots are usually an electro-mechanical machine guided by a computer program or electronic circuitry. Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous and range from humanoids such as Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) and TOSY’s TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot (TOPIO) to industrial robots, collectively programmed swarm robots, and even microscopic nano robots. By mimicking a lifelike appearance or automating movements, a robot may convey a sense of intelligence or thought of its own. - Wikipedia

There have (almost) always been robots in pop culture, just as there have been vampires since long before Dracula was written in 1897. But, though it may be too dumb to actually steer, Hollywood is the elephant that shows unequivocally where the stampede is headed. A cursory glance at any movie trailer site will tell you that, for the foreseeable future, filmmakers have some robot stories they’re just dying to tell you.

Big Hero 6

The Disney kidflick is currently a big hit at the box office.


This low-profile Antonio Banderas action thriller borrows liberally from I, Robot and Blade Runner.


District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is back to give automatons the same humanizing treatment he once gave exoskeletal aliens.

Ex Machina

28 Days Later writer-director Alex Garland returns with a femme fatale in metallic skin.

Avengers 2: Age Of Ultron

James Spader may lend his voice to the titular baddie in the highly-anticipated Avengers sequel, but Ultron is Tony Stark’s worst nightmare: all suit, no body.

Vampire fiction is gothic fiction. As such, it teems with terror and romance and, ultimately, plunges its teeth easily into the pining, longing, insular young adult — and unfulfilled older adult — imagination that was so captivated by the Twilight phenomena. Robots, on the other hand, emanate from science fiction, the genre traditionally — and often overtly — preoccupied with reflecting society on a grander scale. Robots are man-made, therefore, as a narrative device, they typically represent mankind’s aspirations, if not our actual achievements. Robots are technology, progress, our legacy, our ability to emulate God and his ingenuity.

Robots begin as inanimate objects, complex tools, appliances, toasters. They rely on us to give them animus. Our favorite robots, because they are on the outside looking in, help us parse what it means to be human. Like Pinocchio or the Tin Man, they strive to be us, which means using the analytical, often superior brains we built for them to figure out exactly what we are. Look no further than the Star Trek franchise’s Lieutenant Commander Data. The flesh-and-blood people he served with on the U.S.S. Enterprise basically represented the best that humanity had to offer to the rest of the cosmos. Data possessed incredible strength, speed, and intelligence, but he had to learn compassion, empathy, humor, etc. from us.

Yes, it was a bit self-congratulatory on our part, but that is how robots are frequently utilized in fiction: To remind ourselves how we want to be and to demonstrate our imagined potential. Consider Isaac Asimov’s well-known Three Laws of Robotics — a distilled version of the Ten Commandments if ever there was one:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course, so much science fiction is about robots that do not give a high-flying fuck about any of these laws and would sooner terminate a human life than pluck a speck of dust from one red eye. Unlike vampires who are near universally portrayed as beleaguered denizens of the old world soon to past into the mythic West like Tolkien’s elves, robots are our progeny. They are the future. If we bestow it upon them, either out of benevolence or carelessness, they will have the power to proliferate. They can, as the earliest engineers speculated, build a comfortable world ahead for us. But, if left unchecked, they can be the aluminum cancer that destroys us. One of the most prominent sci-fi tropes in the last three decades — this year marks the 30th Anniversary of the The Terminator — is that our machines will not only become self-aware, but that they will decide that we are useless. Last year’s model. Worthy only of eradication.

art streiber for EW

art streiber for EW

Robots are fearsome devices in that, while they often symbolize what we could possibly accomplish, they are just as often positioned as the result of humans losing control of their ambitions. Robots are automatic weapons, nuclear proliferation, ozone depletion, tracking, Botox writ large – they are the engines of our own self-defeat. They are our mortality. Vampires just outlive you. An uppity, smart-ass robot will kill you – or worse, brain you and use you as a battery.

I’m not insisting that the latter will completely replace the former in the zeitgeist. But, in a world of such rapid technological advancement, both flagrant and inconspicuous, there is considerable, increasing concern regarding where it will all take us. Robots, from the cute and cuddly, to the cold and murderous, best symbolize our constant recalculation of where and how far we actually want to go.