I saw The Gold Rush, a silent Charlie Chaplin film, and Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s last movie (and a talkie) at the same art museum. So it was with great interest that I rented WALL-E, due to hype that the first 45 minutes are Chaplinesque.
WALL-E did not disappoint in that regard. It was all-around excellent, with physical comedy, cockroaches, love, loss and eco-responsibility, plus Fred Willard. However, I got a strange feeling, a sensation of disquiet and unease at WALL-E’s love interest EVE. It was puzzling. EVE is sleek, functional, and business-like. She sports a blaster that can destroy oil tankers. But none of that should lead to the low-level nameless dread I felt on seeing her.
Then EVE’s head swiveled around 180 degrees like an owl and all my fears fell into place. EVE floats, EVE has a destructive side, and EVE does not speak.
The head-swivel gave my dread a name: Maximilian.
Maximilian is the heavy from Disney’s 1979 movie The Black Hole, for those who don't know due to youth or judicious avoidance of 70s sci-fi movies. The movie commits grave errors, but Maximilian glows like a terrible beacon in the midst of it.
Here's a neat trailer.
Some stage-setting: The crew of a starship is drawn off course by a black hole, where they discover a lost starship under the command of Dr. Reinhardt, and manned solely by robots after the original human crew abandoned ship. Reinhardt kept the ship going so he could study the black hole. He created the terrifying Maximilian to assist him.
From the start it is clear there is something wrong with Maximilian. It packs blasters, twin rotating blades, and electrical paddles. It does not speak. A telling detail is that some of the robots can. Maximilian takes no guff from the visitors. If Maximilian has a “taking guff” setting, it is dialed down to zero, maybe negative one.
When the crew enters the bridge, Maximilian simply turns (his head first, owl-like), and then extends the blades, apparently with the intention of killing everyone outright.
To the calloused movie-viewer, Maximilian is a transparent attempt to scare little kids in the audience (mission accomplished, jerks). But to the sci-fi fan hell-bent on finding deeper meanings, hidden messages abound. Messages as plain as the non-existent nose on Maximilian’s non-existent face.
Reinhardt seems normal if eccentric, an understandable profile given he’s been by himself for twenty years. But Reinhardt’s only normal because he poured all of his insanity into Maximilian. It is a direct product of his madness.
Maximilian is the Nazgul of robots, a brutal enforcer of someone's will to power: its presence, its modus operandi, its form are representations of the mad portion of Reinhardt’s mad-scientist personality, as the psycho-circus ending of the movie makes clear.
Hektor from Saturn 3
As EVE reminds me of Maximilian, Maximilian reminds me of Hector, the most distasteful robot ever.
Here's a trailer.
The Terminator kills you because that’s what code line 58342 tells it to, and Maximilian kills you and enjoys it. Hector kills you, enjoys it, feels horrid confusion and remorse, then mashes your corpse into putty trying to get you to work again, then wears your spine as a necklace while it makes a dress out of your skin.
In 1980's Saturn 3, Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas are Adam and Alex, scientists on a space station farm, Saturn 3. Their semi-annual shipment of supplies includes a robot to supervise the other station robots. However, Hector has to be trained how to move and think. The problem is the pilot who has to train him is Benson, played by Harvey Keitel, voice-dubbed by Roy Dotrice. He's a blatant sociopath. This creates problems.
. Both robots serve as a holding ground for base impulses. Maximilian was created to be Reinhardt’s enforcer, but Hector’s purpose is more benign. Circumstances force it to become murderous. Captain Benson doesn’t intend for Hector to be bad; Benson doesn’t regard himself as bad. That is the nature of the sociopath.
What Benson wants is trivial and crucial. Though He can hide from Adam and Alex his base impulses (murder Adam and turn Saturn 3 into a sexotopia with Alex whether she likes it or not). But he can't not think them. These thoughts get transferred to the blank slate, Hector.
This is where things get Silence of the Lambs creepy. The situation deteriorates when Hector kills Adam and Alex's dog. Some argue that Hector believes the dog is food, but Hector can’t eat the dog because he has no mouth.
I argue that killing the dog is a crude experiment. How do normal people react to killing? Alex doesn’t react with the cold calculation of Benson. Hector is corrupted, not bad. It notices all other humans are not like Benson. Hector hates its abuser, but fears its abuser’s rivals more.
Early on, before the wearing of peoples’ heads like a chapeau, Hector works fine. It is clear that Hector is expected to speak, but it chooses not to. The scene with Captain Benson talking and Hector answering via typing is revealing.
Hector knows Benson is a murderer, and not qualified to educate it, but it's too naive to realize what that means. Benson does not say murdering the other pilot is a mistake, he claims that not blocking his thoughts is the mistake. Classic sociopath.
Benson tells Hector to erase its memory. Can Hector do that? The answer frames the dog scene.
If Hector cannot, then it goes into and leaves the conversation suspecting that its handler is not to be trusted and the dog scene becomes an experiment / trap.
If it can erase its memories, Hector goes into the conversation suspecting its handler/trainer is not normal, not qualified, and not to be trusted, but it comes out of it only knowing that it really dislikes Benson, really wants to eat that dog and bang that woman. But it can’t do that with Benson and Adam around.
The lack of speech is the only hint Alex and Adam have that something is amiss, and the movie takes on a tragic element. Alex and Adam only realize what happened after Hector the abused child becomes the abuser. The only thing Hector has learned about how to cope with rivals is to kill them or reprogram them.
Captain Benson may not have started off bad. It’s a late 70s movie, so there are a lot of drugs. Benson's space pilot drugs may have led him to fail the psych test necessary to train Hector. The good drugs offer a “3D inner-experience”. So during his stay at Saturn 3 he’s probably had the inner experience of killing Adam and having his way with Alex. That's what gets transferred to Hector.
The unrelenting unfairness of it all is summed up by Adam prior to detonating the suicide bomb to destroy Hector: “It’s not your fault, Hector. It’s not Benson’s. It’s everybody’s fault.”
Reinhardt created a world after his own heart. His madness can be expressed this way: "I care about studying the black hole more than I care about my fellow crewmembers, so I shall force them to help me. I will use and expand the squad of police bots and when that fails, I will lobotimize the crew, and to do that I’ll need something more powerful than police bots and S.T.A.R., so I will create Maximilian."
It is ironic that the elevation of the study of the black hole over the human crew is internalized by Maximilian to such a degree that creator Reinhardt becomes expendable toward that goal.
Benson’s looks like this: "I am normal. The rest are against me. I shall prove my normality by killing my enemy and taking the robot to Saturn 3 where I will train the robot as required. When they come to get me I will not be a villain, but a hero. The drugged-out-fornicatopia will be the first of many perks."
Is there a moral? Sociopaths Ruin Everything is the take-home message.
We needed and still need science fiction to tell us that. The statement that a portion of the population’s moral sphere enshrouds only themselves is just the kind of subject you can only bring up in polite conversation if you apply the window dressing of science fiction first.
It helps if that window dressing is a terrifying robot.