Why ‘Robots’ Does Not Compute

Shailene Woodley's strained sci-fi comedy can't find satirical sweet spot

One reason the great screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s succeeded was that no matter how much aggravation the characters caused each other, they never did the same for the audience.

They didn’t annoy us with their squabbling or antics, and we didn’t dislike them despite their bad behavior. We were ready to accept them falling in love because they made us laugh.

Too bad the makers of “Robots” weren’t paying attention to that critical element.

Robots | Official Trailer | Prime Video

This dreadful attempt at a sci-fi screwball comedy gives us characters that aggravate us even more than they do each other, to the point where it’s downright uncomfortable to watch them onscreen.

They’re so unlikeable we not only can’t envision a potentially happy ending for them, but it’s even hard to accept one. As unimaginative and generic as its title (what is it with the blandness of film titles nowadays?), “Robots” is a massive misfire on every level.

It doesn’t work as comedy, romance or science fiction tale.

Science fiction writers have been thoughtfully exploring the ramifications of A.I. and automation on social and interpersonal relationships for nearly a full century, well ahead of movies and television. Now, with our creative types finally reckoning with the consequences of such technology on their own careers, the best they can apparently come up with is shallow efforts like this.

When “Blade Runner” was first released in 1982, many critics thought they were being oh-so-clever by noticing that the replicants had more depth and feeling than the human characters.

This was the whole point of the film.

More than 40 years later, the makers of “Robots” think they’re being clever in rehashing this theme.

The movie takes place 10 years in the future, a time when the titular robots (actors in stupid-looking rubber masks) have taken over most manual drudgery. Otherwise, the near future isn’t much different technologically speaking from today.

That’s just one of the film’s many failures of the imagination.

Jack Whitehall & Shailene Woodley Interview: Their Raunchy Rom-Com Robots

Rich papa’s boy Charles (a boring Jack Whitehall) illegally purchases an advanced model, having it made in his own image for selfish purposes. Since Charles is an obvious, capital-J jerk, he uses his robot proxy to seduce women who normally wouldn’t give him the time of day but are fooled by his double’s kindness.

Charles then takes his robot’s place just to do the dirty deed, promptly dumps the girl, and the cycle starts again.

Then the real Charles meets and falls in love with Elaine (Shailene Woodley). Or so he thinks; it turns out Elaine has a robot double of her own she uses to seduce lonely men and take financial advantage of them.

When the robots fall in love, complications (but not hilarity) ensue.

The problems with both the story and characters should be obvious. Charles isn’t just a womanizing creep. He’s the next step in the evolution of slime balls who use the Internet to take sexual advantage of others.

Elaine isn’t merely a gold-digger but a thief and con artist, and her scams are only slightly less immoral than that of her male counterpart.

We’ve been able to laugh at other comedic mountebanks in movies ranging from “Trouble in Paradise” to “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and even “Wedding Crashers.” This time there’s an underlying cruelty to the human characters that makes them unpleasant to watch.

We even get a scene of Charles purposely ramming a baby carriage while it still has its infant occupant inside. It could have been funny if properly played for comic exaggeration, but since Whitehall’s character is so unlikeable and the direction so incompetent, it just comes off as mean-spirited.

The script was unbelievably based on a story by Robert Sheckley, one of science fiction’s funniest writers. This isn’t the first feature-length adaptation of his work; another story of his was made into the 1966 futuristic action-comedy “The 10th Victim.”

That film was a wonderfully clever and witty commentary on then-current views on love, marriage and sex roles.

“Robots” substitutes actual wit with endless F-bombs and has the depth and insight of a Teen Vogue advice column.


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“The 10th Victim” was made with a great deal of visual flair and style; “Robots” was made in the style of a credit card commercial.

“The 10th Victim” has long enjoyed cult status, one strengthened when younger viewers realized it was a major influence on the “Austin Powers” franchise.

The minds behind “Robots” will be lucky if anyone remembers their film a year from now. Its cast will be even more fortunate if it’s forgotten before then.

FAST FACT: Humorist Tom Gerencer reached out to Sheckley in 1998 on a whim and found his AOL email address. Gerencer reached out and began an extended friendship with the celebrated scribe.

“Robots” at least has the courtesy to get its leftist sucker punches out of the way at the very beginning.

A Ron DeSantis lookalike proudly proclaims that construction has finally wrapped on a now-useless border wall, while thanking Tesla for the robots that have made illegal immigration pointless.

There was the potential for much sharper, more daring satire with “Robots.”

Charles, the slimy and unscrupulous womanizer, has a cushy job at the company owned by his smiling, white-haired father, who is so cheerfully stupid he doesn’t even notice when his own son is replaced by a robot.

Of course, he’s been able to evade the authorities and the consequences of his actions thanks to his daddy’s status and influence.

It sure sounds familiar, but the filmmakers were evidently as incurious as most Beltway reporters.

A.A. Kidd is a sessional university instructor in Canada who proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He appreciates classic movies, hard science fiction and bad puns.

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