At the start of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the young poet and hero of the opera, Hoffmann, is smitten with a young woman named Olympia – only to have his illusions shattered upon realising that his love interest is in fact an automaton created by his nemesis Coppelius.
As far-fetched as this sounds, there is a rich history of fictional characters falling in love with statues, robots and other inanimate objects. Here are 8 such cases, beginning with the poem that started it all.
1. Pygmalion (8 AD)
In Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved such a fair and realistic woman out of ivory that he fell in love with it. Ovid’s tale is the first describing a relationship between a person and an object, and as such has inspired countless generations of writers and has been widely transmitted and re-used in the arts through the centuries.
2. Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s silent science-fiction epic features a robotic doppelganger of Maria, our hero’s love interest. The android is created by the evil master of Metropolis to beguile the city’s workers with her beauty and lead them towards their doom. Brigitte Helm is well remembered for a performance as Maria and her robot double, but it is the striking design of the fleshless android that became the iconic image of the film.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s neo-noir is set in a dystopian 2019 Los Angeles, where bioengineered ‘replicants’ are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a retired police officer who might or might not be a replicant. His relationship with the android Rachel (Sean Young) provides the moral crux of the movie and asks us to question what it is to be human.
4. Weird Science (1985)
John Hughes’ cult classic follows two hapless high school nerds who hack into the government’s computer network in order to create their perfect woman. While our heroes originally use their home-made supermodel to gain the respect of the school bullies, their relationship with Lisa changes over the course of the film and ultimately teaches the pair the importance of self-respect.
5. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
The opening instalment in Mike Myers’ spy spoof trilogy saw Doctor Evil send seven blonde Fembots to seduce the film’s hero Austin Powers, before killing him with their breast cannons. Powerless to resist them, Austin performs a striptease, tipping the Fembots over their “sex limit” and making their heads explode. Liz Hurley and Britney Spears featured as fembots in the sequels.
6. Her (2013)
Joaquin Phoenix is the brilliantly named Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romcom: a lonely writer who falls in love with Samantha, a hyper-intelligent computer operating system personified through a Siri-like female voice. Romance blossoms, leaving the audience slightly disquieted by our love of gadgets.
7. Ex Machina (2015)
Young coder Caleb Smith wins a week’s holiday at his reclusive boss’ mountain retreat – only to find he must participate in a strange experiment by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking new breed of artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robot named Ava. Caleb and Ava grow closer, but does the AI have further motives for seducing him?
8. Humans (2015)
Based on the award-winning Swedish science fiction drama Real Humans, Channel 4’s sci-fi series is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for a busy family is a Synth – a life-like android. The drama centres around the Hawkins family: Joe’s decision to buy domestic synth Anita puts him at odds with his wife Laura, who feels replaced by the unthinking and unfeeling robot.
9. Did we miss anything?
In all of the examples in this list the role of creator is performed by a man, while women are more often than not mere representations of men’s fantasies and desires. Do you know of any examples in cinema, or literature, where the relationship is reversed? If so, add a comment below or on Twitter @etopera.
ETO’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann opens at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Friday 9 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/the-tales-of-hoffmann