If your robot army can be defeated accidentally by the likes of Jar Jar Binks, you have NOT crafted a strong Man Vs. Machine conflict.
Man Vs. Machine is the newest of all the types of dramatic conflict.
The Legend Of John Henry is the oldest Man Vs. Machine story I could think of. That story was born during the industrial revolution in the late 19th century.
Regardless of when the first Man Vs. Machine story was told, we know that technology is infinitely younger than Nature. Technology as we know it, the kind of technology we refer to as “mechanical” is much younger than Society.
Thus the Man Vs. Machine conflict holds tremendous potential for new story ideas and visceral drama.
Audiences instinctively understand that in the world of ‘Man Vs. Machine’ there are still realms left entirely unexplored.
It’s no wonder why Sci-Fi has gone mainstream.
When done well (T2, 2001: A Space Odessy, Alien, The Iron Giant) Man Vs. Machine can frame ancient questions in new and interesting ways.
These days, you can’t swing a set of nunchaku without hitting a mechanical foot soldier or one of Aku’s safe-for-broadcast, robotic henchmen, but rarely is the true potential of the Man Vs. Machine conflict ever fully realized.
If you or a storyteller you know is using Machines irresponsibly, please read on…
“Audiences instinctively understand that in the world of ‘Man Vs. Machine’ there are still realms left entirely unexplored.”
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How Storytellers Waste This Great Opportunity:
Before I move on, I should explain that when it comes to storytelling, “Machine” can mean any kind of soulless, technological threat.
And when the Machine is also “Man” – a person like The Iron Giant or a pseudo-person like Bishop in Aliens – things can get really interesting.
The problem is, most storytellers who are crafting stories with “machine-driven” conflict, focus too much on the machines and never explore the conflict. Or, rather, they seem to think that the Man Vs. Machine conflict gets more interesting as the number of exploding robots increases.
There are these giant, sentient robots who are stranded here on earth. They can disguise themselves as human vehicles and that’s how they hide.
The good robots protect us from the evil robots but that makes it really difficult to stay hidden. The conflict escalates to the point where the good robots have to ally themselves with a geeky kid…
So. Much. Potential.
As I resist the temptation to take cheap shots at Michael Bay, no one can deny that his Transformers franchise is a prime example of a wasted opportunity.
Michael Bay had control of a multifaceted concept that has served some of the best Man Vs. Machine stories ever. But the Transformers movies go wrong where T2 and The Iron Giant went right.
In T2 and The Iron Giant the Man Vs. Self conflict is personified by the Man Vs. Machine conflict.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the technological threat is all Machine. H.A.L. is calculating, unfeeling & myopic so we need a human character to contrast and conflict with it.
That’s interesting because the human is the one with the Man Vs. Self conflict which H.A.L. forces him to resolve by the end of the story. (SIDE NOTE: I’m not convinced that Kubrick resolved the Man Vs. Self conflict in a satisfactory or appropriate way).
The Iron Giant, however, makes a choice. “I am NOT a gun.” The primary Man Vs. Machine conflict is also the primary Man Vs. Self conflict and they resolve within the character.
Sarah Connor becomes more Terminator as The Terminator becomes more human. The Machine and the Self conflicts take place within both of those characters.
That’s why the story needs the T-1000. The T-1000 defines “Machine” within the context of the story as Arnold’s T-100 character did in the first movie.
Bay’s Transformers are neither Man nor Machine and that concept is never explored. …but there sure are a lot of robot fights.
Sure, the Transformers movies made bajillions of dollars but who will argue that the dramatic conflict in those movies is even clear, let alone cathartic?
Comics, cartoons, movies and games overflow with robot fights but robot fights alone will never make true drama. Robot fights alone are just noise and flashing lights.
I think that the Man Vs. Machine is actually the least interesting conflict type when done poorly. So how do we make it interesting?
Machines Are Like Forces Of Nature. …Only Different:
If you haven’t read my post about Man Vs. Nature, click here to read it. [Link will open in a new window so you won’t lose your place on this page.]
It’s important to understand how the Man Vs. Nature conflict is made interesting because the Man Vs. Machine conflict is made interesting in the exact same way…
The missed opportunity of the Man Vs. Nature narrative is Nature’s purging wrath. Nature’s unstoppable power can force the hero of your story to face his own death and in turn his life, his values and his past choices.
It’s easy to understand, then, why robots who exist for no other purpose than to be blown up by your hero (or by each other) …suck.
In the Man Vs. Machine conflict, as in the Man Vs. Nature conflict, the real victory for the hero is in resolving his own Man vs. Self conflict, whether your hero is literally a Man or literally a Machine.
On The Day Of Judgement:
Nature is, of course, epic. But you have to remember to make your Mechanical threats epic too. If your robot army can be defeated accidentally by the likes of Jar Jar Binks, you have NOT crafted a strong Man Vs. Machine conflict.
You also have to make your Natural and/ or Mechanical opposition completely unavoidable. Otherwise, your hero will just avoid it. …and that’s not a story.
You create drama by making the external conflict (Machine, Nature) so impossible, so punishing that it brings your hero to the absolute end of himself.
- While Sarah Connor is being chased by her technological threat, the T-1000, she is pressured more and more to face her decision: Will she remain “Man” or become an emotionless Machine like her hunter?
- The Iron Giant becomes “Man” by the love of Hogarth Hughes while those who see him as all Machine, force him to decide once and for all: Am I a gun?
- The Tin Woodman begins his journey along the Yellow Brick Road convinced that he has lost his heart and become a Machine but as he falls in love with his unlikely family, he realizes that he might need to change his paradigm.
“If your robot army can be defeated accidentally by the likes of Jar Jar Binks, you have NOT crafted a strong ‘Man Vs. Machine’ conflict.”
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Whether your hero physically lives or physically dies, he must at some point, face death. At that point he is faced with a decision:
- Die to himself, to his old ways and be reborn a new, self-sacrificial person…
- Or harden his heart, drift the way of Michael Corleone and become one of the “living dead.”
- SIDE NOTE: I’m getting off-track now, but just to clarify: Your hero might be like Forrest Gump who is so pure and self-sacrificial that it changes everyone around him (Jenny and Lieutenant Dan).
Mechanical Vs. Natural:
So if Machines and Forces Of Nature serve the same narrative purpose for your hero – to force him to resolve his own Man Vs. Self conflict – then how are they different?
- Natural entities are unavoidable and unstoppable.
- Mechanical entities are unavoidable but we believe that they can be stopped.
We believe that technological threats can be stopped because we created the technology.
We did not invent Nature. Nature, like God (or the concept of God for all you non-theists out there), came before us. It is a primal force. Regardless of our personal, theistic paradigms our instincts remind us that Nature, in one way or another, created us.
When Nature goes bad, we accept that it is more powerful than us and our only hope is to avoid it (no drama) or survive it (potential for compelling drama).
But when Machines go bad…
When Machines Go Bad, We Must Fight:
The central tension of any good Man Vs. Machine story is paranoia.
We create technology to make our lives easier but the threat of technology is that it will destroy our livelihood. We fear that Machines will replace our jobs, our creativity, our relationships.
According to The Terminator franchise, the Alien franchise, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Battestar Galactica, we harbor a collective fear that our Machines will one day become self-aware and turn against us.
So when Machines go bad, we have to fight because, after all…
We brought this upon ourselves.
Ultimately, the Man Vs. Machine conflict is the consequence of greed. Thus, it carries with it guilt, regret and often mourning.
“The central tension of any good ‘Man Vs. Machine’ story is paranoia.”
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Before I wrap up, I want to provide you with a couple of tools that you can use in your own Man Vs. Machine stories.
The Pervasive Threat:
Something that makes Battlestar Galactica so interesting is the pervasive Cylon threat. No matter what the central conflict is in any given episode of the series, there is always another layer of tension.
The Cylons are everywhere. They look like us. They’re watching. …and they are plotting our genocide.
Whenever one human character betrays another, it’s like a double-whammy. Because it doesn’t just result in hurt feelings. …it results in Cylons.
Conflicting Points Of View:
The Iron Giant reveals how important it is that you clearly communicate each character’s point of view. Hogarth sees The Giant as a person while the appropriately-named Kent Mansley sees The Giant as a technological threat. Those two entities personify the Man Vs. Self battle that is going on inside of The Giant. Hogarth sees Man. Mansley sees Machine.
Machines Are Not Always Mechanical:
In the under-rated film Gattaca the primary conflict is, as it should be, Man Vs. Self. The secondary, external conflict is Man Vs. Society and there is a strong Man Vs. Man conflict present as well. (It’s an amazing accomplishment to balance these three conflicts so well) but there is yet another Man Vs. Machine element to the story.
The story itself would never have happened if not for humanity’s own genetic tinkering. Again, guilt, regret and mourning, even paranoia infuse this amazing story. Ironically, the story feels very mythic and ancient, despite it’s futuristic setting. I attribute that feeling to the story’s depth.
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