November 13, 2004

The Uncanny Valley, or why POLAR EXPRESS is so creepy

The holiday movie race is ON! with THE INCREDIBLES opening last Friday and THE POLAR EXPRESS opening today. Both are CGI films supposedly aimed at the kiddlies. But one is a marvelous romp, the other, frankly, scares the shit out of The Beat. While the POLAR EXPRESS trailer is supposed to fill tots with joyful feelings of glee and awe and meeting Santa, the actual result of these not-quite-humans is more likely to be a deep sense of insecurity and fear. Take it from The Beat : the beds of American children are going to be soaked with anxiety pee after watching a creepy digital Tom Hanks shout “All aboard!!!” and wave his arms for a couple of hours. (The film was made with extensive mocap technology…essentially Gollum gone horribly wrong.)

Why is this? Well, it turns out there’s a whole theory to explain the effect of not-quite-humans on quite human psyches. It’s called “The Uncanny Valley” theory:


Japanese roboticist Doctor Masahiro Mori is not exactly a household name — but, for the speculative fiction community at least, he could prove to be an important one. The reason why can be summed up in a simple, strangely elegant phrase that translates into English as “the uncanny valley.”
Though originally intended to provide an insight into human psychological reaction to robotic design, the concept expressed by this phrase is equally applicable to interactions with nearly any nonhuman entity. Stated simply, the idea is that if one were to plot emotional response against similarity to human appearance and movement, the curve is not a sure, steady upward trend. Instead, there is a peak shortly before one reaches a completely human “look” … but then a deep chasm plunges below neutrality into a strongly negative response before rebounding to a second peak where resemblance to humanity is complete.

Blogger Robot Johnny explores this a bit vis a vis THE INCREDIBLES (and provides the chart which The Beat has stolen). Musician Momus has also written a fascinating look at the phenomenon in terms of Pixar and robots and so on. Well worth a click.

Anyway, without getting too deep, this explains why you want to give Ichabod Crane, Bob Parr and C-3PO a hug, but when you see THE POLAR EXPRESS coming at you, you just want to run away screaming. The Beat wants nothing to do with these children of the digital damned! This is supposed to be lovable? They should have just given in and made a movie called “Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Horror”starring Tom Hanks instead.