'The Truth About Killer Robots' Brings a Daunting Message From the Future

Maxim Pozdorovkin ('Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer') delivers a fascinating but unfocused look at the threat of robots on our lives and livelihood.

HBO Documentary Films

The rise of the machines has begun. One robot has killed a man in a Volkswagen factory in Germany. Another has killed a man on a highway in Florida. A robot employed to save people from bombs has purposefully murdered a man with explosives in Dallas. Where will they strike next?

The Truth About Killer Robots assumes there will be many more deaths by robots as automation takes over in all aspects of life. This documentary is the latest to be set in the future, following in the tradition of the classic Oscar winner The War Game and the lesser-known climate change doc The Age of Stupid. While all the footage is from the present, the narration is spoken by a female computer voice from the future explaining how man succumbed to his own technology.

But the big stories presented in the film are mostly accidents, of course. The auto assembly line machine in Germany and the computer system in a self-driving Tesla in Florida were just the results of unfortunate mechanical errors. There’s not a lot of warning of artificial intelligence in The Truth About Killer Robots, unlike a similar documentary out this year called Do You Trust This Computer?. The slightly later feature, which is directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer), is also a bit calmer despite its doomsday gimmick.

The Truth About Killer Robots is not even all that focused on the likelihood of machines taking over, in spite of the narration. The film shares a series of stories on the theme of automation and how robots won’t just kill us, they’ll also take our jobs and make us physically and mentally lazy. This isn’t fresh ground for worry. Kurt Vonnegut wrote of the threat of automation in his first novel, “Player Piano,” in 1952. And it’s common sci-fi stuff now.

In a way, Pozdorovkin’s doc offers more truth about humans. Why we want and allow for the increase in robots in manufacturing, service industries, and other sectors of labor. And then why we are also concerned about what we’ve done. And there are some stories I wasn’t familiar with. Alongside the umpteenth documentary showcase for Hiroshi Ishiguro and his creepy lookalike robot are spotlights on the fully automated Henn-na Hotel near Tokyo and the pizza-making robots at Zume that sure seem like overkill.

One of the more interesting segments of The Truth About Killer Robots covers the most familiar story of the film, that of the July 2016 ambush and shooting of more than a dozen police officers in Dallas by a lone gunman. Who was ultimately eliminated in the detonation of a bomb delivered by a remote control robot. Pozdorovkin centers his take on an interview with a former member of the Dallas PD who not only disapproved of that tactic but also speaks out against the continuing divide between police and the community.

For this film’s purpose, the issue is mostly about law enforcement becoming more mechanized (not to mention militarized), further away from the human relationships they need in order to be trusted protectors and servants. Otherwise, it’s a discussion that fits The Truth About Killer Robots into recent police-focused docs like The Force and Flint Town. Also related to this discussion is a bit in the film on face-recognition systems that will eventually not just help in finding suspects but will be attached to robots trained to kill those people they identify.

Overall, The Truth About Killer Robots is thinner in its content and less focused in its thesis than I’d hoped for. Having a title like this film has and starting off with segments that play like short true crime mysteries involving machines and computers as the killers make the audience expect that to continue throughout. In all morbid honesty, I wanted to hear more about people being killed by robots. But what is there — the fun narrative device, the fascinating (and sometimes creepy) subjects, the insights from interviewees — is good enough.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.