This week marks the otherwise unsung 50th anniversary of the absolutely terrible film Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino, or Wrestling Women versus the Robot Assassin. I know I have to finish Idiocracy, but I wanted to pause to share this with you here on its anniversary. It’s a Mexican B-movie from 1969, it has an AI of sorts, and it is brain-explodingly bad with a handful of simple, evil interfaces to review.
Release Date: 9 January 1969 (USA)
The mad scientist Dr. Orlak has created a robot assassin, which he programs to punch through cheaply constructed set walls and capture scientists to enact his nefarious world domination plan.
To specify a target for assassination or kidnapping, Orlak (or a henchman) inserts a specially designed card into a slot built into the robot’s chest, right at its heart. One of those cards is below.
The layout of the card puts the victim’s picture on the left; a node-graph diagram that looks like a constellation diagram, and some inscrutable symbols on the right. The characters discuss that this card contains a cardiogram of the victim, but it’s unclear which part of the card has this information, because they usually look something like this:
Oh, it’s probably worth mentioning that one of the movie’s givens is that a cardiogram can uniquely identify a person, like a thumbprint (which isn’t as provably unique as popular culture would have us believe). But to use a cardiogram to locate a person without a ubiquitous sensing network (unthinkable in 1969) would require a very high resolution cardiogram, a wall-piercing sensors, and some shockingly advanced pattern matching on the part of the robot, and I’m not sure I’m willing to give this film that much credit.
Presuming that there are lots of technical reasons for the stuff on the right, and the robot needs the profile for visual recognition, I imagine the only thing missing is a human-readable name so these are easy for the henchmen and scientists to discuss amongst themselves. I mean, they might happen to know every single scientist in town by sight, but having the name would avoid possible misidentifications. The design of artifacts have to take into account all common scenarios of use, including production, maintenance, and storage.
Speaking of which, it’s unclear how these cards are produced. They seem like they take a lot of expert effort to produce and fabricate. Let’s give the film credit to say that this is a deliberate attempt by the enslaved scientists to…
Make something as irrevocable as a death sentence very difficult to order.
Ensure an order to the murderous robot takes time, and thereby give time to let passions subside and orders to be rescinded.
Serve as a bailiwick of sorts, being too difficult for a layperson to do, and thereby difficult to turn on its masters.
Let’s cut to the chase. Las Luchadoras is a wholesale rip-off of Cybernauts, from the 1961–1969 British TV series The Avengers, specifically the episode “Return of the Cybernauts” from 1967. Thanks to readers Xavier Mouton-Dubosc @dascritch and Roger Long @evil_potato for drawing my attention to the complete ripoffery.
Bad robot is silver-faced, wears a black trench coat, does not speak, wears black sunglasses, and a black hat.
Bad robot is given instructions via a graphically-designed card inserted into a machine slot.
Bad robot smashes through walls to gain access to victims who stand there in horror rather than, say, running from the slow-walking golem.
When bad robot kills, it does so with karate chops.
Bad human captures scientists and forces them to provide engineering specs to fulfill his evil ambitions.
Bad human forces scientists to build a wrist-wearable mind-control device, for use on Team Good. (One’s a bracelet. The other is a watch.) The main target for mind-control is a woman.
Bad human has plans to use the mind-controlled person to fight the rest of Team Good.
The day is saved (spoiler? I guess?) by pulling the mind-control device from the victim and putting it on the robot, which instead of granting the bad human more control of the robot, causes it to go berserk.
It’s like René Cardona saw “Return of the Cybernauts” on TV, loved it, and thought there is only one thing that could make this better: Lady. Wrestlers. So he added luchadoras and hoped BBC Four wouldn’t notice. He just wanted to make the world better, y’all.
If you think I’m exaggerating, here are a few side by side shots.
The main differences from the technology point of view is that in “The Cybernauts” (the first episode from The Avengers to feature the robots, when the series was still shot in black and white), the robots didn’t track their victims by heartbeat. The robots followed a radio signal emitted from a pen that was gifted to the victim. In “The Return of the Cybernauts,” they’d gotten an upgrade, and did their tracking via sensors that were all on board.
Additionally, in The Avengers, the victim card is inserted into an angled control panel attached to a wall-sized computer. In Luchadoras, the card is inserted into a slot built into the Robot Asesino. (The next post.) Otherwise, the steps of interaction are the same.
Which brings us to the Victim Cards
Behold them, side-by-side.
It’s easier to tally the differences than the similarities, because they are quite alike.
Avengers’ cards are affixed to transparent plastic. Luchadoras’ cards are a thick paper.
Avengers’ has its elements separated by light blue rule lines. Luchadoras’ has no borders.
Avengers’ has a numeric unique identifier in the lower left.
Avengers’ top graphic looks like black computer-readable shapes on a white background. (Though it was almost certainly graphic tape.) Luchadoras’ looks like a white star chart on a red background.
Avengers’ middle graphic is clearly a cardiogram (even if cardiograms are continuous not plotted points). Luchadoras’ is hard to read because of the crappy transfer, but nothing like a cardiogram.
Avengers’ lower graphic looks something like white braille pips on a red background. Luchadoras’ is weird white glyphs on a black background.
So…Who did it better?
Let’s not use the low resolution of this transfer against Luchadores. And we won’t use the lack of trippy face-stabilizing algorithms in the transfer of The Avengers against it.
The bits on The Avengers’ card are clearly pasted there. The corners are curling up! But the plastic card feels solid and monumental. Luchadoras’ card seems like it was printed the way we see it! Using a color printer today, this would be a no big deal. But back in 1969 this was quite an achievement. Luchadoras wins.
Avengers top graphic is perfect. Like an early version of OCR. It’s very convincingly an instruction for a computer: precise and high contrast. Sadly the cardiogram is a little off, since even if it was plotted points, those points would be evenly spaced, and having the irregular plots on graph paper only highlights the unevenness. The braille-like bits at the bottom are, again, very convincingly an instruction for a 1960s computer to easily read.
Luchadores’ is just…nonsensical. A star chart? Hieroglyphs? “Cardiogram” lines that go backwards and cross back over themselves?
Avengers wins, leaving us with a need for a tie-breaker.
This is the main measure, and I’m just being coy for leaving it to the last. The purpose of the card is for henchmen and bad guys to provide programs for a robot assassin.Luchadoras’ space-filling layout and production quality make it look more in-line with modern design sensibilities on the surface, the actual content of those graphics are just 4th-wall-destroyingly awful.
Plus, since, the Avengers’ has the unique ID that makes it easy to for the humans to talk about with each other,…
“Get me the Peel card!” “Uh, which is that?” “The only person presenting as a woman?” “Wut?” “1252.” “Oh, Hahaha. Got it.
If you’re going to copy, Luchadoras, seek to deeply understand the thing you’re copying first.
For more Who Did it Better, see the tag. Right now there’s only the fingernail-o-matics from The Fifth Element and Total Recall, but I’ll tag future things with that same tag.
To provide the Victim Cards to the Robot Asesino, Orlak inserts it into an open slot in the robot’s chest, which then illuminates, confirming that the instructions have been received.
There is, I must admit, a sort of lovely, morbid poetry to a cardiogram being inserted into a slot where the robot heart would be to give the robot instructions to end the beating of the human heart described in the cardiogram. And we don’t see a lot of poetry in sci-fi interface designs. So, props for that.
The illumination is a nice bit of feedback, but I think it could convey the information in more useful and cinegenic ways.
In this new scenario…
Orlak has the robot pull back its coat
The chamfered slot is illuminated, signaling “card goes here.”
As Orlak inserts the target card, the slot light dims as the chest-cavity light brightens, signaling “I have the card.”
After a moment, the chest-cavity light turns blood red, signaling confirmation of the victim and the new dastardly mission.
When the robot returns to Orlak after completing a mission, the red light would dim as the slot light illuminates again, signaling that it is ready for its next mission.
These changes improve the interface by first drawing the user’s locus of attention exactly where it needs to go, and then distinguishing the internal system states as they happen. It would also work for the audience, who understands by association that red means danger.
The shape of the slot is pretty good for its base usability. It has clear affordances with its placement, orientation, and metallic lining. There’s plenty of room to insert the target card. It might benefit from a fillet or chamfer for the slot, to help avoid accidentally crumpling the paper cards when they are aimed poorly.
In addition to the tactical questions of illumination and shape of the slot, I have a few strategic questions.
There is no authorization in evidence. Can just anyone specify a target? Why doesn’t Gaby use her luchadora powers to Spin-A-Roonie a target card with Orlak’s face on it and let the robot save the day? Maybe the robot has a whitelist of heartbeats, and would fight to resist anyone else, but that’s just me making stuff up.
Also I’m not sure why the card stays in the robot. That leaves a discoverable paper trail of its crimes, perfect for a Scooby to hand over to the federales. Maybe the robot has some incinerator or shredder inside? If not, it would be better from Orlak’s perspective to design it as an insert-and-hold slot, which would in turn require a redesign of the card to have some obvious spot to hold it, and a bump-in on the slot to make way for fingers. Then he could remove the incriminating evidence and destroy it himself and not worry whether the robot’s paper shredder was working or not.
Another problem is that, since the robot doesn’t talk, it would be difficult to find out who its current target is at any given time. Since anyone can supply a target, Orlak can’t just rely on his memory to be certain. If the card was going to stay inside, it would be better to have it displayed so it’s easy to check.
How would Orlak cancel a target?
It is unclear how Orlak specifies whether the target is to be kidnapped or killed even though some are kidnapped and some are killed.
It’s also unclear about how Orlak might rescind or change an order once given.
It is also unclear how the assassin finds its target. Does it have internal maps with addresses? Or does it have unbelievably good hearing that can listen to every sound nearby, isolate the particular heartbeat in question, and just head in that direction, destroying any walls it encounters? Or can it reasonably navigate human cities and interiors to maintain its disguise? Because that would be some amazing technology for 1969. This last is admittedly not an interface question, but a backworlding question for believability.
So there’s a lot missing from the interface.
It’s the robot assassin designer’s job to not just tick a box to tell themselves that they have provided feedback, but to push through the scenarios of use to understand in detail how to convey to the evil scientist what’s happening with his murderous intent.
The control token in Las Luchadras is a bracelet that slaps on and instantly renders its wearer an automaton, subject to the remote control.
Here’s something to note about this speculative technology. Orlak could have sold this, just this, to law enforcement around the world and made himself a very rich and powerful person. But the movie makes clear he is a mad engineer, not a mad businessperson, so we have to move on.
From Orlak’s point of view, getting the bracelet on its victim should be very easy. Fortunately, it does just that. Orlak can slap it on in a flick. But it’s also trivially easy for a bystander to remove, which seems like…a design oversight. It should work more like a handcuff, that requires a key to remove. It can’t look like a handcuff, of course, since Orlak wants it to go unnoticed. But in addition to the security, the handcuff function would enable the device to fit wrists of many sizes. As it is, it appears to be tailor-made to an individual.
As the diagram illustrates, not all wrists are made the same, and it would not help Orlak to have to carry around a sizing set when he hasn’t had time to secretly get the victim’s measurements.
Lastly, the audience might have benefited from seeing some visual connection between the bracelet and the remote, like a shared material that had an unusual color or glow, but Orlak would not want this connection since it could help someone identify him as the controller.
Once a victim is wearing a Trivium Bracelet, any of Orlak’s henchmen can control the wearer’s actions. The victim’s expression is blank, suggesting that their consciousness is either comatose, twilit, or in some sort of locked in state. Their actions are controlled via a handheld remote control.
We see the remote control in use in four places in Las Luchadoras vs El Robot Asesino.
One gets clapped on Dr. Chavez to test it.
One goes on Gemma to demonstrate it.
One is removed from the robot.
One goes on Berthe to transform her to Black Electra.
By any short description of its plot, this film should be amazing and meta. Like Kung Fury or Galaxy Lords, but, let’s be frank, it is so not that. Someone at Netflix should produce a reboot and it would probably be amazing. No, instead, this film has an actor in a robotic Truman Capote getup smashing through dozens of cardboard sets and flailing vaguely in the direction of characters who dutifully scream and drop from the non-contact karate chop.
It is a pathetic paean to its source material, the much more well-done Cybernauts from The Avengers, (the British one with younger Olenna, not the Marvel one with the cosmic purple snap crackle and pop.)
Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
The mission slot has some nice affordances, but deep strategic flaws. The mission card is a copy by someone who didn’t quite understand what they were looking at. The trivium bracelet and remote just break all believability, earning the film a flat zero.
Fi: B (3 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
ID card goes in slot, evil robot finds that person. Bracelet roboticizes people, remote controls them. As dumb (and derivative) as the technologies are, the interfaces help you understand the kindergarten-minded rules for technology in this diegesis.
Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
Recall that these interfaces all serve the bad guy. The mission slot interface is actually quite nice for its simplicity, but loses any credit since it ultimately becomes a paper trail of evidence against him, all in one convenient robot just waiting for authorities to uncover. The bracelet might get props for being easy to get on, if it wasn’t also as easy to get off again and need tailoring for each new victim. The remotes are also quite nice for their simplicity and even visual hierarchy, but only by virtue of apologetics and thinking of it as a prototype. All knobs and modes needed labeling, anyway. So, a goose egg.
Final Grade F (3 of 12), Dreck.
Don’t bother. Or do bother, but only to get a schadenfreude chuckle out of the ordeal. Or maybe some tripping material from the janky transfer.
So, loyal readers may rightly ask themselves why on earth I reviewed this pile of metallic crap, which is unknown, uninfluential, and rightly condemned to the trash bin of cinematic B-movie history. One glance at the Youtube transfer (or perhaps the directors oeuvre) should have made all this clear, yes. Well, here are three reasons.
It’s the film’s 50th anniversary, which is adorable.
I try not to judge a book by its cover, and delight in trying to find truffles in oubliettes.
It was a very lightweight way (only four interfaces!) to begin a year dedicated to AI in sci-fi.
In case that last bit didn’t land, let me reiterate outside a bullet list: All posts in 2019 on this blog will focus on the topic of AI in sci-fi. And this film belongs in a category of one of our oldest kinds of fictional AIs, the Judaic story of the Golem.
It’s been told time and again in different ways, but in most tellings, the golem is a construct that mindlessly obeys whatever instruction it is given, and in its mindless interpretation, does grave damage, even turning back on its maker. Other shows utilizing this trope include Metropolis, Battlestar Galactica, the Alien franchise, The Sorceror’s Apprentice, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I even think that Arabic stories of djinn fulfill the same purpose. Each illustrates how agents that ruthlessly pursue goals—with neither the human sense of reasonableness or the ethical concern for human wellbeing—can go devastatingly awry.
They are conservative tales in the apolitical sense that they imply we should be very very cautious when engaging these kinds of machines. Don’t start until you’re absolutely sure. This is a key concern for AI. How do we ensure that the intelligences we build do what we want them to, reasonably? How can we encode a concern for humanity?
Luchadores doesn’t provide any answers, just a warning, some awesome masks, and an occasional piledriver. But we’ll be on the lookout as we continue looking at other examples of sci-fi AI.
Given that the last review I completed was the Star Wars Holiday Special, which was also Dreck, maybe it’s high time I complete a good movie. OK, then. That means back to Idiocracy. And yes, in that tale of stupidity, there is a surprising tale of super intelligence.