Friday, August 27, 2010

the uncanny valley

I'm babysitting my niece and nephew this morning and we're watching The Polar Express, which is just as creepy as everybody says. For those not in the know regarding the Uncanny Valley, I quote your favorite research tool, and mine, Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis regarding the field of robotics. The theory holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans [Haylie's note: this includes digital animation] look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness.

So we're freaked out by prosthetic hands, for instance, but not the Ceylons from Battlestar Galactica. Of course, the Uncanny Valley-ness of The Polar Express is legendary by now (it even features in an episode of 30 Rock, in which Frank tries to explain to Tracey why creating a pornographic video game is impossible by citing Jar Jar Binks and The Polar Express).

But the creepiness of The Polar Express extends far beyond the valley. At one point the kids wander around in an empty, Soviet-bloc-style North Pole, listening to a broken record echoing "Ring-a-ling... ring-a-ling... ring-a-ling... ring-a-ling..." At another, they spy on some elves watching kids (ostensibly checking them for "naughty-" or "nice-ness") on closed-circuit surveillance.

The key scene involves a screaming horde of screechy-voiced elves all clamoring for Santa like groupies. Or a cult. Given that they're nearly faceless and move like badly-operated puppets, I'm going with cult. A Santa Cult. Early one of the kids asked Tom Hanks, "Where are all the elves?" He said: "They are gathering in the center of the city!"

This movie is freaking terrifying.


  1. Agreed. The only time I saw the movie was on a date with (don't laugh) Vinnie Duyck, so that sort of lends itself to the creep-factor.

  2. I like that you used 30 Rock to illustrate a point.