All Aboard The Polar Express: Death, Monkeys, Robots and the Uncanny Valley

Christmas is coming. Bookstores are putting out the Christmas books and Walmart is bringing the Christmas films out front by the checkout isles.

Looking over theses books and movies you'll probably see the book and movie The Polar Express. The book is a family favorite. The movie is, for me at least, kind of creepy.

I'm not alone in thinking that there is something visually askew in the movie The Polar Express. The characters are well-drawn but they seem to stand in between cartoon and human. They look almost-human and, thus, kind of freaky.

Many have speculated that some of the visual weirdness in computer animated films aiming for realism (rather than stylized characters) is due to a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley was proposed in the 70s by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. It is the idea that if you plot approximation/realism of the human form against emotional comfort you get a U-shaped curve. Imagine a Raggedy Ann doll. It's a human form but not very realistic. Consequently, we feel comfortable with the doll. But imagine that I start making the doll more life-like and realistic. Eventually, the doll becomes quasi-human or almost-human. Objects on this threshold seem freaky and strange. There is something not quite right with these objects. They aren't far enough away from realism to be obviously not human, but they are not fully human either. They are just a shade off. And this slight difference causes comfort with these objects to drop. This is the uncanny valley. We come out of the valley when we move fully into the human. But right before this threshold objects look uncanny. In short, according uncanny valley theory we have to beware in robot design and computer animated movies to not get too close to approximating the human. If we get too close and can't get to the other side we fall into the uncanny valley and produce a creepy product. Many think this is what plagued the movie The Polar Express. Visually, due to the uncanny valley, a film like that loses its softness and innocence and conveys menace where none is intended.

Here's the hypothetical curve from the Wikipedia article depicting the uncanny valley. Notice that as one moves from the left to the right in increasing human likeness there is a big drop--the uncanny valley--in the horizontal "familiarity" dimension:


I was reminded of all this reading a wonderful article entitled Into the Uncanny Valley by Joe Kloc (H/T Andrew Sullivan). In the article Kloc reviews the history of the uncanny valley and its influence upon robot design, particularly in Japan. Kloc also reviews Freud's seminal (if perplexing) treatment of the uncanny where he linked the uncanny with our fear of death. This might be why we see zombies and corpses in the valley in the graph above. From Kloc's article:

According to Freud, the phenomenon that would later be called the uncanny valley stems from a primitive attempt of humans to skirt death and secure our own immortality by creating copies of ourselves—such as wax figures and, later, life-like robots. He quotes his colleague Otto Rank in saying that this “doubling” behavior is “an energetic denial of the power of death” and suggests the idea of the immortal soul was the first double of the body. Our uncanny response follows from the fact that most of us no longer believe we can secure our own immortality by making copies of ourselves, but we haven’t yet shaken the primitive habit of trying to do so. The sad consequence of this is that, in Freud’s words, “The double reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.” The copies we feel compelled to make only serve to remind us why we began making them in the first place: We are, inevitably, going to die.
Interestingly, when Mori proposed the uncanny valley he made a move similar to Freud's by linking the uncanny valley to death. As Kloc writes:
While the purpose of Mori’s paper was to inform robot design, in a concluding paragraph he cannot resist offering his own theory about the origins of the uncanny valley. He writes: “When we die, we fall into the trough of the uncanny valley. Our body becomes cold, our color changes, and movement ceases.” Human models fall into the uncanny valley because they remind us of death. “It may be important to our self-preservation,” he concludes.
However, Kloc goes on to discuss recent research with animals which suggests that the uncanny valley response may have less to do with death than with perception. That is, our species-recognition system, found in most animals and important for mating and predator avoidance, might be off-put by almost-human looking objects. In short, death might have nothing to do with it. We might just be uncomfortable with stimuli that send us mixed messages: I'm human! Not I'm not! Here's another article about the animal research concerning the uncanny valley: It's entitled "The Polar Express" Would Creep Out Monkeys Too?)

However feelings of the uncanny are elicited the uncanny continues to instill in modern persons a sense that there is something odd, freaky or otherworldly about existence. The uncanny sits behind our experiences of déjà vu, feelings of foreboding, and the feeling that there is something more to this world than what our sense impressions reveal. Maybe it's all just a perceptual glitch as recent research into the uncanny suggests. Maybe, following Freud, the uncanny is symptomatic of our existential malaise. But whatever it is, the uncanny is here to stay.

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4 thoughts on “All Aboard The Polar Express: Death, Monkeys, Robots and the Uncanny Valley”

  1. Very interesting. I've seen several of these films and have not found them uncanny. I don't really know why not other than the fact that I am so amazed by the authenticity of the animated characters. I feel that I have put behind me the fear of death since I don't see it as the end, but a vehicle to get me to the next part of the journey. This loss of fear has taken place over the last four or five years as I have taken a very liberating journey out of traditional Christian religion where I dwelt for 59 years.

  2. "That's the best case against contemporary Christian music I've ever seen."

    Hat tip to Josh over in the side hug thread.

  3. I agree with Don in that I don't find this film so uncanny (other than the depiction of Santa Claus himself) but unlike him I have become more religious and still not found it uncanny. Creepy, yes, but not uncanny, if that makes any sense.

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