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Neill Blomkamp’s impending Chappie is hardly the first film to feature a robot struggling with accepting its own artificial intelligence, and with a world that refuses to accept its role in “humanity.” While the recently overused plot device seems a bit less imaginative than Blomkamp’s usual faire, it got us thinking about when movie robots captivated our imaginations. In order to establish the list, some criteria had to be in place, such as, the robots must have been created by another being (sorry Cybertonians and The Iron Giant, we still love you both), they must have a physical form (I’m sorry Dave, the HAL-9000 does not make mistakes), and they had to, unquestionably, qualify as robotic (do you know where the term “robot” comes from? It comes from an old Czech, “robotnik”, meaning slave. And we’re not slaves, we’re very very happy. And not robots.). With these (rather loose) criteria in place, we set about creating a list of the Top 10 Movie Robots, and along the way remembered forgotten gems, and the madness of 80’s movie special effects.
10. Bicentennial Man – Andrew Martin
Director Chris Columbus decided to recruit Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams), Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and Porthos from The Three Musketeers (Oliver Platt) to tell his story about humanity and acceptance… pertaining to non-organic life forms. The original I, Robot, Bicentennial Man finds Sir Richard Martin (Neill) purchasing a MDR-114 (boasting, every home will have one by the year 2005) as a maid/servant (slave) for his growing family. When the MDR-114, named Andrew (Williams) begins to show signs of intelligence and creativity, Mr. Martin seeks out the help of the manufacturers, who battle to reprogram Andrew. Over the course of many decades, Andrew becomes more and more wealthy, and begins working to android-ize himself, and revolutionize robotics. As silly and sappy as Bicentennial Man is, it won an Oscar for Make-up, which made Robin Williams look robotic – quite an achievement for such a dynamic actor. Andrew Martin is everyone’s dream, a Robin Williams who lives forever.
9. Westworld – Gunslinger
In a future concocted of leftover sets from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the wealthy enjoy vacations in meticulously-recreated historical landscapes. Romanworld, Medievalwold, and Westworld are true-to-life representations of their defining eras, and populated with computer controlled, humanoid robots. When a glitch in the system leads to a malfunction in one of the gunslinger’s programming, he breaks free from the mainframe, fully-realizing his basic instincts as a cold-blooded killer. Yul Brenner is famous for his similar, yet less violent, role in The Magnificent Seven, and having him reprise his famous western persona as an unstoppable robot is pure cinematic indulgence. Like a robotic Liberty Valence or Tuco, a metal outlaw is as scary as it is totally awesome.
8. Return to Oz – Tik-Tok
Return to Oz is a weird movie. I loved it as a child, but it was not until recently that I re-watched it, and was able to fully formulate just what the hell Disney was getting at. First of all, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk, a.k.a Bobby Boucher’s love interest from The Waterboy) is around 11-years old, and has been diagnosed as mentally unstable due to her first trip to the “imaginary” Emerald City. This leads to Dorothy being committed, and “treated” with electroshock therapy. When she finally makes it to Oz, Disney apparently could not spring for the rights to the original band of characters, leading to Tik-Tok (Sean Barrett: voice, Michael Sundin and Tim Rose: body). A mechanical guard for King Scarecrow and the Emerald City, Tik-Tok is operated by three wind up keys that control his mind, his voice, and his movements – each of these are constantly running out. Like a humorous children’s toy, Tik-Tok loves to serve his “masters” and has absolutely no problem with being immortal. When the Tin Man would get stuck, it was funny, but when a portly brass robot with an expressive moustache runs out of “mind,” it’s hilarious.
7. Black Hole – V.I.N.CENT
Nominated for two Oscars, Black Hole followed closely on the coattails of Star Trek and Star Wars. A group of space explorers sent to find habitable planets discover a forgotten research vessel sitting outside of a black hole. Using their trusty V.I.N.CENT unit, the explorers try to dock with the ship, and find out its secrets. V.I.N.CENT (Roddy McDowall) made the list because of his big, white goofy eyes. Like the expanded, out-dated cousin of the ball droid in the Episode VII trailer, V.I.N.CENT is and orange and silver spherical robot, with a heart of gold and the eyes of a Care Bear. Willing to fight for his human counterparts, come up with a useful piece of knowledge, or hand out with his dilapidated robotic friend, B.O.B (Slim Pickens), V.I.N.CENT is a great space robot.
6. Blade Runner – Pris
Pris is a badass robot. One of two female robots on this list (Dot Matrix from Spaceballs came close), Pris (Derryl Hannah) is one of the fiercest replicants that Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard comes across. With crazy makeup and costumes that would make The Fifth Element jealous, and acrobatics that would make Wesley Snipes’ Blade blush, Pris is a maniacal, calculating robot. This is the craziest robot performance on this list, and this video proves it (SPOILER ALERT).
5. WALL·E – WALL·E
Moving from a completely malevolent robot, to one of the kindest on this list, WALL·E has the purest outlook on life of any robot in movies. A centuries-old trash compactor tasked with cleaning up a barren earth, WALL·E is the last of his kind. Befriending a cockroach (they DO live forever) and collecting discarded human knick knacks, WALL·E is virtually alone. With a love of musicals, and a desire to romantically love another being, WALL·E proves that love can humanize even the most bizarre creatures. One of Pixar’s greatest creations, WALL·E is a space opera of love, with plenty of humor, a dash of thought-provoking message, and more heart than I care to remember for fear of tearing up at my computer. Only able to speak a list of about five words (mostly his name), Pixar does the impossible making WALL·E endlessly expressive, given only a set of optical cameras and some eyebrow flaps. Every kid’s robotic best friend, WALL·E is the robot everyone wants to own – despite having to clean up miles of track dust, and the possibilities of having your electronics smashed into a square.
4. The Terminator – Terminator
Red glowing eyes, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging 1980’s muscles, and a penchant for leather jackets? Count me in. As a robot sent from the future to destroy the mother of the future leader of the human uprising, The Terminator is ruthless in his mission. Nearly indestructible, and hell-bent on killing Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), the Terminator spawned a series of over-the-top action movies, and marked the peak of Arnold’s career.
3. Short Circuit – Number 5/ Johnny Five
This movie is so good it hurts. One of the earliest movies concerning computer technology evolving human-like consciousness, Short Circuit is the 1980’s at its best. Steve Guttenberg stars as a scientist developing military hardware that can accomplish a range of functions from total destruction, to mixing drinks. Test subject Number 5 escapes, to discover the world, much to the dismay of its military owners. Finding a home with Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy), Number 5 develops his humanity, and a real thirst for knowledge. The special effects team behind Short Circuit, used close ups of intricately designed, purpose built machines to pull off a multi-functioning Number 5. Most of “his” actions are shown in close up, as the main unit could never perform many of the tasks, and is pretty much a haywire assemblage of servos and wiring. A valuable step forward for minutely controlled robotic functionality, and a founder of the “robots are people too” genre, Short Circuit spawned a sequel, featuring the emotional fraught beating scene, and sparked the imagination of countless young robotically-inclined nerds.
2. Metropolis – Maria
The film that started it all. Fritz Lang’s monumental Metropolis is a futuristic symphony devoted to the growing gap between the rich and poor. A dystopia in which the working class toil away in the labyrinthian underground factories, and the rich party in lavishly constructed dance halls, up in the gargantuan city. Lang’s future is symmetrical and perfect (an incredible feat for 1927), cars moving orderly on spans and modeled city streets, the toiling workers moving to the beat of the oppressive score. When Maria (Brigitte Helm) rises up as a symbol against tyranny, the inventive Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) cooks up a humanoid robot, and sets about capturing the interloping beauty from the catacombs. In a wonderfully vivid instance of special effects, Rotwang transforms his metallic robot into the beautiful Maria – an effect that holds up 88-years later. The robotic Maria sets about destroying the already-strained relations between the rich and poor, becoming single-mindedly focused on destroying both groups. Maria is one of the earliest representations of robots in film, and, almost certainly, the first female. Showing the possibilities of special effects in conjunction with science fiction, Lang was an early adopter and pioneer of one of the world’s most popular cinematic genres.
1. Star Wars – R2-D2/C-3PO
I don’t care that Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels hate each other, they are still the most iconic movie robots ever. They are helpful, have plenty of emotion, and all the personality in the world. Although the two could not be more different, together, they are the yin and yang of robotics – a harmonious blend of daring, intelligence and ingenuity. Serving as both a means of injecting humor into the Star Wars franchise and an actual way of providing value to the narrative, R2 and C-3PO are an integral part of the series. Appearing in all six films, they are indeed the most prolific, and although they did not talk to one another outside of their costumes, their on-screen chemistry is undeniable, as is their enduring legacy.
Like the Featured image? Additional artwork from Richard Sargent can be found here
Forbidden Planet – Robbie the Robot
Not including Robbie on my original list was a gross misstep on my part. A founding member of cinema robots, Robbie was an incredibly prolific character in both film and television. A creation of the planetary ruler, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), Robbie’s hyper-intelligence and dry wit defined “him” as a character. **Thanks to Irish Jim for the suggestion.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Data
Data (Brent Spiner) served as the Spock stand-in on Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek continuation, The Next Generation. An artificially-intelligent android, Data provided a very robotic humor, and employed his massive stores of knowledge to assist his captain (Jean-Luc Picard as played by Patrick Stewart). Primarily a television-based robot (android), Data appeared in four feature films, alongside his TNG crew, including Star Trek Generations (1994), and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002).
Robot & Frank – Robot
Not a cleaver name, but certainly a novel concept. Much like in I, Robot or Bicentennial Man, in the near future, robots are employed to assist the elderly (among other things). When a begrudging recluse accepts a robot from his exceptionally-busy kids, he hardly agrees with its purpose. After finding out that the old man, Frank (Frank Langella), is an ex-cat burglar, things become interesting. Teaching his robot to assist with “heists,” the octogenarian and his robotic compadre get involved in some bizarre chicanery. The only robot on this list that actively engages in illegal activity, Robot provides a fresh twist on the “robot as caretaker” scenario.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – Gort
Gort is a giant hilarious silver man. Easily the most plain-looking robot on this list, Gort is a featureless, expressionless hulk, sent as a protector for the interplanetary “guidance counselor” Klaatu (Michael Rennie). In a post WWII America, Klaatu comes to Earth bearing a message of nuclear disarmament. Unable to see past their Cold War-blindness, leaders of the world are completely unable to come to terms with Klaatu’s demands. While Gort stands watching guard over the ship, the US Military tries in vain to destroy the alien technology – unable to even move the massive metallic man. For sheer invulnerability, Gort deserves a spot on this list.