Robots and science fiction movies go together like a horse and carriage, well if the horse was a robot duplicate and the carriage was a landspeeder, but you get my meaning. Since the very early days of cinema robots have fascinated movie goers, whether the robot be a helpful aid to the hero or a villainous obstacle to overcome they have captured our imaginations. Below is my list of top ten favorite robots in cinema based on design, how they impact the story, and just how overall awesome they are.
Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s dystopian film has inspired countless filmmakers over the years and the importance of this film in the annals of science fiction cannot be overstated. You could say this film contains the first Terminator as the robot double of Maria worked very much like the T-800 infiltration unit from Cameron’s film, only instead of killing her job was to sow descent and wreak havoc in the city. Her beautiful design and elegant look, as well as for being one of the first robots, earns her a spot on this list.
If Maria could be considered the first antecedent of The Terminator then Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s Westworld is Arnie’s closest relative. The movie takes place in a theme park where guests get to live out their fantasies in a replica of Ancient Rome, Medieval England, and the Wild West but all in safety as the robots that populate these attractions are programmed to safely interact with the human guests. Needless to say things go vastly wrong and soon most the guests are killed by the robots while one Western Gunslinger relentlessly tracks down its prey, “He’ll find you that’s what he does, that’s all he does!” Brynner’s cold emotionless robot has become so iconic one cannot help but to believe Cameron and Schwarzenegger where both greatly inspired by it.
In 1977 Star Wars changed the landscape of science fiction with its epic space fantasy settings, but two little things thread their way through the entire saga like a metal Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and captured the love and hearts of many a child. Threepio was clearly modeled after Maria in Metropolis while R2-D2 more resembled a trashcan on wheels though of the pair it is R2 who is certainly the more sympathetic of the two. Threepio’s constant complaining set against Artoo’s stoic suffering made them the perfect team, putting them in the same league with such comedy giants as Laurel and Hardy. During the summer of ’77 I don’t think I knew a kid who didn’t have images of those two on their bed sheets, bedroom walls or cluttering up their toy shelves.
Created to be the ultimate foe of Godzilla King of the Monsters no one can dispute the sheer awesomeness that is Mechagodzilla. He made his first appearance back in 1974 with Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla but returned time and time again to do battle with the big G, often with different origins and controllers as some times he was an alien weapon sent to aid in the conquering of Earth, while other times he was an Earth defense system built to protect Japan from the rampages of Godzilla. No matter who built him or for what purpose this awe-inspiring robot was created we can all agree he looks badass. He’s also one of the few beings that have defeated Godzilla on more than one occasion.
In Alien Ridley Scott blended horror and science fiction so well he created one of the most terrifying films ever and though most would say the xenomorph that hunted down the crew of the Nostromo was the villain I’d have to disagree and single out Ash (Ian Holm) the ship’s science officer who shocks the crew as well as the audience by turning out to be a “A Goddamn robot!” The alien is only doing what it does to survive while Ash is doing the bidding of an evil corporation that put’s the safety of its people way, way down on the list of priorities. He worked constantly against the crew in their attempts to defeat the alien, in one breath he “Admires its purity” and in the other telling the crew “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.” Watching Ian Holm’s performance on further viewings is a delight as his eyes and expressions totally give away that he’s not really on the same page as everyone else.
Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 is living tissue surrounding a heavy metal combat chassis and designed for infiltration and combat duties, its sole purpose to aid in the extermination of mankind. This is the role that really elevated Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom and it’s his cool calculated performance as this cyborg from the future that has to be one of biggest reasons this film became a sleeper hit and then launched a franchise. This also has the rare instance of the villain of a film returning for the sequel as a good guy. Arnie’s guardian of John Connor T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day was even more fun to watch, and his battle with the liquid metal T-1000 is a high mark in action movies. Not to forget to mention how terrifying the bare endoskeleton looks, basically it’s a metal Grim Reaper.
“Klaatu barada nikto,” It’s with these words that the alien messenger attempts to stop the robot Gort from destroying the world and when Patricia Neal utters them we are almost disappointed as a rampaging Gort would certainly be a sight to see. The 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still from legendary director Robert Wise brought Earth into the Cold War of space as Klaatu (Michael Rennie) warns us that if we don’t knock off this atomic war crap intergalactic enforcer robots like Gort will destroy us. Beside his simple design and kick-ass eye laser beam what makes Gort stand out is that he is a being created to enforce the peace, with extreme prejudice, even against those that created it. He was complete autonomy in meting out sentences. How scary is that? Less said the better of the 2008 version.
Not since Charlie Chaplin made potatoes dance has a character given such heart wrenching emotions with so little dialog. Pixar Studios and Andrew Stanton took a big risk with WALL-E as it’s hard to believe a love story between two tiny robots could work so well when neither of them were particularly loquacious. Hell, there is no dialog between characters for the first 22 minutes of the movie. That’s ballsy for a film marketed for kids. The scene with WALL-E holding the inert EVE’s hand through all kinds of weather still breaks my heart. His design is economical and practical but with expressive eyes that give us a character we can’t help but fall in love with.
Robby the Robot is one of the rarest of science fiction creations because though he was built to star in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet he became so much more. Robby is also the earliest film robot that clearly obeys Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” to the point where when told to kill almost self-destructs. His popularity led him to branch out into other projects and even other genres. He aided in a super computer in its attempt take of the world in film The Invisible Boy, but it’s in television that he became a star where he would face off against Nick Charles in The Thin Man or put on trial in an episode of Columbo. From the Twilight Zone to The Addams Family this most recognizable and versatile of all robots achieved what many “real actors” never could and he will never be forgotten.
Vin Diesel has starred in many excellent action films in his career so far but for me his vocal performance as The Iron Giant is still my favorite. This story of a boy and his robot is just perfect; funny, dramatic, exciting, basically it has everything, but mostly it’s full of heart. All the characters in the film are great from the sci-fi loving boy to the beatnik artist, the long suffering mom, and nasty government agent Kent Mansley. It’s the core message that makes this film stand above many others as something that was designed for wholesale destruction decides, “You are who you choose to be” and becomes a true hero. If you don’t get choked up when the Iron Giant flies to meet the nuclear missile and simple says, “Superman” there is a good chance you aren’t human but a cold uncaring robot yourself.
So there are my top ten favorite movie robots, take the order with a grain of salt as I rearranged them multiple times and still think about moving some of them around again. But before we leave I will give a shout out to Mechani-Kong from King Kong Escapes who only got nudged out of Mechagodzilla’s spot because he only had the one appearance.