Quick: Name five things most closely associated with science fiction… Time’s up! If “robots” isn’t on your list, you’re either from the future where artificial humanoids are nothing but mere background radiation of contemporary living, or you are, in fact, a robot yourself, masquerading in the skin of a human right now. Robots are a mainstay of the genre for good reason: They stand in as cogent symbols of humanity’s drive to create, to build, to extend its understanding of the human condition. And they carry with them all the wonder, hubris, hope and dread that that drive compels.
With sci-fi being as vogue in popular culture as ever—a seventh Star Wars and its adorable ’droids are but a few weeks away from theaters—now is the perfect time to reflect back on our favorite ’bots as represented in film.
Before we begin, some ground rules:
- “Robots,” for the purposes of this list, fall into the following categories: Androids, cyborgs and intelligent automatons in general. When it comes to cyborgs, we’ve decided to err on the side of “mostly robot.” That means, despite Obi Wan’s protestations that Darth Vader is “more machine than man,” for the purposes of this list, he’s a smidge too human.
- With apologies to HAL, J.A.R.V.I.S., MOTHER and the like, no disembodied, purely A.I. entities. The robot must have some kind of body—typically humanoid in shape (though minor exceptions regarding shape for especially awesome robots may appear).
- The entries must have appeared in a theatrically released movie. With additional apologies to all the Benders and cylons in pop culture, the focus here is on iconic film robots.
Now let’s take a glimpse into cinema past and imagine the future that might have been… and may yet become.
100. Ro-Man, Robot Monster (1953)
Ro-Man, for all intents and purposes, is like the patron saint of the cheesy movie monster. For decades, if someone said “bad costume,” Ro-Man was the first thought to swim to the forefront of the subconscious, largely thanks to the Medved brothers and their seminal work, The Golden Turkey Awards, which enshrined Robot Monster in the Bad Movie Hall of Fame forevermore. The character is actually quite the monster—as a “moon robot” he’s invaded Earth and slaughtered its entire population except for the motley crew of eight annoying Hollywood actors still opposing his diabolical plans. The film intended to portray Ro-Man as a more stereotypical-looking robot, but giant budgetary shortcomings, coupled with a 25-year-old first-time director, meant that things went just the tiniest bit astray. The final result is a gorilla costume that was physically made by Ro-Man actor George Barrows, which was then fitted with an undersea “space helmet” to make it appear more “futuristic.” And that’s how a helmeted ape became a robot. —Jim Vorel
99. C.H.O.M.P.S. the robot dog, C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979)
C.H.O.M.P.S. is sort of like a bad sit-com episode that was magically transmogrified into a feature film, but at the same time, how can you not love the cheesy stupidity of the titular robot dog character? Born of a hilariously forced acronym (“Canine HOMe Protection System”), C.H.O.M.P.S. is a lovable mutt, tiny in stature but concealing godlike bionic powers that allow him to do everything from stunning criminals with his sonic bark to bursting straight through brick walls. There’s a lot of humor derived in the disconnect between the dog’s appearance and his cybernetic abilities—one wonders if it might not have worked slightly better if they cast a dog breed that weighed more than 10 pounds in the role. C.H.O.M.P.S. ultimately captures a moment in the very dawning of the computer age, when filmmakers began considering the possibilities of what was possible via rapidly advancing miniaturization and computer technology. —J.V.
98. Sonny, I, Robot (2004)
Isaac Asimov’s landmark collection of short stories introduced what can only be described as one of the most influential, basic set of rules in all of fiction. His Three Laws of Robotics are about the only thing that survives translation in this outrageously generic and leaden Will Smith-starring sci-fi “thriller.” Like many other entries on this list, the only reason Sonny made the cut is because his design is pretty cool, and stands as an historical record of the Apple Inc. industrial aesthetic of day. (Unlike other robots who made the cut due to a novel look, this entry was done so with the greatest possible hesitancy.) —Scott Wold
97. Bubo, Clash of the Titans (1981)
Honestly, as is the case with many of the lower-rung denizens of this list, Bubo could almost be left off with no real harm done. But it’s an owl, which is sorta unusual for the list. It’s a robot appearing in a time period not known for its technology, so there’s that. And the nostalgia many folks have for Clash of the Titans gives ol’ Bubo the right to be here. (Added bonus—along with the Kraken and all the other monsters of the film, Bubo is part of the package that represents the final effects work of Ray Harryhausen.) —Michael Burgin
96. Gigolo Joe, Teddy, A.I. (2001)
As much annoyance as I have in my heart for Spielberg’s indulgent, over-long mess of a movie, I did find some enjoyment in the Mecha robots that it featured, especially Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) and Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel). I’d still pay full admission for a three-hour buddy movie featuring those two. (With all the unwanted sequels and reboots, why can’t we ever get a whimsical reenvisioning along these lines?) Falling somewhere between the West World automatons and “replicants-lite” in design, the Mecha can thank Law’s performance for cementing their presence on this list. —M.B.
95. The Colossus, The Colossus of New York (1958)
Yet another Frankenstein-y tale involving brain transplant into a robotic body—with only the noblest of intention, of course!—there’s very little to recommend here other than the fairly intimidating Colossus robot himself, a nine-foot metal monster dressed like a cult leader, and a possible visual inspiration for the Sentinels in the X-Men comics. Hey, the guy does have mind-control powers and laser eyes, after all. —S.W.
94. B.E.N., Treasure Planet (2002)
Though much better than its reputation, Disney’s “Treasure Island in Space” is probably most remembered as a massive box office bomb (that probably signaled the beginning of the end of its traditional, hand-drawn cell-animated features). It may never have been the best the studio had to offer, but it was still a fun space adventure, featuring an affably goofy, “amnesiac” robot, voiced by Martin Short. B.E.N. was kind of a bumbling idiot, sure, but give the guy a break—his memories were literally stolen. —S.W.
93. Call, Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Even the biggest fan of Alien (writer points thumbs at self) can’t mount a remotely cogent defense of this embarrassing heap of sequel refuse. Despite a returning Sigourney Weaver, playing an alien/human hybrid clone (who’s constantly sniffing the air, like a even cartoonier Wolverine), Ron Pearlman, and a screenplay by Feminist Champion of Nerds World Over, Joss Whedon, anything terrifying from the once-mighty “perfect organism” monster movies was buried under so much plot silliness and nonsensical characters, the fact that this guy (writer points thumbs at self again) had such a huge crush on Winona Rider, means that her meek-but-attractive android character merits an, ahem, call-out. —S.W.
92. Entire cast, Robots (2005)
Robots is beyond generic as far as cinematic stories go, and distractingly populated with the voices of top-tier A-list celebrities like Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Robin Williams, Mel Brooks, Paul Giamatti, etc. But the easily dismissible Dreamworks animated CGI movie can at least boast recommendation for its busy, colorful world inhabited by its delightful, energetic cartoon robot creations—all of them unique designs, rather than mass-manufactured.
91. The T-X (Termanatrix), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
As a sequel that might add anything to the franchise, Terminator 3 is utterly pointless; Ah-nold is, once again, sent back in time by Future John Connor to protect his younger self from yet another murderbot intent on snuffing the future human resistance leader before the … well, it’s right there in the title. Though the movie features some satisfyingly brutal cyborg-on-cyborg violence, as an antagonist, T2’s liquid metal terror remains, by design, a superior killing machine. The smashing in T3 is fun, sure, but Skynet really shouldn’t have released this beta test of a terminator—it’s gotta be a real bitch sending update patches into the past. —S.W.
90. Elle and Other Robots, Starcrash (1979)
Starcrash is practically a miracle of low-budget, terrible filmmaking. As far a blatant Star Wars ripoffs go, it’s beyond egregious. Yes, that is a gorgeously ’fro’d David Hasselhoff brandishing a not-a-lightsaber, dueling ineptly animated stop-motion droids, pictured above. The character of the robot policeman, Elle, sports a country-fried drawl and a strange vulnerability to cavemen’s clubs, and there’s a 100-foot-tall Amazonian gynoid who menaces our constantly shouting heroes. I swear I’m not making any of this up. This movie is so bugfuck crazy that it’s utterly endearing. And it has Christopher Plummer as the Emperor of the Universe, looking like he’s having the time of his life, tearing out huge chunks of the beyond-cheap sets with his teeth. —S.W.
89. Tobor, Tobor the Great (1954)
Okay, so the title of “The Great” may be something of a hyperbole, but Tobor (Whoa, spell that backwards … mind blown!) itself is reasonably cool—if you happen to be a little kid who has a psychic bond with his big robot pal. If you’re anybody else, Tobor is a huge pain in the ass, being easily stolen and reprogrammed between noble U.S. scientists and evil (probably) Soviet spies. Tobor may be capable of telepathy and piloting spaceships, but hell if he isn’t the most gullible robot ever made. —S.W.
88. David, Prometheus (2012)
I’ll accept that this Lindehoffian cinematic mess of half-formed, mostly terrible ideas has its fans. Those fans, though, have to recognize that the plot is both impossibly stupid and overly complicated at the same time, no matter how pretty it is. After all, it’s a Ridley Scott movie, and even his absolute worst is still beautiful to look at. All I can say is, thank the alien jockey overlords for Michael Fassbender’s android, David, who very nearly has a character arc, unlike any of the other moronic spaceship crew members who (very deservedly) get themselves killed. —S.W.
87. Otomo, Robocop 3 (1993)
How awesome cyborg justice machine Robocop fighting robot ninja could end up so boring is, perhaps, as big a mystery as how screenwriter Frank Miller could go from celebrated Daredevil writer and the guy behind The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City to paranoid, screed-based work like Holy Terror and director of the execrable adaptation of The Spirit. The Otomo—robotic, katana-wielding ninja who are somehow more than a match for Robocop—are nevertheless the only conceptually noteworthy thing in this Peter Weller-less sequel. It’s tempting to blame the approximately $12 budget for the rest, but it’s really just a dull story, boringly told. —S.W.
86. ’80s Robot, The Muppets (2011)
Sure, the character is basically a one-note joke, but ’80s Robot fits perfectly within the story of a recently re-banded Muppet crew who’ve been trying to pick up where they left off—right around the time the robot would have been cutting-edge stuff. Built-in dialup modem included! —S.W.
85. B.R.A.I.N., 9 (2009)
There are, actually, several very cool robots in Shane Acker’s feature-length expansion of his 2005 Oscar-nominated short of the same name. Other than itself, though, the monstrous B.R.A.I.N. is the progenitor, and without question the most imposing and frightening of the lot. And while the marvelous visual artistry of the original short remains intact, after being blown up from 11 to 80 minutes, the sinister B.R.A.I.N. is the best thing worth recommending. It turns out the answers to the mysteries from the short were never as interesting as the questions. —S.W.
84. Marcus Wright, Terminator: Salvation (2009)
On the whole, Terminator: Salvation may have been as mechanical and perfunctory as its titular villain, but at least Sam Worthington’s “Wait, I’m actually an evil cyborg?!” introduced a mildly interesting wrinkle within the Terminator universe. Out of everyone in the film, Worthington— surprisingly—demonstrates himself to be a capable actor in the midst of the endless gray rubble. You just need to cast him correctly … like, say, as a robot. —S.W.
83. The “Blanks”, The World’s End (2013)
The concluding chapter of Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost’s Cornetto Trilogy may be its weakest overall entry, but that only means it’s better than 99% of all genre comedies out there. Expertly aping and flouting the Clandestine Alien Invasion movie, Wright’s human-replacing, alien robot doppelgangers are actually pretty unnerving when they’re coming for you, and not bothering with the subtlety any longer. —S.W.
82. Johnny 5, Short Circuit (1986)
Many will doubtlessly be aggrieved Johnny 5’s ranked this low on the list. But that’s because their ’80s nostalgia has displaced actual memories of this movie. From his extremely irritating voice, clumsy slapstick and totally juvenile one-liners, it’s time to revisit Short Circuit with a clear head—and then understand why this entry was included only under duress. —S.W.
81. Atom, Metro, Twin Cities & Zeus, Real Steel (2011)
So it’s just a remake of Rocky by way of robot proxies, with an extremely annoying child actor. Who cares? Atom—as far as robots go—looks like the scrappy underdog (in that he’s built from scrap) the story needs him to be, and the other boxing ’bots physically resemble advancing rungs of success along the (heh) circuit. If Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots had to be made into a movie, at least they injected some style, and stole from the best. —S.W.