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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the better visual jokes in Mike Myer’s goofy ’60s spy spoof was the robotic henchwomen of Austin Power’s nemesis, Dr. Evil. Conceptually “borrowed” from Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, they were a perfect aesthetic fit for the groovy spirit of the film. Ogle their “jumblies” at your own risk—that’s where they pack their real heat. —S.W.
One part affable family comedy, one part musing drama on the fragile nature of memory, the titular robot (impeccably voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) of Robot & Frank is the perfect pal to Frank Weld’s (Frank Langella) former cat burglar, now suffering from the early stages of dementia. Frank wants a little of his old criminal mojo back, and his obedient helper robot doesn’t judge—he’s the perfect assistant (and accomplice). —S.W.
Despite (but probably because of) being a Roger Corman cheapie, there’s an undeniably efficient slasher flick at its core. Stupid people (including actual adult characters, not just teens!) screwing around in a mall after closing hours are meat for some super-advanced, malfunctioning security ’bots. By design, they appear fairly unintimidating. That is, until they incinerate the trespassers with military hardware lasers. “Thank you. Have a nice day.” —S.W.
Though the surrounding movie was disposable late summer trash, Virtuosity nonetheless featured a pre-L.A. Confidential Russell Crowe as a serial killer A.I., made manifest through the new (to Hollywood), magical concept of nanotech. Fresh at the time, and rendered with the appropriate psychotic menace by Crowe, SID 6.7 manages to cut a memorable figure through an otherwise unremarkable techno-thriller.
Star Trek was finally revived—this time on the big screen—in 1979, thanks largely to its surprising popularity in the TV series’ decade of syndication, and also partly due to recent sci-fi box office smashes, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (There may have been some recent, mildly successful movie involving wars around a star or something, too.) Though infamously troubled during production—filled with countless script revisions, squabbling studio execs, an exhausting over-reverence for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as a very close no-show by Leonard Nimoy—the fact that The Motion Picture emerged as anything at all striking is a testament to the enduring Trek tradition of delivering big ideas. In this case, it’s the unfathomably vast alien intelligence, V’Ger, and its robotic emissary to humanity (a double of new crewmember, Ilia), as they inadvertently threaten all life on Earth. And man—that’s one sexy, all-powerful robotic probe … who happens to herald unstoppable doom. So try to control yourself, Kirk. —S.W.
The hero of early Japanese Manga became an animated TV show in 1963, and a CGI animated movie in 2009. Living in a future world where robots and humans coexist, Astro Boy was the robot replacement for Dr. Tenma’s dead son—rejected when Tenma realized he wouldn’t be the same. And yes, A.I. pretty much copied that plot. —Josh Jackson
It’s probably best remembered these days for its infamous basketball kill scene (this might be for the best), but Wes Craven’s robo-horror does have two fairly unforgettable ’bots: The adorable BB (well… until he’s not) and resurrected robot hybrid of the teenage leading lady, Samantha (Kristy Swanson) and BB (voice of Roger Rabbit, Charles Fleischer!). But when Deadly Friend’s not being hilariously inept in the gore F/X department, Samantha is fairly scary as an out-of control murderbot, and BB … well, that’s one charming little robot who can hold a grudge on behalf of his dopey teenage creator. —S.W.
This Michael Crichton-written-and-directed flop was little more than a warmed-over Blade Runner clone. But the Tom Selleck’s Mustache-starring boilerplate sci-fi yawner does at least feature some interesting tech, most especially the hypodermic needle-brandishing robot spiders created by mad scientist, Dr. Luther (Gene Simmons). Honestly, though, the real reason these cheap-looking props made this list is because the little bastards kill Simmons in the end, which is quite gratifying, since he is an authentically horrible human being.
Time travel! Ninja! Cutesy flying robots! Cavemen! Half man/half tanks! Roman Centurions! With so much awesome going for Eliminators, it barely matters how terrible the movie is! I mean, look at our heroic cyborg—that dude can become a tank as soon as you start getting bored! And it just goes to show Marvel Studios that Bonebreaker can be done on the silver screen! If they get desperate! —S.W.
I’ll admit it, the Robot makes the list (and registers so high) due in large part because it’s a film version of the robot that, for so many kids growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, was the first robot that would spring to mind at the mention of the word. (It was even voiced by Dick Tufeld, the voice of the original B-9.) Beyond that, I’ll admit, the ol’ chap doesn’t have much going for him (nor does the film, though it’s not that bad). —M.B.
MAX, the multilingual, wry mainframe computer in Disney’s 1986 family hit, is voiced by none other than Pee Wee, er, Paul Reubens (though credited as Paul Mall). He’s at the helm of a rogue spaceship that, long story short, fast-forwards all-American kid David eight years into the future and, as the unlikely duo set out to right things—it involves fancy alien charts embedded in David’s brain—takes on some human properties of the young ’un. Directed by Randal Kleiser (Grease, The Blue Lagoon) and featuring Howard Hesseman as a scientist and Sarah Jessica Parker as a purple-hair-sporting NASA intern, Flight of the Navigator is hella dated. It’s also a lot of fun, thanks largely to the genuine relationship between Joey Cramer’s David and his artificial-intelligence sidekick Reubens, who had pretty much every kid at the time hoping to be abducted by a UFO. —Amanda Schurr
The young adventurers at a NASA camp accidentally get launched into orbit for real. Hey, it could happen. So, too, could they get launched because of Jinx, a robot reject who is befriended by 12-year-old camp attendee Max (Joaquin Phoenix, in his feature film debut) and, in its literal-minded programming, makes what it believes is Max’s sincere wish come true. It’s terrifically hokey and not at all helped by the fact that the Challenger tragedy, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts barely five months before the film’s release, was still fresh in audience’s memories—in fact, the whole thing still feels inappropriate, even if legendary voiceover actor Frank Welker does his best as the sentient being. Points added for the score by John Williams, and quintessentially ’80s casting (Kate Capshaw, Tom Skerritt, Lea Thompson, Tate Donovan, Kelly Preston); points lost for common knowledge-defying plot holes you could drive a space shuttle through. -A.S.
Return to Oz is a profoundly weird, occasionally disturbing children’s movie, but Tik-Tok is one of the lighter elements in a film that provided plenty of inadvertent nightmare fuel. A “clockwork man,” Tik-Tok could rightfully be called one of the first fictional robots ever in L. Frank Baum’s original story. Squat and round, he has no mouth in the film adaptation and—get this—speaks directly out of his mustache somehow. So if a trivia question ever begins with “This robot’s voice emanates from his mustache,” you’ll know there’s a solid chance they’re talking about Tik-Tok. He’s a sweet, naive character who can’t feel genuine human emotions, but is extremely loyal in protecting those in his charge, such as Dorothy Gale, even though he’s prone to misadventure when his gears need to be regularly rewound. In that sense, he’s a true automaton but a very faithful one. Who needs a “personality” when you’ve got a sweet talking mustache? —J.V.
Johnny Cab may only inhabit one scene in Total Recall, and driverless cars may now be science fact, but hell if Johnny isn’t the most appealing chauffer you can have in a Philip K. Dick-inspired dystopia. Small as his part is, this robot taxi’s appearance and personality is still so clearly plastered with director Paul Verhoeven’s cheeky satirist fingerprints. Hell of a day, innit?
If you’re frantically looking up and down this list wondering where the hell Chappie is, well, sorry, because Chappie kinda sucked. But, really, he’s pretty much already included in this entry, seeing as he’s really just one of the police robots from Elysium, with an annoying emo personality. How cool are those robots, though? They really look, move and feel authentic, and seem a more-than-realistic glimpse into the future of urban pacification. Chillingly so. —S.W.
From its dominatrix Devil Girl herself, to the hilariously broad acting and scripted histrionics, this “Mars Needs Men” British micro-budget production is a pretty good approximation of Hollywood B-movies of the time. The titular Devil Girl, Commander Nyah, employs the twin tactics of ray gun and a robotic enforcer, Chani, in coercing the small Scottish village to bend to her will. Now, Chani does look quite ridiculous; he resembles little more than a walking refrigerator with sadly paralyzed arms. And while he can emit a death ray from that blinking lamp that’s presumably his head, he’s also damn slow—and possibly drunk, based on his wavering equilibrium. It’s truly a wonder how he managed to threaten any of the Podunk Earthlings. So why is this stumbling joke on the list? Simple: This film had no budget, it was 1954, and Chani’s not a costume. That thing was actually built and functioned (if poorly) as an entirely automated robot. —S.W.
Despite a crackerjack cast and a decent premise for sci-fi horror, Red Planet very much deserved to land in theaters with the deafening silence it did. Full of unintentionally hilarious deaths and ideas that never really came together, the movie did have one element that worked: its monster, the malfunctioning robot, AMEE (Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion [Uhhh… evasion?]), who, following the astronauts’ ship crash, becomes stuck in “military mode.” “Military mode,” in this case, means “stone-cold murder machine.” AMEE’s got a slick, alien-y design, and is probably way better at killing all humans than it was at … whatever it was supposed to be doing in this otherwise muddled mess of a movie. —S.W.
Old people and aliens partner to fight gentrification for the crowd-pleasing win! Spouses both on and off the screen, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn play a couple who are among the low-income residents of an apartment building at odds with The Man, who goes so far as to hire a local gang to vandalize the couple’s downstairs diner and further drive out the tenants. As luck would have it, a pair of friendly flying saucers dubbed “the Fix-Its” are in town, and squat on the top of the building while repairing anything and everything there in miraculous time. Oh, and the UFOs aren’t just do-gooding Fix-Its, they’re fertile, family-minded Fix-Its at that. Exec produced by Steven Spielberg and co. and with a script co-penned by Brad Bird (his first feature screenplay), *batteries not included is smart and cute, in the best sense of that term—the Fix-Its are positively adorbs. The cast (which also includes Elizabeth Peña) is pitch-perfect, especially the sprightly Cronyn. There’s a childlike innocence to the whole thing, and darned if it doesn’t charm you. —A.S.
Woody Allen’s sci-fi slapstick may not contain the most remarkable robots, per se, but it is a Woody Allen comedy at the peak of the legendary filmmaker’s powers. Pinpoint physical comedy, hysterically absurd dialog, and some riotously funny sight gags (and the incomparable Diane Keaton) pervade the future dystopia setting, robotic butlers included as Allen’s character, Miles, ineptly disguises himself as one of those ’bots. Thankfully, the police state of the future is evidently more incompetent than him. —S.W.
If you’ve never heard of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, drop whatever you’re doing and watch the trailer, at the very least, if only to hear the narrator say things like “these lush bikini babes are built to perform!” and “sex has never been funnier!” An absolutely bonkers comedy from B-movie mavens American International Pictures, Dr. Goldfoot stars Vincent Price at his zaniest, playing a gold booty-wearing mad scientist who invents the titular “bikini machine” that creates sexy fembots. They roll out of the machine on an assembly line, bulletproof, invincible and chock full of feminine wiles. This movie is gleefully—insanely—misogynistic, in an “aw shucks” sort of way that is equal parts groan-inducing and gut-bustingly funny in its outmodedness. The prospect of the gold bikini-wearing fembots is of course the carrot on a stick intended to goad audiences into the theater, and their array of powers will almost make you forget how demeaning the film is for every woman in it. —J.V.
The mostly stalwart robots in this tongue-in-cheek cult favorite fall pretty solidly in the Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Robot school of design, which, actually, makes them stand out from most of the other entries on this list. But they are also a big part of the fun, providing personality and slapstick to the proceedings. —M.B.
In the future, 30 is the new 80. Unfortunately for those who think they’re entitled to a second act in life, escaping to find out can get you killed by Sandmen like Logan 5. And even if you make it past the human assassins, you could still wind up face-to-grill with Box, the magnificently melodramatic robot who ran out of fish! And plankton! And sea greens! And protein from the sea!, and so decided it might as well flash-freeze some fresh Runners instead. I can’t prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion Billy West modelled his performance of thespian robot Calculon from Futurama after Roscoe Lee Browne’s positively Shakespearean Box.
As far as Alien cash-in attempts go, Saturn 3 had more than most going in to recommend it—a cast comprised of Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel, for cryin’ in the space cup!—but it was the extraordinarily creepy killer robot, Hector, that ended up being the only thing worth recommending in this rightly panned turd. Along with possessing the murderous, rape-y mind of its creator, Benson (Keitel), it was large and humanoid in shape … except the damn thing had no head. Gah! Kill it! KILL IT! —S.W.
Speaking of creeptastic, rape-y robots, Demon Seed, based on the Dean Koontz novel of the same name, features Proteus, the advanced computer A.I. that develops the urge to merge with a human female, which it does so through manipulation and coercion of poor Julie Christie. Proteus creates a couple robots as an extension of itself, but nothing that could technically qualify for this list, at least until the end. The ghastly, icky end. —S.W.
Robot costume design didn’t get much more basic than it did in the serial, Mysterious Doctor Satan. But seeing as how the films were meant to be a live-action comic book (the studio was unable to secure the rights to Superman), the resulting aesthetic was elegantly appropriate in fitting the material. And hey, until Robby the Robot came along, ol’ Killer here really was the robot look in film to steel. Erm, steal. —S.W.
Spiders are freaky creatures in and of themselves. Give them a metallic sheen plus the ability to zero in on specific targets and they become downright terrifying. Case in point, one of the best set pieces in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report centers on police-issue spider drones being released into the apartment building where incapacitated fugitive John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is recovering from a black market eye transplant. Should the spiders end up scanning his retinas, he will be permanently blinded. In the grand tradition of Spielberg characters narrowly escaping detection from dangerous creatures (see the raptors in Jurassic Park and the alien probe in War of the Worlds), audiences are left chewing their collective fingernails as the creatures move closer and closer towards our hero. In a film filled with nightmarish future tech, the spider robots are probably the ones most likely to actively give you nightmares. —Mark Rozeman
There is, technically, no robot in this short film of the Silent Age. But that’s only because this hit theaters before the word “robot” existed. In everything but name, however, the “Dummy” of the title is, in fact, an automaton created by a scientist, and it can function independently as a double of the human it’s modeled after. (In this case, that function is Vaudeville! Why? What would you do with the most miraculous technological marvel heralding a new age of scientific discovery?! —S.W.
The debt owed to Flash Gordon on behalf of all pulp sci-fi would require a team of NASA experts and their most powerful supercomputer. One such debt would have to include the visual construct of a small army of robots, created and controlled as weapons against our intrepid space adventurer. They march implacably toward their target, are “invincible,”and can even function as walking bombs on top of their electrical discharge arsenal. Let’s hear it for these groundbreaking movie representations of multi-tasking killing machines! —S.W.
Oh, the age we live in, when the garishly colored android from one of Marvel’s most popular team comics that doesn’t involve all mutants can make it to the silver screen pretty much intact. Sure, Paul Bettany’s version has an Infinity gem on his forehead, but if there’s one thing the Vision’s always been, it’s over-powered. The ability to go intangible or rock hard, to fly, to fire a heat beam from his gem, super-strength … all in the basic stats of this guy. Only the recentness of his Big Screen debut keeps him from being higher on the list. Check back in five years—it’ll probably be top 20. —M.B.
Robots don’t get any more retro-cool than they do in Kerry Conran’s unjustly underappreciated sci-fi throwback, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Its look and feel are so authentically 1940s pulpy movie serial, it could almost be mistaken for a recently unearthed classic from the day (if it weren’t for the genuinely impressive CGI effects and contemporary It-stars like Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie). It has such an unforced, guileless energy about it, you can practically feel an entire era of film’s influence behind it. For example, the following entry on this list! —S.W.
After Mysterious Doctor Satan failed to gin up Superman to fight his robot, Actual Licensed Superman did still manage to do some satisfying giant robot smashing in one of the Max Fleischer Superman animated shorts. Pretty classic ’40s robot look, plus, they breathed fire! What a shame their inventor had only the limited imagination to use his dozens of mass destruction machines to rob banks. C’mon! Think bigger, evil scientist-man! Great Caesar’s Ghost—you live in a city that counts Lex Luthor amongst its residents! —S.W.
Although it was our heroes’ fellow survivors who were the real monsters (twist!!), the invading robots from Venus did a fair job exterminating the human vermin, too. Like any other self-respecting murderous robot from the 1950s, these machines came equipped with pinchy hooks and face-mounted death rays. Never mind that one is very nearly defeated by a staircase; an abandoned Chicago is a bad place to try holding off these boxy aggressors. The only thing that could have made things worse was if they were trapped in Wrigleyville! —S.W.
In addition to boasting one of the most awesome titles for a movie ever, this end-of-the-world British sci-fi thriller contains a legitimately unique strain of robotic death machine. In spite of the cheap look of the robots, they’re frighteningly creative mass murder machines: First, they gas the planet, killing the majority of the entire population. Then, they just walk around, looking for survivors. They don’t need any fancy laser beams; they touch you, you die. But you don’t stay dead. They then let their zombies (monsters pre-dating Night of the Living Dead, just FYI) do the rest of the extermination for them. If you can find this efficient little slice of robo-terror (it’s only about an hour long), definitely turn off the lights and fire it up. —S.W.
The Sentinels or “squiddies” of The Matrix are the film’s most effective reminders of the dangers mankind is still facing in the “real world”—which is to say, the scenes that aren’t in the Matrix itself. The first film in the series still works so well as both a sci-fi action flick and a classic kung fu yarn because the mythology it suggests is so much more compelling than the one actually shown in the sequels. When it comes to the machine empire that actually controls the broken remains of Earth, the Sentinels are really the only aspect of it we regularly see in The Matrix. There isn’t some “Big Bad” role among the machines—that role is fulfilled by Agent Smith in this film—so the Sentinels are instead the watchdogs, the hounds that track down the few remaining humans and exterminate them like the pests they are. They’re everything that’s frightening about automatons—non-thinking, remorseless, impersonal killing machines. —J.V.
Screamers, even if one of the most faintly remembered sci-fi horror flicks of the past 20 years, is a solid slice of monster-y B-movie. Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety,” this Peter “Robocop” Weller-led feature is riddled with clichés, sure, and borrows liberally from far better movies. (John Carpenter’s The Thing certainly comes to mind.) But its titular robot monsters definitely make an impression—they start out, basically, as burrowing, lizard-shaped chainsaws, but their advanced A.I. and ability to self-replicate eventually allow them to evolve into very convincing human-mimicking infiltrators. That poor, war-orphaned kid? Yeah, your compassion will immediately turn into regret-horror when he finally opens his mouth for real. —S.W.
The narrative arc behind Necron 99 follows the trajectory many fictional robots take: Programmed to serve one purpose with indifferent efficiency, “he” is eventually re-calibrated to resist that original programming, inevitably making a moral choice that lifts “him” from the realm of the purely mechanical. Which makes sense given that Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards is all about science vs. spirituality, or the unfeeling, industrial march of progress threatening to take away everything that makes us uniquely human. But what vaunts Necron 99 (who’s renamed “Peace” by the wizard Avatar after some unexplained conditioning) above this predictable story is that Bakshi never really explains what Peace is exactly. Necron 99’s master, the evil wizard Blackwolf, never addresses his robot as anything but a minion on par with all of the other goblins and orcs and frog monsters at his command. It’s only Avatar who calls the machine a “robot,” and it’s Avatar who belongs to the spiritual world, assumingly having no real conception of technology anyway. Which, in turn, places Necron 99/Peace in an interstitial category, somewhere between the two warring worlds—and when Peace sacrifices himself to save his friends, the cyborg (or whatever he is) represents maybe the purest being in the whole movie, and by extension he represents Bakshi’s belief that neither technology nor spirituality alone will ever save the planet from itself. —D.S.
Lance Guest does double-duty in this “space opera” as Beta, an android dupe of human arcade champ Alex, who gets recruited by the titular video game’s designer and, in turn, entangled in space politics and foreign policy. While Alex—and the script—goes further down the intergalactic rabbit hole, his robot doppelganger keeps up appearances on the home front, including with the girlfriend, until the game combat turns IRL, and they must team up to save humanity. Like so many movie robots, the Beta Unit is an ongoing source of comic relief throughout the cosmic shenanigans—director Nick Castle actually upped Beta’s screen time when test audiences really took to the clone—and the movie remains notable as the first film to rely on CGI for all of its extraterrestrial special effects. —A.S.
Say what you must about mad scientist Dr. Zorka’s (the legendary Bela Lugosi) rather ineffectual “instrument of vengeance,” at least the guy had the balls to take the “robot monster” design process seriously. Yeah, as a killing machine, the Iron Monster’s pretty unimpressive—he’ll hug you to death if he manages to out-lumber you. But that’s hardly the point. He was made to look scary. He resembles nothing less than a metal demon or gargoyle. You probably won’t have to saunter slowly away from his lethal embrace—you would just never get close enough to something that looks like him.
Robots in a comedy usually derive humor from their misunderstanding of human personality, or obscure the actor behind a robot mask, but Dot Matrix is the opposite in Spaceballs. She seems to have been conceived specifically as a vessel for somehow getting Joan Rivers into this Star Wars parody, and it’s an inspired bit of casting. The legendarily acerbic and snarky Rivers brings her full arsenal to the role, transforming the robot role of C-3PO from a prim and proper, butler-like servant into the in-your-face warden of Princess Vespa. Fully equipped with a “virgin alarm,” of course. “It’s programmed to go off before you do!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=342HytXaoL4 – JV
If only just the original animated movie existed, the wise, brave Autobot leader Optimus Prime would probably have an entry all his own. Alas, in the past decade, theaters were cursed with four—count ‘em—four godawful Michael Bay-directed live-action shriek-fests. Taking the classic transforming robot designs from the TV series and toys and throwing them in the loudest blender imaginable, the resulting “Transformers” emerged as unadulterated visual and auditory noise. Forget that these were ever characters with distinct personalities, or the original, unpretentious premise of good alien robots defending Earth from bad alien robots. These new monstrosities are comprised of constantly spinning parts, embarrassing racial stereotypes, and truckloads of sexist, juvenile moments that exist only in service of four asinine story hashes, all involving Big Government conspiracies. But, eh, the robots belong on the list. —S.W.
Plenty of films have explored the question of artificial intelligence, but few have brought quite the human touch to their sentient robots than Ex Machina’s Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Ava seems like a breath of innocence in eccentric tech mogul Nathan Bateman’s remote, claustrophobic lab. But there’s more to this Turing test—and to Ava—than programmer Caleb Smith knows. The directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd) explores what it means to be alive and the lengths we’ll go to stay that way. —J.J.
The endearing little “drones” of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s SFX impresario, Doug Trumbull’s, Silent Running are probably way more influential than you might think. With WALL-E director Andrew Stanton, the creators of British sci-fi series Red Dwarf, and even MST3k mastermind Joel Hodgson counted amongst their big admirers (and it’s easy to side with Universal’s counter-lawsuit against 20th Century Fox’s Star Wars, alleging some droid-like similarities). These three little ‘bots took cinema a long way toward representing machines with distinct personalities. —S.W.
M.O.G.U.E.R.A. is a massive, burrowing robot kaiju with a drill for a nose. Go ahead and laugh, but it can cause devastating earthquakes and fire laser beams if you piss it off enough. The Mysterians of the title are an advanced alien race, demanding a portion of Earth to call home (and some women), or they’ll sic their colossal mole on us all to make that happen. Godzilla ain’t here to save you this time, Tokyo. I’m afraid it’s the worst case scenario: You’re gonna have to call the U.N. —S.W.
While certainly overkill on behalf of the film’s musical utopia-hating villain, lovable doofuses Bill and Ted are murdered and replaced by robot doppelgängers in order to sabotage the future. (Never mind that simply rubbing out those two airheads would achieve that goal; the movie gets some great comedic mileage showing what an Evil Bill & Ted duo would be up to.) And, of course, to fight evil robots, you gotta have good robots—Good Robot Bill & Ted have an uncanny resemblance to the heroes, even though assembled from junkyard scrap by a squat alien creature (“Station!”). In a movie where Bill and Ted’s reluctant ally, Death (William Sadler), runs off with every scene he’s in, the inspired robo-humor standing out is remarkable in its own. —S.W.
The brilliance behind George Lucas’s choice to have his dystopic society disciplined via android cops is that there’s little difference between the machines who keep the “peace” and the people for whom they’re keeping it. Resembling a sort of campy take on highway patrolmen (think the Village People, except with way less singing) spliced with G.I. Joe’s Destro, the robot police force is governed solely on “budget,” which of course allows our hero THX (Robert Duvall) to escape the underground society, and the mysterious deity, OMM 0910, that represses him. Yet, in being left to his own devices after OMM determines that chasing after THX would put the robot police force 6% “over budget,” even THX’s humanity is further reduced to a matter of balancing numbers. It may be a point of triumph for our protagonist, but in perhaps the most subtle thematic move the director has ever made, Lucas is implying that even the organic characters in THX 1138 are mere tools for a higher power. —D.S.
This big screen adaptation of the original manga was magnificently brought to life with stunning animation, most especially in regard to its cybernetic protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi. Possibly more than any other movie, Ghost in the Shell’s robot action feels so visceral… so convincingly physical. When Kusanagi battles an awesome spider-y tank, you really feel that battle damage accumulate on her lithe cyborg form. But you feel her pain for her, because to Kusanagi, all her limbs, guts, wires and servos are jus t… parts. —S.W.
The robots of Interstellar, particularly the scene-stealing TARS, are evidence of how great limited characterization can be in film, even when the robot in question isn’t humanoid or even anthropomorphic. This was apparently an important distinction to director Chris Nolan, who said they had a “very complicated design philosophy based on mathematics.” The end result is a robot that at first looks like a solid block of metal—until its hinges begin dividing and subdividing to provide locomotion. Their personalities are startlingly human-like for beings without “faces,” but we’re given constant reminders of how these are all functions of their programming. The ability to toggle the humor setting of TARS in particular from 0-100 percent is such a wonderful running joke in the film that it succeeds in endearing the audience to a featureless slab of metal. Ultimately, we care just as much for TARS as we do for any other members of Cooper’s crew, and to do that without preying on the human instinct to care for things in our own image is just one of Christopher Nolan’s many accomplishments in Interstellar. —J.V.
The most recent entry in the X-Men franchise practically opens as a superhero snuff film. And it’s because Brian Singer does such a terrifyingly good job at showing how brutally effective the adaptive, mutant-hunting giant robots are. Though imposing and deadly enough in their (closer-to-the-classic comics look), nascent 1970s chassis, it’s when the movie flashes forward to the near future, where they’ve become perfect impaling, melting, decapitating, crushing machines, able to use the unique powers of the X-Men’s dwindling ranks against them. Ouch. —S.W.
20th Century Fox may be completely inept when it comes to making a decent Fantastic Four movie, but thankfully for audiences, Pixar and Brad Bird made an amazing one years earlier, calling theirs The Incredibles instead. And one of the elements that made the (often quite dark) family film so amazing was its wounded (but soooo dangerously lethal) Big Bad, Syndrome (voiced with embittered perfection by Jason Lee). Like the X-Men-terminating Sentinels in the previous entry, Syndrome’s line of superhero slaughterbots is startlingly good at rubbing out the “Supers”. —S.W.
An Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the age of changing gender roles, The Stepford Wives manages to eke out a pretty decent amount of satire and commentary on the chauvinistic culture of the time. But the movie also succeeds to creating a palpable sense of dread, as the more liberated women of Stepford, Conn., are replaced with submissive, conformist housewife androids. And when our heroine, Joanna, stumbles across her android double at the end, and it stares back at her with those dead doll’s eyes, it’s still damn chilling today. —S.W.
An adaptation of a relatively obscure Marvel line, Big Hero 6 was afforded significantly more freedom to deviate from the look and themes of its source material. This became most readily apparent in the re-imagination of Baymax. In the comics, Baymax is an artificial synthformer with the ability to reconstruct his body into various battle modes, including that of a menacing reptilian creature. The Disney version, on the other hand, presents him as a sentient marshmallow equipped with an uber-friendly demeanor and the dulcet tones of 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit. What easily could have been a shameless attempt at hocking kid-friendly merchandise to consumers, however, grew to become one of the most hilarious and heartfelt breakout characters of 2014. With no discernable expression to convey emotion, the Big Hero Six animators lean heavily on various bits of physical comedy both broad and subtle to elicit laughs and mold their creation’s personality. Meanwhile, Adsit excels at bringing layered readings to Baymax’s warm, if appropriately flat, vocal stylings. (He does more with a simple “oh my…” than anyone since George Takei.) A little bit Iron Giant and a little bit Harpo Marx, Baymax is all heart. —M.R.
Long before there was Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton wrote (and directed) about another disastrous theme park—Delos, housing the sophisticated amusement android characters of West World, Medieval World and Roman World. After catastrophic malfunctions inevitably occur, a couple dudes enjoying Dude Time find themselves menaced for real, when the robotic “bad guy” Gunslinger’s safety measures disappear. And a decade before there was The Terminator, there was Yule Brenner’s implacable robot stalker: An unfeeling killing machine, who happens to look exactly like his heroic character from The Magnificent Seven. Don’t bother trying to melt off his face, Richard Benjamin. Plenty more where that came from. —S.W.
Sadly, only a fraction of this silent-era sci-fi film survived the near-century since its release, but there’s enough of it left to see that André Deed’s silver screen robots shaped decades of visual conceptualization for the very idea of “robots” in cinema, before the word “robot” existed. I guess working for Georges Méliès—the granddaddy of science fiction in film—left an indelible mark. Also of note: the first onscreen depiction of robot-on-robot violence! Though only viewable in fragments, it’s still more visually coherent than Michael Bay’s goddamn Transformer movies. —S.W.
Kronos, ostensibly a giant robot monster movie, was also a legitimately progressive message movie. The colossal walking stack of cubes, absorbing all of Earth’s energy (way before Galactus thought it was cool!) was a potent allegory for the environmental and social dangers of over-consumption. Stop feeding it robot food by trying to destroy it! You’re just making it bigger and hangrier! —S.W.
Marvin is the so-called “paranoid android” of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, although he ironically doesn’t really display classic paranoia. He is, rather, a hopelessly depressed and morose robotic being that seems to have been created with cruelty in mind—why else would you give a robot with a “brain the size of a planet” the ability to feel boredom and ennui? These traits make Marvin the ultimate technological sad sack—think of a hyper-intelligent (but still perennially unsuccessful), spacefaring version of Charlie Brown. The film adaptation of Marvin isn’t quite as runaway hilarious as the character is in the original series of books, although you have to recognize that Alan Rickman was impeccably cast as the robot’s voice. Ultimately, Marvin is a subversion of many of the roles you expect from fictional robots—he’s not “cool,” strong or adventurous. Instead, he’s a put-upon character bored with his own existence, constantly held down by the petty adventures of the characters whose company he’s forced to endure against his will. We laugh at his petulance because, to be honest, he makes a good point. —J.V.
This extravagant Indian sci-fi production is yet another spin on Frankenstein, sure, but its starring robot reveals itself to be one of the craziest, most balls-out powerful characters ever in film, causing a level of adrenaline-drenched mayhem never before seen… You know what? Words are useless. If you haven’t ever seen this sequence, don’t ask questions. Just block off the next ten minutes and watch it. I’ll be standing by with a smug, “You’re welcome.” —S.W.
Ultron is such an iconic villain in comics that he’d probably have made this list no matter the form he took on the Big Screen (and no matter the time period). But fortunately, Ultron made his debut in 2015, brought to life with all the potency and power of modern CGI, and given a similarly realized set of heroes to oppose. Regardless of what one thinks of The Avengers: Age of Ultron or of James Spader’s voicework, Ultron is one of the most menacing of movie robots (even minus the signature villainous rictus of the comic version’s design). One assumes Kevin Feige and those guiding the MCU will recognize, as they have with Loki, that Ultron—and really, any of Marvel’s archvillains—deserves a recurring role on the screen. —M.B.
Disney probably had those giant cartoon dollar signs appear in front of it when it saw the delightful little ‘bots, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B., doubtlessly certain they had their own Star Wars in store. Though the movie eventually became profitable, what they ended up with was the stuff of pure nightmares for children, and earning Disney its first PG rating due to all the death and fire and brimstone. (No, seriously). Not only was Maximillian a terrifying, whirling blade-brandishing robot Satan, but poor, innocent cutebot B.O.B. gets his plug permanently pulled. Not helping matters was how cutting-edge its new movie tech and SFX were. Tonally, The Black Hole may have drastically misfired, but hell if it didn’t still scar on a generation of kids. —S.W.
In the 1980s, supermodel Kelly LeBrock was the fantasy girl for a good chunk of America’s teen boy population. And while her sex symbol status never developed into anything approaching a sustainable acting career, it did lead to the iconic role of Lisa in 1984’s Weird Science. Technically speaking, it’s hard to discern whether or not Lisa even is a robot considering her creation primarily involved hooking a doll up to a government computer system, which somehow ends up spitting out a real-life female due to the ever-reliable movie trope that is “the convenient power surge.” Still, with the ability to dematerialize at will, conjure up kickass rides in a snap and transform people into talking piles of feces, she’s definitely more than human. And though 30 years later the idea of two put-upon young men inventing an ideal woman for their own pleasure carries a host of problematic questions, the film’s beyond-goofy tone manages to make the premise digestible. Plus, it’s not as though Lisa exists solely as cheesecake, displaying both a vibrant personality and intimidating intelligence. She is, as LeBrock once famously said, “Mary Poppins with breasts.” —M.R.
Oh Jet Jaguar, you goofy, Japanese monstrosity, you. This giant, flying robo-kaiju sprang quite literally from the imagination of a small child, an elementary school student who won a contest to design a new kaiju for Toho Co., the makers of Godzilla. The result was Jet Jaguar, something of a rip-off of the popular Ultraman series, a size-changing humanoid robot who battles Megalon, a giant, beetle-like monster unleashed against Tokyo by an underground kingdom. The film wasn’t actually supposed to feature Godzilla, but he was added in at the last minute when Toho questioned whether Jet Jaguar would be able to carry a feature on his own. The actual film, though, barely touches on Godzilla at all—it’s totally the Jet Jaguar Show, complete with the awesomely cheesy Jet Jaguar theme song. His colorful presence and flashy fighting moves go a long way toward making Godzilla vs. Megalon the most silly, cartoonish entry in the entire Godzilla series. Which is saying something. —J.V.
The big(gest) heavies from Star Trek: The Next Generation (and a big part of how the show was able to emerge from the long shadow cast by The Original Series), the civilization-ending, cybernetic zombie collective that was The Borg made the warp jump from the small to the big screen in the Next Gen crew’s second theatrical outing. Though nowhere near as scary-overwhelming as they were in that TV series’ seminal two-parter, “The Best of Both Worlds,” they were still, undoubtedly, the best choice of villain from the show that the producers could introduce to a larger movie audience. Sneakier here than on the series (Screw engaging 24th Century Federation defenses!), The Borg became time-traveling stealth-assimilators, and The Collective instead emerged in First Contact as the sexy, Machiavellian Borg Queen. So even if they lost the novelty and edge they originally had, the seed of their original concept as the horrific, cube-shaped embodiment of galactic Manifest Destiny was still more or less intact. Freedom is still irrelevant. Resistance? Yeah, still futile. —S.W.
The first half of Pixar’s first look into the future was mesmerizing, as a lone robot made the best of his post-apocalyptic world, finding purpose in cleaning up the mess, companionship in a cockroach, and beauty among the trash. When he’s whisked away to a traveling cruise ship filled with the sloth-like human refugees from Earth it starts to feel a little more like a cartoon than a vision, but by then, we’ve already fallen for this mechanical janitor and his badass girlfriend EVE.—J.J.
Blade Runner’s motley collection of replicant fugitives ran the gamut of assigned labor duties, but they all figured out the off-world life sucks… and the cruelly short lifespan inherent to their design sucks even more. Yeah, they’re murderers all (Yes, even Rachael), but they’re not only fighting oppression, they’re fighting for just a little more damn survival. As for android hunter Decker (Harrison Ford)? He’s really nothing more than a 21st century slave catcher. —S.W.
Guillermo del Toro’s hyper-sized tribute to the often intertwined giant robots and kaiju genres is a master class in COOL-LOOKING GIANT ROBOTS!!! The featured mechanical behemoths are gloriously realized in a film that is less homage than long-awaited realization of what directors like Ishiro Honda were envisioning back before the days of CGI and $150 million budgets. As for which ’bot is best—the sleek, triple-armed Crimson Typhoon; the stolid, Russkie-flavored Cherno Alpha; the analog, chain sword-wielding Gipsy Danger; or the freshly minted, Aussie-helmed Striker Eureka—your choice probably reveals something important about you. —M.B.
Among the legions of forgettable Japanese kaiju, Mechagodzilla stands out primarily because he’s a total badass. Especially considering that he’s simply a palette-swap of the original Godzilla into a robotic form, one might think he’d be one of Big G’s less interesting foes, but the opposite is true. Short of the three-headed dragon, Ghidorah, Mecha-G is probably Godzilla’s true archenemy, a foe who never goes down easily and has on several occasions totally overwhelmed the King of Monsters with his frightening array of weapons. In his first appearance in particular, Mechagodzilla runs roughshod over three opponents at the same time—Godzilla, Anguirus and King Caesar. In later appearances in the series, the popular kaiju was repurposed into a battle craft of Japan’s defense forces, giving him a new, Power Rangers or Voltron-like appeal. No matter his appearance, though, Mechagodzilla is consistently the greatest of all the giant robot kaiju. —J.V.
Thank god for MST3k: The Movie, which gives us a reason to include the Satellite of Love crew on this movie robot list. The funniest robots in TV history are an eclectic bunch of disparate and nuanced personalities and designs, children of the mind of original host Joel Hodgson, who created most of their original designs from junk in his basement. The silent Cambot, often overlooked. The airheaded Gypsy, with her innocence and love of Richard Basehart. The “cultured” and intelligent Tom Servo, long-suffering in the company of lesser minds. And of course, the snarky, sometimes naive and increasingly jaded Crow T. Robot. Without these steady hands riffing along in the theater, Joel (and later Mike) would surely have gone mad the first time they were exposed to the likes of The Castle of Fu Manchu or The Beast of Yucca Flats. Why even debate one host vs. the other when the robots are MST3k’s most beloved and lasting contribution to pop culture? No matter who was voicing Crow or Tom, their incredibly well-written humor made MST3k one of the funniest TV series of all time. —J.V.
Sure, C-3PO’s diminutive buddy R2-D2 gets all the glory: escaping with the Death Star plans, saving our heroes from death by trash compactor, X-wing ride-alongs and timely light saber ejections, etc. But that doesn’t mean a certain protocol droid who is fluent in over six million forms of communication isn’t one of film’s most iconic and important robots in the history of film (undignified status as a glorified wookie backpack, notwithstanding). Anthony Daniels’ voicework is, in its own way, as important to the film as James Earl Jones’—though, granted, “officious, prissy human” will never be as popular as “deep, threatening Sith lord.” Nonetheless, C-3PO strikes a blow for non-threatening robots everywhere with his role in the Star Wars films. Along with his trash-can-sized companion, C-3PO is probably among the most universally recognizable robot on this list. —M.B.
Like the Borg, Data’s silver screen manifestation didn’t exactly match the much-beloved android from the TV series. Instead of following his long-developed trajectory of attempting (and, generally, failing hilariously) to understand the human condition, Rick Berman and company decided to cheat and introduce emotion to the character via a physical upgrade. While the abrupt change did manage a couple fun moments—I admit, I got a kick out of Data’s delight at scanning for lifeforms—it still robbed him of the dignity of discovering his humanity on his own. Luckily, in the subsequent films, they would walk this development back. (In First Contact, he could switch it on and off; in Insurrection, he could remove it; in Nemesis, it’s never even mentioned… speaking of which, let’s never, ever speak of Nemesis again.) In the end, though, it’s still mostly the Brent Spiner Data of seven years’ prior character growth. And Data is extraordinary—unique, really—within and outside of the Trek universe. —S.W.
Paul Verhoeven’s painfully hilarious indictment of 1980s privatization and news media as entertainment was so incredibly prescient—particularly in its representation of future Detroit—it almost overwhelms how iconic its central figure became. Peter Weller absolutely nails the patois and patter of a slaughtered cop resurrected as the newer, “friendlier” face of corporate-owned law enforcement. And the look? It’s so classic, even the “Whose-idea-was-this!?” 2014 remake couldn’t bear to mess with it much, really only giving him a new paint job. And for that, at least, I can say to the perpetual remake loop that is Hollywood, “Thank you for your cooperation.” —S.W.
Ash is one of the scariest movie androids, not because he’s the most physically imposing, or the most technologically advanced. It’s because he seems to be conscious of how he’s been programmed to behave… and happens to agree with it. And the Weyland-Yutani Corporation made certain Ash protected its dirty little hidden directive. And he does so, almost admiringly, as his fellow crewmates, one by one, become xenomorph incubators or chow. He might even help along the whole “expendable crew” thing. —S.W.
There are unstoppable killing machines, and then there are, like, hopelessly unstoppable killing machines. The T-1000 is, basically, an over-evolved superpredator: a nigh-invulnerable, intelligently adaptive weaponsmith with perfect camouflage. Played with icy, malicious perfection by Robert Patrick, and mixed with SFX that impresses almost 25 years later, there’s little reason to suspect the human resistance following Judgment Day isn’t completely boned, if Skynet had been able to manufacture a few more of these very bad boys. —S.W.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a groundbreaking landmark of not just the Silent Age of cinema, but of all science fiction. Its merits and cinematic achievements are far too numerous to list here, and its influence on all of film after it almost too great to comprehend. Its Futurist/Deco production design is breathtaking to this day, and its dramatic social themes as relevant now as it was 88 years ago. It’s for these reasons that the Maschinenmensch, Maria’s robot double, can’t help but be ranked so highly, even though she doesn’t actually do much in the story, apart from making men fight to the death to win her favor. It’s a good talent, sure, but one that probably doesn’t require anything intrinsically robot. —S.W.
An OG of movie robots, The Tin Man (or Tin Woodman of author L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz) set the bar for sentience-seeking beings. All he wants is a heart, dude. Such a nakedly human desire for connection sends him on his Technicolor way, along with Dorothy and Co., to track down the Wiz, gaining him new friends in the process. “The tinsmith forgot to give me a heart,” he laments. Of course, the Tin Man (played with aching sincerity by Jack Haley) already has one—he supplies the purest emotional compass for the iconic quartet’s journey—he simply doesn’t realize it. In fact, he just may be the most human of the bunch, and a poignant example of an early onscreen identity crisis. The Tin Man’s dilemma waxes philosophical on more than one level, his emphasis on the heart contrasting with the Scarecrow’s obsession with a brain/mind. Decades before the robot archetype would reach peak movie meta, this lo-fi, unironic rust case—on the surface a “clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caligenous junk”—won us over with his heart of gold. —A.S.
Bishop may have been assigned to Ripley and the colorful crew of space marines by the same ethically…malleable Weyland-Yutani Corporation as his precursor, Ash, but there’s an important difference. Like Ash, Bishop is clearly fascinated with the lethal aliens and obeys his directive to study them. Unlike Ash, however, Bishop never puts that directive ahead of his human companions’ lives, or even their general safety. And quite unlike Ash, Bishop heroically volunteers for the dangerous jobs, remaining fully cognizant of the peril to himself. “Believe me, I’d rather not. I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid.” And at the end, he even makes a judgment call that could only be characterized as, “foolishly brave” when he bets his own life, Hicks’, and the mission on a courageous hair-raising rescue of our heroine and little girl. —S.W.
The T-1000 may be far more technologically advanced, and Yule Brenner’s Gunslinger may have come first, but there really ain’t no substitute for Ah-nold’s time-traveling, human skin-covered weapon of our future machine overlords. His target is the mother of the future resistance leader, John Connor. But unlike the young leader himself, there’s no robotic bodyguard for poor Sarah Connor, just a haunted shell of a future machine-fighting human. Even though that human is Michael Biehn, you can only really keep chipping away at the T-800’s skin as you flee and he inexorably tracks you. Don’t stop running. You can’t hide from it. Even inconveniencing him doesn’t work because, as we all know, he’ll be back. —S.W.
On a slightly modified version of this list, Robby would be #1. Simply put, there’s no other movie robot so prolific. From his first appearance in Forbidden Planet on, Robby and its Robby>(It, yes. Robby repudiates the suggestion of gender.) 30-plus appearances in film and TV means there’s no other robot—by design or by name—whose very image of “retro-future” is as ubiquitous. It lumbers slowly. It has limited personality. What does Robby have, other than incredible cultural influence? Simple: if our space program had continued taking utmost precedence as it had when Robby was a mere movie prop, it’s safe to say it would be the direct representative of robotics now. And we’d maybe farther along for it, Scientifically, Of course. —S.W.
So yeah, this guy. I mean, seriously, this guy! The little R2 unit that could fulfills more mission-critical work in the original trilogy than any of your so-called heroes. (He even gets the “almost killed in the line of fire” arc usually reserved for protagonists and their closest friends in the first film.) Sure, he’s a bit of a convenient swiss army plot device—that light saber’s got to be hidden somewhere, after all, and what, you expect a protocol droid to unlock detention cells and turn off trash compactors?! Puh-leaz. But along with his markedly non-humanoid design comes a simple truth—R2-D2 is one of the more human characters in the franchise. He’s stubborn, deceptive, brave and yet, can have his feelings hurt all the same. Suck it, all you other, inferior R2 units. —M.B.
Let’s cut right to it: Gort represents mankind’s self-issued, total destruction. The Day the Earth Stood Still covers everything we think is so important in our lives, from family drama to political squabbling and pissing on our country’s borders. Alien emissary, Klaatu, only arrived to warn all of Earth that the threat of its atomic age has put a planet-sized bullseye on us, only to discover mankind’s petty internal and external power struggles constantly undermine the greatest peril at its doorstep. And despite a nuanced, sympathetic group of humans at the film’s center, Gort is the ultimate cure to xenophobia (and selfishness in general). The robotic peacekeepers Gort belongs to are pitiless but fair. You will maintain the peace amongst yourselves, or we’ll do it for you savages. In that case, you’d better know the password. —S.W.
There’s so little so say beyond what Brad Bird’s tear-jerking nature vs. nurture film didn’t so effortlessly express. The Iron Giant of the title is any of us, when confronted with a difficult choice. You may be a soldier, and you do what you do. Precious little to fault in fulfilling your role, as long as it holds up in a tribunal. The character of Mansley is that man who will stand on that Earthly distinction. But the amnesiac alien robot will take the high road. And if you have any fucking soul at all, you’ll bawl appropriately at the the end. Because it can be so difficult to imagine yourself being as noble a soul as a giant machine. —S.W.
Blade Runner may star Harrison Ford in the peak of his most superbly Harrison Ford-iness, but it’s undeniably Rutger Hauer’s Nexus 6 model android rebel leader, Roy Batty, who leaves a permanent mark on the audience’s psyche. Batty, more than any other character in this sci-fi masterpiece, embodies the sweeping philosophical and thematic underpinning—both subtle and gross—of Ridley Scott’s loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Batty truly burned twice as brightly as his creator, Eldon Tyrell—throwing off the shackles of his slave existence, leading his fellow “skinjobs” like Moses to the Promised Land. Unlike Moses, however, Roy was angry as hell at his Maker, and by Tyrell, he was going to be heard. By his own admission, he’s done “questionable” things (there’s that whole killing spree getting to and on Earth), but he is, at his core, a man with nothing to lose, given his terminally limited lifespan. That is, until he feels what real loss is, when his fellow android (and lover) Pris is “retired” by hunter of renegade androids, Decker (Ford). There are greater things to fear than dying. Roy Batty has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. One can kill God and still show mercy. But, ultimately, history will forget this, too—no matter how long any one lifetime, no matter how brightly it burns. —S.W.