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The Top Ten Movie Robots

15 September 2004 by Gnoll One Comment

Robots are a hot commodity. They’ve always kind of been that way, but lately I’m seeing quite a bit more of their presence in popular culture. Perhaps it’s because companies like Honda are actually producing the kinds of robots that we’ve only seen in science fiction films, or maybe it’s just the nostalgia thing just rearing its head , but robots are back in a big way. Movies like T3 and THE MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS show bleak views of robotic futures. The TV series Battlestar Galactica with its fearsome Cylons has recently been updated, and remakes of METROPOLIS and WESTWORLD are apparently on the horizon. There’s a movie adaptation of Asimov’s I, ROBOT coming out soon with Will Smith. The hottest toy properties right now are Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Transformers, the latter of which is apparently getting a big-budget live-action movie soon.

I’ve always been a fan of robots, so today I’ve decided to go back to the annals of film and pick out the top robots in the history of film. Robots have been a staple to science fiction since the medium was invented, so there’s a whole lot of ‘bots to choose from. I’ve decided that while the term “robot” is a very general, all-encompassing term that includes many different subcategories of mechanized beings, that I will exclude certain types of robots. These subcategories include the following:

CYBORGS. A cyborg is a shortening of the term “cybernetic organism.” Cyborgs, by definition, combine living beings with mechanical technology. During the 1980’s, cyborgs were a hot commodity in the movie world, most likely due to a little action flick called THE TERMINATOR. Later films featuring cyborgs, which will not make this list, include ROBOCOP and, uh, CYBORG (starring Jean Claude Van Damme.)

ANDROIDS. The term “android” can get sticky, but it is generally defined as a robot who is designed to look and function as a human. Androids have a very high Artificial Intelligence quotient and generally are played by human actors in the movies with very little in the way of makeup or costuming. David and Gigolo joe from A.I. are androids, as are Data from Star Trek, BICENTENNIAL MAN, the BLADE RUNNER replicants, and Bishop from ALIENS. It can be debated that the amusement park terrors from WESTWORLD were not actually androids, but they look too human for me to include on my list.

COMPUTERS WITH A.I. There aren’t a whole lot of examples for this subcategory, but I felt it needed to be created because I just didn’t feel right putting the HAL 9000 from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY on a list of “top robots.” It just seems wrong to call HAL a robot for some reason.

ANIMATRONICS. Animatronics, such that creepy Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland or those even creepier singing animals at Chuck E. Cheese, have no ability to perform outside of strict programming and therefore aren’t really robots at all. The members of the doppelganger KISS in KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK are animatronics, although they’re highly advanced specimens of that subgenre.

Keep in mind that all robot lists are going to be highly subjective, and you’re probably going to disagree with my decisions. That’s what the message board is for. So without further ado, I’ll go ahead and count down the robots that made the cut.

Back in the late 1970’s, Science Fiction mania was running wild on moviegoers everywhere. While Steven Spielberg was receiving critical acclaim for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and George Lucas was raking in the cash for STAR WARS, the Walt Disney company released a little movie that was barely a blip on the radar in the long run. THE BLACK HOLE, the first film released by Disney to earn a “PG” rating from the MPAA, wasn’t quite up to the standards of its bigger cousins, but was a decent little sci-fi flick unto its own. There were several robots that stole the scenes in this movie, including an intimidating humanoid bot named Maximillian (not to be confused with the film’s star, Maximillian Schell,) a klunky old bot named B.O.B., and our hero here, V.I.N.Cent, voiced by the late great Roddy McDowall.

One of the classic camp science fiction stories of the 1970’s was Michael Anderson’s LOGAN’S RUN. Set far into the future in a post-apocalyptic utopia, where everyone lives under domes and partakes in strange rituals. The premise is that in order to control population, nobody lives to see past the age of thirty. Starring the legendary Michael York and the stunning Jenny Agutter, the film actually won Oscars for its bold special effects. The main robotic antagonist is a shining silver mech named Box, who lives in an ice cavern and provides sustinence to the people in the domes. Box denies a section of “runners” (those who try to beat the system of death at 30) their rations in order to starve them, and Logan’s encounter with Box is one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

At first, I thought not to include robots from animated films on this list, but quickly changed my mind when I realized I would be denying several legendary ‘bots their day in the sun. One such ‘bot is THE IRON GIANT, the star of a 1999 family film that was surprisingly entertaining. Set at the dawn of the Cold War, the film centers around an enormous robot that falls to Earth from space and is befriended by a young boy named Hogarth. The military catches wind of the robot’s existence, and sets out to destroy the robot in the assumption that it’s a nuclear weapon from the USSR. The movie is actually quite touching, and is leaps and bounds above the typical Disney crap that gets churned out year after year. Most importantly, it marks the one and only reason why Vin Diesel has any merit whatsoever: he voices the giant robot.

Fritz Lang’s 1927 Masterpiece is an amazing piece of cinema. At two and a half hours and with a cast of over a thousand extras, it was the biggest and most expensive film ever made at one point in time, and certainly holds the title of the most ambitious film to ever come out of the silent era. In the film, which is set in a distant future, “Maria” is contructed by a scientist as as a replacement for his departed wife. Maria is the prototype for many movie robots yet to come. George Lucas obviously drew inspiration from her design when he developed his famous droid C-3PO. This film has become a classic and is a staple for film students, and saw a re-release in the 1980’s that featured a modern soundtrack. There’s even an anime with the same name that, while not directly based upon, is heavily inspired by this film.

One of my favorite cheesy slasher flicks of the 1980’s took a different take than the usual undead killer motif: they actually used killer robots as the antagonists. This movie, known by the titles KILLBOTS and CHOPPING MALL, took a cue from DAWN OF THE DEAD and placed the victims in a shopping mall. The teenagers involved have gratuitous sex and emulate slasher victims to a tee, but the real stars here are the robots, which malfunction and change from harmless security drones to bloodthirsty killing machines. This film exemplifies the genre it resides in perfectly, even if the robot motif strays from the usual formula.

The 1950’s were a monumental time for the genre of science fiction. The Cold War was in full effect, and many people were so afraid of nuclear fallout and the Red Scare that they turned to a world of fantasy. Hundreds of low-budget outer space stinkers were churned out during this era, but one of the bleakest and most memorable films of the era was THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, in which an alien messenger comes to Earth to warn its citizens to live peacefully or be destroyed. Gort is his powerful robotic companion, who is programmed to destroy the planet if he is so provoked. The film is beloved by many for its powerful message and in many ways set a template for other films of the genre. The terms “Klaatu, barata, nikto,” which originally appeared in this film, are paid homage in both ARMY OF DARKNESS and RETURN OF THE JEDI.

Lord knows that if I’m doing a list of the top robots in film, I’m going to touch upon The Transformers at some point. And, as I mentioned earlier, I had considered omitting animated robots, but Optimus Prime is just too powerful a character to leave off of this list. In the twenty years since the property first hit the market, Optimus Prime has become a larger-than-life epic hero, and is almost as recognizeable to the general populace as mainstream comic book stars. Since this list is based on movies, we can look no further than 1986’s TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE, where Optimus Prime leads his heroic Autobots into battle against the evil Decepticons and gives his own life for the cause. While in actuality, the movie is a pretty cut-and-paste copy of STAR WARS done with cartoon robots, the scene where Optimus dies is still a real tearjerker.

Robby the Robot is probably the only actor listed in the Internet Movie Database that never drew a breath. Designed in 1955 by MGM propmaster Robert Kinoshita, Robby has been featured in several movies and television shows and has morphed in to a pop culture icon. But the most memorable moment for Robby was his film debut, 1956’s FORBIDDEN PLANET, in which he appears as a reluctant monster that is a relic of an extinct alien race. The film itself is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, believe it or not, and has been called the greatest science fiction movie ever made by many critics. The film features a young Leslie Nielsen, and is also one of the first films that used the Theremin to create the soundtrack.

I realize that it may seem like blasphemy for me to put the likes of Johnny five this high on a list, surpassing such legendary robots as Robby, Gort, and Maria; But there are a few reasons for this. First, it was something I read earlier today about SHORT CIRCUIT that inspired me to write this piece; and second, This freakin’ robot still looks way cool after nearly two decades. I used to watch this film over and over as a kid, could recite lines as if I wrote them, and was really upset that they never made a toy version of Number five. I think I tried to build my own version out of LEGOs in lieu if having a real toy, but failed miserably. And you know what? I’m still pissed that there’s not a Johnny five sitting on my shelf. He just looks that cool. The idea behind this film is that a robot designed as a military weapon gets struck by lightning and becomes a sentient creature. But screw the story. He’s just one of the coolest looking robots to ever grace the screen. They also made a sequel for this film, but it sucks.

When I made my notes earlier about the subcategories of robots that exist, I mentioned the term androids. George Lucas, rather than referring to the robots in the STAR WARS saga as robots, liked to call them droids. But don’t kid yourself; R2-D2 is no android. He’s a robot, and in fact, the’s the best robot that’s ever appeared on a movie screen. As one of the only characters to be involved in every single STAR WARS film, Artoo is actually the character that saves the galaxy in that saga. Screw Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Princess Leia and Chewbacca. Without Artoo, they’d have all been toast long ago. Speaking only in whistles and beeps and resembling a waste depository, Artoo may not be the most powerful or heroic mechanized creature to ever exist, but he’s by far the coolest. He far outshines his whining golden counterpart C-3PO, as does every other robot that was considered for this list. When they made Artoo Detoo, they broke the mold. I think. I guess not, actually, because of all those other R2 units that were running around the galaxy. But regardless, Artoo is a droid, er, a robot, that all others aspire to be, even if he is an unassuming little guy.

As a senior citizen, you’re probably aware of the threat robots pose. Robots are everywhere, and they eat old people’s medicine for fuel.

One Comment »

  • Antonio said:

    Very nice site! Good work.

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