From “Metropolis” to “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” robots are such a staple of moviegoing that it’s easy to forget they haven’t always around. The idea of automated machines doing work for us has existed for as long as civilization, but it wasn’t until 1920 that Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the word “robot” to describe a humanoid machine in a play called “R.U.R.” Robots have been part of science fiction since even before the word existed, but as powerful as literary explorations of the technology can be, there’s nothing like seeing it on-screen.
Maybe it’s because, through the power of visual effects and production design, movies can give even the most futuristic robot an existence we can actually see. Or maybe it’s that watching real people react to robots allows us to explore the relationship between humanity and technology by watching actual human bodies and faces. Or both? Regardless, one truth is clear: robot movies rule! And these 15 reign supreme!
HBO’s “Westworld” may be today’s most mechanized hit, but in 1973, the concept made its debut in a much earlier age of visual effects. Directed and written by “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton, “Westworld” still managed to channel the novelist/filmmaker’s amusement park-based fears into a forward-thinking thriller that fuses together future tech and America’s Old West. While mostly sharing a premise with the show, the original “Westworld” actually features not just one, but three “world”-simulated parks, each populated by robots that facilitate visitors fantasies: West World, the European Medieval World, and the ancient Pompeii-inspired Roman World.
Its masterstroke, however, is casting. In West World, a main attraction is The Gunslinger, programmed to duel (and lose to) guests, so picking original “The Magnificent Seven” lead Yul Brynner lends both a layer of genre commentary and one of Yul Brynner-awesomeness to the proceedings. This is especially true once things go wrong and the robots start attacking humans. Fittingly, its robot tech wasn’t just limited to the script. “Westworld” was the first ever movie to use digital image processing to create the pixelated, first person point of view now standard in depicting the world through robots’ eyes.
“Hardware” isn’t one of the best-known robot movies, but it is one of the most underrated. Directed by Richard Stanley and based on “Shok!” – a short story from classic British sci-fi magazine “2000 AD” (home of Judge Dredd) – “Hardware” brings a unique aesthetic to its dystopian world that’s especially impressive considering its low budget. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the movie’s seemingly deactivated robot, MARK 13, is discovered by a scavenger, who sells it at one of the world’s few remaining cities, where it ultimately ends up part of a sculpture in an artist’s home. There’s only one problem… it’s not deactivated.
What follows is a combination of thriller, horror and sci-fi that reviewers at the time couldn’t help but compare to MTV, thanks to its in-your-face style. It’s got substance too: not just in how creatively it brings the “2000 AD” aesthetic to the screen, but also in its cautionary tale of technology gone wrong. Of course, the substance doesn’t end there: the cast also includes one Iggy Pop.
14. The Transformers: The Movie
Forget Michael Bay; the greatest “Transformers” movie is from 1986, and it is animated. While it may not be quite as awe-inspiring as an adult to watch a movie effectively open with the deaths of both sides’ leaders, Optimus Prime and Megatron, there’s plenty that will leave you at least surprised in a way you wouldn’t have been as a kid. “The Transformers: The Movie” features “Monty Python” member Eric Idle as the leader of a group of scavenging robots from a junk planet, who learned English by intercepting human TV signals. “The Transformers: The Movie” stars Leonard Nimoy in his second most robotic role as Megatron’s upgraded form, Galvatron.
But most of all, “The Transformers: The Movie” features that greatest Transformers villain ever, the planet devouring Unicron, who is voiced by none other than Orson freaking Welles, in his last ever role. So when Stan Bush’s extremely 80’s, strangely infectious anthem, “The Touch” comes rocking through “The Transformers: The Movie,” you just may realize that it’s still got the power too.
13. Short Circuit
After first taking on the idea of artificial intelligence in “WarGames,” director John Badham went in a more comedic direction and gave us “Short Circuit.” The 1986 film stars Number 5, a prototype military robot that gains sentience after a power surge, and accidentally escapes into the world. Also known as Johnny Five, Number 5 itself looks a bit like Wall-E, but its whimsical personality makes him a particularly classic 80’s ‘bot.
While it may not seem quite as out there today, it’s the movie’s approach that set it apart. On the one hand, there’s a main robot designed by legendary “Blade Runner” and “Tron” (which is some of the best SF you can get) artist Syd Mead, but on the other, it’s got ’80s star Ally Sheedy as an animal lover that mistakes the robot for an alien visitor, with all the comedy that entails. Sure, its sequel may be better remembered, for our money Johnny Five’s best performance was his first.
12. The Stepford Wives
Not many movies can spawn a whole new phrase out of their title, but the original, 1975 sci-fi horror thriller “The Stepford Wives” certainly did. Adapted by “The Princess Bride” screenwriter William Goldman from Ira Levin’s book of the same name, “The Stepford Wives” dives into the seemingly perfect Connecticut suburb of Stepford, where the Berhart family has just moved. But the wives of the town are suspiciously well-mannered and vacuous, and given that there’s robots involved, well, you can see where this is going.
Though inspiring a more overtly comedic remake from Frank Oz in 2004, the original wasn’t without it’s own social commentary. While director Bryan Forbes faced criticism of the film’s depiction of women, the filmmakers maintained that the movie was really about the dangers of a male chauvinism-dominated world. Either way, the most praise should be due to the the actresses playing the wives themselves, who manage to perfectly pitch their performances in a way that can be both frightening and darkly funny at the same time.
11. The Forbidden Planet
This 1956 MGM classic isn’t just considered one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, but one of the most boundary pushing. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, “The Forbidden Planet” uses distinctive sets, the first-ever all-electronic musical score, and beautiful, cosmic matte paintings to put humanity’s space-traveling future onscreen like never before. The crew of C-57D, a 23rd-century starship sent to the distant planet Altair IV to investigate the mysterious silence of a planetary colony (whose mission gave Gene Roddenberry a lot of his inspiration for the creation of “Star Trek”), is notable for its commander, played by future “Airplane!” star Leslie Nielsen. But its most notable actor isn’t human at all.
As one of the planet’s few survivors, Robby the Robot blazed film trails as one of first robots to be a true, distinctive character, complete with trademark dry wit. And, not just content to be the movie’s hero, Robby actually went on to appear in over two dozen more movies and TV shows! First reused the next year in “The Invisible Boy,” the robot suit, created by Arnold Gillespie, Mentor Huebner, and Robert Kinoshita, later played roles in “The Twilight Zone,” “The Addams Family,” “Lost in Space,” and even “Columbo.”
10. The World’s End
It’s no surprise that “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” director Edgar Wright and “Star Trek Beyond” co-writer Simon Pegg could come up with one of the best sci-fi comedies of the 21st century, but even so, the “Hot Fuzz” team’s use of robots is one of the most interesting and potent ever put to film. It helps that, for the first 15 minutes, the movie is a perfectly executed, darkly funny character drama. When middle-aged alcoholic Gary King drags his reluctant high school friends back to their hometown in order to complete their 1990 pub crawl, it sets in motion a hilarious, but surprisingly poignant set of character conflicts, as King bemoans how the town has changed.
Only, the town hasn’t just changed, it’s been taken over by robot replacements of many of its people, known as “blanks.” I’d be approaching spoiler territory to say any more, but the relationship between these blanks and the dreams and disappointments of King and his friends are as thematically deep as “Blade Runner.” Meanwhile, it’s also just a blast to watch: who else could make Nick Frost and Martin Freeman look better in action scenes than Tom Cruise did in the last “Jack Reacher” film?
9. Ghost in the Shell
While the upcoming Hollywood adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is the subject of yet another of the never-ending litany of Hollywood whitewashing controversies, don’t let it overshadow the power of the original. Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated feature adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga fused the nutso animated action you can only find in the highest budgeted of anime movies with real philosophical introspection. Taking place in 2029, the story follows Major Motoko Kusanagi, a sort of police detective and “full-body prosthesis augmented-cybernetic human” tasked with capturing a hacker, which quickly pulls her into a web of intrigues both political and existential.
With its “Akira”-esque cityscapes, explorations of artificial intelligence, identity, and the nature of life in a technology saturated world, and wild soundtrack from Kenji Kawai, “Ghost in the Shell” stands on its own as one of the last great cyberpunk works. But perhaps the greatest endorsement of this cyborg-starring saga is that when The Wachowskis were pitching “The Matrix,” they showed “Ghost in the Shell” to producer Joel Silver and said they would do it for real.
8. The Day The Earth Stood Still
Reverberating through film history with the alien phrase “Klaatu barada nikto,” the 1951 classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” still stands the test of time, and its robot is no exception. Robert Wise, who in his wide-ranging career managed to direct “West Side Story,” “The Haunting,” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” – and all this after editing “Citizen Kane” – created this particular black and white sci-fi tale based on Harry Bates’ 1940 novel, in which a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C.. Klaatu, a humanoid alien and a massive, strikingly designed robot called Gort emerge, setting in motion an early precursor to movies like today’s “Arrival.”
Like many of these robot greats, the movie uses its sci-fi trappings to tell a story about humanity, but more uniquely, in this case its scope encompasses literally all of humanity, as the world tries to manage its response. Key to it all is the strong, silent Gort, who, let’s not forget, was portrayed so ably by 7’7″ actor Lock Martin in a rubber suit.
It’s almost hard to believe one of Pixar’s most beloved movies spends almost 40 minutes without any dialogue and that it centers around a love story between two robots, but “Wall-E” isn’t really a normal movie. Andrew Stanton‘s 2008 masterpiece takes advantage of the unique possibilities of 3D animation to turn its two mechanical leads into universally recognizable characters. In an Earth that’s been covered in garbage and abandoned, WALL-E is the only trash-cleaning robot left, living alone until he discovers the space probe EVE, and the two connect. However, returning humanity to Earth threatens to separate them.
Voiced by legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, the junky robot WALL-E is someone viewers can relate to even though he doesn’t quite speak in words. But through his smaller tale, “Wall-E” pulls back to tell a larger story about humanity, both future and present. And until robots are making movies of their own, isn’t that really what it’s all about?
6. Ex Machina
Anyone who saw the Alex Garland-written “Sunshine” or “28 Days Later” knew he had sci-fi skill, but his 2015 directorial debut is still something to behold. Set almost entirely in one location, “Ex Machina,” is almost like “2001” via chamber play, as programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the chance to stay at tech CEO/genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Iscaac)’s secluded retreat, where he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligence experiment Nathan has placed in a human female-shaped body.
Nathan wants Caleb to run a Turing test (which is where you try to figure out whether an AI is indistinguishable from a real human), by having a series of conversations with her. But once Ava starts attempting to enlist the cyber-lovestruck Caleb’s aid in escaping the basement lab she’s trapped in, “Ex Machina” gets crazy. Nathan bases his AI on how the people use his massive search engines, alluding to how Google programmed an AI they tested not long ago. Real-world allusions like these, coupled with the spectacular CG effects and the amazingly layered performances from Isaac and Vikander, make this a great movie. But what makes it a great robot movie is how victory completely goes to the machine.
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
You could consider this a combined entry with 1984’s “The Terminator,” but in 1991, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” took James Cameron‘s robot menace to the next level. Where the first film was essentially a great horror movie that effortlessly looped in time travel, androids, and other classic sci-fi material, the sequel expanded things to a much more epic scale. Bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800, Cameron made a key decision in having him portray an old Terminator reprogrammed to protect young John Connor instead of kill him, which means now you get to root for him!
But, cool as The Terminator is, the real badass of this movie is Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. In the first movie, she’s already capable enough in trying to escape the Terminator, sent back in time by evil AI, Skynet, to prevent her son from leading the human resistance against it. But in “T2,” she’s been training for another attack and can truly hold her own. With Cameron’s unbeatable action, and the old Terminator vs the crazy, pioneering CG of the liquid-metal T-1000, “T2” is some of the best robot-based cinema you will ever see.
For a constantly-on-cable classic, “RoboCop” sure is weird. It’s easy to forget that within the ridiculously over the top action lies some hilarious, but scarily powerful social satire, all executed in the gonzo vein that can only be described as “Verhoevian.” Who else but “Starship Troopers” and “Total Recall” director, Paul Verhoeven, could take a story about a murdered cop in near-future Detroit who is brought back to “life” as a super-powered robot enforcer, and inject an equally crazy story of gentrification, corporate takeover, and urban decay within?
It’s not just that the Dutch filmmaker’s 1987 masterpiece takes the classic question “can a robot feel?” and brings it to life onscreen, it’s how it surrounds it with insane commercials about nuclear war-based board games, grotesquely banal news anchors, and corporate meetings that regularly seem to culminate in robot-based murder. Ultimately, “RoboCop” isn’t just one of the best and weirdest robot movies. Look beneath the steel-plated armor and you’ll see it’s also one of the robot movies that cares the most.
If not the oldest robot movie, “Metropolis” is certainly up there. Made by German director Fritz Lang in 1925, the silent film was an early example of cinematic dystopia that laid the groundwork for a whole genre to come. Set in 2026 (a full century after the film was made), it follows Feder ,the wealthy son of the ruler of the city of Metropolis, and a poor worker/her robot double, Maria, in a city that’s highly economically unequal (though incredible looking).
Plot aside, though, “Metropolis” is one of those movies that even if you’ve never seen it, you probably recognize elements of from the many other works it influenced. Its extremely elaborate design, inspired by futurism, bahaus, and cubism is possibly even more impressive today than it was 90 years ago, considering the lack of CG. And it’s hard to ignore how much robot Maria’s design resembles C3PO. Perhaps that’s why the soundless movie has been rereleased over the years with new soundtracks by artists like Giorgio Moroder and Freddie Mercury.
2. The Iron Giant
How long is the average blockbuster now? 220 minutes? Yet in only 87, Brad Bird’s animated debut has been making people cry since 1999. Adapted from British author Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel “The Iron Man,” Bird made some key alterations, adding two major characters and changing the setting from England to America, to create this beloved story of a boy and his robot. Set in 1957 not long after the launch of Sputnik, “The Iron Giant” starts with nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes discovering a giant, alien robot that has crash landed in the picutresque town of Rockwell, Maine, with government agents soon following.
Voiced by Vin Disel in his first role as an animated character with a very limited vocabulary, the Giant itself is one of the most memorable movie robots of all time not just for its retro, art deco design, but as a true character. Inspired by Hogarth’s Superman comics, the robot goes from dangerous weapon to true hero in one of the most resonant lines of dialogue ever (thanks, Vin), for a kind of 2D animated movie American studios just don’t make anymore.
1. Blade Runner
This is the one. But for all its alternate versions, cult appeal, dorm room ubiquity, and debate over who is or isn’t a replicant, would you believe that “Blade Runner” was actually a relative box office flop? Today, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick Story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” may be regarded by everyone from film nerds to the Library of Congress as an indisputable cinematic classic, but it barely even made its budget back at first, partially thanks to studio meddling that mangled the theatrical cut.
Today, it’s rightfully become one of the most influential science fiction movies, robot movies, and even just movies in general. Its noir plot seems simple: in the distant future of 2019 (hey, this was made in 1982, ok?), Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is sent to track down and kill four androids known as “replicants.” From its staggeringly inventive cypberpunk Los Angeles sets, to Scott’s beautiful, metaphorical images, “Blade Runner” tells a much more layered story beneath it’s already wowing surface. At the heart of it all lie its truly sentient robots, in a movie that asks not just what robots might be, but what they might mean.
Are there any other cinematic automatons we should have included in this list? Sound off in the comments.
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