We’re all well aware of cinema’s more charismatic and famous robots. RoboCop, and his arch-nemesis ED-209. The Terminator. The beloved, bobble-legged Robby from Forbidden Planet. These are the celebrities of science fiction cinema, who would probably get the best seats in restaurants if they existed.
But what about those other robots in genre cinema? The awkward robots, the ungainly robots, the robots who suddenly appear in a movie and receive only hoots of bemusement or outright scorn for their trouble?
This article is dedicated to those less fortunate robots. Whether they’re strangely covered in fur, have a predilection for throwing basketballs, or simply don’t have a reason to be in a movie at all, they’ll find a safe haven here, as we give these artificial friends the recognition they deserve…
Ro-Man: Robot Monster (1953)
Poor Ro-Man – or Ro-Man Extension XJ-2, to give him his full name – director Phil Tucker had so little money to make his invasion movie Robot Monster, he couldn’t even afford to make Ro-Man a proper robot, as the story demanded. What Tucker did have, however, was a friend (George Barrows) who happened to have stitched together his own gorilla outfit, so the director simply crammed a space helmet on his head, and – presto – the terrifying Ro-Man was born.
Now widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made, Ro-Man has become the epitome of the shambling 50s monster – a pity, really, since Tucker’s film was nothing if not ambitious; inept though its effects are, it nevertheless contains everything you’d expect from a period sci-fi movie, including rockets, a death ray, a screaming lady, and even some (reportedly) quite good 3D. Even the Clash Of The Titans remake didn’t manage to get its 3D right, and it had a budget of about $125million.
Although Ro-Man doesn’t strike fear into our hearts, he’s at least a memorable robot, even if he doesn’t particularly look like one. Barrows, meanwhile, got great mileage out of that homemade gorilla outfit, and wore it in several films and TV shows through the 50s and 60s.
Chanti: Devil Girl From Mars (1954)
It’s not often that aliens invade Scotland, but Nyah, this film’s titular Martian devil woman, ends up in the Highlands on her way to London. Hilariously, a female political uprising on Mars has left men emasculated and unable to procreate, so Nyah’s on a mission to find virile Earthmen to take back home and replenish her planet’s population.
Although her spaceship isn’t particularly reliable (hence her pit stop on a desolate moor), she’s well protected; not only does she carry a raygun that looks like an aerial torn from the top of a television, but she also has a personal guardian in the shape of Chanti. He may stagger around like a man trapped in a cardboard box, but Chanti packs a terrifying death ray that can dissolve the husk of a tree in seconds. Behold his power:
Kronos: Kronos (1957)
“You’ll have to be shock-proof to withstand the emotional assault of science fiction’s biggest thrill sensation!” promised this fabulously cheesy 50s invasion flick, directed by B-movie specialist Kurt Neumann (Rocketship X-M, The Fly) and starring Jeff Morrow (This Island Earth, The Giant Claw).
The biggest robot on this list, Kronos is an alien ‘Destroyer of Worlds’ who emerges from what appears to be an ordinary crashed meteorite, and begins sucking energy from power stations. As he does so, he grows to the size of a skyscraper. Doctor Gaskell (Morrow) soon learns that Kronos is actually an alien machine designed to strip planets of their energy, and that even dropping nuclear bombs on the thing will only cause it to grow to even greater size (‘Failure!’ screams the following day’s newspaper headline).
As well as the largest robot, Kronos is also among the most minimal in this run-down; essentially a pair of roving onyx blocks with twin antennae sprouting out of a dome at the top, there’s something disarmingly bold and odd about the way he’s designed – lacking the usual wobbly legs of most 50s robots, Kronos instead roams the landscape on piston-like stilts.
Like any monstrous invader, Kronos’ Achilles heel is soon found; by somehow reversing its polarity, Doctor Gaskell manages to trick the power-hungry machine into consuming itself. A pity – with a bit of taming, Kronos would have made a fabulous novelty vacuum cleaner.
Box: Logan’s Run (1976)
When this silver-clad robot comes trundling into an ice cave, even actors Michael York and Jenny Agutter look surprised. This particular robot is named Box (voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne), who was once intended to catch and freeze animals for the film’s future society to eat.
As well as freezing food, Box has also taken it upon himself to freeze humans attempting to flee from the dystopian Dome – a place where all humans are vaporised at the age of 30. “Fish and plankton! Sea greens and protein from the sea!” the alarmingly shambolic, very sparkly robot rambles. “I’m ready! And you’re ready! It’s my job to freeze you!”
With a cackle, Box produces his deadly weapons – some sort of laser gun, and what can only be described as an electric carving knife. Compared to the sorts of robots George Lucas would bring to the screen just one year later in Star Wars, the wobbly Box looks like something from a bygone age. But like so many robots on this list, there’s something quite endearing and homemade about his tin foil face and angular metal skirt. And besides, what he lacks in good looks, he more than makes up for with that mad, babbling voice of his.
Proteus IV: Demon Seed (1977)
Artificially intelligent machines tried to take over the world before and after Demon Seed, of course (see Colossus: The Forbin Project and The Terminator), but few rampaging computers are as weird as this 1977 film’s Proteus IV.
When a semi-organic computer designed by scientist Dr Harris (Fritz Weaver) begins to think for itself, it quickly begins to display a worrying fascination with human bodies. “When are you going to let me out of this box?” Proteus asks the doctor, in the creepily hushed tones of actor Robert Vaughn.
When Dr Harris mocks Proteus’ question, the computer begins to formulate an escape plan. It takes over the doctor’s automated house, trapping his wife Susan (Julie Christie) inside, and slowly builds a robot body for itself out of various components and metal appendages. The resulting robot – an electric wheelchair with a whining mechanical arm – is a quite disturbing-looking thing, and its infatuation with Mrs Harris grows to almost Cronenbergian extremes, as Proteus decides it wants to sire a half-human, half-mechanical child…
A kind of sci-fi fusion of Westworld’s robots on the rampage and Rosemary’s Baby, Demon Seed provided a thanklessly unpleasant role for poor Julie Christie, and like Logan’s Run‘s Box, was eclipsed somewhat by the more wholesome Star Wars.
Elle: Starcrash (1978)
If you’ve recently come back from watching Ben Affleck’s superb Argo, and wondered what its titular Star Wars knock-off movie might have looked like, Starcrash provides the possible answer. Knocked together by Italian director Luigi Cozzi, and featuring performances from Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff, its attempt at stirring around the elements of George Lucas’s hit on a low-budget resulted in a delightfully awful camp classic.
After Star Wars, any sci-fi adventure needed a robot side-kick with a faintly neurotic personality, and Starcrash’s contribution to the genre was Elle, a jet-black automata with a suggestively-shaped head and the voice of a jittery Texas oil baron.
Although less famous than C-3PO or R2-D2, he does at least get some of the movie’s best lines. “Don’t move, or I’ll shoot your queen!”
Hector: Saturn 3 (1980)
With veteran director Stanley Donnen (Singin’ In The Rain, Funny Face) onboard, as well as a script by hot young writer Martin Amis, Saturn 3 should have been a classy movie. Instead, it’s almost as cheesy as Starcrash, and memorable largely because Kirk Douglas keeps taking his clothes off all the time (something Amis referenced in his novel Money).
The real star of the piece, though, is the incredibly elaborate Hector, a robot Harvey Keitel’s character, Captain Benson, jacks into and controls with his mind. Unfortunately, Hector runs on baby’s brains (yes, really) and soon adopts Benson’s homicidal personality. Before long, he’s rampaging around a space station, scaring Farrah Fawcett and killing her pet dog, Sally.
It’s all incredibly silly, but Keitel’s stern demeanour (but not voice, which was dubbed by Roy Dotrice for some reason), plus some quite stylish lighting and set design make it just about worth watching. And then there’s Hector, whose stylish, retro design make him the true star of the show.
SICO: Rocky IV (1985)
The most gratuitous appearance of a robot in cinema history? Quite possibly. What began with an Oscar-winning drama had, by 1985, mutated into a jingoistic revenge movie featuring Dolph Lundgren as towering Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago.
SICO, an LED-encrusted robot who’s given to Rocky’s bitter brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) as a birthday present, has been cited as a symbol of the movie’s underlying theme: humanity versus technology. Just as Paulie grumpily dismisses the robot as a “walking trashcan”, so Rocky trains by carrying logs and running in the snow while Drago pumps iron in a high-tech gym. You could even argue that Ivan himself is a sort of robot, brainwashed into submission by evil, evil communism.
Looking like a cross between a Dalek and a housefly, SICO may not have impressed Paulie, but he soon gained his own cult following; James Brown (who performed Living In America for the film) went on tour with SICO later in the 80s, and the robot also made a cameo appearance in an episode of Family Guy.
BB: Deadly Friend (1986)
Did you know Kristy Swanson was once turned into a robot? Well, she was, in one of Wes Craven’s less widely discussed horror movies. Deadly Friend tells the story of Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux), a young science genius who’s built his own artificially intelligent robot named BB. When sweet-natured girl next door Samantha (Swanson) is left half-dead by her abusive father, and BB’s destroyed by a shotgun wielded by Anne Ramsay, Paul has the not-so-smart idea of fixing Samantha’s shattered brain with a chip taken from the robot.
Samantha is then revived as an inhumanly strong, avenging killing machine. Deadly Friend is an odd mix of youthful fantasy (with a young cast who could easily have appeared alongside Ramsay in The Goonies), domestic abuse and fairly extreme moments of gore: Ramsay, for example, has her head shattered into a gory mess by a basket ball thrown very, very hard.
BB, meanwhile, is perhaps the ultimate 80s robot, with his pincer hands and ominous round eyes. It’s worth hanging around for the ending, too, where BB makes an unexpected and extremely strange reappearance.
Jinx: SpaceCamp (1986)
In the mid-80s, a group of school children were sent into space by mistake. What was the reason for this disastrous blunder? A mechanical error? Computer malfunction?
No. It was all the fault of Jinx, the ‘overly-literal’ robot. Having overheard his 12-year-old friend Max (Joaquin Phoenix) exclaim “I wish I were in outer space” (good use of the subjunctive mood for such a young kid), Jinx sneaks into NASA’s control room, and while Max and four other youngsters are cheering and whooping in the cockpit of the space shuttle, engages the launch procedure.
With his round body and tiny head, Jinx looks a bit like a Sputnik satellite with a baked bean tin resting on top. And if his throaty voice sounds oddly familiar, that’s because he’s played by Frank Welker, the ubiquitous voice artist of such 80s cartoon characters as Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters and Uni in Dungeons & Dragons.
He may look and sound reasonably cute, but it’s worth remembering that, although he drones on about “Best friends forever”, Jinx almost managed to kill more people than Hector, Kristy Swanson and Proteus IV combined.
Presumably, the scene where the crew of the space shuttle, having just about made it back to Earth, scramble out and kick Jinx into a small pile of scrap was deleted before release.