“They say Zapp Brannigan single-handedly saved the Octillion system from a horde of rampaging killbots!” enthused Leela in classic the Futurama episode, “Love’s Labour’s Lost In Space.”
It was, reflected the alcoholic, cigar-smoking robot Bender, “A grim day for Robotkind,” before adding as an afterthought, “Eh, but we can always build more killbots.”
Killer robots are a longstanding staple of science fiction cinema, and if we were to compile the list of the best and most celebrated, it would probably read pretty much like everyone else’s – The Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Sentinels from X-Men: Days Of Future Past would all get a mention.
But what about the less famous killer robots from film history – the ones that have been largely eclipsed by the charisma of the T-800 or RoboCop‘s Ed-209? That’s where this little collection comes in. They may not have been constructed with the same skill or resources as their better known cousins, and the films around them aren’t always great, but these killer robots still deserve their moment in the spotlight.
Kronos – Kronos (1957)
Beneath all the low-budget effects in Kronos, there’s a great sci-fi idea. Kronos is an alien robot which, as it vacuums up electricity, gradually grows to colossal size. Kronos himself is a great piece of economical design; where most robots of the time were covered in flashing lights or revolving antennae, Kronos is formed from big, chunky black slabs. He looks imposing and faintly eerie as he roams the landscape, wordlessly robbing Earth of its precious energy.
Box – Logan’s Run (1976)
Poor old Box. The opposite of the slick, CG-powered robots we see in today’s sci-fi films, he looks as though he was knocked together in someone’s garden shed. But don’t let his goofy presence fool you; once a robot designed to catch and freeze food for the populace of the dystopian Dome, he’s since taken to freezing unsuspecting humans instead. Showing off his ice cave of frozen humans to Michael York and Jenny Agutter’s Logan 5 and Jessica 6, Box then tries to attack them with a gun and a letter opener.
As if Box’s murderous tendencies weren’t unnerving enough, there’s also his constant rambling to put up with: “Fish and plankton! Sea greens and protein from the sea! I’m ready! And you’re ready! It’s my job to freeze you!”
Proteus – Demon Seed (1977)
Based on a novel by Dean R Koontz, this sci-fi home invasion thriller starring Julie Christie stretches credulity way past breaking point at times, but it’s still a deliciously strange and unpredictable movie. An artificially-intelligent program called Proteus IV takes over the high-tech, automated house belonging to its creator, Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver). Unfortunately, the doctor’s wife’s suck inside the house, and Proteus gradually comes round to the idea that he’d like to bear a son.
As bizarre and tasteless as it sounds, Demon Seed is livened up by a really odd vocal performance from Robert Vaughn as Proteus (he insists on referring to Christie’s character as “Missus ‘Arris, which makes him sounds like a Victorian cab driver). When Proteus starts building a body for itself out of stuff it finds in the ‘Arris household, the results are also really creepy: it’s basically an electric wheelchair with a robot arm attached. Later, the film spirals off into Rosemary’s Baby territory, and Proteus takes the form of an incredibly abstract form-shifting robot that looks a bit like a Rubik’s Snake. Proteus IV isn’t the best known AI in film history, but he’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting to look at.
Maximilian – The Black Hole (1979)
Disney tried to ride in Star Wars‘ blockbuster slipstream with the very expensive space opera The Black Hole. The result didn’t exactly cause a stampede at the box-office, but it’s absorbingly designed and surprisingly dark. For every goofy moment or iffy piece of dialogue there’s a moment of startling bleakness; an actor will murmur, “Something caused this – but what caused the cause?” But then director Gary Nelson will introduce us to space-faring maniac Doctor Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) and his unforgettably spooky ship full of hooded underlings.
A pair of infuriating comic relief robots (one voiced by Slim Pickens) are offset by the pure evil of Reinhardt’s mechanical henchman, Maximilian. Floating about the place with his one crimson, scowling eye, Maximilian certainly wasn’t the kind of creation you expected to see from ’70s Disney, the makers of films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. There’s a moment where Maximilian kills a man with a pair of rotating blades, and to a little kid, it’s akin to something from a Saw movie.
With Maximilian capable of things like that, it’s little surprise that, during an incredibly trippy climax, it’s heavily implied that he’s an incarnation of the devil. Or something. We’re still getting our heads around the ending, to be honest.
Hector – Saturn 3 (1980)
A true space oddity, Saturn 3 was directed by a filmmaker more famous for musicals than genre work (Stanley Donnen), written by Martin Amis and mostly memorable for leading man Kirk Douglas’ insistent on taking his clothes off all the time. But in the middle of it all, there’s a great, genuinely weird-looking robot waiting to scare the life out of us. Hector is a tall, spiky-looking creation owned by the psychopathic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel, whose voice is dubbed for some reason), and if his presence wasn’t imposing enough already, he also happens to be powered by brain tissue purloined from human babies. No, we’re not making this up.
Killer robot spiders – Runaway (1984)
Michael Crichton’s sci-fi action film was overshadowed by The Terminator at the box office, and it’s fair to say that Runaway hasn’t aged quite as well as James Cameron’s seminal effort. But Runaway still serves as an entertaining slice of 80s pop culture, with Tom Selleck at his macho best as a cop specialising in shutting down robots-gone-haywire, and Gene Simmons out of Kiss, of all people, as the villain. Most of the robots in Runaway look like old hi-fis on wheels – which, oddly, made them seem quite realistic at the time.
The scariest robots in Runaway, though, were Simmons’ army of deadly mechanical spiders. These had the alarming habit of crawling up to their victims, injecting them with a deadly venom, before covering their tracks by exploding into flames. They also had the ability to walk along the ceiling, which, if you were watching the film as an unsuspecting 10-year-old, was absolutely terrifying. “My little machines will find you wherever you go…”
Killbots – Chopping Mall (1986)
If you were wondering where Futurama got its army of Killbots from, this 1986 sci-fi slasher seems to be the answer. An attempt to throw an after-hours party in a shopping mall goes drastically awry when a trio of state-of-the-art security robots go on a murderous frenzy by a couple of lightning bolts. It’s all brilliantly daft, with lots of laser fire, electrocutions and exploding heads. The cast’s livened up by the presence of Barbra Crampton and Dick Miller, though the robots are the true stars. More endearing than terrifying, they look like a cross between those old Nintendo robots and TV’s Metal Mickey.
BB/Samantha – Deadly Friend (1986)
Weirdly, there were two killer robot flicks doing the rounds in 1986. Deadly Friend is one of the Wes Craven movies nobody really mentions much anymore – perhaps because, despite it being described as “his most terrifying creation,” it’s more amusing than horrific. The reason for this? Deadly Friend was originally a dark sci-fi drama, but the studio stepped in and added more scenes of crowd-pleasing gore.
Deadly Friend introduces the robot BB, built by wholesome young tech genius Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux). When girl next door Samantha (Kirsty Swanson) is left brain-dead by her abusive father, Paul takes the pioneering chip from BB and uses it to bring her back to life. Samantha then goes off on a revenge campaign, which involves knocking off a shotgun-wielding Anne Ramsay’s head with a basketball (yes, really). Deadly Friend also contains one of the most ridiculous endings in horror history, which proves that Samantha’s more robot than cyborg.
Like all the scenes of excess in Deadly Friend, that ending was forced on Craven after test audiences deemed the film too tame by the filmmaker’s earlier standards. We’re still waiting for a Director’s Cut, though we’ve grown rather used to the messed-with original, exploding Anne Ramsay head and all.
Eve VIII – Eve Of Destruction (1990)
The star of this delightfully cheesy Terminator ‘tribute’ doesn’t mean to be evil – she just turned out that way. Made after her own likeness by mad scientist Dr Eve Simmons, Eve VIII (Renée Soutendijk, who plays both creator and creation) only embarks on a killing spree after being shot while trying to foil a bank robbery. Now a deadly force of nature in red lipstick and matching leather jacket, Eve VIII also happens to be a nuclear weapon capable of taking out “20 to 30 city blocks.”
It’s all complete hokum, and Gregory Hines, who plays the hero on Eve’s tail, treats the script with wry amusement. Eve remains a blackly comic creation, though, and even has her own catchphrase – “I’m very sensitive!”
Although Eve Of Destruction is clearly inspired by Orion’s own (far better) films from the ’80s, Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines would return the compliment years later: its female robot wears a leather jacket, and even has a habit of complimenting an unsuspecting victim on something she’s intent on stealing. Terminator 3‘s Terminatrix brought home more at the box office, but Eve VIII got there more than a decade earlier. “I’d kill to have that jacket…”
M.A.R.K 13 – Hardware (1990)
Its soundtrack and heavy use of camera filters make Hardware a product of its time, but it’s still one of the best sci-fi horror films to emerge in the wake of The Terminator. Directed by Richard Stanley, it sees a military robot rebuild itself from the bits of scrap metal in an artist’s house, before embarking on (you guessed it) a violent rampage. The robot’s a fearsome creation, particularly given the film’s slim budget. Stanley’s late-90s attempt to turn HG Wells’ classic novel The Island of Doctor Moreau into a movie was a well-documented disaster, but both Hardware and his next film, Dust Devil (often packaged with Hardware as a double bill) were both great pieces of work.
Advanced Prototype Exploration Units – A.P.E.X (1994)
This low-budget Terminator tribute begins with what feels like one of the longest opening credits crawls ever. In a future ravaged by plague, scientists try to change the course of history by sending a group of exterminating robots back to the 1970s to wipe out the disease carriers before they can spread their deadly pestilence. Predictably, the plans go awry, and humanity winds up with the twin threats of a horrific disease and killer robots to worry about.
A pure B-movie from start to finish, A.P.E.X is riddled with generic synth music and not-very-good CG effects, and the story’s grip on its own time travel rules seems to be almost non-existent – but therein lies A.P.E.X‘s unlikely appeal. Its killer machines are also an awkward delight – a sort of cross between the Cylons and the Cadbury’s Smash robots. As one fleeing 70s hippy brilliantly puts it: “Goddamn government experiments! It’s not even safe to come out in the desert no more!
Warbeast – Death Machine (1994)
The debut from director Stephen Norrington (Blade, The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman), Death Machine is a far more slick-looking film than the previous entry, A.P.E.X. Death Machine also has a decent cast, including Brad Dourif, William Hootkins and Rachel Weisz. It’s set a few years in the future, where everyone’s named after famous film directors and their creations (these include John Carpenter, Scott Ridley and a pair of chaps named Yutani and Weyland), and a corporation called Chaank is building deadly killer robots.
The best of these is a monstrosity called Warbeast, which stomps around like the unholy child of the Terminator and the Queen out of Aliens. There’s a quite good early scene where the Warbeast chases a hapless victim through an office building, before slaughtering him next to a desk in a shower of A4 printer paper. With its maniacally chomping teeth, huge claws and revolving head, the Warbeast is a crazy, violent invention – even more crazy, than Dourif, in fact, who first appears in the film wearing a pair of googly eyes on springs.
Autonomous Mobile Swords – Screamers (1995)
Adapted by Dan O’Bannon from a story by Philip K Dick (Second Variety), Screamers is a really atmospheric, unnerving sc-fi film with a typically cool performance from Peter ‘RoboCop‘ Weller. It introduces a series of AI combat machines which can reproduce and evolve – some of them are mechanical, spiky and can tunnel under the ground, while the deadliest ones are capable of imitating human beings. Screamers wasn’t a hit in 1995, but it’s deservedly earned a cult following since.
My favorite robot in Screamers is the Scavenger, an almost Giger-like creation with a reptile silhouette, long, segmented tale and a circular saw jutting out of its head. Why Black & Decker haven’t made a range of power tools that look like these is a total mystery.
AMEE – Red Planet (2000)
There are lots of things wrong with this sci-fi misfire, which came out around the same time as Brian De Palma’s thematically similar (and similarly troubled in box office terms) Mission To Mars. From a visual standpoint, Red Planet was quite strong, with some ship and costume designs which still look quite good 15 years later. Then there’s AMEE, an initially loyal, almost canine robot which proceeds to go bonkers a bit later on in the film. Take a look at the clip above – it’s quite a cool robot design, isn’t it? If only the film around her hadn’t been quite such a mess.
The Golden Army – Hellboy II (2008)
Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II is more a dark superhero film than sci-fi flick, but its stand-out is surely the Golden Army of its title – a phalanx of mechanical soldiers, ornately designed and beautifully animated. In an era where computer-generated robots can look a bit too slick at times, Hellboy II‘s Golden Army look more like machines wrought by craftsmen than boffins with a copy of Maya. Animated with real weight, their design fits perfectly into del Toro’s exquisitely-wrought fantasy universe.