Celebrating sci-fi cinema’s memorable robot butlers

With Robot & Frank out this week in the UK, here’s a look at a few of cinema’s other great robot butlers...

It’s telling that the word ‘robot’ – coined by Josef Capek and first appearing in print in his brother Karel’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots in 1920 – is derived from the Czech word for ‘labour’. Stories of artificial people and automata have appeared in stories for centuries, and it’s often the case that these inhuman constructs are given tasks that their human masters wouldn’t want to do themselves. From the factory-produced workers of Capek’s RUR mentioned above to the eerily blank David in Prometheus, the notion of the robotic servant is a familiar one in science fiction.

It’s a theme touched on in this year’s Robot & Frank, a moving sci-fi drama about an old man’s growing friendship with his artificial carer. Although the titular retired thief Frank (played by Frank Langella) is initially suspicious of the thing, its prowess as a robber’s assistant convinces the old man to attempt one last jewellery heist. With this film in mind, here’s a look at a few of cinema’s other butlers and servants – some of them far more helpful to their masters than others…

Robby – Forbidden Planet (1956)

The archetypal movie robot, Robby was the most expensive aspect of MGM’s lavish Forbidden Planet; the creation of Arnold Gillespie, Mentor Huebner and Robert Kinoshita, the lovably cumbersome mecha cost a then-pricey $125,000 to build. The effort was worth it – not only was Robby the focus of the film’s beautifully-designed poster (nominal leading man Leslie Nielsen being conspicuous by his absence), but he also enjoyed a considerable film career after Forbidden Planet. Appearances in TV shows and his own film followed, and Joe Dante even managed to find a cameo for him in 1984‘s Gremlins.

Speciality: As Walter Pidgeon’s Dr Morbius so carefully explains, Robby is not only a great cook, but can even use his complicated internal systems to synthesise food from scratch. Raw materials are shoved into a slot in his belly, where they’re analysed and replicated by a tiny internal laboratory. This particular function is later exploited by a boozy ship’s cook, who has Robby rustle up 60 gallons of synthesised bourbon. Clearly, this doesn’t conflict with Robby’s compliance to the Three Laws or Robotics…

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Huey, Dewey and Louie – Silent Running (1972)

For our money, the cutest robots in American cinema, these diminutive machines are one of Silent Running’s highlights – alongside Bruce Dern, who stars as a mildly unhinged space hippy determined to save the last remnants of Earth’s plantlife at any cost. With Dern’s character drifting alone through space with his domed greenhouses, Huey, Dewey and Louie become his friends, as they play cards and tend their enclosed gardens together.

Although they’re ungainly and don’t even have the power of speech, the robots are utterly beguiling – and the moment where one of them is suddenly destroyed is enough to make even the most stoic grown adult weep.

Speciality: Sundry ship duties and gardening. Note that this model does have a tendency to cheat at poker.

C-3PO – Star Wars (1977)

In the tradition of Forbidden Planet’s Robby, C3PO is more well-spoken and educated than almost everyone else in Star Wars and its various sequels and prequels. He’s also a terrible coward, though his fluency in “six million forms of communication” means he’s that, while he tends to run around with his arms in the air at the sound of a laser blast, he’s at least useful in diplomatic situations. Although designed as a protocol droid, C-3PO ended up in the custody of young slave boy Anakin Skywalker. It’s here, according to The Phantom Menace’s version of history, that C-3PO first met R2-D2, who would soon become science fiction’s most famous AI odd couple.

Speciality: Terrible in battle but (we suspect) brilliant at crossword puzzles, C-3PO is one of sci-fi’s finest linguists. He’s also good at convincing gullible bears that he’s their god. You never know when an ability like that might come in useful.

Various – Runaway (1984)

In the future according to Michael Crichton’s 1984 action thriller, we’ll all be weighted upon hand and foot by sentient hi-fi systems. Unfortunately, although they’re quite good at cooking meals and putting children to bed, they have an alarming tendency to go beserk, requiring the end user to have Tom Selleck come round and switch the wretched machines off before they sets fire to the curtains. One mischievous robot even starts waving a gun around like a mad gibbon, resulting in the deaths of several unassuming home owners.

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If we read something like, “Warning: product may go mad with a handgun” in our robot’s quick start guide, we’d be very tempted to leave the thing out in the rain and simply do the hoovering and baking ourselves – although a visit from Tom Selleck would be quite exciting. Is he still in the robot disposal business, we wonder?

Speciality: Light household duties, pleasant if vapid conversation, and going haywire – usually after the interference of Gene Simmons out of glam rock band, Kiss.

SICO – Rocky IV (1985)

The most gratuitous robot in cinema history? Quite possibly – but then again, Rocky IV could be described as Sylvester Stallone’s first sci-fi boxing movie in any case. SICO turns up in a handful of scenes as an unlikely birthday present for Paulie, Rocky Balboa’s grouchy brother-in-law. A fetching-looking robot with insectoid eyes and a built-in telephone, SICO’s as 80s as snoods and Bananarama, and all the better for it. It’s thought that the robot is supposed to underline the man-versus-machine subtext running through the whole film, where cold totalitarians and automata-like boxers (particularly those played by Dolph Lundgren) are no match for Rocky’s determination and all-American fighting spirit.

But as the website Popwatch pointed out a few years ago, SICO also fulfils a useful plot function – looking after Rocky and Adrian’s young son while they head off to Russia to end the Cold War. The longer we think about it, the more convinced we are that leaving a child in the charge of what appears to be a piece of experimental military hardware is probably illegal. Best not to tell anyone, though.

Speciality: Serves up birthday cakes with a flourish, doubles as a telephone, and also a backing singer for James Brown (seriously – SICO went on tour with the conquistador of funk in the early 80s).

Andrew – Bicentennial Man (1999)

Robin Williams spent much of this sci-fi weepie clad in prosthetics as Andrew, a benign robot servant who outlives his masters and strives to be recognised as a human being. Portraying Andrew as gentle and creative, Williams puts away the manic excesses of his earlier performances – though director Christopher Columbus does find time for his star to tell a few awful jokes (“How do you make a hanky dance? Put a little boogy in it,” is one of them). Critical notices for Bicentennial Man weren’t kind, but if you can look past the shortcomings of the script, there’s plenty to enjoy in Columbus’ seldom-discussed film; the theoretical question about science’s responsibility to its artificially intelligent creations is explored with a lightness of touch, and even its detractors would surely admit that its ending is a brave one for a mainstream family movie.

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Speciality: Like all the best robot butlers, Andrew’s a great help around the house, and his ability to upgrade himself makes him one of the most long-lasting and reliable machines on this list. His moments of existential longing may put some people off, though, and Andrew’s one of the few robots in sci-fi with the ability to make you feel so guilty about making him do the household chores, you’ll probably end up giving him the night off and doing the washing up yourself.

David – Prometheus (2012)

The fourth robot in the Alien franchise (Ash, Bishop and Call being the other three), David is undoubtedly the most butler-like of the androids we’ve seen so far, even when compared to Lance Henriksen’s corn bread-serving Bishop. Dutifully watching over the slumbering humans on the good ship Prometheus – and creepily, setting some time aside to spy on their dreams – David is essentially doddering Peter Weyland’s batman, catering to his every whim while he hides out in a freezer located somewhere else on the craft.

Once Weyland’s thawed out, David’s servitude is underlined further, as he washes his masters feet – one of the film’s numerous religious references – and acts as a C3PO-like interpreter when Weyland attempts to engage a groggy Engineer in polite conversation. David proves to be less adept at diplomacy than his shiny Star Wars analogue, however, and the whole meeting quickly goes pear-shaped.

Speciality: As David said himself in the film’s viral advertising, he’s capable of performing tasks which humans might find uncomfortable. So if you’re thinking of experimenting with Alien DNA but are too squeamish to perform the task yourself, David’s your droid. Just bear in mind that he has a tendency to lose his head in unfamiliar situations. 

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