Top 25 screen robots

Technology without warranty: try writing a letter of complaint to the manufacturer with your head torn off...

On the other hand, I don't need to see your papers...

Last year robots were ambiguous; this year they were cute; next year they’ll be tearing our heads off again (unless McG chickens out, despite his promises at Comicon 08). To kick off what looks to be a long Winter of rabid speculation and very cautious leaks from a studio that doesn’t really know what it has yet, we thought we’d look at Hollywood’s mechanoid life to date…

Asimov’s three laws get rewritten for Hollywood robots:

– When faced with an irreconcilable dilemma, a robot must blow up instead of taking any advice on the matter.

– Even the most sophisticated and highly articulated robot will, if severely damaged, reveal itself to be an almost empty tin can with a few wires and sparklers inside.

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– A robot must retain totally human appearance if the producer has shoved most of the special effects budget up his or her nose.– [CLASSIFIED]

Robots have to be natively articulated to get into this list, hence HAL 9000 is absent, along with the Proteus from Demonseed and the bombs in Dark Star. We’ll also be passing over robots in the ‘android’ category, i.e. robots designed to look totally human who never significantly ‘unmask’, such as the well-endowed Katherine-Ross-bot from The Stepford Wives, Lt. Data, Rem from the TV Logan’s Run series and the robots from the Alien films and from A.I. – Artificial Intelligence. But that still leaves us loads of roboty goodness…

25: Cylons – Battlestar Galactica (US TV 1978 | 2004)

There is something ‘flared’ about the trim on the original 1978 Cylons that makes them look as dated as the titles in The Goodies or bell-bottom jeans (before they were ironic or ‘retro’). The remodelled Cylon warriors in the Galactica reboot wisely followed the art-deco route used for the K1 robot (see above) and the fascist-style robot-giants in Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004).

24: Model B-9 Environmental Control Robot – Lost In Space (1965/68 | 1998)

Robot in Lost In Space
Robby The Robot creator Robert Kinoshita was asked to design the Robinson’s house-robot for the 1960s series, but the discordant result suggests that he had some trouble understanding the new sixties aesthetic. While bulky and Robby-esque, ‘robot’ is a clunky creature, who makes a slightly re-designed re-appearance in the 1998 movie after the far more beautiful Deco robot is trashed in an accident and clumsily re-assembled by Will Robinson.

23: The Iron Giant (1999)

The Iron Giant
Another great art-deco cyber-giant, though a rather more benevolent one, in this under-rated animated feature from 1999. What is it about Art Deco that makes it such a good choice for robots? The influence of Metropolis’s ‘Maria’ Gynoid (see waaay above) is still apparent and still irresistible.

22: K-9 – Doctor Who et al(1977 – )

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Despite the temptation to have a robot dog leave little batteries everywhere, the plastic pooch was treated fairly seriously as one of Tom Baker’s assistants, though he often had to be diverted away from the main action as his laser-shooting nose threatened to become an easy escape for any plot-entanglements. Built as the replacement for a dog that a scientist was unable to bring with him to an asteroid research station, The Doctor asked if K9 might like to accompany him on his travels at the end of the tin pooch’s debut in The Invisible Enemy. K9 enjoyed a popular 3-year tenure in Who, going on to star in the failed pilot K9 And Company, and now resident in The Sarah Jane Adventures. A 26-part live-action children’s show is currently being produced in Australia with a radically restyled CGI-based version of the character.

21: K1 – Doctor Who, “Robot” (1977 – )

The experimental K1 robot is arguably the most impressive mechanoid in pre-Ecclestone Who. Standing at over eight feet tall and with very cool art-deco styling finished in aluminium, the gigantic robot suit was impressively mobile, with extending pincers that elongated the arms and diminished the ‘man in a suit’ factor. K1 is a conflicted robot trying to be faithful to Asimov but being used, to his torment, to murder people and further the ambitions of his maker.

20: Cybernauts – The New Avengers (UK TV, 1976)

Clad in hats and long coats that Philip Marlow himself would have thought were too noir, the plastic-faced, karate-chopping Cybernauts threaded in and out of the Avengers shows, but the 1977 episode “The Last of the Cybernauts?” found them at their most ferocious. Expressionless, with murderous single-stroke slayings, these are highly efficient killing machines, and the sound of them doing their worst is very scary indeed. Far as robot design goes, they are, admittedly, pants.

19: Vectrocon robot spiders – Runaway (1984)

When Meccano goes wrong...
For a film that is all about robots, Runaway has few of note. Tom Selleck’s nanny-bot is a ludicrously outdated-looking box on wheels, and most of the robots Selleck hunts down are simple agricultural drones with stripped gears. Blade Runner this ain’t. Nonetheless, the film is enjoyable, featuring a deliciously scenery-chewing turn from Gene Simmons of Kiss fame, as a villain murdering his enemies with bullets that can fly round corners and with metal spiders that inject acid into their victims. The Vectrocon acid-spiders are most effective in the film’s finale, as they pursue a vertigo-plagued Selleck around a precariously balanced lift that is hanging 100 storeys over the city. Aesthetically they look pre-alpha: the Meccano-like construction and pull-toy movement mean you do have to get out and push in order to suspend disbelief.

18: Optimus Prime – Transformers (2007)

Optimus Prime
Mr. Prime will have to stand in for many of his friends and enemies here, so numerous (and often indistinguishable) are the robots in the Transformers universe. Impressively rendered in the 2007 film, my problem with the transmuting robots is that it was a cool idea for a (young) child’s toy to which no plot should ever have been attached. No amount of creativity can justify the absurdity of the premise itself: why would a robot that powerful need to disguise itself as a truck? Volume compression is another problem with the Transformers – there’s no way a 40-ton robot can compress itself into a one-ton car. Add to that the rather ugly design of the robots’ faces – it may be more appealing in Japanese culture – and I can only resign myself as having been too old when the Transformers were a hit in the 80s to really appreciate them now.

17: Johnny 5 – Short Circuit | 2 (1986/88)

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Johnny 5
His personality can grate on you after he gets kid-friendly, but in terms of design, he is exquisite: basically a bomb-disarming robot with recognisable but sketchy anthropomorphic qualities, Johnny 5 has something of the ‘revealed’ exterior styling of Hector from Saturn 3 (below). With war robots deployed in Iraq, military mechanoids are a current buzz, and J5 certainly looks the part.

16: Type 3 – Screamers (1995)

Unfriendly, I think.
Second Variety, Philip K. Dick’s short story about soldiers fighting the insidious, mindless and apparently evolving robot-‘mines’ that they originally laid for their enemies was turned into an under-regarded Dan O’Bannon-scripted film that has some shocking twists and visuals. The most alarming of these is when the ‘type 2’ Screamer unmasks; masquerading as an orphaned boy, the type 3 plays on the sympathies of roaming soldiers in order to be shepherded safely into enemy camps, where it will unleashes its lethal spinning saws. Though ‘android’, human-looking robots are banned here, the one-shot transformation of the adorable boy’s face into a malevolent and nightmarish rictus of sharp knives qualifies as a notable ‘unmasking’. Special mention should also go to the ‘Type 1’ stop-motion screamer that precedes this scene, a rotary-saw with legs, and possibly the last example of good stop-motion work in sci-fi after the advent of Jurassic Park.

15: Gunslinger – Westworld (1973)

I said PICK IT UP!
Though a ‘fully-disguised’ android, the murderous renegade cowboy from Michael Crichton’s 1973 techno-fear classic is facially damaged for long enough to qualify as an ‘exposed’ robot. Yul Brynner’s icy stare and shaven head sold the artifice of the character up until the point where it loses its facial covering. The moment where Richard Benjamin realises that he is in trouble (Brynner has just shot his friend dead in what was supposed to be a fake duel at a cyber-enhanced holiday resort) remains utterly chilling.

14: Marvin, The Paranoid Android – Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, (1978 – 2006)

I'm so very depressed...
A clinically depressed robot with a brain the size of a planet and a scathing riposte for the masters he holds in open contempt, Marvin was arguably the prototype for Bender (see above) and an instant cult hit when Hitch Hikers hit the big time on Radio 4 in the late seventies. Though very effectively voiced by Alan Rickman in the long-awaited 2005 movie adaptation, the role will forever be associated with the monotone provided by Stephen Moore. The 1981 TV adaptation featured one of the worst robot designs ever, but Marvin was more agreeably rendered as a giga-cranial kitchen-appliance in the recent movie (in which the aforementioned TV ‘Marvin’ makes a thankfully brief appearance).

13: WALL-E (2008)

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The volume compression issues affecting Optimus Prime and his chums (see above) applies equally to the garbage cleaning robot from 2008’s delightful animated CGI hit. So capacious are WALL-E’s internal cavities that there is absolutely no room left even for the zippiest and most advanced technology. Almost qualifies as ‘magic’ in terms of robotics. The Bambi eyes that looked so awful on Vincent (see dishonourable mentions) in Disney’s The Black Hole suit our shy metal friend though.

12: AMEE3 – Red Planet (2000)

Amee3 - Red Planet
Writers often stretch robot acronyms beyond endurance (see entry for the Black Hole robots in dishonourable mentions) in the effort to enhance their anthropomorphic aspect, and ‘Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion’ is a bit of a thin excuse to humanise the haywire military robot in Red Planet. Nonetheless it’s a lethal-looking beast that fares better under the CGI treatment than organic enemies. Bipedal or quadrupedal depending on terrain and circumstances, AMEE3 is military technology gone wrong on the surface of Mars, hunting down the stranded astronauts ‘she’ has mistakenly identified as enemies.

11: Hector – Saturn 3 (1980)

If you like external hydraulics, you’re gonna loveHector. Psychopathic Harvey Keitel arrives on the Tethys research station around Saturn to wake up idle wrinkly Kirk Douglas and his lover, the too-young-for-Kirk-Douglas Farrah Fawcett. Trouble is the drug-addled, black-clad looney wants Farrah for himself, and his desires infiltrate his programming of the ten-foot robot that he has brought with him to help get the research back on track. Before you know it Keitel has bitten the dust and the robot is chasing Fawcett round the lonely outpost, presumably with no clear notion of what it will do if it catches her (it doesn’t seem to be fully equipped for the contingency). Hector himself is a walking exoskeleton with an angle poise lamp for a head and an externalised vein-structure containing blood-like fluid which is presumably some kind of oil. His brain is made out of genetically engineered human brain tissue in a cylindrical container in his chest. British effects maestro Colin Chilvers based the ‘flayed’ design of the robot on a Da Vinci painting, and presumably on the church-banned Italian anatomical studies of corpses that informed it.

10: ABC Warrior – Judge Dredd (1995)

Love it or hate it (I seem to be alone in the former category), Danny Cannon’s screen adaptation of Dredd features one of the coolest ‘industrial’-style bots ever, in the form of the ABC Warrior. A decommissioned soldier robot, ABC has a pointlessly large chin, glowing red eyes, stands over nine feet tall and is ludicrously easy to reprogram, as villain Armand Assante is pleased to find out when he is on the lookout for a new bodyguard. Grungey, piston-bursting, steam-driven tech you can believe in.

9: Bender – Futurama (US TV, 1999 – )

Bender - Futurama
Who can’t love a cigar-smoking, hard-drinking, porn-loving, farting kleptomaniac robot with an acid-tongue? Originally built to bend girders for suicide booths, Bender has clearly never heard of Isaac Asimov or any of that three-laws rubbish. Matt Groening plays on the ‘reliable robot’ stereotype to paint Bender as the most human –and certainly the most fallible – of any of the future-dwelling dweebs in Futurama.

8: Huey, Dewey and Louie – Silent Running (1972)

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Drones in Silent Running
Robot designs often require operators of non-standard size. R2-D2’s Kenny Baker is a little person, whereas Lock Martin (Gort, see above) was a giant. The bipedal and very squat service drones in Douglas Trumbull’s ecologically-sound Silent Running were played by amputees Mark Persons, Steve Brown, Cheryl Sparks, and Larry Whisenhunt. The difference in their injuries explains the varying design of the drones. The vacuum-formed shells and dressing weighed twenty pounds each, and convey an authentically mass-manufactured aesthetic. The sussurant language of the drones among themselves is a clear predecessor to the chirpy beeps of R2-D2, and they have been acknowledged as a template for the character.

7: Demolition Robot – I Robot (2004)

Demolition BOt
Andy Chung’s ‘demolition bot’ stands out in the patchy but frequently dazzling Will Smith vehicle as an example of a robot so close to ‘available technology’ that it is hard to believe you can’t order one. The grizzled chevrons and flaky paintwork hint at the heritage of ultra-realistic futurists such as Ron Cobb and Syd Mead. This thing has destroyed a lot of houses; it’s probably not the latest model and is approaching the end of its serviceable life. As with ED 209 (see below), over-sized industrial robots are often the most convincing, bespeaking a state-of-the-art that still needs room to manoeuvre in terms of design…

6: C3P0 & R2-D2 – Star Wars films (1977-2005)

The Droids
They’ve been separated enough over six films (often from their own body parts), so who are we to split them up in this Reckoner? George Lucas created the prissy protocol droid and his intrepid but dumpy beep-speaking partner as the ‘chorus’ in the Star Wars space opera, as well as positing the golden C-3PO as the ‘fool’ of the piece. This instantly-loved comedy duo comprise the only consistent characters in the saga, played in both trilogies by Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker (though ‘prop’ R2s probably represent the majority of the diminutive robot’s appearances). If Darth Vader is Threepio’s father/creator, Maria The Gynoid (see below) is certainly his mum, whereas tripedal Artoo is of such original design that imitations (like V.I.N.C.E.N.T. in The Black Hole) are hard to pull off.

5: Gort – The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Robert Wise’s seminal and luminously pacifist film introduces us to the robot-behemoth which was to influence the covers of pulp sci-fi novels for the next twenty years. Cowboy and jobbing actor Lock Martin – seven foot seven in height – passed exhausting vigils in the bendy Gort suit. The robot was intended to be totally motionless unless undertaking an order, so a pristine mannequin could often stand in. Martin, not an overly strong man, was weakened by the stress of long shooting days in the suit and Patricia Neal had to be suspended on wires (still clearly visible in the film) for the scene where Gort carries her towards the ship. For a successive shot, Neal was herself a plastic dummy! One of the most frightening and powerful cybernetic screen creations ever, its visor-shielded death-ray was the undoubted inspiration for Cyclops in the X-Men. I’ve not yet seen the Keanu Reeves remake, but the film-makers certainly seem to have honoured the art deco design in Gort V2.

4: The Terminator (1984/90 | 2003)

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He's back!
We’re not allowing any cyborgs that started out human into this Reckoner, such as Murphy or Robocop 2, but the fleshy component of the Terminators is manufactured from scratch. Icy and amoral killing machines, the ‘bad’ Terminators in the films so far comprise some of the most exciting robot prosthetics and armatures ever seen on screen, with the exception of the now-dated Robert Patrick quicksilver-bot. Stan Winston’s studio created an extraordinary contribution to big screen robots, the full potential of which was finally tapped in the extra-ordinary ILM ‘blend’ effects in the under-rated T3. But would a machine so advanced really need such an elaborate logic-process to work out that he should tell his moaning landlord to fuck off?

3: Robby The Robot – Forbidden Planet et al (1956- )

Robby The Robot
There are flesh and blood actors who would kill for Robby’s credit list. A cross between the Michelin man and a particularly fetching Swiss time-piece, this masterpiece of fifties styling seemed built to last when it made its debut as Morbius’s amanuensis in Forbidden Planet, but a string of lesser films and TV appearances took its toll, and Robby was ultimately recreated by the Barton brothers in 1975 and launched back into a life of popular convention and TV appearances (even guesting in Columbo). They don’t make them like this anymore. Voiced by announcer Marvin Miller, played (in FP) by the diminutive Frankie Darro and designed by Robert Kinoshita, Robby succeeded in manifesting both the requisite industrial heft and anthropomorphic appeal of a credible robot made to sturdy 1950s standards. Plus he could synthesise 60 gallons of whiskey just by sampling a nip. How on Earth are they going to live up to this in the remake?

2: ‘Maria’ Gynoid – Metropolis (1927)

Maria in Metropolis
Fritz Lang’s extraordinary masterpiece defined a great deal of the visual landscape of science-fiction film in the eighty years since it was made, and the design of the ‘raw’ robot gynoid, a mimetic android that can transform into the appearance of any human, not only pre-figured T2 and C-3PO, but remains an influential template for cybernetic elegance. An extraordinary achievement whether you consider the limited technology of the time or not.

1: ED-209 – Robocop (1987)

This is the only mechanoid in the Robocop films that we can allow, since it’s all robot. Envisaged as a cross between a Huey helicopter from ‘Nam and an overdesigned, high-concept luxury American car, ED’s design concept is lusciously, lickably authentic, from its clumsy external hydraulics to its lumbering and dinosaur-like gait. In repose the droid is a full-scale prop, but is brought to life in action sequences using the Go-motion technique that Phil Tippett perfected for the finale of the otherwise disappointing Howard The Duck. Go-motion is explained simply as ‘jogging’ the model to provide a little blur on each animated frame, avoiding the stroboscopic jerkiness associated with stop-motion. Ed’s fierce roar is a tiger’s played backwards, while his utterly commanding voice is that of Robocop producer Paul Davison, a ‘temp’ vocal stand-in that was ultimately never replaced. This is technology without warranty: if it goes wrong, the owner won’t be around to complain anyway.
Dishonourable mentions:

Robot Monster (1953)

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The horror.
Sometimes quantum leaps come from the cheap seats, and it took small-time director Phil Tucker to solve the age-old problem of how to make a robot look like a gorilla wearing a diving-suit helmet. But solve it he did. If there is any one image that encapsulates the cross-genre madness of splicing horror and sci-fi, it must be the gorilla/robot/alien from Phil Tucker’s 1953 treasure Robot Monster. Basically a man in a moth-addled gorilla suit and a diving helmet with a TV ariel welded onto it, Tucker spared all expense in bringing the demons of his imagination to life. And the horror doesn’t truly begin until the Robot Monster goes into his cave and turns on his deadly bubble-making machine

Sonny – I Robot (2004)

Tightly packed, ergonomic droids like Sonny are a hard sell. The conceptual artists behind I, Robot’s cybernetic protagonist are obviously well aware that it will be a CGI creation operating in protracted close-up among real actors, and used ethereal-looking smoked Perspex to avoid expensive reflection issues and bridge the reality gap. The truth is that Sonny needed a grittier and more practical look, and successfully rendering something which wouldn’t have looked ‘real’ even if it had actually been there is a pointless evasion.

Twiki – Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (US TV, 1979-81)

Bidi bidi bidi
Twiki was a disco-dancing Artoo clone foisted on Gil Gerard in the Buck Rogers movie (Europe only) and US TV series. Tempted to completely ape the incomprehensibility of R2-D2 with an annoying ‘Bidi-bidi-bidi’ refrain, it seems that Glen A. Larson ultimately decided that this would prove problematic in advancing storylines, and had him speak English too, in the gruff tones of long-time Looney Toons artist Mel Blanc, who blended Yosemite Sam and Porky Pig to achieve a streetwise, Noo Yoik cadence. Apparently inspired by Shogun warriors, the short-arse droid was played physically by Felix Silla.Metal Mickey (UK TV, 1980-83)
Another fecking disco robot. Not even original enough to rip off Artoo directly, Mickey Dolenz’s annoying and faintly simian sit-com droid drew his inspiration from Buck Rogers’s Twiki (see above), substituting ‘Boogie boogie boogie’ for ‘Bidi bidi bidi’. Writer Colin Bostock-Smith’s long tenure with Terry And June was an ill-omen for this tale of a domestic robot cooked up by a swotty kid, and raised nary a titter nor a chortle. It ran for three years anyway.

V.I.N.C.E.N.T. – The Black Hole (1979)

The most blatant of the R2-D2 clones, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. stands for ‘Vital Information Necessary, CENTralized’. Or maybe they just wanted a cute acronym, you call it. With a swivelling, retractable head and an unconvincing Hammerite finish, this floating caricature with Bambi eyes was the biggest clue that Disney were behind The Black Hole. Worse yet, what the hell is a machine doing with telepathic powers? The strings were hard to hide, and most of the successful suspension shots were achieved by armature support from behind or below. A previous and even-more-annoying model of this droid appears in the film, the beaten-up BOB, voiced in a cartoon manner by Slim Pickens. On the plus side V.I.N.C.E.N.T. himself is voiced by the reliable – but uncredited – Roddy McDowall.

Box – Logan’s Run (1976)

Box in Logan's Run
“Overwhelming, am I not?” boasted Roscoe Lee Browne under a paltry veneer of aluminium foil in the ‘ice-caves’ sequence of Logan’s Run. Well, really…no. This particular droid is aptly-named at least, since it is basically just a shiny box trundling around with a remote controlled air and a fine actor sticking out the top of it, safe in the knowledge that no-one will recognise him anyway. But you have to remember that back in 1976, aluminium trim and shiny tin-foil looked like the future, since the shop-worn production design of Star Wars was a year away.

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