Robot themed movies are alive and well in Hollywood. So far this year we’ve had films such as Chappie, about mechanized police officers, and Ex Machina, about a very attractive female robot with high artificial intelligence. And let’s not forget that the villain in this summer’s blockbuster Avengers movie was none other than Ultron, a sophisticated but evil robot bent on destroying the world. Whether they are helping humans or chasing them down darkened corridors, the fascination with robots and what makes them tick continues for movie producers and audiences alike. So as the interest continues, we thought we’d take a look at the 10 best robot characters featured in movies and what makes these artificial beings so memorable.
10. H.A.L. 9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
While not a robot in the truest sense of the definition (H.A.L. has no body and is more of an on-board computer), the character of H.A.L. 9000 deserves a spot on this list for the influence the character has exerted over other filmmakers. Voiced to calm, creepy effect by Canadian character actor Douglas Rain (originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba), H.A.L. functions as the protagonist in 2001: A Space Odyssey as he glitches and then turns on the astronauts aboard the ship he is operating. With his red glowing light and eerily rational voice, H.A.L. set the template for artificial intelligence that becomes “self-aware” and then turns on its masters. The scene where H.A.L. pleads with astronaut Dave Bowman (actor Keir Dullea) as he disconnects his wiring is one of the best in all of science fiction filmdom. Director Stanley Kubrick really was a visionary who was ahead of his time.
9. Johnny Five – Short Circuit (1986)
If you grew up in the 1980s, you no doubt remember the tagline “Number Five Is Alive!” While not a great movie, Short Circuit is a likeable comedy about a military robot dubbed “Number Five” that becomes self-aware after being electrocuted and flees to the suburbs, where it meets actress Ally Sheedy. She renames the robot “Johnny Five” and tries to protect the sweet-natured contraption from the military that wants it back. Eventually Ally Sheedy is joined in her efforts to protect Johnny Five by actor Steve Guttenberg, who plays the scientist that created the robot in the first place. While the film and its 1988 sequel Short Circuit 2 are basically kids movies and played for easy laughs, Johnny Five is memorable enough to make this list, and scores bonus points for looking and behaving like a real robot.
8. Optimus Prime – Transformers (2007)
Sure, Megatron is a bad ass and Bumblebee transforms into a Chevy Camaro, but for sheer heroics and nobility, no robot is cooler than Optimus Prime. Leader of the good guy Autobots, Optimus Prime is like the Abe Lincoln of movie robots—capable of breaking into a stirring speech and leading his troops into battle. He’s also big, strong and tough. If you’re a human being in this film franchise, would you want anyone else protecting you? Director Michael Bay scores points for having actor Peter Cullen, who voiced Optimus Prime in the original 1980s Transformers cartoon television series (which ran from 1984 to 1987) also provide the voice in the movies. And with the four live action Transformers films released since 2007 grossing nearly $4 billion worldwide, it is a safe bet that moviegoers will be seeing more of Optimus Prime in the near future.
7. David – A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
A kinder, gentler robot film, the Steven Spielberg directed A.I. is about an 11-year-old robot boy named David who longs to be real. With obvious parallels to Pinocchio, the movie stars Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) as the robot David, and was based on a concept that director Stanley Kubrick had been working on for years before his death in 1999. Spielberg took over the project, and in his hands the film remains a relatively “PG” affair. Although there is some dark subtext in the fact that child robots, such as David, are used to comfort parents who have either lost a child prematurely or are unable to conceive. Actor Jude Law is creepy as a pleasure robot named “Gigolo Joe,” and who can forget the movies tagline: “Meet David. His love is real. But he is not.” Shiver…
6. Alex Murphy – Robocop (1987)
Forget the recent remake of Robocop, the original 1987 film is the one to watch. Actor Peter Weller plays Detroit police officer Alex Murphy, who is transformed into a cyborg law enforcement officer after being shot nearly to death by evil gang leader Clarence Boddicker (actor Kurtwood Smith) and his henchmen. Violent, bloody and ironic, Robocop is a great science fiction romp that still holds up nearly 30 years after its release. With a great music score and classic lines such as “Dead or alive, you are coming with me,” Robocop is the best film ever about robotic police officers. No surprise that most critics dismissed the film Chappie as a cheap Robocop knock off when it hit theaters earlier this year. Robocop also features a number of other cool robots, notably the “Enforcement Droid,” otherwise known as “ED-209,” which memorably sets its cannons on the engineers who created it in a corporate boardroom.
5. WALL-E (2008)
Leave it to the masters at animation company PIXAR to create one of the most memorable movie robot characters out of a small robot that doesn’t speak and whose main purpose is to collect and process garbage. With large expressive eyes and a collection of signature sounds in the form of blips and bleeps, WALL-E manages to relate to audiences who identify with his loneliness and efforts to follow his heart and pursue EVE, a more advanced robot who unexpectedly lands on WALL-E’s planet. As with the best PIXAR films, WALL-E plays to both children and adults. Kids who see the film love the robot WALL-E, as well as the colorful special effects and space adventure. For adults, the movie says a lot about our current society and the sedentary, overweight, wasteful life that many of us are leading. The movie is so good, many viewers forget that there is very little dialogue in it.
4. The Replicants – Blade Runner (1982)
Arguably one of the best science fiction movies of all time, and a film that seems to get better with age, Blade Runner tells the story of four robots known as “replicants” who go in search of the people who created them after they learn that they have limited lifespans and are about to cease existing. Actor Harrison Ford plays Blade Runner Rick Deckard, a police officer whose job is to track down and destroy replicants that break the law. Deckard is tasked with tracking down the four replicants that have illegally come to earth from the off world colony where they were working as slave labour. Played by actors Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy, each replicant is awesome in its own way. But kudos to Daryl Hannah for her acrobatic turn as robot “Pris,” and Rutger Hauer as the villainous robot leader “Roy Batty.” When Hauer says at the end of the film, “I want more life,” you believe him.
3. Bishop – Aliens (1986)
The first Alien film released in 1979 featured a great robot in the character “Ash,” played by actor Ian Holm. However, the robot “Bishop” from the 1986 sequel Aliens gets the nod on this list. Played by character actor Lance Henriksen (The Terminator, Millennium), Bishop serves as a calming presence in the frantic film as Ellen Ripley and the colonial marines are overrun by hordes of acid spewing Aliens. And while the robot Ash proved to be the villain in the original Alien, Bishop ends up being the hero at the end of Aliens—even after being torn in half to gory effect. With his steady resolve and calm demeanor, Bishop manages to win over the skeptical Ripley. The scene at the beginning of the film where Bishop performs the infamous knife trick is unforgettable, and no doubt resulted in a lot of people cutting their fingers trying to replicate the feat.
2. C-3P0 & R2-D2 – Star Wars (1977)
Like all great movie duos, it is difficult to separate C-3P0 and R2-D2 from one another. They fit together like Laurel and Hardy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Maverick and Goose. And few robots have been more memorable or ingrained themselves more firmly into popular culture. This is a remarkable feat considering that C-3P0 does the talking for both characters. While R2-D2 blurbs and bleeps like WALL-E, C-3P0 talks incessantly and reiterates everything that R2-D2 says. So beloved are these droids that they are the only characters featured in every film in the Star Wars franchise. Functioning largely as the comic relief in the movies, C-3P0 and R2-D2 have become favorites of both adults and children, and they have spawned merchandise that ranges from lunch boxes to remote controlled versions of themselves. There was even an animated Droids television show that ran in the mid-1980s and starred the two robots. Does anyone remember C-3P0s cereal?
1. The T-800 – The Terminator (1984)
Is there a more memorable movie robot than the T-800 played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Terminator film? Menacing and indestructible, the T-800 is literally a one man killing machine in the original movie. With a single minded focus on killing Sarah Connor (played by actress Linda Hamilton) before she gives birth to a future resistance leader, Schwarzenegger is completely believable as a robotic assassin who will not stop until he accomplishes his mission. Clad in biker leather and wearing dark sunglasses, the T-800 is the ultimate nightmare vision of a robot that has no feelings or remorse and will obliterate anything in its path. And while the T-800’s role has changed as the film series has gotten watered down with various sequels (including this summer’s Terminator: Genisys), the robot killing machine from the original James Cameron directed film stands out and is the reason why people everywhere can quote the line “I’ll be back.”