With the release of Robot and Frank, a sweet-hearted film about an Alzheimer’s patient and his mechanical companion, we’re reminded of our top-10 favourite movie robots. (For the sake of brevity, we’ve decided to disqualify supercomputers and cyborgs, with all due respect to HAL and Robocop.)
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10. Robby the Robot, Forbidden Planet (1956) This cheesy 50s sci-fi (which stars an impossibly young Leslie Nielsen when he was an ostensibly serious leading man) was one of the first movies to feature an actual robot character, with a personality and significant dialogue. His creaky, clanging tin body became iconic, and was used as a model for bots in other important fantasies, like Lost in Space.
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9. The Stepford Wives (1975) While this movie is not one of the best intelligent genre films of its era, it has been one of the most durable, a startling, slow-boiling horror story in which the patriarchy of a small town has (perhaps literally) turned accomplished women in doting, domestic nanny/slave bots. Especially resonant, and unsettling, in the year of the “war on women.”
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8. Gigolo Joe from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) When Stephen Spielberg cast Jude Law as a sexbot with a heart of gold, it was almost too on-the-nose. Law has always been an uneasy presence onscreen, his good looks almost uncanny, as if he were reverse-engineered for perfect filmable angles. No wonder they barely had to dress him up to play a convincing droid.
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7. The Iron Giant (1999) The IG is basically a hulking metal King Kong, a well-meaning but grotesque Other who comes into conflict with ignorant humans. This underrated cartoon is a parable about how people are often quick to choose violence in the face of unfamiliarity, a message apparently too sophisticated for kids movies in the pre-Pixar era.
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6. Ash from Alien (1979) When it’s revealed that Ash has been working on a secret corporate prerogative near the end of the movie, it’s not terribly surprising, given Ian Holm’s unsettling performance. Ash is the perfect embodiment of a theory in animation called “the uncanny valley” – the more a cartoon character looks like a realistic person, the more audiences are creeped out by the tiny imperfections. Turns out, the scariest enemy is one that looks almost exactly like us.
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5. Maria in Metropolis (1927) The first-ever movie robot is still among the most recognizable, a sleek, curvy automaton fatale who drives an entire society mad with lust, despite her unsmiling metal facade.
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4. The replicants in Blade Runner (1982) Another movie about the thin line between man and machine, Blade Runner has perhaps the most sympathetic robots put on film, a loyal and hunted band of misfits who care about each other, even while the humans around them have become mercenary and selfish.
1996-98 AccuSoft Inc.
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3. Wall-E (2008) This adorable little bot pretty much single-handedly saved humanity from a future of sloth, Slurpees and morbid obesity (in the movie, but tragically, not in real life). At the beginning of Wall-E, the hero-robot is the ultimate post-capitalist, obsessed with the souvenirs of a collapsed economic system, like plastic spoons and silly tchotchkes. But by the end, he is able to reform and help rebuild Earth with a newfound value placed on the simple joys of community and agriculture. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us?
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2. The droids from Star Wars (1977-2005) If Star Wars was the first space opera, then perhaps the droids were the first genuinely cute robots. Even without a face, R2D2 is rendered adorable by his various bleeps and bloops. C-3PO, meanwhile, is the most harmless bot there is – Anthony Daniels’s voice seemed to be set on a kind of permanent, high-pitched whine. If androids of the future are going to have half the neuroses of Luke Skywalker’s translation droid, the “robot overlord” question is bunk. We have nothing to worry about.
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1. The Terminator (1984) With technology leaping forward in unpredictable ways, the first two Terminator movies are becoming important documents of man’s uneasiness with the march of intelligent machines. If they can shoot, run, ride motorcycles and quip half as well as Ah-nuld, we’re doomed.