Where would science fiction be without robots? Surrogates would be a lot shorter, Isaac Asimov would be less famous and Star Wars would have to find another source of comic relief. In honour of our great movie robots, here are a few of the best and worst synthetic life-forms to hit the silver screen.
James Cameron’s Aliens is widely regarded as one of the finest sequels ever made, and rightly so. Cameron’s biggest strength is building a solid, stand alone sequel that still totally inhabits the world created by its predecessor. Both Alien and Aliens feature lifelike androids in pivotal roles. Lance Henriksen’s Bishop is one of the most intriguing movie androids, looking perfectly human and yet adopting mannerisms and speech patterns that set him well apart from his human co-stars. It’s a great piece of acting, and an atypical role for the genre.
No discussion of movie robots would be complete without a trip to the Terminator series. The killer cyborgs from the future have survived four successful trips to the box office now without losing the audience’s favour. This is probably due, in part, to their timeless skeletal design, but is helped by the excellent time-bending plots of the first two films.
A more obscure entry, but a personal favourite. AMEE is the robot antagonist of the massively underrated Red Planet. Taking place during mankind’s first manned trip to Mars, AMEE is a military robot re-purposed for exploration that has a bit of a mishap after a crash landing. Produced with some really remarkable CGI, AMEE had a real dynamic, tactile quality that sets her apart from the crowd.
The Next Generation movies were something of a mixed batch, but Data was a prominent bright spot throughout all four. Each entry takes the opportunity to develop the character in ways that were never really explored on the TV series. Over the course of the films, Data explores emotion, temptation, learns how to play and finally sacrifice, in the otherwise mediocre Star Trek: Nemesis. Not all characters transition well from the small screen, but Data works perfectly. Now if only we could say the same about his grease-paint makeup.
Number 5 has not seen an outing since the 80s, but the star of the Short Circuit movies should be turning up in a remake sometime soon. Originally designed as a military robot, Number 5 is brought to life after being struck by lightning. This is one of the best movie robots in terms of design and puppetry; Number 5 features no human features but still manages to be emotive and sympathetic. No doubt the design will be changed when the remake does come along, but hopefully it will still retain some of its charm.
Not all movie mechanoids are so inspiring though, here are a few of the more mundane attempts.
I feel a little bad picking on Terminator 3, surely it’s had its bumps by now, but I could not leave the T-X off the list. Pitched as “A Terminator to kill Terminators,” the T-X just doesn’t work. Never does the T-X provide the same level of threat as the liquid metal T-1000 of Terminator 2, and it lacks the same purity of concept. It’s never quite clear how the T-X really works. It has an endoskeleton, covered in liquid metal, presumably to give it a best of both worlds gimmick, but it just seems to hinder both philosophies. Where the T-1000 had rules governing its function, the T-X has none. In the end, Terminator 3 resorts to giving the T-X an endless list of gimmicky superpowers to get it out of any situation which kills any real tension.
About the only good thing that can be said about Mechani-Kong is that it was created by a character named Dr. Hu, not to be confused with a certain Time-Lord with a British accent. An absolutely awful opponent from King Kong Escapes, one of the Japanese King Kong spinoffs. Mechani-Kong’s place on this list is secured by having perhaps the most ludicrous origin story in cinematic history. Dr. Hu creates Mechani-Kong to dig out a substance known as Element-X from the Earth’s core. His custom made giant gorilla robot proves inadequate for the task, however, and Dr. Hu decides to hypnotise and kidnap the real King Kong to dig for it instead. When King Kong breaks free of his trance, Mechani-Kong is sent to take him down, despite previously being judged incapable of digging through dirt. A movie so bad is has to be seen to be believed.
Sure, the Lost in Space movie was no classic, but it did have a pretty big budget. Perhaps that’s why the robot design is a such a disappointment. This remote control weapon is lacking in character that when the goofy 60s style design is reintroduced towards the end, it actually looks cooler. It just goes to show you, all the money in the world can’t buy charm.
Data’s older, older brother. Another bad decision from Star Trek: Nemesis. It’s hard to know what to hate the most about B-4. Perhaps it’s because the character’s introduction manages to completely ignore the existence of the character Lore, or perhaps it’s because B-4 just fills the typical idiot sidekick role. However, I think what bothers me the most is that the inclusion serves mainly as a back door exit from the film’s climax should it prove unpopular.
And here it is, my least favourite movie robot of all time. This is another of the Alien androids and one of the few elements of Alien Resurrection that seems to call back to the well established world of the first film. However, the character is just so thoroughly awful. I have nothing against Winona Ryder, I wouldn’t even say she was miscast, simply that Call is completely at odds with the rest of the film. Alien Resurrection is a dirty, slightly surreal film that has more in common with Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element that Ridley Scott’s Alien, but Call is such a flavourless character that her very presence grates with every second of screen time.