Robots: The history of mechanical men in cinema
BRING ON THE BOTS: FAMOUS ROBOTS of SCI-FI CINEMA.
We all love robots, don’t we? What would science fiction be without them? Throughout the decades, Robots have not only been a popular and important part of the sci-fi genre, they have also frequently acted as metaphors for cultural views on the technical and cultural issues of the time. Robots make excellent symbolic representatives for the problems facing society. And aside from that, they’re just a whole lot of fun. Robots can have all sorts of powers and abilities. They can be funny or menacing. That’s why we love them.
The term “robot” was coined just after WW1 by a Czechoslovakian playwright named Karel Capek in Prague for his stage play “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The name comes from the Czech word “robota”, meaning “to work”. The term caught on and robots have becomes part of popular culture. This article focuses on the cinematic history of robots.
The first significant movie robot appeared in the 1927 German silent masterpiece Metropolis. The film depicted a futuristic urban dystopia where the divide between the powerful rich and the suffering poor had become immense. The downtrodden working class planned to rebel, led by the benign and altruistic Maria. However, the bad guys were way ahead of them. Maria was kidnapped and replaced by a robot duplicate, designed to lead them into a trap. This Mecha-Maria knew how to party and did a naughty, naked dance for a group of rich men (A rather daring scene for 1927) before leading the poor into peril.
The film was an anti-capitalist reactionary warning, where the workers had become part of the machinery; slaves indistinguishable from the dynamos and turbines that powered the Utopian upper city where the rich lived in luxury. Mecha-Maria represented this by being physically identical to a real woman of the worker class. When the workers trusted the machine, (however unknowingly) it led them to disaster.
For decades after Metropolis, robots were invariably depicted as weapons of destruction. A good example of this was in the laughable, low budget serial The Phantom Creeps (1939) starring Bela Lugosi. Bela played a mad scientist who wanted to use an invisible army (AKA “Phantom Creeps”) to take over the world. He also had an 8 foot killer robot he called “the Iron Monster”. There was no social commentary in this serial and the Iron Monster was just your garden variety monster henchmen for the Mad Doctor.
The theme of the deadly robot had become so engrained by the 40s that it took a major league hero to thwart a bad guy who used robots to do his bidding. Therefore, it became a job for Superman! The Mechanical Monsters (1941) was the most popular entry in the series of animated Superman shorts by Max Fleischer Studios. Who else but the heroic and powerful Man of Steel could stop a marauding hoard of killer robots?
Evil robots were not only made on Earth, they also came from outer space to invade our little green planet, such as in The Robot Monster (1953). This notoriously terrible movie is justifiably a contender for the title of Worst Film of All Time. The villain, Ro-Man of the Ro-Men, came to conquer the ‘hu-mans’, using a machine that blew bubbles. Ro-Man was a ludicrous creation. His body was a cheap gorilla suit and his head was a diving helmet with rabbit-ear antennas. The film’s budget was microscopic and the plot was so bad, it was hilarious. It doesn’t get much worse than this.
Things got better for robots when they started being portrayed as servants of the good guys instead of just evil scientists and hostile aliens. Post WW2 industrialization brought a feeling of national pride to the United States. Technology helped us come out of the war as the greatest world power.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953) was a ground breaking sci-fi film in many ways. One of its innovations was “Gort”. Gort was the 8 foot robot Policeman assigned to assist intergalactic emissary Klatu (Michael Rennie), who came to save humanity from its own short-sightedness. Although Gort had no personality to speak of, he was technically the first significant robot good-guy in films.
Another loyal robot sidekick came to the screen in Forbidden Planet (1956), starring Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis. The film introduced the world to Robby the Robot. Robby became one of the most iconic robots of sci-fi and even appeared in an episode of the Irwin Allen TV series Lost in Space, where he fought another famous cyber star, the bubble headed TV icon known only as “Robot”.
Robots come in all shapes and sizes, such as in the form of a giant metal ape. King Kong Escapes (1967) featured that super-sized simian King Kong battling his evil duplicate Robo-Kong, who served the evil Doctor Who (No, not the guy with the TARDIS.) Flesh and blood Kong represented the United States who were the protectors of Japan at the time, while Robo-Kong exemplified Japan’s fear of powerful weapons, such as the H-bomb.
By the early seventies, Japan had a thriving anime industry and one of their most popular creations was Gigantor; an obedient giant robot who protected Japan from a succession of evil giant robots. Gigantor was popular with kids, as was that legendary lizard leviathan Godzilla. Toho studios, who produced the Godzilla films, decided to cash in on Gigantor’s popularity by creating a rip-off called Jet Jaguar. Jet Jaguar joined forces with Godzilla to battle a pair of menacing monsters in Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973).
Godzilla hadn’t seen the last of cybernetic co-stars yet. Since King Kong had already fought a robot duplicate, it was only natural that the King of the Monsters face his own techno-imposter. Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster (1974) introduced fans to Mecha-Godzilla, possibly Godzilla’s most formidable foe. Mecha-Godzilla was so popular that he was brought back for the next Godzilla film, The Terror of Mecha-Godzilla (1975) to battle our reptilian hero once again. Mecha-Godzilla reappeared years later in the revamped Godzilla franchise. Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla (1993) was one of the best entries in the new franchise.
Disney World opened in 1971. A few years later, the film Westworld (1974) parodied the animatronic entertainment of the popular theme park by postulating the idea of a whole theme planet. Instead of animatronic dummies, the planet Delos used robots based on famous fictional characters. The Gunslinger Model 406 was based on the Yul Brenner character Chris from The Magnificent Seven (Brenner also played the Gunslinger robot) but unfortunately for the visitors to Delos, Gunslinger 406 started to run amok, shooting the guests.
The Stepford Wives (1975) used robots as a metaphor for the extreme viewpoint of opponents to the 1970s Woman’s Liberation Movement. The men in the film, intimidated by the idea of their once subservient wives becoming independent women, replace them with robot duplicates.
And what list of cinematic cybernetic stars would be complete without C3PO and R2D2, the Abbott and Costello of robots? Star Wars 4: A New Hope (1977) introduced the world to the comical mechanical duo and they’ve been beloved ever since. C3PO was polite but cowardly, constantly taking his frustrations out on his tiny partner. R2D2 was brave and resourceful; an indispensable ally to his human masters. The two pop cultures icons returned in a pair of Star Wars sequels Star Wars 5: the Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars 6: the Return of the Jedi (1983). They were also characters in the three prequel films Star Wars 1: the Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith (2005). They are arguably the most well known robots in movie history.
Alien (1978) was the beginning of a franchise that gave us differing views on mechanical men. The original Alien gave us Ash (Ian Holm), an android programmed to sacrifice his human crewmates in order to achieve an objective. In the sequel Aliens (1989) the “artificial person” Bishop (Lance Henriksen) was likable and loyal, sacrificing himself to help Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) defeat the alien menaces. So why the change in the view of robots during the decade gap between films? Perhaps because in 1989, the technology of entertainment and convenience had grown, becoming common in the household (VHS, cable TV, video games, cordless telephones, etc.) like members of the family.
A re-edited version of the three hour TV pilot for Battlestar Galactica (1979) was released theatrically. Meant to cash in on the success of Star Wars (George Lucas sued the producers of Galactica for ripping him off), Galactica gave us the sinister Cylons; machines who’s only purpose was the eradication of the human race. The Cylons basically wiped out the humans species, and the survivors fled on a quest to locate the lost colony on Earth. In the film (and the series), humans represented faith and hope for the future, whereas the soulless machines represented death. The message of the film and the series was humanism over technology. A superior remake of Battlestar Galactica debutedon television in2004. The Cylons were portrayed there as religious zealots, worshiping a monotheistic God, battling the humans who worshipped a polytheistic pantheon.
Debuting the same year was another re-edited TV pilot released as a theatrical feature. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), starring Gil Gerard, was a light-hearted, action film based on the old comic strip. Buck had an incredibly annoying robot sidekick called “Twiki” (Voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc of Looney Toons fame) who alternated between speaking hip 1970s Earth slang and making a strange “Bitty-bitty-bitty” sound.
The cult classic Blade Runner (1980) starring Harrison Ford, gave us a very unique interpretation of cybernetic beings. The “Replicants” of Blade Runner feared death. They had the same survival instincts that we humans have. They desperately searched for a way to expand their short existence. (Replicants had a four year life span.) They cared for their fellow androids and angrily sought revenge when one of their one was destroyed. They weren’t supposed to have emotions but they clearly did. In one beautiful scene, boss replicant Roy (Rutger Hauer) realized he was about to die and lamented that all the things he’d seen and done would disappear with him. He spared his enemy because in his final moments, he loved all life.
The reliable old concept of man-vs.-machine was used to excellent effect in The Terminator (1984), the film that made Arnold Schwarzenegger into a household name. The story was about a powerful machine-man assassin from 2029 that time-traveled back to the 80s to kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), the mother of his enemy John Conner before John was born. The Terminator was hard to destroy and it absolutely would not stop until its target was dead. The back-story of The Terminator franchise regarded a soon-to-come machine revolution where the Terminators battled humans in a savage war.
The Terminator was made during a tense period of hostility between the Ronald Regan administration and the USSR. Nuclear War was a distinct possibility. We had the technology to destroy ourselves. The machine war in The Terminator embodied this fear. In Terminator 2 (1991), we had two Terminators fighting each other; one good and one evil. The Terminators in general were still the villains but because Schwarzenegger wanted to play the hero this time, we were given a benign Terminator to protect Sarah and her son. Two more sequels (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003 and Terminator: Salvation in 2009) were made years later.
The lighthearted Short Circuit (1986) depicted the adventures of a self-aware robot designated # 5, but who later adopted the name Johnny Five. Johnny Five had a sentient Artificial Intelligence. He was going to be disassembled, but when he became aware of the concept of mortality (after seeing a butterfly squashed) he developed self preservation instincts and went on the run. Johnny’s search for identity and meaning was representative of anyone with a seeking spirit, trying to find their place in a confusing world. A sequel came out in 1988.
Robocop (1987) gave us religious symbolism along with a story of corporate corruption. A slain man is brought back to life as a robot to protect the public. The Christian imagery is unmistakable. Our hero Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is programmed to be an emotionless instrument of law enforcement, but he starts to get his memories back and misses his old life. Sadly, he can’t go back to his wife and family now that he is trapped in the body of a machine. His enemies are the head honchos of the very corporation who rebuilt him. Technically, Robocop is a cyborg not a robot, but with a name like Robocop, he had to be included in this list. Two sequels were made, Robocop 2 (1990) and Robocop 3 (1993).
Film versions of the popular TV series Star Trek: the Next Generation brought the android Data (Brent Spiner) to the screen. Data had a Pinocchio-like desire to be human, which led to a lot of cutesy moments where the emotionless Data tried to emulate human behavior. Data and his Enterprise shipmates first came to the big screen in Star Trek: Generations (1994) and returned for three sequels; Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), where Data was killed in action (Although he left a spare; his twin “brother” B4, in case another movie was made.)
Lost in Space (1998), a cinematic remake of the 60’s TV show, brought a newer and less entertaining version of “Robot” to the screen. The new Robot didn’t have the personality of the original, nor did it get a chance to banter with Doctor Smith.
The Iron Giant (1999) was a big screen adaptation of a classic cold war story. The tale is a masterpiece of red scare paranoia. The Giant was clearly beyond the engineering capacity of any country of the time, yet the immediate reaction of every character who spotted it was to assume that it must be a Russian weapon. At the end, the Robot turned out to be more humane and self-sacrificing than the humans were.
The Matrix (1999) placed the machines back in the role of the bad guys. In the film, humans were enslaved by machines and a group of free men were fighting a revolution against them. The machines sent the deadly Sentinels (the killer calamari robots) as foot soldiers to destroy the free humans. The movie discussed not only the age old battle of man against machine, but also the nature of reality as well. Two sequels came out in 2003; Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions.
I Robot (2004) was a loose adaptation of the works of Isaac Asimov. The main Robot character was “Sonny”. Although most of the robots were killers, Sonny befriended the humans. Robots also acted as surrogates for racism in the film, because Detective Spooner (Will Smith) had a deep hatred of all robots. His alliance with Sonny helped him realize that you can’t generalize any group. There’s good and bad in every culture.
The most popular robots to hit the silver screen in recent years were The Transformers (2007). Based on the popular 80s cartoon, the titular robots had the ability to change their form. In the film, two races of robots came to Earth, fighting an ancient war. One race, the Autobots (Optimus, Bumblebee, Jazz, Ratchet, and Ironhide) were benign. The other, the Decepticons (Megatron, Bonecrusher, Starscream, and Frenzy) was pure evil. The film didn’t have any social commentary or metaphorical imagery. The robots were just robots. A sequel, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) continued the story. A third installment is in the works.
The best robot film to come along in many years was the wonderful Wall-E (2008). The movie sent a strong environmental message, as well as using our cute robots to carry out an innocent love story. When we’re first introduced to the titular WALL-E (Waste allocation Load Lifter- Earth class) he was alone on Earth, cleaning up the polluted planet. Then he witnessed the arrival of a ship that brought EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who he took a liking to and followed into space for adventure and romance. The robots in WALL-E take the place of the usual cute, talking, anthropomorphic animals you’d expect to see in such a film.
A much darker, post apocalypse film about robots was 9 (2009), featuring the “Stitchpunks” (A combination of steampunk and ragdolls) who had survived an unspecified global disaster where all the humans were destroyed. The nine remaining mechanical men fought against another cybernetic survivor. Even when the humans were gone, the legacy of their violence lived on in their machines.
And finally we have Astro Boy (2009), based on a popular anime and manga character. Astro boy was a powerful robot created to replace the deceased son of a rich genius. But eventually, the grieving father grew sour towards his duplicate son and kicked him out. Astro Boy was befriended by others and learned to use his vast array of powers for good. Astro Boy also dealt with the subject of prejudice by having the Robots deemed as a lesser class of being. The cartoon series Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot was loosely based on the anime characters Gigantor and Astro Boy.
Robots have always been fun to watch. Serious or silly; big or small; they’re a ubiquitous presence in sci-fi and let’s be glad of that. From R2 to Twiki; from Robocop to Robot Monster; from the Iron Giant to the Iron Monster…Bring on the Bots!
More by this Author
Would you be surprised to learn that some of your favorite movie moments were actually made up on the spur of the moment by an actor? Well, many classic movie moments and iconic scenes were never in the original...
The Expendables is a high-octane, mucho-macho, testosterone filled, manly adventure; written, directed by and starring action icon Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, who has criticized modern adventure movies for their...
What did Native Americans expect of the first Europeans they saw? And vice versa?