Advancements in robotics may eventually make them more and more difficult to differentiate from humans, but until that happens we have movies to stoke the flames of our fears/amazement. Here’s our pick for the 10 greatest movie robots of all time.
Robots are so prevalent in film these days, we take them for granted. With an Alexa in every home, Roombas sweeping our floors, and Tesla cars driving themselves, robots are becoming a part of everyday life. As such, their inclusion in film has been more frequent and prevalent than ever. They have become more than just eye-candy. They have become subjects of film – characters as sophisticated as any human. Not only have they been featured as the main antagonist in one of the films of the biggest franchises in existence (Avengers: Age of Ultron), robots themselves have been the stars of a major live-action franchise (Transformers).
To close out our month honoring the Terminator films, I have decided to put together a list of the ten greatest robots in film. To be considered for this honor, these robots must be best known for their appearance in film and have first made their debut in film, not on television. Next, I ranked the robots by their prominence in their respective films, as well as pop culture. The more films a robot has been in, the better. Also, the historical significance of the robot – in terms of the plot of their film or their influence on the creation of other robots in later films – is important. Finally, in terms of what actually constitutes a robot, I am considering any being with artificial intelligence created by scientific means. So, that includes AI entities which may not actually have a metallic body to move around in. Their “brains” must be powered by electricity.
Without further delay, here are my picks for the top ten greatest robots of all time:
#10 – The Machines of The Matrix
As Seen In: The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Good or Evil? Bad. Very bad.
Alright, so the machines in The Matrix aren’t one robot, but instead an entire race/army of them. If you want to get picky, let’s use The Architect as the representation of this artificial menace. Regardless of the particulars, the robotic overlords of mankind as seen in The Matrix was a game changer. While we had already seen the horror of robots taking over in movies like The Terminator, or Westworld, they had never done it while keeping humanity essentially placated.
The fact that humanity is held captive is frightening enough, but the idea that we can’t really do anything about it is the most disturbing of all. This is dystopian sci-fi before it became the common feature of every sci-fi franchise. The Wachowskis essentially dropped a bombshell on their audiences, and it opened up the opportunity for big-budget science fiction to explore these types of concepts which had huge implications.
#9 – The Iron Giant
As Seen In: The Iron Giant (1999), Ready Player One (2018)
Good or Evil? Good.
I debated heavily on whether or not to include this guy in the top ten. Compared to some of the other films on this list his film wasn’t as successful, hasn’t been as much of an influence, and despite growing popularity, I would not claim him to be a pop culture icon just yet. So why does The Iron Giant belong on this list? Because the film itself is great, and the character is always going to be endearing. More importantly, the Giant’s legacy is important because his film does something different than most with robots – teaching a valuable lesson about being human.
For all the menacing robots which have made their marks on us through terror, here is one which makes you feel warm and fuzzy. The appearance of this giant metal being is seen through the innocent eyes of a child. He sees the robot for what it really is (curious and out of place), not based on insecurities or prejudice. The Iron Giant teaches us how we should act when we meet someone who is different from us. It preaches acceptance in a world which is becoming increasingly fragmented. It teaches us about love and understanding – not war and paranoia. Few robots could claim as much, which makes The Iron Giant a great movie robot.
#8 – Machinemensch
As Seen In: Metropolis (1927)
Good or Evil? Evil.
The “machine-person” is one of the earliest depictions of a robot in film (if not the earliest), which makes it a very important robot. Among other things, it would go on to influence the look of C3P0 in Star Wars, and was a harbinger for the idea that robots could someday look identical to people. It is fascinating to me that the film has this idea in a time when computers haven’t even been invented. It was very much ahead of its time.
In the film, this robot is used to deceive the working class and cause general chaos. It is the first use of a robot for nefarious purposes. The robot was also built by its creator to essentially resurrect his lost love. So in this case, the robot becomes a tool – invented for one purpose, but utilized for another. That would become an important concept in later films featuring robotics.
#7 – Wall-E
As Seen In: Wall-E (2008)
Good or Evil? Good.
The second animated robot on this list is also one which is loved because of his innocent nature. Wall-E may have been designed with the utilitarian purpose of cleaning up the planet, but that doesn’t stop him from collecting trinkets, exploring, and falling in love. Wall-E intends well, is generally curious, and ultimately does the right thing. All of these qualities not only make for a terrific protagonist for an animated film, but also a really unique and lovable little robot.
Wall-E might also be the most helpful robot to ever grace the big screen. After all, his hijinx essentially cause humanity to return to Earth to start anew after they trashed the place. Above all, Wall-E teaches us how we can all make a difference. Robots in film don’t have to be about stern warnings and cautionary tales. Sometimes they can be sweet, and just as effective.
#6 – RoboCop
As Seen In: RoboCop (1987), RoboCop 2 (1990), RoboCop 3 (1993), RoboCop (2014)
Good or Evil? Good.
Gordon Gecko’s famous line “Greed is good” may be the sound bite to define the socio-economic developments of the 1980’s, but RoboCop may be a more graphic depiction. Robocop is all about the weakness of man – both physically and in terms of integrity. The solution to both happens to be robots – well, using a fallen cop’s brain to control the actions of an unstoppable killing machine.
RoboCop kicks ass. More specifically, he kicks bad guy ass. And he doesn’t just fight violent criminals and drug traffickers. RoboCop fights corruption. As the resurrection of an honorable man, RoboCop is also very easy to cheer for. We won’t argue the virtue of the (very) violent tactics he uses to accomplish his goals, but he nonetheless is an example of how robot technology can be used to make this world a better place. It makes it more entertaining too.
#5 – Robby the Robot
As Seen In: Forbidden Planet (1956), The Invisible Boy (1957), bit parts in various others.
Good or Evil? Mostly good, but some evil.
Robby the Robot is more of a famous movie prop than a character from a specific film, but his appearance in Forbidden Planet was an important one which would go on to quantify our idea of what a robot was for decades. While the Machinemensch may be the first version of a robot in film, Robby was the first time the idea struck with pop culture. Robby became a hit with audiences, ultimately landing roles in many different television shows and movies.
Robby could be endearing, or menacing. In the 50’s and 60’s he was like looking into the future, today he’s a reminder of that era’s flashy optimism. Big and bulky, he is the quintessential representation of a movie robot. He is human like in structure, but not in looks – he can do the same things we can, but isn’t one of us. It was also an introduction for many into the potential of computers. Robby’s legacy and impact on pop culture continues to this day.
#4 – Roy Batty
As Seen In: Blade Runner (1982)
Good or Evil? Evil.
I could easily have put Rick Deckard on this list, but whether or not he is a robot has not been confirmed as of yet. So instead, I have decided to give Roy Batty the honors. Roy is the antagonist of the film, and the second robot on this list to look indistinguishable from a real human. That is ultimately what makes the character so good. He looks like us, but isn’t. He represents all of our strengths and weaknesses in one.
While Blade Runner was not a hit when it was released in theaters, the film has become one of the most highly regarded science fiction films ever made. This has, in turn, elevated Roy’s status from merely interesting villain to pop culture icon. Roy represents so many things, from the idea of embracing who you are, to the dangers of artificial intelligence. He also recites one of the most spellbinding and interesting monologues in all of film. Roy won’t soon be forgotten.
#3 – HAL
As Seen In: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), 2010: The Year We Made Contact (1984)
Good or Evil? Debatable, but I say evil.
Okay, so the HAL 9000 isn’t a traditional robot, but I think it should still count. HAL is the sophisticated computer system of the space ship Discovery One. But he does more than just runs programs. HAL is sentient, a true artificially intelligent being, even if he doesn’t really have a body. HAL is supposed to be a companion for the crew, and a shepard for the ship. He has a job to do, just like most other robots. HAL makes decisions on his own, yes based on his programming, but still without external influence. He is just as sophisticated, if not more so, than some of the other robots on this list.
What makes HAL such a great robot is how a flaw in his programming ultimately causes the mission to fail. This flaw was not necessarily HAL’s fault, but it creates a logic paradox as a result of human confidence. It is a great example of mankind trying to play “God”, but failing because of our own flaws. HAL would go on to influence many many other movies, and despite being featured in a 50-year-old movie, remains well-known to most people.
#2 – The T-800
As Seen In: The Terminator (1982), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator: Salvation (2009), Terminator: Genisys (2015), Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Good or Evil? Both.
The original Terminator was a literally a nightmare dreamt by James Cameron. A nearly unstoppable killing machine, but he looks like a normal human (or at least as much of a normal human Schwarzenegger can be). Throughout the 6 terminator films, this robot has been featured several times. Sometimes it is trying to kill the good guys, other times it is one of the good guys. It all depends on programming.
Despite improved technology to allow for more and more advanced terminators, the Terminator films keep returning to the tired-and-true T-800 because that specific robot has firmly entrenched itself as a pop culture icon. A Terminator film is not a Terminator film without a T-800 Thanks to the performance of Schwarzenegger, The T-800 is not only the most famous robot (besides #1 on this list), but also one of the funniest, most relentless, and most kick-ass.
#1 – R2D2
As Seen In: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1977), Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017), Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Good or Evil? Good
R2D2 is not the greatest robot in the history of film only because he has been featured with a prominent role in so many films, but because his use in the original Star Wars film would forever change how robots were utilized in film. Previous to Star Wars, they were gimmicks (see Robby) – pieces of set wiz-bangery to keep kids entertained and be servants to their human co-stars. But R2D2 was different. He was feisty, spirited, funny, and most importantly – independent. That he was able to convey all of these characteristics while only being able to speak in a series of nonsense beeps truly speaks to the ingenuity of the character.
And R2D2 plays a central role in one of the most popular, most profitable, and most beloved movie franchises of all time. I chose him over his cohort C3P0 because he is more involved with the overall plot of the franchise. R2D2 showed us how robots could be used to advance the plots in film. He showed us how they could become characters just as interesting and beloved as their human counterparts. R2D2 also showed us how machines didn’t have to be cold and calculated. They didn’t have to look like humans to feel alive.