1. Johnny 5
My favorite robot. Hands down. The robot I think of when I think of how robots should be. Number/Johnny 5 should be at the top of everyone’s best robot list. It looks anthropomorphic, but that’s as human as it gets. It has binocular eyes, wires for a neck, an angular body, full of control panels and spindly hydraulic arms, ending with tank treads that are rather impractical when you think about it. It wobbles dangerously when it goes over terrain. Its three-pronged hands look like they have the gripping power of a claw machine. And a multi-tool in a hip holster that can’t reach anything beyond waist level.
But I don’t care about any of that.
The movie is magic. The poster is beautiful, powerful. The first one is good, the second one is better (more focus on Johnny 5, less on Steve Guttenberg). I can’t remember a time when this movie wasn’t in my memory.
Number 5 started as a Terminator knock-off (the opening shot contains a tank crushing some flowers) but radically changed into a family film. I think that genre-blending remains in the movie, which is why it fascinates me.
Not to mention that keeping the robot so machine-looking, means you can use practical effects to great effect, instead of plasticky-looking props or men in bodysuits. This is what I’m afraid the Robocop remake will suffer from — the clunkiness of the costume was a clear indicator that you couldn’t tell where robot and human met (more on that later).
Then you have the simple quest to prove that he’s not the unyielding computer everyone thinks he is. In an era where most robots were looking human (Terminator, Robocop, Alien, C-3PO, and even today with Japanese secretary bots), J5 proved sympathy comes not from how human you look, but how you act.
I tried to stay away from cyborgs for this list. Cyborgs are just humans with metal parts, and most of those stories are about humanity or identity (are you just the sum of your parts). Forget that — you want to be a robot? You start as a robot. They are, by definition, not human. Opposite of human in some ways.
However, I couldn’t help but include Weller’s performance here, especially in light of the upcoming remake. Robocop’s appeal is helped by the satirical world he lives in. If the remake can’t duplicate that, the movie is sure to fail. The original was supposed to be Judge Dredd, but that went through whatever development hell it fell in and came out like this. Sometimes, mistakes lead to great ideas. And here, the idea was better than the execution.
Robocop is a cheesy movie in an era where time-traveling cyborgs were considered critically good. His character is a moral cop in the pre-apocalyptic cesspool of Detroit. He gets an involuntary experimental upgrade after a gang dismembers him via shotgun. His subsequent incorruptible presence gives humanity hope that the criminals can be stopped.
Robocop’s best aspect is his costume. The visor eyes have a “justice is blind” motif, while the exposure of his mouth lets him communicate with others. And his Anakin Skywalkering means he can hide neat devices in his parts, like the sidearm that’s actually in his side, plus armor, various cannons and guns, a jetpack, the all-purpose USB spike, and whatever else the writers need.
3. The Terminator
Even though they’re part-organic, part-robot, I don’t consider Terminators to be cyborgs. Their humanity is simply a fleshy skin pulled over an awesome chrome chassis.
I’m going with the T-800 model on this, since it’s the most sympathetic and versatile. It started as evil, then face-heel-turned when the liquid metal T-1000 came on the scene. Then there was some kind of female T-800/T-1000 hybrid, and whatever Sam Rockwell was in Terminator: Salvation.
That’s the nice thing about the Terminator, it functions well either way, good or bad. It can fight Batman, Predator, Robocop, Superman, Alien, Shirley Manson from Garbage. It’s an excellent juggernaut, and completely devoid of humanity. Like a robot should do, it doesn’t get happy, doesn’t get scared, it just runs programming. Hey, your leg’s off! No, it’s not. It’s just a flesh wound.
I’m not a huge fan of The Black Hole. The ending is scary and inconclusive, and they focus more on the merchandisable robots than the main plot. Even I know, as a storywriter, if your subplot has more screen time than the one you claim in marketing, you’re going to have a bad time.
However, focus on the robots is what I’m all about. V.I.N.CENT stands for Vital Information Necessary Centralized and if that isn’t a forced acronym I don’t know what one is. The Black Hole came off the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. He functions as the robo-mascot for a Not-Lost-In-Space team of good guy spacefarers who find Not-Captain-Nemo-In-Space. While the meatbags party with Commodore Fishy, Vincent finds his old college buddy B.O.B. (BiO-Sanitation Battalion — who writes this stuff?)
Vincent and Bob pal around, making a chump out of the big bot on campus, Maximilian (not even bothering with the initials there), by taking him down gunslinger style at the shooting gallery, where all the robots go to… spend recreational time? Place bets? Later, when someone kills the load-bearing boss, there’s a robot fight, and Vincent cries over the slim pickings for friends now that Bob is scrap.
You’ve got the straight-shooting Vincent, the broken-up bumpkin BOB, and the devoid Maximilian as your primary robots here. There’s a consistent theme in most robot stories about obsolescence and mortality and aging. These three do a good job of illustrating that. Or they would if they didn’t look like McDonald’s toys.
Bender turns standard robot tropes on their heads. Most robots are servile, polite, dutiful, inoffensive. Bender chain-smokes cigars, drinks, and grifts. He’s obnoxious and surly and rude. And most of all he has no love for humans. In fact, most of the time, he’s more than on-board with any plans to destroy humanity.
That’s one of the problems with Bender as a character — he’s never consistent through the series. You’re never sure if he’s really Fry’s best friend or humanity’s Benedict Arnold. Bender-types are good for short-term comedy. Not for a long-term legacy.
Data is an android that was discovered by Starfleet on a wiped-out planet (because he’s inorganic, presumably) with no memory of his origins. Then he’s allowed to… join the space navy? Where this precious resource of a sentient mechanical man could be wiped out in a shot? Sure, that makes sense.
I don’t know why they let him out in the first place. There are episodes that indicate he was never officially ruled as sentient. Why wouldn’t they consider him a piece of equipment? Look at all the things we use crappy robots for now — bomb-defusing, poisonous gas removal, make spaceships in a fraction of the time, explore underwater — why isn’t he doing that?
What Data is really there for is playing “The Spock”, but where the Vulcan looked down on humanity with an Asperger’s eyebrow, Data embraces it with curiosity and experiments. He’s also the racism allegory. But the fact is he made the show. He’s strong-hearted, earnest, helpful, and has a very strong motivation in his character.
The moment I saw him in the first trailer, I thought “There’s Johnny 5 Junior” and I loved him right away. I guess I’m just a sucker for square heads and big eyes.
Wall-E is, to make it short, adorable. He’s naive, a hard worker, curious, funny, eager to please. Who wouldn’t want this guy for a boyfriend? He’s a bit worse for wear, living on a dust planet. (Wait a minute, that was OUR planet! You maniacs!)
In the Wall-E commentary, they say they based their robots on construction machines or buildings that seemed to have “personality”. Wall-E’s face was based on a pair of binoculars, and EVE was based on iMacs. I wish Pixar would make more movies like this, instead of sequels to their existing properties.
8. Tom Servo
Tom Servo has such a cute robot design. From his little no-eyes head (like Boober Fraggle) to a beak, springy arms, and hovercraft feet. Not only is he adorable, but he’s uniquely constructed from junk, which adds to his charm. He also sounds a bit like a crusty, Midwestern professor. Which is better than the over-emphasized, goofy voice most professional puppets get.
Tom is probably the most recognizable icon of MST3K. He plays the straight man to the other robot, Crow. Tom is the more cynical one and Crow is the goofy one, typically. Tom is more likely to go into a Sam Kinison-style rant, or lose his shit when confronted with something on the scale of “Manos: The Hands of Fate”.
I addressed Daleks in my Doctor Who in Review post. I’m not sure if Daleks count as cyborgs since they seem to be devoid of humanity, but they’re aliens, but they rarely ever show their organic parts, but their organic parts are just a little fleshy amoeba with an eye, and I’m not even sure anyone saw that before the start of the series, but they were able to hybridize with a human in that one episode?
Anyway, I’ll put them on the list. Daleks, despite their appearance, carry a stigma of absolute fear in the Who-niverse. Daleks only work towards the extinction of all non-Dalek life. They have all emotions removed except hate (as opposed to the Cybermen who have all emotions removed, as is my understanding). Between their super-armor and their unblockable death ray, only catastrophic world events, such as interdimensional rips or time collapses, seem to be able to remove their presence.
Daleks are terrifying and ridiculous at the same time. They’re good at looking scary. Their harsh electronic voices cast an intimidating glamor, along with their unearthly design. They’re almost Jasonesque in their mobility. Slow when you see them, but if you’re not looking, they could be anywhere. I would love to see a Dalek vs. Terminator fight.
10. Mega Man
It’s no secret I have a personal attachment to the blue bomber. Just look at my fan fiction. The video game is well-renowned for being one of the best ever made, but also stigmatized for its never-altered formula. I guess if you get something right the first time…
Part of Mega Man’s charm comes from the Japanese-ness of it all (including horrendous translations). As each game got released, the story expanded a little more. From new characters like Proto Man and Beat, to the “Mega Man: The Next Generation” of Mega Man X, then the “Really Really Next Generation” of Mega Man Zero. Plus all the side-stories like Battle Network and Legends. The universe evolves continuously. It’s even taken on different form with Mighty No. 9. But the one constant has always been a little blue robot, constructed by a scientist, for the purpose of saving the world.
Of course, it’s a direct rip-off of Astro Boy, that need not be said. But sometimes, ideas need to come out at the right time. The Nintendo era gave Mega Man the chance to start small. Now it’s become a very important story about human-robot relations. What will robots do when they’re indistinguishable from humans?
Plus, I love the father/son relationship that Mega Man has with Dr. Light. And that it has to be robot vs. robot in this war-torn universe (because let’s face it, a human could never take on a robot in any way-shape-or-form).