The Life Mechanical: Ten Unsung Robots in Films
With the fourth, god help us, instalment of Transformers in cinemas, I've decided to take a look at ten robots in films that I feel deserve a little bit more love. We all adore R2D2, Robocop, T-1000, and Robby, but I thought I'd delve a little deeper and offer ten of my personal favourites from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The Day The Earth Stood Still, (Robert Wise 1951)
Top-billed in this thoughtful alien visitation classic were Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal but the real star was Rennie's giant silver alien Gort, portrayed by the well-over seven foot actor Lock Martin. Although he doesn't speak, he can be communicated with and responds to threats with a laser which shoots from his "eyes". He apparently has the ability to destroy the entire earth if he gets annoyed. Despite his mighty powers, Gort and Rennie came in peace but, naturally, we responded by trying to kill them. He can be deactivated with the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto".
Ro-Man Extension XJ-2
Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953)
Ro-Man, a powerful robot clad in a gorilla suit and diving helmet, has killed all but eight inhabitants of earth. Under the control of his masters "The Great Guidance" he tries to pick-off the rest who remain immune to the effects of his Calcinator Death Ray. But is it all just a dream? Sometimes cited as one of the worst monsters ever devised in one of the worst films ever made, I disagree. Nothing as hysterically funny as this can possibly be the worst anything and I consider the $16,000 production budget to be money well spent. Warning however - do not watch while under any kind of influence as you may well die laughing.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Nicholas Webster, 1964)
Before we return to sanity, I must mention one of the most unique robots in cinema history. Torg, whose name in no way derives from the much better known and copyrighted Gort, is part of an aggressive Martian gambit to abduct Santa Claus. You'll have to watch the movie to work out why and if you're any the wiser afterwards then please explain it to me. Torg is patently made out of a cardboard box and ducting material and is defeated by being made into a toy, which is kind of appropriate given that he shows all the signs of having been manufactured by 6 year olds.
The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975)
From robots manufactured by primary school children, we come to robots designed by horny middle-aged men in the small town of Stepford. Katherine Ross plays the young housewife arriving in the town with her husband, not realising what might be in store for her. Certainly the most attractive robots in this survey, the Wives are almost uniformally young, stunning and comely. One of them, however, is the nice looking but not exactly stunning Nanette Newman. The fact she was married to the director explains her casting more than adequately.
Logan's Run (Michael Anderson, 1976)
Some robots are silent, others chatter away. But the Box is an egomaniac, a trait manifested in a suitably poetic manner of speech - "I am more than machine. More than man. More than a fusion of the two. Don't you agree? Wait for the winds. Then my birds sing. And the deep grottos whisper my name. Box... Box... Box... " He's rather like a big metal version of Patience Strong with the voice of Roscoe Lee Browne. More chauvinist types than myself might think that it's a waste of time looking at a big silver robot when Jenny Agutter is getting her kit off on the other side of the cave. Meanwhile, you can wonder why Box appears to have a big union jack on his chest. For my money, he's the highlight of the film and letting him go after five minutes was one of many misjudgements made along the way.
Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977)
Okay, okay, so Proteus technically isn't a robot. He's a big computer with an awesome artificial intelligence. But his particularly anti-social habits such as forcibly impregnating Julie Chrisite with synthetic sperm, are embodied through robotics so I think he counts. Proteus talks, courtesy of the silky tones of Robert Vaughan, like a bad science-fiction novel and makes ethical calculations about mankind's suffering versus the greater good. There are loads of interesting things about Demon Seed, one of Donald Cammell's handful of films as director, but the most interesting is perhaps his ability to take an incredibly tasteless concept and make it not only acceptable but intellectually challenging.
Saturn 3 (Stanley Donen, 1980)
Saturn 3 was a troubled production and remains an undervalued film, not least for its one undeniably great feature - Hector the Robot. Assembled by an overacting (even when dubbed by someone else) Harvey Keitel, and pitted against a mercilessly hammy Kirk Douglas, Hector is a creation of beauty. He has a somewhat organic look and, for much of the film, lacks a head which provides a disturbingly alien appearance. He also lusts after Farrah Fawcett which is entirely understandable, especially if he's seen the deleted dream sequence which is on the Blu-Ray, and thinks she's much too pretty to be left to a booming old bugger like Kirk.
Android (Aaron Lipstadt, 1982)
Aaron Lipstadt's Android is one of the most disarmingly charming SF movies ever made and Max 404 is certainly one of the most likeable of robots. Played to perfection by Don Opper, Max is an android in the process of realising how human he is and his fascination with human behaviour, especially sex, provides moments which are both touching and funny. His creator Dr Daniels, played in his customary restrained manner by Klaus Kinski, is slightly deranged and has his own secret which we find out right at the end. Not unlike a low-budget version of Blade Runner, Android looks at how similar robots and humans can be and the happy ending is not only rare in the genre but also thoroughly deserved.
Runaway (Michael Crichton, 1984)
Not content with warning us off surgical procedures, CGI adverts, climate change experts, and the recreation of dinosaurs through their DNA, Michael Crichton made a film in 1984 which aimed to make us terrified of robots. It's set in the future where robots are a normal part of every household. Unfortunately, nasty Dr Luther (Gene Simmons) is a nutter who develops a way of bypassing the robotic program to turn a friendly, useful robot into a killing machine. This is all very silly but the killer robots are very cool indeed, especially the metal spiders which inject acid, and Tom Selleck heroically manages to take it all seriously.
Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
Our final robotic creations are from the low-budget horror film Chopping Mall. This is pretty standard stuff but the killer security robots are quite wonderfully realised, armed with lasers, tasers and tranquilliser guns. Their targets are sex-obsessed teenagers, as in all self-respecting slasher movies, and they are almost as lethal as the script which offers gems such as "I guess I’m just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots!" You also get to see the great Dick Miller and Barbara Crampton with seriously big hair.