Often conceived as humanity’s futuristic workforce replacement (the word “robot” derived from the Czech words for “servitude” and “slave”), the concept has expanded into myriad varieties. Our fascination with robots in cultural terms has never been greater, with smart speakers responding to our voices and home appliances using artificial intelligence (A.I.) assistants and algorithms to cater to our every mood. With Paramount and Skydance’s Terminator: Dark Fate now in theatres, James Cameron’s heavy metal, dystopian future Earth is once again overrun by almost unstoppable A.I. machines, and introduces Gabriel Luna’s fearsome, deadly Rev-9, while Arnold Schwarzengger returns as a T-800. In the spirit of these walking, sometimes-talking machines, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of the coolest, most cantankerous, clanking counterparts to grace the big screen.
The glamorous robot replica of Metropolis’s Maria marks the most memorable debut of a mechanical manifestation in the history of cinema. Although iconic and instantly recognizable, most people today have never watched the original German silent film from which the Maschinenmensch (“mechanical person”) originates. To be fair, she doesn’t do all that much in the film, but her presence is as compelling today as it must have been in 1927 Germany.
The Tin Man
This is the low-tech entry on the list. Basically Jack Haley in silver make-up and a silver-painted, leather-and-cloth costume, The Wizard Of Oz’s Tin Man is less a robot and more a metaphorical exploration of whether metal body can house a soul. The oft-utilized cinematic trope of whether machines can find love most likely began here, way back in 1939 (“If Only I Had A Heart”), and continues to this day in films like A.I., Bicentennial Man, and Her.
Depending on how you perceive Daft Punk—electronic musicians dressed up as robots, or...just robots—your mileage may vary here, but there’s no denying this French musical duo is among the most popular “robots” of our time. Crossing over from the world of club culture, to Star Wars commercials and the world of sneaker culture, to working with pop and disco music legends on their most recent album, Random Access Memories, Daft Punk marry our robotic fascination with killer hooks for a dance music marriage that is virtually irresistible.
While generally spoken of in relation to his partner R2-D2, the pessimistic golden half of sci-fi’s odd couple most closely adheres to the original meaning of “robot” more than anything else on this list. He’s part comic relief, part utilitarian translator. He’s rarely useful for much more than unsolicited factoids, with R2-D2 soaking up most of the hero moments, and yet we all know that the Star Wars universe is better off with him than without him.
Tars and Case
After years of increasing complexity and articulation in CG-rendered mechanoids (see Avengers: Age of Ultron), Tars and Case, from 2014’s Interstellar, were a delightful breath of fresh, robotic air. Ingeniously designed, Tars and Case possess a droll wit (75% humor setting); surprising dexterity for machines that are essentially rectangular blocks (nimble enough to haul Anne Hathaway through rough ocean waters); are durable and speedy; and can navigate spacecraft through black holes. Few of the A.I. machines on this list can hold a candle to Tars and Case’s all-around usefulness to humans.
Whether you’re talking about the anime or manga version of Ghost in the Shell’s lead protagonist, Shirow Masamune’s cybernetic security cop is more augmented human than built-from-the-ground-up mechanism. Thirty years on from her 1989 manga debut, “The Major,” as she is commonly known, has clearly resonated with a legion of sci-fi fans, having appeared in multiple manga sequels, a few movies (including the live-action one with Scarlett Johansson), numerous TV series, and some video games. Commanding an almost Blade Runner-esque level of reverence, a lot of her appeal has to do with the fact that she prefers to jump through glass windows in form-fitting, flesh-colored camouflage, but three decades in, she shows no signs of slowing down.
This is where our list gets a little dark, thanks to Ex Machina’s pivotal figure keeping her cards close to her, uh, vest throughout the majority of the movie. Beguiling and seemingly naive, Ava is eventually revealed to be less the ingenue and far more sinister than her initial appearance suggests. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith is all of us, initially fascinated by and then eventually obsessed with Ava’s rapidly learning and increasingly emotional human A.I. This, of course, becomes his downfall as the film pivots towards its final arc. Still, if Ex Machina proved anything, it’s that robots can indeed dance.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
In Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 cult film, Tetsuo: Iron Man, the fetishization of man and machine becomes one literal whole. Although not strictly a robot or android in the classic sense, the “Iron Man” transforms into a metallic entity more gruesomely than anyone/thing else on this list. Don’t try to make sense of it. This Japanese arthouse flick spawned two sequels, Body Hammer (1992) and The Bullet Man (2009), both of which saw the cinematic return of distorted metal protagonists set against nihilistic, industrial soundtracks.
Everyone’s favorite big rig-slash-sentient robot needs no introduction. Perhaps one of the most popular mechanical characters of all time, the Autobots’ iconic leader has stormed through countless animated TV series, toy lineups, and a blockbuster movie franchise. Naturally, like many robot-themed IPs, this one started in Japan, originating from Japanese toy manufacturer Takara’s Microman line of action figures (briefly released as Micronauts in the United States). The Hasbro-partnered spin-off resulted in Transformers, vehicles that unfold into a cast of awkwardly articulated humanoid figures. The Michael Bay-led rebirth of the franchise has been unstoppable, with the latest film, Bumblebee, extending the popularity of the franchise to yet another leading mech.
In 1987, a few years prior to his breakout string of hits with Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, unleashed a violent, satirical action movie starring a reanimated cop in a savage, near-future Detroit. Part man, part machine, the reconstituted gunslinging cop Alex Murphy brought dry humor, pathos, and humanity to one of the most brutal sci-fi movies ever. While the film was a mild summer hit, its legend far exceeds its modest earnings from that year. A perfect example of a human soul transplanted into a cyborg body and the struggles that ensue, Murphy’s ultimate redemption by movie’s end showed that in many ways Robocop is more human than his onscreen counterparts.
The Terminator franchise has seen more than its fair share of homicidal A.I. machines tear their way through the series, most of which are now considered non-canon, as Terminator: Dark Fate serves as the true, direct sequel to James Cameron’s stone cold sci-fi classic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In Dark Fate, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor returns alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Model to protect Dani Ramos, a woman being hunted by, what else, a terminator from the future known as a “Rev-9.” The Rev-9 is double the trouble as it can split into two, at will, with the more human version portrayed by Gabriel Luna, and the second version resembling the more traditional killer machine we’ve come to know and fear. With Terminator: Dark Fate now in theatres, you can see for yourself where the Rev-9 stacks up in the world of A.I. machinery.