10 Underrated Robots in Film History

    September 13, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Robots are everywhere in film, and everyone has their favorites: R2-D2, Johnny 5, GORT. But all too often, some really great movie robots get forgotten, or perhaps they just don’t get the celebration they deserve. That is why we’ve compiled a list of ten underrated robots in film history that we think should get a little recognition for being pivotal parts of their respective films.  Let’s take a moment to acknowledge these remarkable metal miracles with this list of 10 underrated robots in film history:


    The Black Hole (1979)

    robot vincent black holeOnce Star Wars changed the face of science fiction in 1977, movie studios were eager to recreate its success.  In Disney’s 1979 film The Black Hole, we are introduced to a robot named V.I.N.CENT., who curiously resembles two other film robots who had recently become famous.  Take the roly poly cuteness off R2-D2, combine it with the insufferably British precociousness  of C-3PO, and you have V.I.N.CENT.  But V.I.N isn’t just a desperate knockoff.  After all, he can fly!  Well sort of.  Actually he just floats.  He also constantly pontificates with witty little maxims throughout the film, and since he is voiced by Roddy McDowell, he sounds super smart.  V.I.N. is also an incredibly good marksman, and can beat any robot at neato futuristic target practice simulations!  Like all good movie robots, V.I.N.CENT.’s name is derived from a cartoonishly absurd acronym (Vital Information Necessary CENTralized.)  I could have done without his huge googly eyes, though.  They just don’t seem to make sense mechanically.  However, since Disney has such a long history of cute googly-eyed characters, I guess they made the right decision.  Would he have made this list with normal eyes?  HELL. NO.


    Flight of the Navigator (1986)

    flight of the navigatorFlight of the Navigator is the simple story of a boy who is abducted by aliens in 1978, experiences time dilation, wakes up in 1986, is captured by the government, escapes from a military base, and gallivants around the cosmos in a UFO trying to make it back to his appropriate year.  The film also features Sarah Jessica Parker, who does an excellent job of playing a teenager that looks 40.  But the true star of this flick is Max, the robotic UFO pilot.  Max is voiced by non other than Paul Reubens, who occasionally breaks into his Peewee Herman voice in the film (which is great.)  Max loves classic robot words such as “affirmative” and “compliance” and is at first legitimately confused by human necessities, like bathroom breaks.  But soon Max and his human navigator David develop the type of chummy rapport that allows them to gently tease each other using the pop-culture vernacular of the day, thus solidifying them as pals.  After evading NASA scientists and flying through a time storm, Max drops off David safely back in his native 1978 just in time for fireworks, family, and bear-hugs.  See you later, navigator!

    Bubo the Owl

    Clash of the Titans (1981)

    buboThe 1981 film Clash of the Titans introduces a plethora of weird creatures, but the most memorable (and ADORABLE) is Bubo, the mechanical owl.  In the film, Bubo is a robotic facsimile of Athena’s own pet owl that was built by the god Hephaestus to aid Perseus in his quest.  Essentially Bubo serves as the sidekick to Perseus as he runs around ancient Greece slaying Gorgons and such.  Upon first examination, one might dismiss Bubo as a weird early 80’s attempt to get young kids excited about a big action movie.  However, the concept of a robot owl actually has some history behind it.  In ancient Greek mythology, the owl is a symbol closely associated with the goddess Athena (since owls are wise, and she’s the goddess of strategy and wisdom.)  In some stories she even actually has a pet owl (although it wasn’t named Bubo.)  Furthermore, according to The Iliad, Hephaestus (the blacksmith god) would create self-moving mechanical beings in his workshop (i.e., robots.)  Therefore, Hollywood producers took these elements of myth and created the perfect kitschy robot sidekick: Bubo.  They also succeeded in getting Laurence Olivier to share the screen with a stop-motion animated Kraken.  Brilliant.


    Screamers (1995)

    screamersThis movie legitimately scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.  Screamers takes place in the not-too-distant future on a colonized planet where rival factions have started a war over scarce resources.  Tiny robots called Screamers (due to the annoying noise they make) are used by one of the factions as practically indestructible super weapons.  Screamers kind of resemble metal iguanas that kill people with buzz saws.  They also travel really fast underground and attack anything with a heartbeat.  But what is really creepy is that they can mass produce themselves, disguise themselves as people, and even mimic speech patterns.  At one point during the film, a mob of screamers disguised as monolithic school girls descend down a hill to eviscerate Peter Weller and his friends (oh yeah, I forgot to mention: Peter Weller is in this).  As a movie, Screamers kind of sucks.  But it sure as Hell succeeded in giving ten year old me night terrors, and it didn’t even have a happy ending!  The film concludes with Peter Weller leaving the planet in an escape pod bound for Earth, without any clue that there is a Screamer hidden in a teddy bear under his seat.  Step your game up, Weller.  C’mon!

    Murderous Cowboys

    Westworld (1973)

    westworldI love robots, and I also love westerns.  That is why I really love Westworld.  This film was written and directed by Michael Chrichton (a full 20 years before Jurassic Park pretty much introduced him to the world.)  Westworld also follows a similar trajectory as Jurassic Park; a nifty new amusement park promises otherworldly entertainment, only to be sabotaged/afflicted with some sort of mechanical failure, thus resulting in park-goers dying.  In Westworld, people pay tons of cash to indulge in their fantasies within an old west environment populated by robots that cater to their every need.  But soon the park robots start misbehaving and killing people.  The great Yul Brenner stars as the main cowboy robot who hunts down park guests with his deadly aim.  Of course, Yul Brenner is super scary and intimidating to begin with, but the filmmakers had to be sure and distinguish his characters from other humans.  Their solution was simple; horrifying contact lenses!  As Yul gets crazier and crazier, his eyes get glassier and glassier.  It seems pretty simple, soulless robot = crazy eyes.  A similar device appeared in Blade Runner, so you know it works.


    Rocky IV (1985)

    sico rocky 4Rocky IV is often remembered for many of the classic lines delivered by Dolph Lundgren.  What is forgotten, however, is the fact that the movie starred a real freaking robot known as SICO.  In the film, SICO is a gift given to Rocky’s pal Paulie for his birthday.  The robot resembles a big shiny praying mantis with wheels, and proceeds to present Paulie with a cake (this scene has recently been lampooned on Family Guy.)  Needless to say, this is strange.  Some critics have tried to justify SICO’s appearance as a continuation of the man vs. machine theme that occurs between Rocky and Ivan Drago.  It also could have just been a gimmick that ended up jumping the shark.  To me, it would be like having a sumo wrestler show up in the Lonesome Dove saga.  And what the Hell happened to SICO in the rest of the Rocky movies?  He’s never mentioned!  It’s as if these people just forgot that a freaking robot was once a part of their lives!  But what’s REALLY weird is that SICO was an actual robot in real life!  It was created by an actual robotics company, and it made appearances at functions all across the world.  It even briefly toured with James Brown! Globally speaking, SICO was more popular in the 80’s than Johnny 5!  Clearly, SICO was the hardest working, most underrated robot show business.


    Moon (2009)

    gerty The 2009 psychological sci-fi thriller Moon is a pretty great flick.  It stars Sam Rockwell, along with several dozen clones of Sam Rockwell (SPOILERS!)  Sam Rockwell plays a man named, well, Sam, who is working alone on a lunar mining base.  He also doesn’t know he’s a clone.  But the base’s artificial intelligence unit GERTY knows everything.  GERTY is voiced by Kevin Spacey (of K-PAX fame, duh) and facilitates the ‘awakening’ of new Sam clones whenever an old Sam clone dies.  He is also in charge of lying to Sam clones so that they think everything is hunky-dory.  GERTY is kind of like a more cheery HAL 9000. In fact, the film makers went to great lengths to force viewers to draw parallels between GERTY and HAL, and then deliberately defy those expectations. GERTY is a big clunky metal box that hangs from the ceiling, and he is able to move around the base on pre-built ceiling tracks.  He also has a video display that features a big happy face emoticon that can change depending on his mood.  Eventually, Sam becomes wise to the fact that he is a clone.  GERTY is nice enough, however, to come clean and drop the bullshit.  He even helps one of the Sam clones escape the base and return to Earth.  It’s nice to see deceptive robots turn a new leaf.

    Gigolo Joe

    A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

    gigolo joeJude Law gives his finest performance as a robot that has sex with people in A.I. In the 2001 film he plays Gigolo Joe, a robot prostitute who helps fellow robot David (played by Haley Joel Osment) find the mythical Blue Fairy so he can be changed into a real boy.  I like Gigolo Joe’s role in A.I., particularly because it is last real aspect of the film that was left over from Stanley Kubrick’s original sex-crazed vision.  Once Spielberg got a hold of it, he dolled it up with a bunch of family-friendly kid issues, but at least we’ll always have Gigolo Joe.  Joe is always thinking about bedding ladies and getting cash.  In that way, he is a great juxtaposition to David, who is constantly whining about his human mother.  For all of his lustful ways, Gigolo Joe is actually a nice guy who always pays it forward to his pal.  He even leads David to sunken Manhattan where they find a statue of the Blue Fairy!  But then David ends up getting stuck and frozen underwater for a couple thousand years.  Oh well.  I should also note that A.I. features another underrated robot named Teddy, who is (of course) a teddy bear that runs around and talks.  SO MUCH FUN!  Now I need to go watch A.I. again.  Please excuse me.


    Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1978)

    vger star trekNo one has ever admitted this before, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of my favorites in the series.  One reason is because of the awesome unitards the crew wears, and the other is because the antagonist is a giant self-aware machine that was once the Voyager 6 satellite.  In the film, a giant living machine clouded by a nebula is going around consuming things and destroying stuff.  It identifies itself as V’Ger via a quasi-possessed crew member of the Enterprise.  The thing has a thirst for knowledge, and demands to meet its creator.  Eventually, a ground crew from the Enterprise makes it to the heart of the machine, and discovers that it is actually the old Voyager 6 satellite from Earth that has been wandering the galaxy accumulating knowledge about every possible thing, and in the process became self-aware.  The term ‘V’Ger’ resulted from cosmic dust on the exterior of the craft obscuring the rest of the letters in ‘Voyager.’  This has never really sat well with me.  Wouldn’t the craft know that its original name was Voyager?  And how would it be able to see its own exterior?  It doesn’t have eyes.  Anyway, in true Star Trek fashion, some random crew member that no one has ever heard of decides to make a sacrifice and merge with V’Ger, thus accomplishing its mission, and sending it off into the depths of space never to be heard of again.  Even though The Motion Picture is among my favorites, it still suffers negative points for not featuring Ricardo Montalban.

    Gonk Droid

    Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

    gertyAt first I didn’t know what to call this thing.  But then I Googled “trash can robot from star wars” and I got my answer.  Colloquially referred to as a ‘Gonk Droid’, this boxy little guy is officially called a ‘Power Droid.’  The Power Droid comes in many different varieties, but they all look like walking trash cans.  They pop up throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, and are always hilarious. Their purpose is to act as a walking power supply for stuff that needs to be charged.  Essentially, the Gonk Droid makes life on planets like Tatooine possible.  The nickname ‘Gonk Droid’ comes from the fact that they walk around making a noise that sounds like “GONK! GONK!”  They first appear in A New Hope when R2-D2 and C-3PO are taken on board the Jawa Sand Crawler.  I would argue that the Gonk Droid can pack more character, feeling, and soul into one good “GONK” than R2 or 3PO could in an entire page of dialogue.  I feel THAT strongly about these big dumb things.  And remember, when you hear a Gonk Droid go “GONK GONK GONK” that means “I love you!”


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