The best man machines on the silver screen
Oh, and lady machines too of course. Inspired by the new Transformers flick, Ed Power decides his best-loved TV and movie bots
Published 05/07/2014 | 13:00
Critics love to beat up on Michael Bay's Transformers films, not understanding their gleeful lack of sophistication is part of the charm.
There promises to be even more big budget mayhem in the forthcoming fourth instalment of the series, Transformers: Age of Extinction. The movie features the grandly ridiculous Dinobots, mechanised primordial lizards whose pastimes include stomping on sky-scrapers and hurling other robots off cliff-tops.
Here, most of the attention has centered on the movie's Irish star, Jack Reynor, making his Hollywood blockbuster debut (why isn't he in the trailers?). For fanboys however, the drooling has been exclusively for the Dinobots, a beloved part of the rich Transformers' tapestry. They are led by Grimlock, destructive droid by day, horned T-Rex in his spare time. What's not to like?
As anticipation of snobbery towards the T4 builds, we look back at some of the best robots from screen history.
Cuter than a top 10 of cutest kittens, the protagonist of Pixar's sweet/haunting dystopian animation showed that a robot could be fully machine-like and still tug at the emotions. Looking back, the picture itself is uneven – starting off Stanley Kubrick and ending up Looney Tunes. Wall-E himself will always have a place in our hearts.
Lore (Star Trek :The Next Generation).
The evil brother of TNG regular Data was cackling good fun. Both characters were portrayed by actor Brent Spiner. But where his Data tended to be be sanctimonious and – sorry Trekkers – a bit dull, Lore was a proper villain – a bad guy you truly could root for. Lore was originally imagined as a 'female' android who would lead Data astray. Spiner had a better idea: why not give his character an evil twin?
Cylon Centurions (Original Battlestar Galactica)
The gloomy 2000s remake of BSG distanced itself from the cheesy late 70s original (which, to be fair, was heavily inspired by Star Wars). However, nothing in the reboot approximated the man-machine menace of BSG 1.0's Cylon Centurions: gleaming robots with a swooping red line where their eyes should have been. Producer Glen A Larson clearly had a fondness for red LEDs – he repeated the trick designing Knight Rider talking car KITT. Galactica die-hards will point out that in the original the Cylons were the evil reptilians who created the army. Well yes – but the Centurions still rock.
You could read Paul Verhoeven's first science fiction classic (to be followed by Total Recall and Starship Troopers) as a wry commentary of the social cost of globalisation and spread of corporate culture to all aspects of life. Or maybe you just enjoyed it as a movie about a robot policeman shooting people in the face. For those in the second camp, a highlight was battle droid ED-209 – his appearance was brief but he got the best lines: "Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply." This, friends, is action movie poetry.
Cyberdyne Systems 101 (The Terminator)
"You still don't get it, do you? He'll find her! That's what he does! That's ALL he does," explains Michael Biehn's Kyle Reese early in The Terminator. He was referring to the movie's titular robot assassin, Cyberdyne Systems model 101. The role of a lifetime for Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator made him a star – and also articulated the unease we started to feel as the machine age became the computer age. Subsequent Terminator movies were of varying quality – the T-101, however, is a cinema icon for the annals.
Portrayed by Lance Henriksen as an under-fed aesthete, Bishop's creepiness has genuine 'uncanny valley' qualities. The lank 'artificial person' was eventually revealed to be a good-guy but Henriksen kept you guessing until the last. Aliens director James Cameron was a long-time fan of the actor: he'd originally envisaged him as the lead in The Terminator (in the end he played one of the cops mowed down by Arnie). Henriksen subsequently starred in Aliens vs Predator, in which he was killed by one of the latter. Together with Bill Paxton (Hicks in Aliens) this makes him the only actor to die at the hands (okay tongues protrusion, claws, guns etc) of Alien, Predator and Terminator.
Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
The leader of the 'Replicant' gang whose bid for freedom becomes a murderous rampage, Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty may have had a silicon heart – but his tortured soul was the real thing. Batty's final 'Tears in the Rain' speech rates as one of the most profound monologues in a mainstream movie. Director Ridley Scott had been impressed by the Dutch language film in which Hauer had starred and had not met the actor when he cast him. Philip K Dick, whose short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is the basis for Bladerunner, described the actor as ""the perfect Batty–cold, Aryan, flawless".
Johnny Cab (Total Recall)
Total Recall was a riotous splicing of Paul Verhoeven and Philip K Dick. There's lots to love as Arnold Schwarzenegger discovers he is a super-agent posing as regular Joe. One of the great unsung sequences sees him conversing with an unsettling 'Johnny Cab', the 23rd century's answer to Uber.
If Futurama is The Simpsons for those with a super dark sense of humour, then cigar-toting, beer chugging Bender Bending Rodríguez is the show's Homer stand-in. Voiced by John DiMaggio, the robot is named after a character from the John Huston movie The Breakfast Club, John Bender. DiMaggio landed the part because he decided to make Bender sound like a drunk rather than an android in auditions. At that point, Futurama creators Matt Groening and David Cohen were still debating whether Bender's head should be round or square.
Gort (The Day The Earth Stood Still).
Stoic, impassive, incapable of displaying human emotion – but enough about Keanu Reeves and the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the 1951 original, the most memorable character is Gort, a seven foot ironclad who zaps beams from his eyes. It should probably be pointed out that he wasn't named after the County Galway market town, though it would be wonderful if this was the case.
V.I.N. CENT (The Black Hole)
One of the strangest Disney movies ever, The Black Hole was the House of Mouse's stab at a 2001: A Space Odyssey style science fiction epic. With its baffling ending and dystopian gloom, the 1979 film was hard to love – or even follow all the way through. It is mostly remembered for R2D2 rip-off V.I.N. CENT, voiced by Roddy McDowell. Baffling plot aside, the movie's chief claim to notoriety is that it was the first Disney release to receive a PG rating, which surely contributed to its flopping at the box office – though that was hardly V.I.N. CENT's fault.
Tik-Tok (Return To Oz)
Steam-punk loving hipsters should investigate the overlooked 1985 Wizard of Oz sequel. Lots of retro-future goodness went into this rollicking dark fantasy (the kind of movie Tim Burton might make if he wasn't hung up on embellishing his legacy). Swiftly scrubbed from popular consciousness, if the film is nowadays remembered for anything it is for Tik-Tok, a wheezing, iron-clad sidekick with, hands down, the finest metal moustache in cinema history.
Maria (Metropolis )
The steely fembot from the 1927 silent classic, Maria was the first on-screen artificial person to impact on the culture. Decades later, she remains chillingly iconic, influencing everyone from Kraftwerk (who wrote a song called Metropolis) to Austin Powers (pursued by scary lady robots in his first cinematic outing).
R2D2 and C-3PO (Star Wars)
Originally intended as comic relief, Star Wars' little and large droids have featured in all six movies. Enjoyably camp – some on the internet of course believe they are secretly a gay couple – it is reported that the twosome will return in JJ Abrams' Episode VII, shooting for which is underway in London (or at least it will be once they've managed to get that door off Harrison Ford).
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent