From '2001: A Space Odyssey' To 'Westworld': The 5 Most Important Movie Robots Of The Past 50 Years
We've come along way since HAL 9000.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's massively influential sci-fi movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Five decades after the film's release, robots have become ubiquitous in popular culture – though they certainly had an on-screen presence well before Kubrick. From Fritz Lang's seminal Metropolis (1927) to the current HBO series Westworld, robots have proven a mainstay in entertainment for almost a century.
Why does Hollywood find the idea of robots so alluring?
For filmmakers, they have long represented the perfect man-made foil to human nature. Robots can fill whatever role required of them – whether that be an adversary, ally, or savior. Their character adaptability also makes them a poignant allegorical device. "[Robots] symbolize so many of our neuroses — our queasiness about technology and the unknown," writes Bilge Ebiri for Vulture.
For audiences, on-screen robots present a universal threat, a common foe for all 7 billion of us to gather against – aliens operate in a similar way. The stakes in "evil robot" movies could not be higher – the robots will either defeat the entire human race and replace us, or we will find a way to outsmart them. And yet, we expect precision, if not utter perfection, from our android counterparts. Robots can do what we do, but better – they are smarter, more calculated. So, when we witness a robot turn evil or malfunction in a film, we are afforded the relief that robots, too, can err. We need not fear replacement yet.
We are flooded with a similar sense of relief in movies featuring "good robots." These robots are the saviors we’ve been seeking, the more rational beings who will restore order to our chaotic world (think the T-800 in the Terminator franchise or the Iron Giant). And, because robots are created by humans and are often made in our image, robots inherently mimic the best and worst of human behavior, like Roy Batty's thirst for revenge (Blade Runner) or young David's need to be loved (A.I. Artificial Intelligence).
"Robots really are in some sense an attempt to model human abilities, whether they be physical or mental abilities," famed game designer Will Wright told the Scientific American. "You don't really understand how complicated a human hand is until you try to build one."
Over the decades, countless robot films have gradually helped audiences understand the complexity of consciousness, define what it means to be human, and let us grapple with our own replaceability. In honor of A Space Odyssey's milestone — and to celebrate the return of HBO's Westworld — we're looking back at the most iconic movie robots from each decade since the Kubrick film’s release.
**A clarifying note: For the purpose of this list, a robot need not have a physical form, but must have been programmed by humans at some point, unlike, say, Megatron, the extraterrestrial robot from Transformers.
1. HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
HAL 9000 is the "foolproof" operating system installed on the Discovery One, a spacecraft bound for Jupiter. Since Hal doesn’t have a body, per se, one might argue he’s less of a "robot" and more of an A.I. computer. With his calm voice and rational demeanor, Hal insists to the scientists onboard that his model is "incapable of error." In the end, Hal turns out to be a homicidal system who’s hell-bent on self-preservation.
How Hal changed the game: Kubrick’s red-lensed, rational-voiced computer tapped into a growing fear in the '60s – the technology we trust with almost every aspect of our lives could someday turn against us. A.I., as we know it today, was just a blip when 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered, yet the movie foresaw the dawn of a new era, one where computers could potentially outsmart the humans who programmed them.
Hal's best line: "I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen."
2. R2-D2 from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
R2-D2 has a résumé most actors could only dream of. Appearing in all eight Star Wars films, R2-D2 is undoubtedly the unsung hero of the biggest film franchise of all time. In the first Star Wars alone, the dutiful bot delivers Leia's holographic message to Obi-Wan, stops the trash compactor from killing basically everyone, and delivers the Death Star's plans to the alliance. Not bad for an astromech droid!
How R2-D2 changed the game: Few did more for robots' image than George Lucas. With his blockbuster space opera in 1977 and subsequent Star Wars films, Lucas was the first director to make a robot lovable. Before Artoo, there had been helpful, even quick-witted bots (see Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot), but never before had there been a droid who could convey such personality through such unintelligible beeps. C-3PO might bring the comic relief, but R2-D2 will always be the franchise's ultimate ride or die.
R2-D2's best line: Since we're not fluent in droidspeak, let's just say that for R2-D2, actions speak louder than words. Seriously, how many times has this sassy little guy saved the day?
3. T-800 from The Terminator (1984)
T-800 is one of the most recognizable (and quotable!) robots in cinematic history. From initial exterminator to eventual guardian, the Terminator franchise gifted viewers a robot with a helluva range. For the purpose of this list, we're referring to the T-800 from the original Terminator... you know, the one whose sole mission is to kill all women named "Sarah Connor."
How T-800 changed the game: Between D.A.R.Y.L., RoboCop, Blade Runner, and The Terminator, the '80s were a damn good decade for robot movies. Blade Runner’s Roy Batty could have easily snatched T-800's spot with his "Tears in the Rain" speech. However, in what has become his most iconic role, Arnold Schwarzenegger gave us the most chilling depiction of robot-dom to date. The T-800 was our worst robot fears realized – it looked human, it could mimic humans, and it could destroy humans without an ounce of remorse.
T-800's best line: "I'll be back." Really, did you think it was going to be anything else?
4. Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Technically speaking, the protagonist at the center of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal anime masterpiece is a cyborg — but to be fair, Motoko's attachment to her own humanity is relatively flimsy. The Major eventually ditches her shell (a.k.a her manufactured body), merges with a sentient A.I. entity, and basks in the "vast and infinite" nature of the net. (It's a lot to take in, we know.)
How Motoko Kusanagi changed the game: Where The Terminator told audiences A.I. would eventually come to kill us, Major Motoko offered a different alternative: In the future, humans would essentially merge with A.I. With its philosophical questions on the nature of identity and the future of human evolution, Ghost in the Shell elevated cinema's conversation about the consciousness of artificial intelligence. The Wachowskis siblings have even credited Ghost in the Shell as the inspiration behind their 1999 gem, The Matrix.
Motoko Kusanagi best line: "If a technological feat is possible, man will do it. Almost as if it's wired into the core of our being." If you couldn't tell, Ghost in the Shell is by far the most introspective robot movie on the list.
5. WALL-E from WALL·E (2008)
Left to clean up a polluted Earth all on his own, WALL-E is a lonely bot with a lot of love to give. WALL-E may be a simple bot in comparison to the rest of the list – his job is cubing mounds of trash after all – but he is easily the most endearing. Despite his traditionally robotic tone, WALL-E conveys emotion more acutely than the film's human counterparts.
How WALL-E changed the game: You can always count on Pixar to deliver thoughtful, easily digestible messages, and WALL·E was certainly no exception. If anything, the film argued that humans, not robots, will be the ones to ruin the world as we know it. Instead, robots will serve as Earth's Hail Mary, a last-ditch effort to right the wrongs of human excess. Together, WALL-E and his love-interest EVE usher in a new era of humanity, much like their symbolic biblical counterparts.
WALL-E's best line: "Eeeee... va?" It's short and so incredibly sweet – precisely the essence of WALL-E.
An interesting aside: Auto, the A.I. computer who commandeers the Axiom (you know, the spaceship where humans live post-Earth) is an allusion to the HAL 9000!
This brings us to Westworld (2016 – )
Today’s on-screen iteration of robots can be seen on HBO's Westworld, which premiered its highly-anticipated second season on Sunday. Though it's technically a TV show, it is based on the eponymous 1973 robot film. The form jump (feature-length movie to television series) is probably the greatest testament to what HBO is attempting to accomplish with the series: adding nuance to the highly-saturated robot conversation. Instead of just two hours, Westworld’s robots have seasons to evolve and sort out questions surrounding consciousness. The network is providing a long-needed grey area to entertainment's fascination with A.I.
As this list demonstrates, on-screen robots are typically categorized in starker terms of "good" and "bad." While we’ve seen nuanced portrayals of A.I. before (Ghost in the Shell being a prime example), we need far more. Despite what WALL·E and The Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey teach us, the truth is, robots probably won’t save us and they likely won’t end us, either. It’s the place in between that’s hardest to come to terms with.