Technology and robots have come a long way, especially in recent times. A lot of progress has to do with the way robots have been portrayed throughout our cultural history, dating back to the eras when human imagination was lightyears ahead of human innovation. As far back as 1927, when ‘Maria’ was introduced in Fritz Lang’s expressionist sci-fi drama film Metropolis, humans have been fascinated with robots and artificial life forms.
There’s something about the duality between humanity and robotic existence, identity and expression, and nature and technology, that we just can’t get enough of. The best robots are as complex and emotional as humans, and in movies and TV they send messages that are important to hear. Some of these messages are dystopian in nature - like a warning sign about humanity destroying itself, or robots destroying their creators - while other messages focus on coexistence, peace and exploration.
Regardless of the messages, we are on the brink of a new world where humans and robots live together, and we're showing no signs of slowing down our technological advancements. One day, robots will have human jobs, and be of significant, daily value to human communities.
These 10 robots from film and television helped to rein in the technological era that we enjoy today, and they exemplify the endless possibilities for our future.
10 Gort - The Day the Earth Stood Still
Gort is an iconic, humanoid robot that first appeared in the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and its 2008 remake. In the first film, Gort is an 8-foot-tall, minimalist robot that arrives on earth via flying saucer. He accompanies the alien Klaatu from an unknown, distant planet, and is prone to violence.
Gort doesn’t speak, but he uses a laser-beam from his visor to vaporize humans and objects. He’s described as an ‘interstellar policeman’ who “preserves the peace” by destroying aggressors. He was portrayed in the 1951 film by 7'7” actor Lock Martin. In the film, after some misunderstanding, we see that Klaatu and Gort arrive on Earth with a message: humanity’s penchant for violence may not end well if they attempt traveling to space and messing with other cultures.
While the 1951 was a sci-fi classic, the 2008 remake was sub-par, at best. GORT is all-CGI effects, and his name is an acronym for “Genetically Organized Robotic Technology.” His construction is made up of a swarm of microscopic insect-like specimens that self-replicate by consuming matter and energy. They are able to disintegrate anything they touch. He is destroyed by Klaatu at the end of the film, via a massive EMP that shuts down all of humanity’s electrical technology.
9 RoboCop - RoboCop
RoboCop (1987) is another iconic sci-fi film, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller as the eponymous character. It’s set in a futuristic Detroit riddled with crime, and centers on police officer Alex Murphy, who is murdered by a gang and then revived by a mega-corporation as a superhuman cyborg police officer.
While RoboCop is only half robot (the tagline even reads: “Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop.”) He still deserves a mention for being so recognizable in the sci-fi and robotics community. The film uses many themes, such as dystopia, human nature, gentrification, capitalism, and greed, and spawned a huge franchise, including two sequels, a TV series, a 2014 remake, and two animated TV series, and more. But the original is still the best.
Throughout the film, RoboCop struggles with his identity, and with being part man and part machine. He uses minimal dialogue, and struggles with retaining his human memories, slowly remembering fragments of his “human” life while he works to subdue criminals in a dystopian future. To this day, RoboCop stands the test of time as a great example of how robots and cyborgs can retain a semblance of humanity and identity in their machinated bodies.
8 Optimus Prime - Transformers
Optimus Prime is the figurehead of the hugely popular Transformers franchise, as well as the leader of the Autobots. Throughout the franchise, Optimus leads his crew against the Decepticons and his arch-nemesis, Megatron. He was voiced by Peter Cullen in the original series, and has since been voiced by many others.
Optimus Prime is the “last of the great Primes,” an ancient race of Transformers, and is usually depicted as freightliner, cab-over-engine truck before his transformation. He is the Autobots’ general, and is a straightforward, wise, and justice-driven leader. While other Transformers are often wise-cracking jokesters, Optimus is the voice of reason, and usually has the most important, sage quotes and advice - an example being his motto: “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”
It’s hard to believe that Optimus Prime has been around since the first generation Hasbro toyline in 1984, and he’s starred in over 15 animated series, numerous video games and books and comics, and up to today with Michael Bay’s hugely popular live-action Transformers series. A forty-foot statue of him even exists in Kunming City, in China.
7 Pris - Blade Runner
The 1982 dystopian film, Blade Runner, introduced American audiences to a new, neo-noir sci-fi film genre that had yet to be seen. The film starred Harrison Ford, and was directed by Ridley Scott. The film shows Los Angeles in 2019, where genetically engineered replicants (androids) - indistinguishable from humans - are hunted down and “retired” by humans because they're illegal on Earth. Blade Runner is now a cult classic, and it brought the work of Philip K. Dick (renowned sci-fi novelist) to the attention of Hollywood, which would go on to make more of his stories into movies.
There are many great replicants in the movie, including Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), but perhaps the one that tops them all is the “basic female pleasure model,” an assassin called Pris (Daryl Hannah). She is one of the most sexualized robots in all of filmdom - aggressively wild, out-of-control, and is the epitome of a neo-noir femme fatale.
Pris can be considered a symbolism of a slave-object, as her initial intent is to be used for entertainment purposes (she was incepted on Valentine’s Day). It turns out that she is quite savvy at manipulating humans, though, and is a hell of a fighter, almost bringing Rick Deckard down.
6 WALL-E - WALL-E
The 2008 film WALL-E is considered one of Pixar’s best. It won numerous awards from the Oscars and Golden Globes, including Best Animated Feature, for its many depictions and themes of love, free will, and humanity in robots. In 2009, TIME ranked WALL-E first in its “Best Movies of the Decade.”
WALL-E himself is a small, cute, autonomous robot with a huge heart (despite not having one). Even though he hardly ever speaks, he quickly attaches with viewers on an emotional level, and we want nothing but the best for him and the robot he falls in love with, EVE. Despite his emotional pull, WALL-E’s best quality is his courage - being able to go off to a bizarre planet, and ultimately rescue the abandoned humans back to Earth.
After the calm romantic lighting on Earth, there’s a cold bleakness that shows after WALL-E arrives on Axiom. Slowly, WALL-E introduces that Earthly romantic light to Axiom. Pixar managed to critique society in a great way with this film, infusing elements of environmental waste, technology, religion, and other real-world issues, and at the center of it all is the lovable little robot, WALL-E.
5 The Terminator - Terminator
There are many Terminator models in the popular Terminator movie franchise, but the one that everyone is most familiar with is undoubtedly Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Model 101. He first appeared in James Cameron’s 1984 film, and the first of the franchise, as a cybernetic, programmable assassin, sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, whose son will one day become a savior against machines.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), he returns as a bodyguard to protect Sarah Connor’s son against a more advanced, liquid metal, shape shifting model. The American Film Institute ranked Terminator 2 as one of the greatest action films, science fiction films, and sequels of all time. In both films, Schwarzenegger does a great job of playing the stoic, anti-social, cold robot who doesn’t understand humans and is just trying to get the job done.
Although he doesn’t talk much, and he’s quite a stiff character, Terminator manages to fling off some of the more memorable one-liners in sci-fi and action movie history (see: “I’ll be back”). That iconic line was famously almost not included in Terminator, as Schwarzenegger had trouble pronouncing the word “I’ll.” But since it made it in, the line has been deemed as the 37th greatest quote in film history by the AFI, and the Terminator franchise is one of the longest lasting and most successful sci-fi and technology-based action franchises of all time.
4 Bender - Futurama
Bender (voiced by John DiMaggio) is the hilarious character created by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen for their TV show, Futurama. He is one of the most well-known and classic robot cartoon characters of all time, and is thieving, sociopathic, and morally ambiguous. He’s a vulgar anti-hero, described best by fellow main character, Leela, as an “alcoholic, whore-mongering, chain-smoking gambler.”
Even though he’s a robot, he’s one of the most human and belligerent characters on the show, and he usually gets the best lines. He might need oil to run, but booze will get the job done just as well. He has many anti-human sentiments (playing the reverse role of ‘racist’ phenomenally), is a womanizing alcoholic, but deep down he’s still a robot with a human identity, and he also has a sympathetic side, which is sometimes revealed throughout the episodes.
Bender gets his name from what he was programmed to do: cold-bending structural steel at a factory. He goes on to join Professor Farnsworth’s delivery crew as the assistant manager of sales, and he also goes on to help legalize robosexuality after a secret affair with crewmember Amy Wong, and he has a sexual encounter with a soda vending machine-fem-bot, that leads to the birth of his son, Ben. It’s near-impossible to have a list of the most iconic and popular robots in TV and film without including Bender, cartoon or not.
3 Iron Giant - The Iron Giant
The Iron Giant (1999) is an animated comedy-drama based on the 1986 novel by Ted Hughes, The Iron Man. The film takes place in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, and revolves around a lonely boy named Hogarth Hughes, who finds a giant robot that fell from space. The basic plot is that Hogarth and a beatnik artist named Dean need to stop the US military from finding and destroying the giant.
The Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) is a heartwarming character with no memory, who befriends Hogarth, and sends a different message than many other robot stories. While many other films about robots are set in dystopian times, and thematically play on the end of humanity, the destruction of humanity, violence, etc., the message The Iron Giant sends is: you can be who you choose to be, not just who you are designed to be.
Set during Cold War times, the themes are clear, and touch on building a peaceful relationship between man and machine, and the fear of war and weapons. Storywriter Brad Bird did a tremendous job of tackling touchy subjects and complex relationships, and ends up giving us one of the most endearing robot-based films in recent memory.
2 Data - Star Trek
The pasty-faced Lieutenant Commander of the Enterprise, Data (Brent Spiner), is one of the most complex characters in one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time. Data is an android with a near limitless capacity for all things intelligence - memory, language, data, technology. Star Trek invented a scientific basis for many of the post-modern inventions we enjoy today.
Data, similarly, is considered the face of modern day robotics engineering. He’s even in the Robot Hall of Fame. And while he’s a stiff, programmed robot that can be turned on and off, all he ever wanted was to be human. Many of the struggles Data goes through are things that everyday people go through (he’s considered a “Pinocchio-type character”), in that, what does it mean to be human, and to have an identity?
Gene Roddenberry told Brent Spiner that over the course of the show, Data was to become “more and more like a human, until the end, when he’d be very close, but still not quite there.” Since 1987, the character of Data has helped re-imagine the role of robots and artificial intelligence as they are juxtaposed next to humanity, in both television and film.
1 R2-D2 & C-3PO - Star Wars
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the most popular robots in film come from the most popular sci-fi films of all time. Also, despite their constant marriage-esque bickering, it’s impossible to split these two apart. R2-D2 and C-3PO play two very different roles that are altogether charming, comical, and necessary for making Star Wars the franchise it is.
R2-D2 is a simple, ‘astromech droid’ - a robot that beeps and boops instead of speaks, but he’s also brave, courageous, and through his beeps and boops he displays a stunning amount of emotion. He is also the most resourceful character in the series, with tools and a near-unlimited amount of quick fixes fashioned away in his trashcan-like frame. He has been played by English actor Kenny Baker in all six original films, and is slated to appear in the first installment of the upcoming sequel trilogy, making him one of two characters (along with Threepio) to appear in every Star Wars film.
C-3PO is R2's nervous, stiff, and genius companion. He’s a bipedal protocol droid, played in all seven films by Anthony Daniels. He is fluent in “over six million forms of communication,” and his main function is to assist in etiquette, translation, customs, and bickering. Both of these droids play pivotal roles in the Galaxy’s history, and they’ve served generations of Jedi and Skywalkers. They also play pivotal roles in real-world robotics, and are testaments to how far technology has come since the first Star Wars film in 1977 - just look at how close we are to creating real-world robots that aren’t too far removed from R2-D2 and C-3PO.