We all know that the T-800 is the greatest robot in film history (and there’s no debating that). But filmmakers have been interested in A.I. nearly since the birth of cinema, and they’ve given us a surplus of great robot characters over the years. Diego Crespo already listed the scariest movie robots, and covered all of the bases on that front. This time around though, the focus is going to be centered on the good guys (or mostly good), the robots you don’t fear, but marvel at. The qualifiers for “best movie robot” revolve around design, functionality, and the audience’s ability to root for these characters. So here are 10 unranked characters that prove we don’t have to fear for the future (and just a heads up: No, Chappie was not included.).
Ava (Ex Machina)
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of the best films of 2015, and its exploration of the Turing Test is fascinating on multiple levels. I stated that I would be focusing on the good guys, but to pin that scale of morality to Ava would be a disservice to the film. I won’t spoil any details, as the film is still so recent, but Ava is likely the most functional robot on this list, and despite her appearance of innocence, she’s far smarter than any of the other characters have given her credit for being. She’s easy to root for during the majority of the film, and her ability to pass as human makes her the perfect robot, as because humanity is imperfect by default, she is also flawed as an individual. I’ll leave Ava’s moral standing up for debate, but it’s impossible to deny that she’s a fascinating character.
Sonny (I, Robot)
I’ll admit, despite my love of all things sci-fi, I have yet to read Issaac Asimov’s collection of robot stories, I, Robot. From what I’ve gathered, Alex Proyas’ Will Smith-action vehicle is drastically different. What the film does utilize from Asimov’s work are his famous Three Laws of Robotics. In the film, Sonny’s program allows him to disobey the three laws, which results in a really solid buddy cop sci-fi film that may be a little light on actual science, but distinguishes itself apart from Asmiov’s work, and makes up for it in the action department. Alan Tudyk’s voice and motion capture work in the film still stands as one of the best mo-cap performances not done by Andy Serkis. While some of the special effects may be dated, the design of Sonny and his fellows NS-5 robots don’t look all that dissimilar from what I’d imagine Apple might design if they ever get into the A.I. business. Sonny’s final status as a sort of robot Moses was ripe for sequel exploration, which sadly we have never received.
Duncan Jones’ modern sci-fi classic about a hallucination-plagued astronaut, who discovers a doppelgänger at the lunar facility he maintains, is rightfully known for its fantastic performance from Sam Rockwell. But Kevin Spacey’s performance as the artificial intelligence system, GERTY, is equally memorable. Defined only by Spacey’s voice, and a variety of emoticons that appear on a monitor, there’s definitely something creepy about Rockwell’s companion. Because of Spacey’s history for playing villains, and our pop-cultural, collective memories of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s hard not to assume GERTY will be the film’s main villain (even the trailers led viewers to assume in this direction). But ultimately, GERTY turns out to be the antithesis of HAL, a completely loyal, space age companion who functions exactly as programmed.
Iron Giant (The Iron Giant)
Before he moved to Pixar, Brad Bird tugged on all of our heart strings with a Cold War-era story about a boy and his giant robot. The Iron Giant remains Vin Diesel’s best performance (“You stay, I go”) which isn’t a knock on his acting, but a testament to how difficult it was to pull off a 50-foot robot with a personality, convincingly. One of the aspects of the film that really works for it is that it never reveals the robot’s origins or where he came from, which allows the film to maintain a sense of wonder. While so many films about robots focus on their creation, recreation, and all of their subsequent models, The Iron Giant remains refreshing in its focus and aim to make you care about the characters instead of the science that made it all possible.
After Ash screwed over the entire crew of the Nostromo in Alien, it’s easy to understand Ripley’s initial distrust of Bishop in Aliens. Lance Henriksen’s hard, line-etched face and calculating eyes make him seem villainous, but he makes Bishop immediately likable through an inherent warmth and compassion not seen before by any of the androids in the rest of the Alien franchise. It’s easy to feel sympathy for him, and when he and Ripley face off against the Alien queen, his survival becomes almost as important as Ripley’s to audience members. In a series filled with backstabbers, cowards, and liars, Bishop remains one of the few consistent heroes. Oh, and no one can play Five Finger Pillet like him.
Optimus Prime (Transformers)
Yes, I know. I know. I’ve already prepared myself for the shit storm. But I’m not here to talk about Michael Bay, or make any sort of argument regarding the quality of the Transformers movies. In both his animated appearance in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie, as well as in his live-action appearances, Optimus Prime has remained the most popular Transformer on film. Moving past the very nature of how ridiculous the entire concept is, the multi-media franchise has connected with audiences for over 30 years, and Optimus has usually been at the center. Throughout all his iterations, Optimus Prime has remained the stoic leader, a force for good, and a capable fighter. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s much depth to his character, his clear cut heroism has made it possible for many audience members to connect emotionally with the character and feel something when he dies (cue Shia LaBeouf screaming, “Optimus!”). And even if you have no investment in the character, it’s pretty hard to deny how cool it is to see a giant robot with a sword fight it out with another giant robot. It’s all adolescent fare, but it’s easy to see why kids, teens (and some adults) might wish they had a vehicle that could transform into Optimus Prime.
Somehow, Pixar managed to create a sci-fi, romantic comedy with robots, and it turned out pretty great. While most robo-centric films focus on the emotional disconnect that A.I. has as the major component of what separates them from humans, Andrew Stanton focuses on their apparent humanity. Waste management robot, Wall-E, and his romantic interest, EVE, are in fact more human and more emotional than the humans featured in the film. With an incredibly limited range of vocabulary, voice actors Ben Burt, Elissa Knight, and Pixar animators give the robot characters an emotional depth that a good many human actors can’t ever manage (*cough* Jai Courtney *cough*). And in terms of design, he’s practical, and pretty adorable.
So I may be cheating here since Robocop is technically a cyborg, and wasn’t built entirely from an A.I. system, but it’s my list, so I’m going to bend the rules slightly. Paul Verhoven’s ultra-violent, satirical tale of corporate controlled, police forces is still one of the best explorations of man versus machine. The action scenes are great, but the real meat of the film lies in Robocop’s internal struggle to come to grips with his humanity. Robocop’s final line, “Murphy,” and the smile he gives, still remains one of my favorite endings because it’s so effective in showing the outcome of Robocop’s struggle, without the need for explicit exposition. Design wise, he may look a little clunky, but he’s an effective killing machine who can ultimately choose who to kill for himself.
Vision (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
The standout character in Avengers: Age of Ultron may have only had about 20 minutes of screen time, but in those 20 minutes he made a lasting impact. Paul Bettany’s Vision is pretty much the MCU’s very own, robot Jesus, and he is worthy! Joss Whedon managed to take the android character’s complex backstory and personality traits, and synthesize them into something that made sense, given the science-fiction elements already introduced within the universe. He’s compassionate and willing to fight for humanity, despite the fact that he knows they are flawed and a limited species. His discussion on the ultimate nature and fate of man with Ultron at the end of the film is poignant and poetic; it raises the kind of existential questions that only Whedon can handle with such deft and humor. And in terms of design, I’m still geeking out over the fact that he looks comics-accurate (even down to the color scheme), and that Whedon didn’t go for a more traditional and realistic robot design.
R2-D2 and C-3PO (Star Wars)
The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of science-fiction, Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars without these two popping up to follow the action and indirectly push the plot forward. While they serve mainly as the films’ comic relief, they still feel like an integral part of the saga, which is a testament to how well Lucas wove them into the story. While C-3PO is one step away from being annoying, his commentary and restrained use ultimately make him likable. R2-D2 is clearly the better half of the duo, and even though he doesn’t speak, he’s always comprehensible. While science doesn’t matter within the Star Wars universe (no droid would ever pass a Turing Test), the characters’ personalities are what ultimately make them two of the best robots in film history. But if The Force Awakens trailers and memes are any sign or indication, BB-8 may soon be rolling his way in to claim that title.