While much of horror cinema revolves around fear of the primitive—whether it be giant dinosaurs or half-human wolf men, or even vengeful attacks by Mother Nature herself—horror movies featuring robots hinge on a fear of the future, of a day not too far in the future when technology is so advanced that the machines humans have invented are strong and intelligent enough to dominate and enslave their inventors.
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A second element of what makes robot movies so scary is the cold, clinical, technological way in which the robot predators kill. These are not crimes of passion or revenge; instead, they are the programmed acts of an inhuman machine that is simply following orders. It is no coincidence that things which are not human can also be the most inhumane.
Here are some of the most prominent robot movies from the 1950s—when people started realizing that technology will one day render human beings obsolete—up until the modern era.
Old Robot Movies
In one of the earliest films to feature both robot and nuclear-war themes, The Day the Earth Stood Still (also released as Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World) concerns a flying saucer that lands in Washington, DC and is immediately surrounded by the US Army. A human-looking being named Klaatu emerges from the saucer and promises that he comes “in peace and good will.” When Army soldiers shoot him, a 7-foot-tall robot named Gort exits the saucer and vaporizes all the Army’s weapons. Klaatu survives his wounds and, to demonstrate his power, turns off all electricity on Earth except for absolute necessities such as airplanes and hospitals. He also explains that if the earthlings refuse his offer of peace, members of his interplanetary coalition have created an Army of robots like Gort that are capable of wiping out all of humanity. A review in The New York Times described Gort as “oddly unmenacing, for all his grossness and his death-ray eye.”
In this notoriously low-budget (shot in four days for $16,000) and intensely schlocky (it routinely shows up on “Worst Movie Ever Made” lists) slice of early Cold War-era nuclear-war paranoia, the “Robot Monster” is named “Ro-Man,” and he has come to rid the world of “Hu-Mans.” Problem is, he doesn’t look like a proper robot—instead, he looks like an actor in a gorilla costume with a diving helmet on top of his head, because that’s exactly what he is. This “robot” also communicates with his overlords on the moon through a primitive TV set that emits blowing bubbles.
In this pioneering sci-fi film—which is both the first mainstream film whose soundtrack is entirely electronic, as well as the first big-budget Hollywood science-fiction film ever—astronauts travel far into space to research why a far-flung colony is not returning messages, only to find more trouble than they were bargaining for. Many critics agree that the film’s star is the gentle “Robby the Robot,” whom The New York Times described as “a phenomenal mechanical man who can do more things in his small body than a roomful of business machines. He can make dresses, brew bourbon whisky, perform feats of Herculean strength and speak 187 languages, which emerged through a neon-lighted grille. What’s more, he has the cultivated manner of a gentleman’s gentleman.” Although the film’s iconic poster appears to show Robby in the process of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a female heroine, Robby plays no such sinister role in the movie itself. Robby would also go on to star in other films such as The Invisible Boy.
Also released as Kronos, Destroyer of the Universe, this is another horror/sci-fi film that deals with alien invaders and nuclear devastation—common themes in an 1950s American landscape whipped up by the Red Scare that was on constant high alert that a nuclear war with Russia was imminent. The title refers to a giant black monolithic robot who is dropped into the ocean by a space capsule and emerges from the deep to wreak holy hell on the planet’s inhabitants. What’s worse, when Army soldiers fire upon it with everything with guns to laser beams, the robot monster absorbs their energy and only gets stronger.
This film—widely considered a masterpiece—was originally a box-office failure but picked up steam once hippies realized that the last half hour, which involves a wordless psychedelic journey through deep space—was much more enjoyable to watch while under the influence of drugs. Three scientists are placed on board a spaceship in order to find the source of a strange monolith they discovered on the Moon. Throughout it all, they are wary of the supercomputer “H.A.L. 9000,” a conscious device who is much more intelligent than humans and may be plotting their demise. Roger Ebert said, “The fascinating thing about this film is that it fails on the human level but succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale.”
This film—in which the robots at a futuristic theme park for adults start malfunctioning and killing the vacationers—was written and directed by Michael Crichton, who also wrote the novel on which Jurassic Park is based. It is said that Yul Brynner’s role as an indestructible cowboy cyborg was the inspiration for other horror icons such as Michael Myers in the Halloween films and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films.
In this sequel to the 1973 smash hit Westworld, an ex-employee at the theme park is killed after revealing a dirty secret behind how the park operates. 2020 Movie Reviews explains how Futureworld differs from its predecessor: “Futureworld is not so much a sequel to Westworld as a companion film. If anything, it could be argued that Crichton’s Jurassic Park is more of a sequel (or remake) — after all, the story is identical (uncontrollable robots relentlessly chasing a group of helpless visitors around a theme park).”
This was actually the first Star Wars movie ever made, but due to studios’ insatiable need to keep making profits based on familiar templates—as well as moviegoing audiences’ seemingly endless thirst for unoriginal content—it somehow got shuffled around and is now the fourth film in the Star Wars series. But since it’s actually the first, it’s where we are introduced to to characters who have been in more Star Wars movies than anyone else—the robotic duo that Roger Ebert describes as “C-3PO (fastidious, a little effete) and R2D2 (childlike, easily hurt).” The only film in the Star Wars series that both robots haven’t appeared in is 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story.
From 1984 to 2019, the six films in this franchise—The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Genisys (2015), and Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)—generated an estimated $3 billion in box-office receipts. Time travel and cybernetics fuse in James Cameron’s ongoing saga of a total war between artificial intelligence and resistance fighters from the human race. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in the title role in most of these films as a cyborg from the future who is sent back in time to kill off John Connor before he can grow up and become the leader of the human resistance.
This is a horror movie from the 1980s, so of course there will be bright colors, pumping synth music, and a group of teenagers who decide to do something at a mall and wind up paying the price. After hours, a group of teens who work at a furniture outlet inside a mall decide to stay late and host a party—what they weren’t banking on was the fact that the mall’s security robots would malfunction and start randomly killing them. Horror DNA writes, “The kills in Chopping Mall are a lot of fun. You get electrocutions, stabbings, shootings, and one hell of a head explosion….Chopping Mall is one of those films that doesn’t try to make any statements; its only goal is to give you a good time, of that it succeeds. It delivers the necessary three Bs of independent horror – blood, boobs, and beast – in spades, and it holds up today just like the first day I saw it.” The film was originally released as Killbots.
Set in a dystopian futuristic Detroit where crime runs rampant, Robocop features Peter Weller as a police officer who is killed as part of a spate of cop killings. But he’s not entirely killed—enough of him remains for a mega-corporation that’s creating a squadron of crime-fighting robots to make him into a half-human/half-machine cyborg. Roger Ebert described Robocop as “a thriller with a difference.”
In a tour-de-force performance, Robin Williams stars as Andrew, a robotic butler who at first must deal with the putdowns and snobbiness of a human family as he gradually struggles to acquire human emotions and become more human. While praising Williams’s performance, Roger Ebert blamed a lifeless script for the film’s robotic second half: “Robin Williams spends the first half of the film encased in a metallic robot suit, and when he emerges, the script turns robotic instead….Unfortunately for this movie, it’s funnier when a man becomes a machine than when a machine becomes a man, because man’s free will is being subverted, while the machine has none.”
New Robot Movies
Master director Stanley Kubrick spent years working on this project, fascinated with the theme of a modern Pinocchio—whereas in the original a puppet yearned to be a boy, in this update a robotic boy wishes to become human so he can gain his human mother’s love. Finally realizing he wasn’t up to the task, Kubrick handed the entire project over to Steven Spielberg. Roger Ebert says the film’s main flaw is the fact that robots can never become fully human: “‘A. I.’ is not about humans at all. It is about the dilemma of artificial intelligence. A thinking machine cannot think. All it can do is run programs that may be sophisticated enough for it to fool us by seeming to think.”
Will Smith stars as a technology-shunning Chicago cop in the year 2035 who must investigate the death of a robot engineer that has been called a suicide but which Smith suggests was actually a murder committed by a rogue cyborg. Roger Ebert writes, “The movie’s robots are curiously uninvolving as individuals, and when seen by the hundreds or thousands look like shiny chromium ants.” The film’s plot is based on a story by sci-fi master Isaac Asimov, who at some point during the 1970s attempted to wrangle a screenplay out of his original story with sci-fi master Harlan Ellison collaborating.
This is the first film in what has become a multi-movie franchised based on the popular 1980s line of toys that “transform” from fighting robots into more practical devices such as cars and power drills. It pits the heroic Autobots against the evil Decepticons for control of the planet. Roger Ebert praised the film: “It’s goofy fun with a lot of stuff that blows up real good, and it has the grace not only to realize how preposterous it is, but to make that into an asset.”
The main plot revolves around a down-on-his-luck ex-boxer (Hugh Jackman) who finds himself obsolete in a brave new technological world where the hot new sport is robot boxing. He finds a discarded robot in a junkyard and convinces himself that with enough determination, he can turn the rusting heap into a boxing champ. Roger Ebert praised the fight scenes, comparing them favorably to the action scenes in the Transformers series: “Even during these early fight scenes, however, it’s clear than the movements of the robots are superbly choreographed. My complaint about the battling Transformers of the movies series is that they resemble incomprehensible piles of auto parts thrown at each other.”
In a dystopian future, humans use giant robots to fight for survival against an alien race of creatures known as the kaiju, who have suddenly emerged from the Pacific Ocean’s depths to wipe out humanity. The world governments have devised what they call a “jaeger” program to fight off the kaiju, which involves human individuals directing giant fighting robots to fend off the aggressors. And for a while, the jaegers are winning against the kaiju—but only for a while. Reel Views writes, “It’s the perfect summer spectacle, with giant robots pounding on monsters, monsters stomping on cities, and the kind of mayhem that only big theaters with big screens and big sound systems can truly convey….It’s an adrenaline-and-testosterone cocktail that fans of monster movies, robot movies, and high octane action films will swallow in a single gulp.”
A young and promising computer program gets invited by his CEO to administer the Turing test to an intelligent robot designed in the form of a female human. The test is designed to determine whether robots can demonstrate human intelligence in the form of cunning and deception. The programmer finds himself falling for the female cyborg, who plots with him to break out of the CEO’s compound together. But the CEO warns the programmer that this is all the proof he needed that the cyborg indeed has human intelligence, for she was only deceiving him all along and using him for the sole purpose of escaping.
Based loosely on a Japanese film of the same name from the 1990s, Ghost in the Shell stars Scarlett Johansson as a half-human/half-cyborg who is part of an anti-terrorism unit working on behalf of Japan, which is the world’s sole remaining superpower. Calling the movie “beguiling,” AV Club writes, “Ghost in the Shell finds tantalizing expressions of theme: the faces and limbs of hacked androids breaking up into insect-like forms as they attack; the lonely, recessed spaces of futuristic sleeping quarters; the grotesquerie of cybernetic enhancements; red light districts where human prostitutes dress like sex-bots to attract clientele.”
Part doll and part android, M3GAN was a star before her movie was even released. Residing firmly within the uncanny valley, M3GAN is a robot powered by artificial intelligence that is created as a secret project for a toy company. M3GAN is intended to be an empathetic companion to whomever is paired with her, effectively replacing the need for flesh-and-blood friends and family. At least, that’s what M3GAN herself begins to believe as she begins to think more freely. M3GAN is a fun horror movie that leans into its campy premise while still putting across emotional moments from time to time.
More Robot Movies
- Metropolis (1927) is an important movie in the history of cinema. Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis is one of the earliest cyberpunk and robot movies ever made.
- Short Circuit (1986) a military robot escapes the clutches of his ill-willed government inventors and seeks solace in the apartment of a pacifist who has a soft spot for animals.
- Universal Soldier (1992) action hunks Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme star as two American soldiers who killed one another in Vietnam but are brought back to “life” a quarter-century later in a secret government experiment.
- Mandroid (1993) two scientists compete to develop a half-man/half-android creature whose motions can be guided with a virtual-reality headset.
- The Matrix (1999) this famous cyberpunk flick features a slew of scary robots that rule over the real world and use humans as batteries.
- The Stepford Wives (2004) is centered in an upscale private community where the women are too perfect to be human—which is because they aren’t human at all.
- Surrogates (2009) Bruce Willis stars in this futuristic thriller in which everyone is forced to stay inside and live through robotic “surrogates”—until Willis’s job as a cop forces him to venture outside in his flesh-and-blood form.
- Oblivion (2013) this cyberpunk Tom Cruise film features many droids and a lot of powerful/frightening artificial intelligence.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) a future generation of X-Men joins a past generation of X-men to fight the scourge of the robotic Sentinels.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) the masked marvels return to fight the almost-human super-robot Ultron, who was conceived as their ally but suddenly went rogue.
PG Robot Movies
- The Iron Giant (1999) is an animated feature in which a little boy rescues a gigantic robot who has plummeted to Earth and helps save him from government agents.
- Inspector Gadget (1999) what used to be a human security guard becomes a part-human/part-cyborg security guard.
- The Santa Clause 2 (2002) this Disney Christmas movie has a fun futuristic and even dystopian element. One of Santa’s elves builds a machine that is capable of producing robot clones, and they clone Santa, but the cloned version of Santa is a fascist tyrant who also starts cloning his own army of robot nutcrackers.
- Big Hero 6 (2014) won the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar with this tale of a brilliant teen inventor who loses control of his robot.
- Robots (2005) is another animated feature that pits a genius inventor against a malevolent corporate baron.
- WALL·E (2008) is a robot with a tiny, hammerhead-shark-shaped head whose task is to save the Earth from pollution.
- Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) is a kids’ movie about the beloved Sega character Sonic. The movie features the villain Dr. Robotnik that often creates mean little robots called Badnicks that attack Sonic.