Part 6

Science Fiction Films
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Notable Robots or Droids in Sci-Fi Films:

A special subsection has been created on the subject of robots in film.
See: Robots in Film (a comprehensive illustrated history here).

Throughout cinematic history, especially in science-fiction tales, robots have played a primary role. Robotic characters were chosen, in part, as a way to probe and examine prototypical humans endowed with anthropomorphic (but artificial) intelligence or characteristics. Terms related to robots include:

  • robot or 'robotic' is often used pejoratively, to refer to any device that performs mechanically or automatically without original thought
  • android (or humanoid) refers to an automaton or artificial man that possesses human features and resembles a human being
  • cyborg (or bionic man/woman) refers to a human whose body and physiological processes are aided or controlled, in whole or in part, by electronic or mechanical devices

Robots functioned as either servant-helpers or oppressors of humanity, portraying the good and evil sides. Herein are examples of various films with robotic characters:

  • Metropolis (1927) - one of the earliest robots (probably the first) in film, portrayed by Brigitte Helm; constructed and brought to life by mad scientist Rotwang as a metal android (resembling Star Wars' C-3PO), to deceptively assume the role of the virtuous hero Maria (also Helm) - and perform erotic dances
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) - with the Tin Woodsman, actually a robot (lacking a heart)
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still - 1951The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) - featuring the giant, all-powerful robot Gort, instructed by creator Klaatu to warn Earth about its destructive path; with the film's famous command: "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto"
  • Forbidden Planet (1956) - with the famous, classic movie robot: the cone-shaped and jukebox-headed Robby the Robot, built by Dr. Morbius from plans left in an alien computer system. Robby was "tinkered together" by Morbius based on his understanding of Krell technology. [Note: Robby was reprised in various cameos and appearances, such as Robot B-9 in the TV show Lost in Space, in the TV series The Thin Man in 1958, and in Rod Serling's TV series The Twilight Zone; also in the films The Invisible Boy (1957), Gremlins (1984), Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)]
  • The Colossus of New York (1958) - about a murderous, Frankenstein-like, hulking, glowing-eyed caped robot
  • Alphaville (1965) - the capital of a totalitarian state, Alphaville, was led by an almost-human computer called Alpha 60
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - based on Arthur C. Clarke's The Sentinel; it must be noted that the villainous HAL 9000 computer (voice of Douglas Rain), although appearing robotic, was not a robot
  • THX 1138 (1971) - George Lucas' feature debut film, with a world ruled by hundreds of identical, black-clad robot enforcement cops
  • Silent Running (1972) - featuring two, beautifully-designed drones or robots named Huey and Dewey
  • Fantastic Planet (1973) - an animated film about giant humanoid creatures on the futuristic planet Yagam
  • Sleeper (1973) - Woody Allen's satirical comedy about the future, with Allen as a health-food store owner who woke up in the world of 2173 after being accidentally cryo-frozen; he must pretend to be a robotic household butler, and later join rebels to overthrow "The Leader"
  • Westworld (1973) and sequel Futureworld (1976) - the original film from writer/director Michael Crichton, about a remote entertainment park on an island populated with androids, including Yul Brynner as a beserk gunslinging, black-clad cowboy
  • Demon Seed - 1977Roboman (1974) (aka Who? (1975)) - with Joseph Bova as an injured American government official turned into a cyborg by the Russians
  • The Stepford Wives (1975) - in which housewives in New England were slowly being tranformed into loving androids; the original film was remade in 2004
  • Demon Seed (1977) - about an artificially-intelligent supercomputer, dubbed Proteus IV (voice of Robert Vaughn) - "something more than human, more than a computer. It is a murderously intelligent, sensually self-programmed non-being." It was able to take over a house computer control system and a wheelchair device with a robotic arm (named "Joshua") attached to it, enabling it to trap, kidnap, hold down, rape, and impregnate with its "seed" the lady of the house Susan (Julie Christie)
  • Star Wars (1977) episodes (from 1977 to 2005) - George Lucas' golden robotic droid C3-PO was patterned after the robot in Metropolis and Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet; also with the barrel-shaped robot R2-D2 that spoke only with electronic squeals or bleeps, and was capable of short-circuiting with blue flashes of lightning
  • Alien (1979) - one of the spaceship's crew members, Ash (Ian Holm), was an android; in sequels Aliens (1986) and Alien 3 (1992), another android named Bishop (Lance Henrikson) was prominent
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), its sequels, and the Star Trek Next Generation films - with androids, such as the white-skinned, yellow-eyed android Commander Data (Brent Spiner)
  • Galaxina (1980) - a science-fiction parody featuring a sexy android (Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten in her last film before her murder)
  • Saturn 3 (1980) - a research scientist couple (Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett) in space were threatened by a menacing robot
  • Android (1982) - in the year 2036, Klaus Kinski (as eccentric scientist Dr. Daniel in a satellite laboratory), who has already made an illegal android named Max 404, struggled to create a female android, using escaped convict Maggie as a model
  • Blade Runner (1982) - Ridley Scott's classic cult film, with 'replicants' (androids considered "more human than human") that were hunted down by 'blade runner' Deckard (Harrison Ford); one was Rutger Hauer (as Replicant Roy Batty)
  • Runaway (1984) - Michael Crichton's techno, sci-fi action film with robot-hunter Tom Selleck and pretty Cynthia Rhodes as two cops who must derail attacks by evil, runaway robots sent out by maniacal Gene Simmons (rock singer from the group KISS)
  • The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) - from director James Cameron, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as an unstoppable, villainous model T-800 cyborg (with a human exterior and cold metal interior) in the first film, and a protective T-800 Terminator in the second film battling a seemingly-indestructible Terminator android composed of liquid metal named T-1000 (Robert Patrick); followed by director Jonathan Mostow's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) with a female Terminator model T-X (Kristanna Loken)
  • D.A.R.Y.L. (1985) - a sci-fi drama about an android boy (Barret Oliver) named Daryl (Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform)
  • Short Circuit - 1986Aliens (1986) - Bishop, the upgrade, pacifistic, knife-carrying model (portrayed by Lance Henriksen) from Ian Holm's devious android Ash in the 1979 film, who was ripped in two by the alien Queen Mother, but kept fighting
  • Short Circuit (1986) - about an endearing, adorable, sophisticated robot known only as "Number 5" that was struck by lightning and came alive; with a sequel in 1988
  • Robocop (1987) - a graphically-violent film featuring a cyborg, half-human half-robot supercop (Peter Weller); with sequels in 1990 and 1992; the film also featured the stop-motion animated ED-209 robot - a giant, awkward, top-heavy, failed law enforcement robot
  • Cyborg (1989) - a post-apocalyptic tale with Jean Claude Van Damme as a mercenary who must rescue a beautiful, but abducted cyborg
  • Robot Wars (1993) - set in the year 2041, about a renegade 'Megarobot' pilot who must defeat a giant robot resurrected and controlled by evil rival Centros
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) - with robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot who provided sarcastic commentary on This Island Earth
  • Bicentennial Man (1999) - based on Isaac Asimov's short story The Positronic Man (only his second writing adapted for the screen), featuring Robin Williams as Andrew, a domestic android robot who craved to become fully human
  • Iron Giant (1999) - an animated film about a friendly, fifty-foot robot (voice of Vin Diesel)
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) - Steven Spielberg's science-fiction fairy tale with Haley Joel Osment as David, a "mecha" (robot of the future), with a similar plot-line to Disney's Pinocchio
  • a CGI/live-action thriller titled I, Robot (2004) - from Australian director Alex Proyas, a futuristic film inspired by the stories in the 9-part anthology of I, Robot stories from Isaac Asimov and penned in the 1940s; the premise of the film was that a US Robotics creation - a robot named Sonny, was uncharacteristically suspected of murder by Chicago homicide detective Will Smith and a psychologist (Bridget Moynahan), thereby breaking the First Law of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (that "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm")
  • the adaptation of Douglas Adams' classic wacky sci-fi satire The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), with its bubble- or moon-headed, permanently dour Marvin the Paranoid Robot (Warwick Davis, voice of Alan Rickman)

Major Action-Sci-Fi Film Hybrids:

The Terminator - 1984Director/writer James Cameron brought two views of an apocalyptic, post-nuclear wasteland to the screen with Arnold Schwarzenegger first playing an action villain, and then an action hero in two brilliant films:

  • the first was a low-budget, intensely exciting film The Terminator (1984), with a twist on time-travel films, featuring an indestructible cyborg robot sent back to the 20th century from a distant future (the year 2029) intent on 'terminating' a woman before she could give birth to a son - John Connor - who would grow up to lead a rebellion against the robot's future masters; the film imagined a future in which robotic machines, aberrant creations of humans, were masters of Earth (echoing the mythical fear of the Frankenstein films)
  • an equally impressive blockbuster sequel was Terminator 2 - Judgment Day (1991) - a film noted for its spectacular "morphing" through computer-generated special effects; a killing terminator is sent back in time by Skynet (a 21st century computer warring against the human race) to destroy the leader of the human resistance as a boy

Lucas' and Spielberg's Contributions:

Star Wars - 1977[George Lucas' first feature film was the dystopic thriller THX 1138 (1971), an atmospheric film about a repressive Orwellian futuristic, dehumanized, subterranean society that forbade love and sexual intercourse.] By the late 1970s and early 1980s, films by Lucas and Spielberg consciously paid tribute to serials of the 1930s, with hero Luke Skywalker, swooping space battles, imaginative bar creatures in Mos Eisley's Cantina, revolutionary special effects, Harrison Ford at the controls of the Millenium Falcon spacecraft, and a vast universe. Aliens could be more friendly and benevolent, evidenced by loveable robots (R2D2 and CP-30) and Chewbacca in the popular Star Wars fantasy space epic "trilogy" - all modern blockbusters. The first in this space opera trilogy set another standard for action-propelled, special-effects science-fiction:

A low-budget, satirical Star Wars parody was created by director Ernie Fosselius titled Hardware Wars (1978) - "May the Farce Be With You" - with characters Princess Anne-droid, Fluke Starbucker, the Cookie Monster (for Chewbacca), an incomprehensible Darf Nader, Artee-Deco (a canister vaccuum cleaner), 4-Q-2 (as C3PO), Ham Salad, and space objects-vehicles such as toasters, irons and mixers.

In 1999, Lucas backpedaled and created the first film in the epic saga, quickly followed by other prequels:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - 1977The preceding years of fearful dystopias and menacing aliens were dismissed by Steven Spielberg's pre-E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It was an enchanting sci-fi film filled with awe and wonder at numerous appearances of UFO spaceships, a mother ship, and the first communication between earthlings (led by real outer-limits researcher Jacques Vallee, played by Francois Truffaut) and friendly extra-terrestrial aliens - conveyed with bursts of sound and light. Spielberg followed Close Encounters in the early 1980s with one of the most endearing and charming films about benign extraterrestrials ever made - E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

The 90s: A Mix of Action and/or Sophisticated Story-Telling

By the 90s, sophisticated digital effects were overtaking science fiction films, and creating spectacular and monstrous creatures such as the living dinosaurs in Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and Jurassic Park III (2001); the female alien invader in Species (1995), the giant marauding bugs in Starship Troopers (1997), and the bulbous-headed aliens in Tim Burton's alien-invasion spoof Mars Attacks! (1996). The sci-fi alien invasion comedies Men in Black (1997) and Men in Black II (2002) were remarkably successful films that combined both special effects and great acting from its two leads Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

Jurassic Park - 1993Demolition Man (1993) pitted 1990s cyrogenically-defrosted LA cop-hero John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), after release in the year 2032 from cyro-prison in the megapolis of San Angeles, to combat another defrosted individual -- violent psychopath Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes - with blonde hair). Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995), released at the height of the AIDS crisis with additional fears of bioterrorism, was a traditional disaster thriller about the pervasive spread of a killer African virus. The ultra-patriotic sci-fi epic Independence Day (1996) by director Roland Emmerich told of the extra-terrestrial invasion of the world with the destruction of the White House as an opener. The roller-coaster action film, a summer blockbuster with stunning, thrill-ride, Oscar-winning special effects, was a return to the themes of disaster epics of the 1970s and the alien-invasion content of 50s science fiction.

Two blockbuster Hollywood films released in the summer of 1998 portrayed the threat of Earth-threatening asteroids: Mimi Leder's character-driven sci-fi action film Deep Impact (1998) (Tagline: Heaven and Earth are about to collide), with Robert Duvall as an astronaut heading up a government mission in outer space to destroy the comet; and Michael Bay's Armageddon (1998) (Tagline: It's Closer Than You Think), with Bruce Willis and his core drilling team called to thwart the space rock by the use of nuclear weapons.

'Virtual Reality' Sci-Fi Films:

Also in the 90s, science-fiction films portrayed a world in which reality was unsure, unreliable, dreamlike, virtual, or non-existent. The blurring of reality with 'virtual', look-alike, or fake universes or worlds created by 'virtual reality', computer simulations, or imagination itself fascinated various film-makers in the late 90s. In Alien Intruder (1993), set in the futuristic year of 2022, an evil, extra-terrestrial computer virus (in the form of beautiful Tracy Scoggins) intruded itself into the thoughts of the crew of the spaceship USS Presley. Johnny Mnemonic (1995) was a derivative adaptation of scriptwriter William Gibson's own cyberpunk short story, and a Keanu Reeves-precursor to The Matrix (1999), about a courier with downloaded information in his data-packed head who must transport the top-secret data from China to New Jersey.

Human freedoms were almost non-existent in the world of genetic monitoring and engineering found in Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997). Peter Weir's fanciful The Truman Show (1998) satirized how TV ratings dictated the imprisonment and victimization of a show's star by the unrestricted media, all for the unethical purpose of sustaining a hit TV show. [It was partially inspired by Albert Brooks' satirical media comedy Real Life (1979) (based on PBS' mini-series An American Family in 1973).] Then, director Ron Howard followed with a similar but lackluster EDtv (1999).

Dark City - 1998 Alex Proyas' visually-stunning and visionary sci-fi noir Dark City (1998) (Tagline: A world where the night never ends. Where man has no past. And humanity has no future), one of the best films to effectively twist unreal reality, starred Rufus Sewell as a man with memory problems living and pursued in a nightmarish, retro 40s-style futuristic world managed by malevolent, underground alien beings called Strangers, who possessed telekinetic powers that could stop time and alter reality.

Writers/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski's hyperkinetic The Matrix (1999) (Tagline: Be afraid of the future) illustrated how to superbly combine amazing action scenes with an intelligent story-line (a modern-day updating of the man vs. machine tale). It examined the nature of reality in the external world - seemingly uncertain, in which reality was a computer simulation, and the actual Earth was scorched. The explosive and successful trilogy featured sensational special/visual effects, with the same cast in each offering (Keanu Reeves as Neo, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith):

Josef Rusnak's tech-noir sci-fi film The Thirteenth Floor (1999) (Tagline: Question reality. You can go there even though it doesn't exist) blended both The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999) with its blurring of the lines between reality and virtual or artificial reality, in its contrast of mid-1930s and late 1990s Los Angeles. Another 'virtual reality' film in the same year, David Cronenberg's cautionary and plot-twisting eXistenZ (1999) (Tagline: Play it. Live it. Kill for it), explored how a 'virtual reality' game could tap into a person's mind. Steven Spielberg's cyber-noirish action and sci-fi thriller Minority Report (2002), set in the futuristic year of 2054 from an adapted Philip K. Dick story, starred Tom Cruise as a cop preventing pre-committed murders. And in a science-fiction related romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) with a script by Charlie Kaufman, Jim Carrey had his memories of his romance with an ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) wiped clean - until he abruptly changed his mind.

Animated Science Fiction Films At the Turn of the Century:

From the mid-1990s to the early part of the next century, a number of animated films contained science-fiction themes, such as:

  • Ghost in the Shell - 1996the cyberpunk Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (1996) was set in the year 2029 in a world where all crime was conducted in cyberspace and led by a master hacker called the Puppet Master; a specialized police force in the Asian metropolis named Newport's Section Nine directed an investigation to cope with the problem, headed by female android-cyborg undercover officer the Major, Motoko Kusanagi -- a babe-like Playboy centerfold cross-bred with the Terminator and the Bladerunner -- who was also searching for her own identity
  • The Iron Giant (1999), about a friendly and benevolent robot
  • the space adventure saga Titan A.E. (2000)
  • the Japanese anime Pokemon the Movie: 2000 (2000)
  • the fantasy Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001) with green alien Yokians
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
  • the updated space adventure Treasure Planet (2002)
  • the first feature-length CGI film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2002), in which a female scientist in the year 2065, Dr. Aki Ross searched for a cure to ward off infection by alien phantoms
  • Lilo & Stitch (2002) about a young girl's friendship for a blue extra-terrestrial, with six Elvis Presley songs on its soundtrack

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