By Will Nicol
There’s a lot of anxiety about robots lately, whether it’s from the threat they may pose to labor, or their potential to develop consciousness and decide to eradicate their fleshy creators. So far, however, the robots of the modern world are a bit underwhelming. A Roomba may be useful, but it doesn’t have much in the way of personality. If there’s one thing years of movies, TV shows, and video games have taught us, it’s that robots can be many things, and not all of them bad. Robots can be fun companions, or stoic guardians, or giant suits of armor for people to do battle in. Science fiction is rife with great robot designs; here are some of our favorites.
The sleek —and apparently sexy? — alien machine from Netflix’s new Lost in Space reboot has nothing on the original, a bulky, mechanical oddity that looks like a giant children’s toy. This machine’s saucer head and flailing arms, and catchphrases like “Danger, Will Robinson!” give him a distinct, campy style that became an iconic part of sci-fi history. The robot — whose full name is Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, but that’s a mouthful — didn’t lack for personality, either, engaging in snarky banter with the show’s pompous scientist Dr. Smith.
Star Wars has its share of memorable robots (“droids,” in the franchise’s vernacular), and none as famous as R2-D2, a short robot that casts a long shadow over pop culture. His round body and stark blue and white color scheme are instantly recognizable, so much so that his form has been repurposed for everything from French presses to airplanes. Although he only speaks in various beeping noises, R2 has plenty of stealthy tricks up his sleeve, along with a strange charm that most Star Wars droids lack.
Wall-E is one of Pixar’s greatest creations, an adorable, slightly pathetic trash-collecting robot who begins the film of the same name diligently carrying out his work on a lonely planet. It’s a testament to Pixar’s talent that Wall-E carries the first act of the movie by himself, without any real dialogue. He communicates so much through his expressive eyes and subtle gestures, the audience is not just invested, but transfixed by this little bot’s world and the adventure that unfolds before him.
The long-running Gundam franchise (with more than 10 TV series, not to mention various movies over the decades) has produced a legion of cool mechs, and while it may not be as fancy or intimidating as the later Gundam models, the RX-78-2, from the original Mobile Suit Gundam, stands out for its simple, memorable design. The father of all Gundams has an angular, armored body, in keeping with the show’s relatively grounded sci-fi premise, but its red, white, and blue color scheme –and head resembling a samurai kabuto — adds some pizzazz.
This pick may raise some eyebrows. Surely C3-PO ought to make the cut over this character from the Expanded Universe? While many Star Wars fans may not have heard of HK-47 — a character from Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic role-playing game — he’s one of the best characters to be found outside of the films, a psychopathic assassin droid with a dry sense of humor and complete contempt for organic beings, whom he refers to as “meatbags.”
Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant has a distinct 1950s aesthetic, exemplified in the film’s titular character, a gunmetal gray colossus whose round head and wide eyes belie his destructive power. Beyond his beautifully restrained design, the Giant is just a delightful character, a simple but inquisitive machine learning what it means to have free will.
The Terminator stands out among the robots on this list because he has been both hero and villain, an unrelenting, uncaring killer that pursues Sarah Connor in the original film, and a wisecracking paternal figure in the sequel. Arnold Schwarzenegger proved to be perfect casting in both roles, capable of delivering both menace and wit, but the quintessential moment for the T-800 killing machine is when, in the first movie, it is stripped of Schwarzenegger’s flesh, a grotesque, mechanical skeleton shambling around a dark factory.
We might be stretching the definition of robot here, but it’s worth it because the Evangelions are just so damn cool. Whereas most mechs tend to be blocky, bulky tanks-on-legs, Neon Genesis Evangelion’s giant robots are sleek machines with biomechanical components that let them move with catlike agility. Unit 01 is essentially the face of the series, the unit piloted by protagonist Shinji Ikari, and it displays ferocious savagery in some of the series’ most astounding battles. The Evangelion units aren’t strictly robots — to say more than that would be telling — but they are robot-ish, and since they are designed in the vein of traditional mecha, we’ll avoid being sticklers about semantics.
In the world of Futurama, robots are just like us. They work jobs, fall in love, and even drink heavily — though, with the subject at hand, it’s for power rather than to cope with the existential dread that comes with consciousness. Bender Bending Rodrguez is Futurama’s breakout character, a crass, hard-drinking robot who loves stealing and hates most humans. A lot of sci-fi stories depict robots as being free from human foibles, as machines that can replace us. Bender is such a great robot character because he embodies some of the worst traits of humanity. He’s vain, self-indulgent, and hateful, but also very funny and, at times, a caring friend.