1. "Fake Maria," from Metropolis (1927)
Any list of great movie robots can only begin with Metropolis, Fritz Lang's 1927 vision of a future in which science has made Earth a paradise for the privileged, and a hell for those who have to keep it running. Brigitte Helm plays Maria, a beautiful worker whose charisma and organizational skills pose a threat to the powers that be. But said powers have a secret weapon in mad scientist Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who kidnaps Helm, imposes her face on an android, and lets her double loose to mislead the people with some lascivious dancing. Creators are still unpacking the themes laid out here, particularly the robot Maria's ability to pass as human (and stir desire without real flesh). Where do we draw the line between human and machine? What responsibility do we have for the artificial life we create? And do the answers have to send us tumbling into the chaos Lang depicts here?
2. Gort, from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)Sure, there have been far livelier robots than Gort, Michael Rennie's robot assistant from The Day The Earth Stood Still. But few captured the anxiety of an entire era quite so well while doing so little. Sent to warn Earth to stop its destructive ways, or else, Rennie relies on the imposing Gort, with his apparently apocalyptic capabilities, to drive the point home. Gort was just a piece of hardware, but he could end life as we knew it, just like the missiles being stockpiled by superpowers in the rapidly heating Cold War.
3. Robby The Robot, from Forbidden Planet (1956)
Of course, not all robots were designed to kill. Taking a page from Isaac Asimov, Forbidden Planet presented a robot that had nothing on its mind but helping its human companions. Never mind its monster-got-the-girl appearance on the film's iconic poster: The real bad guys in this recasting of Shakespeare's The Tempest are literally monsters from the id. No matter how far from Earth you travel, there are some demons no one can escape.
4. The Gunslinger, from Westworld (1973)
Taking the grim, expressionless anti-heroes of '60s Westerns to their logical extreme, Yul Brynner plays a fictional creation gone terribly wrong. A bad guy in the Old West wing of an immersive amusement park, Brynner plays a robot designed to give a hint of danger, but he begins to take his job too seriously. It's the role he was born to play.
5. Rags The Dog, from Sleeper (1973)
Awakening in the world 2173, where cigarettes and hot fudge are lauded for their life-preserving capabilities and robot butlers cater to their masters' every need, Woody Allen finds little to like. Artificiality abounds in a world that doesn't quite get the details right, as with Rags, a pet that announces itself in a human voice: "Woof, woof, woof! Hello, I'm Rags." Adorable it isn't. (Historical note: Years later, Rags found a second life as a sample in the Orb song "Towers Of Dub.")
6. C-3PO and R2-D2, from Star Wars (1977)
George Lucas, on the other hand, created a pair of robots more endearing than their human co-stars. Throughout the Star Wars series, C-3PO and R2-D2 provided banter, warmth, and a counterpoint to the technophobia that crept into Lucas' vision even as he began to rely increasingly on humans-last filmmaking techniques.
7. Ash, from Alien (1979)
The unsmiling descendant of Metropolis' robot, Ian Holm's Ash looks human enough to mix with his organic crewmates, but has a divergent agenda, one that involves maximizing his company's profits above any human cost. He's the corporate mindset operating under a layer of artificial skin. Too bad no one thought to make him resistant to one strong punch to the jaw.
8. Hector, from Saturn 3 (1980)
Sometimes good robots happen to bad movies. Saturn 3 was written by Martin Amis and directed by Singin' In The Rain's Stanley Donen and, in spite of it all, may be one of the stupidest science-fiction films ever made. Alone on a paradise-like hydroponics station, the professional and romantic team of Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett tend to their garden until an overdubbed Harvey Keitel shows up with his nearly headless robot sidekick Hector, who looks like a version of Gort who borrowed some drugs from Barry Bonds. Through some technology that connects him to Keitel's brain, Hector develops a murderous attraction to Fawcett. What's scarier than a big robot? A big horny robot. (See also Demon Seed for a big, scary, horny computer.)
9. Roy Batty, from Blade Runner (1982)
Philip K. Dick frequently used robots to challenge how we define humanity, and Ridley Scott's adaptation of Dick's story "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" stayed true to the spirit of his fiction. Charged with tracking down rebellious "replicants," star Harrison Ford begins sympathizing with his prey. The film is filled with memorable robots—and even some ostensible humans unaware of their true nature—but Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty provides the most poignant moment. At the film's end, he faces down his own mortality with a steely (and ultimately futile) refusal to give in to a built-in expiration date. Robots: they're just like us.
10. The Terminator, from The Terminator (1984)
Arnold Schwarzenegger's role here is basically just Yul-Brynner-in-Westworld redux. But Schwarzenegger makes it his own, conveying the sense that a resourceful woman is the only thing keeping his Ray Ban-wearing assassin from bringing about the end of the world simply to fulfill his programming.
11. ED-209, from RoboCop (1987)
Peter Weller's protagonist is, as the poster proclaimed, part man, part machine, all cop. A cyborg created to help clean up the streets of Detroit, Weller occasionally runs up against a competing model, ED-209, a law-enforcement machine that looks like a giant, fascist ladybug and has a habit of malfunctioning at all the wrong moments. Director Paul Verhoeven turns ED's boardroom introduction into a model of terrifying black comedy.
12. The Iron Giant, from The Iron Giant (1999)
While Gort personifies an era's fears into one giant, metal body, The Iron Giant illustrates just how easily fear could edge into paranoia. Between successes with The Simpsons and The Incredibles, animator Brad Bird loosely adapted Ted Hughes' story about the unlikely friendship between a little kid and a gentle, giant, metal spaceman who only looks like a pitiless killing machine. First impressions aren't everything, after all.
13. Gigolo Joe, from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term "the uncanny valley" to explain why robots with a few human characteristics and (theoretically at least) robots who look almost fully human stir our empathy, but artificial creations that full just short of appearing human repulse us. It's why most people like Star Wars' human-ish C-3PO and the nearly human Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but find the motion-capture kids in Polar Express kind of creepy. The humanoid robots of A.I. reside safely enough on the far side of the uncanny valley that some make a living as sexual surrogates. But Jude Law as Gigolo Joe goes about his pleasure duties with a particular poignancy that makes him easy to like. The good looks come from a factory line, but his care for his clients is unmistakably human.
14. wjw1967, from 2046 (2004)
Of course, at this point, humans can imagine far more complicated robots than we know how to create, projecting our present desires and anxieties onto the possibilities of the future. In Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, Faye Wong plays a creation made out of wires and metaphor. A doppelgänger for the woman star Tony Leung might have loved in 1967 Hong Kong (also played by Wong) had the timing been better, the alluring wjw1967 feels emotions that, thanks to a programming glitch, don't come to the surface until some time after she first experiences them. Even machine-perfect fantasies have a way of falling apart.