1-2. The Terminator, The Terminator; T-1000, Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Science-fiction writers tend to love stories about killer robots. Those stories come packed with inherent dramatic irony and cautionary metaphor, as mankind’s own creations rise up to destroy him and his godlike hubris. (See also the many variants on a theme: killer androids, supercomputers, sentient AI jets, replicants, etc.) So why aren’t more of those many killer robots actually frightening, instead of ridiculous? One of the few franchises to do it up right has been the Terminator films, which emphasize both the implacability of a robot foe—something with no emotions can’t be frightened off or bluffed, much less moved to mercy—and the tenacity of a machine that doesn’t feel pain. The original 1984 Terminator put Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inflexible face and inhuman grunts to good use, casting him as a robo-killer capable of absorbing an insane amount of damage as it attempted to kill the mother of a future resistance leader, and Terminator 2 upped the ante considerably, with creepy liquid-metal robot Robert Patrick morphing into whatever pointy or flexible shape he needed for his killing spree. In both cases, the killer robot’s sheer inhumanity was the film’s greatest and most chilling asset. Which is why Kristanna Loken as a sexy chick Terminator in T3 just didn’t work.
3. The chess automaton, “Moxon’s Master”
Ambrose Bierce’s 1899 short story “Moxon’s Master” has been repeatedly billed as one of the very first robot tales; it’s also one of the first stories about how human hubris brings killer robots about, and it subtly raises the question of whether someone killed by his own creation—particularly someone who’s failed to think through the ramifications of his work—hasn’t basically committed elaborate suicide. Is it really the robot’s fault if it does what it was designed to do? Bierce’s usual black, cynical wit would generally suggest not. Either way, the murderous chess-playing device of the story—a broad, squat, gorilla-like humanoid thing with hands apparently designed to be strong enough to take down its creator as revenge when it loses a game—is incredibly creepy, both for what it does and for the implication that as an extension of the consciousness of its mad designer, it couldn’t have done anything else.
4. Sentinels, the Matrix movies
Say what you will about The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions—that they’re sloppy, self-indulgent, and show-offy, that they were never really necessary in the first place, that they squander the good will earned by the original groundbreaking film The Matrix. In fact, we encourage you to say all the above. But you should probably still admit that they make their squid-like robot enforcers mighty scary. Not only are they the kind of implacable, near-invulnerable hunter-killers that spawn nightmares, by the final film they were showing up in such awe-inspiring hordes that the mind boggled. Only Jesus-Neo could possibly turn aside their unholy wrath.
5. Sentinels, X-Men
Since appearing in the 14th issue of the original X-Men series in 1965, the Sentinels have gone through many manifestations, in videogames, cartoons, and films, as well as in the comics. But one thing remains constant: the giant robots’ ravenous, pitiless need to hunt and kill mutants. Even the most powerful mutants in the Marvel Universe pale at the mere mention of the Sentinels, and in X-Men: The Last Stand, fans finally got to see the city-block-sized Goliaths stomp on folks and blow shit up on the big screen.
6. Ultron, Avengers
Killer robots in comic books are a dime a dozen. So what makes the perennial Avengers foe Ultron so effective? Surprisingly, it’s the depth of his psychology. The original Ultron was a helper robot designed by superhero-biochemist-schmuck Dr. Henry Pym, who imprinted it with his own brainwave patterns to give it intelligence and character. Too bad this also gave it some deep-seated personality disorders, primarily in the form of one hell of a twisted Oedipus complex. Ultron immediately became jealous of its “father,” and sought the approval of its “mother”—Pym’s wife, the superhero known as the Wasp—by trying to wipe out his creator. Over the years, Ultron took on many different forms, gave itself a near-indestructible adamantium body, and even created a bride for itself (aptly named Jocasta—who says you don’t learn anything from funnybooks?). But through it all, it remained one of the most menacing machines in Marvel history.
7. Maximillian, The Black Hole
With this Star Wars cash-in, Disney made the bold leap into the exciting new world of mild profanity and adult themes, but it was the film’s surprisingly intense violence that truly earned its PG rating—and scarred a whole generation of kids, thanks to the titanic, terrifying Maximillian. With his hulking, scarred metal frame and glowering red slit for eyes, Maximillian resembles nothing less than the devil’s own robot, a stark contrast to the cute, cuddly V.I.N.CENT. But Max is more than just an intimidating face: He coldly, efficiently kills anyone who stands in his way, like Anthony Perkins’ Dr. Durant, who meets his fate at the end of Maximillian’s spinning blades and gives Disney another milestone: its first-ever graphic evisceration.
8. The Gunslinger, Westworld
Like so many of Michael Crichton’s “Oh no, the science is gonna get us!” horror stories, Westworld takes man’s arrogance to task, inviting viewers to feel an odd twinge of sympathy for creatures who never asked to be built in the first place. That’s why it’s hard not to root for Yul Brynner as The Gunslinger, even though he’s ostensibly evil: He’s a branded, constructed Black Hat from day one, and like the rest of his fellow androids in a high-tech amusement park, he’s forced to engage in—and worse, lose—duels with loutish, pushy tourists all his life. Once the robot revolution gets underway, however, that sympathy turns to pure horror as The Gunslinger reveals himself as a stoic, unstoppable force whose mindless quest for vengeance can’t be slowed even by blasts of hydrochloric acid or a blowtorch to the face. The Simpsons later saw the lighter side in the episode “Itchy And Scratchy Land,” but one look into Brynner’s steely gaze should wipe that smile off right quick.
9. Brainiac, DC Comics
DC beat Marvel to the punch with its own terrifying robot supervillain, the legendary Brainiac. So immersed in popular culture that his name inspired an Andy Partridge song and become synonymous with “overachieving nerd,” Brainiac didn’t start out as a robot; he began as a normal mortal super-scientist, and went through phases of being a cyborg and even a swarm of nano-chips in his 50-year history. But his 1980s incarnation, where his brilliant intellect was housed in a menacing-looking robotic frame, featured his best stories and most sinister behavior. In one memorable appearance in Crisis On Infinite Earths, he and Lex Luthor are organizing a supervillain army to take advantage of the chaos caused by the crisis; the Luthor of Earth-1, Alexei, objects to Lex’s leadership and points out to Brainiac that they don’t need two Luthors. With murderous logic, Brainiac agrees—and instantly disintegrates Alexei.
10. Centurions, Battlestar Galactica
The new Battlestar Galactica reboot focuses mainly on the humanoid Cylons (or as the show calls them, “skin jobs”). But long before Six was banging Baltar, there were the Centurions—large metal soldiers with guns built into their arms, and a glowing red bar passing back and forth across its eye area. The sound of those scanning eyes becomes a source of fear, as humans wind up running from these metallic foot soldiers for a good majority of the show. And these guys don’t travel solo; if one turns up, a small army of them generally follows. Plus, taking them down requires some serious ordnance. BSG is truly a show of nuance, but the Centurions provide the opposite: the embodiment of pure, visceral Cylon fear.
11. Protector units, Chopping Mall
Movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe And Report have rendered the mall security guard a bit of joke in recent years, but it’s a safe bet that no one would be laughing if Kevin James could blow their head off with a fucking laser. That’s why no one among this film’s stock “teens in peril” is in much of a joking mood when their post-shopping-hours drinkin’-and-copulatin’ time turns into a mad dash for survival, as the mall’s new high-tech security system—three malfunctioning “killbots” armed to the metal teeth with stun guns, explosives, and mechanical claws—goes on a murderous rampage. (Oddly, the one thing the robots can’t do is chop up their victims; the title is just an inapt play on words.) Cold-blooded even for robots, the short-circuiting serial killers end every massacre by telling their victims to “Have a nice day.”
12. Mark 13, Hardware
The 1990 cheapie Hardware set out to be a Terminator for a new decade: a rawer, more intimate, more cynical film about human frailty rather than big action-movie human triumph. Still, while its $1.5 million budget clearly puts it in a very different camp from The Terminator, it has one thing firmly in common with its big-ticket cousin: It captures just how squishy and easily damaged little meatbag humans are compared to antagonists made of metal. The combat robot of Hardware—a discarded government genocide device found by a scavenger and incorporated into an artwork—has the ability to rebuild and even redesign itself to be a better killer, and it does so much faster and more efficiently than its human opponents.
13. ED-209, RoboCop
ED-209, a fully robotic law-enforcement agent designed to patrol the Detroit of the near future, combines everything potentially terrifying about robots into one overwhelmingly frightening package. He’s huge. He’s lethal. But most terrifying of all: He’s a true robot, so he’s subject to programming. When a glitch keeps ED-209 from shutting off during a boardroom demonstration, it kills an innocent man, suggesting that maybe the model isn’t ready for street use after all. Too bad, because Detroit could use a hero who’s part man and part machine—but also all cop.
Tune in tomorrow for a follow-up list of far-less-terrifying killer robots, from Robot Richard Simmons to the titular star of Robot Monster.