Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: That adorable walking weapon Chappie inspires five days of robots, androids, and sentient machines.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a cinematic robot friendlier than Robby, who even has his own IMDB entry. Created by industrial designer Robert Kinoshita and manufactured by the MGM prop department to the tune of $125,000 (more than a million in today’s dollars), Robby made his screen debut in that landmark early sci-fi effort, the 1956 version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet. Robby gets a raw deal in the movie poster, as he’s shown as menacing. But in fact he appears to personify Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws Of Robotics”:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In Forbidden Planet, Robby is introduced as a servant and a bodyguard to Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who live on a settlement on the planet Altair IV. A Star Trek-like exploratory ship from Earth, led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), lands on the planet and crashes the settlement. Adams and his crew soon learn that there is much more to Robby: The robot’s interior includes a fully contained chemical laboratory, so he’s able to whip up a delicious meal, 60 pints of bourbon, or a festive new frock at a moment’s notice. He even offers a few wisecracks, as when the ship’s cook asks him if he’s a boy robot or a girl robot: “In my case, sir, the question is totally without meaning.” His creator Morbius calls him a robot “beyond the combined resources of all Earth’s physical science.”
Robby also holds the key to the film’s trick ending (although it’s not a surprise if you know your Shakespeare). Following Asimov’s rule number two, he is unable to shoot at the invisible monster attacking Morbius’ estate on planet Altair IV, because Robby is the first to realize that the monster is actually a physical manifestation of the id of his creator, who he is programmed to protect.
A slightly modified version of Robby The Robot reappeared in TV shows from Lost In Space to Columbo to The Addams Family. Eventually Robby was sold and put on display at California’s Movie World / Cars Of The Stars Museum, where he was damaged by vandalism. Robot historian Fred Barton was commissioned to restore Robby, using duplicate replacement parts from the original Forbidden Planet. But his rehab didn’t last, and Robbie’s next descent into disrepair was reversed by House On Haunted Hill and Feardotcom director William Malone, who bought Robby in 1980, along with some original MGM spare parts. Malone was able to restore Robby The Robot, who remains in the director’s private collection.
Seems like a lot of effort for a movie robot, but Robby had a lot of significant historical impact. To this day his personage in Forbidden Planet and Lost In Space can be seen as the template for future pop-culture robots (he’s like a less anxiety-prone C-3PO). And from the 1956 perspective, he was the perfect assistant: productive, obedient, and even programmed to be loyal, a friendly robot gateway to movie audiences who were not yet used to the special effects of sci-fi.
Availability: Forbidden Planet is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Netflix or your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.