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Elisabeth Rappe

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Elisabeth Rappe is a regular contributor to Film.com, CHUD, and The Spectator's arts blog. She spends her off-time with comic books, her pug, Elliot, video games, and Clint Eastwood movies.

Top 5/Bottom 5: Robot Movies

It’s 2012, and we still don’t have robots sharing our daily lives. Oh sure, there’s the occasional YouTube video from Japan that teases another breakthrough in robotic technology, but then another year passes, and we still don’t have a Rosie or R2-D2 bustling about our households. Many of us (the same generation who expected to have Hoverboards) are now fearing we’ll never actually see the flying-car-and-robot-pal future that was promised to us by science fiction.

At least we do have science fiction, and its crazy cast of robot characters. Hey, if we didn’t have the likes of C3PO and GERTIE, we would have nothing to strive for. (Or, in the case of “The Terminator,” strive against!)  Somewhere, there’s a robot designer feverishly soldering and programming to make “Star Wars” and “Robocop” a reality.

Of course, there are a few robot flicks so awful that they make us want to scrap the future altogether, and go back to a world where we don’t have to deal with a robotic Robin Williams.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! In honor of “Robot and Frank” hitting theaters this week, here are the top five and the bottom five of cinema’s robotic offerings.

Top Five

5. “Westworld” (1973)

We know “Westworld” is the “Jurassic Park” of robotics. (Michael Crichton really feared exotic amusement parks, didn’t he?) It’s not even subtle as it wags a finger at us, reminding us what we’d really use androids and artificial intelligence for. (Sex and shoot-outs!) We get the danger of arming Yul Brynner with bullets, and hoping he won’t go rogue. But if they built “Westworld” (or Roman World, or Medieval World …) tomorrow, you can bet we’d be the first in line, happy to have lived long enough to enjoy such a splendid robotic future. If it all went wrong,? Well, we can think of worse ways than dying with our boots on.

4. “The Terminator”/ “T2: Judgment Day” (1984-1991)

Yeah, we know, it’s a multi-movie entry. But you just can’t separate these two. “The Terminator” introduced us to a future where technology had run wild and cognizant, destroying humanity in an attempt to preserve itself. In a vicious twist, SkyNet’s most lethal program wears a human mask. But because humanity is plucky and Future John Connor is brilliant, that Terminator gets reprogrammed to be a hero, creating an interdependent relationship between man and sentient machine that foreshadows the horror of SkyNet even as it tries to forestall it. It’s creepy stuff that gets lost in all the catchphrases and explosions.

3. “Wall-E” (2008)

From the first glimpse of Wall-E’s sad and droopy eyes, we were in love. Though “Wall-E” is about a lot of things (environmentalism, corporations, greed, gluttony and other deadly sins), the heart of it belongs to this lonely robot, who loves cheesy musicals, collectibles and who dreams of holding hands. He creates chaos and rewrites the future solely for the love of a plucky, gun-happy chick name EVE, making this one of the few robot stories that won’t outstrip the technology of its far-flung time.

2. “Blade Runner” (1982)

RobotsEvery robot film likes to toy with musings on the soul – can it be programmed? – but few have done it as well as “Blade Runner.” It skirts mawkishness in favor of the hardbitten and unsympathetic. Roy Batty may be more human and enamored of life and memory than Rick Deckard is, but does he deserve to live? Then again, to paraphrase the film’s chilling closer, does anyone?

1. “The Iron Giant” (1999)

You don’t always need a flashy setting, state of the art CGI, or hard-hitting points about technology, humanity and what makes something (or someone) alive. You can hit it all with a simple story of an alien robot and his boy, with nothing more flashy than solid 2D animation. It may take place in the 1950s, but this little fable is timeless and reduces everyone to tears with one word: “Super….maaaaaan.”

Honorable Mention:

“Metropolis” (1927)

The mother of all robot movies, there would be no “Best” or “Worst” list without “Metropolis.” It’s tough to really give it a number since it’s about robots and machines … and yet isn’t, since its issues of class and workers quickly outstrip its technological elements. But there would be no Terminator, no HAL, no “Westworld,” no Pris and no Threepio without Maria, driving men to murder in her name, her curves and hollow eyes simultaneously sexy and scary.

The Bottom 5

5. “Terminator: Salvation” (2009)

There are a million ways this “Terminator” prequel/reboot could have gone to become a searing and memorable piece of science fiction, making something new and strange out of the “Terminator” franchise. Instead, it chickens out over numerous points, becoming yet another hollow entry in a tired storyline. It says nothing about man and machine that “T2″ and “Blade Runner” didn’t do say already, and better.

4. “I, Robot” (2004)

There are some touching points in this movie — the robots huddled together, instinctively walking towards light — but it lacks both the intelligence, the heart, and disquieting elements of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. It ultimately becomes a routine “Oh, the omniscient AI went rogue” tale. “2001: A Space Odyssey” not only did it first, but shorter, snappier and sans product placement.

3. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009)

RobotsIt’s all of Michael Bay’s worst impulses, stretched to a deafening and blinding cacophony that even its director doesn’t have the heart to defend. We love the silly, noisy fun of robots battling robots, but this is just a big, uncomfortable mess of a movie. There’s not a single moment that’s enjoyable enough to rewatch on a dull summer afternoon.

2. “Bicentennial Man” (1999)

Ok, forget what we said about “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” We would happily put that on over this painful and saccharine epic about a robot butler who develops emotions and awareness. The film descends into the downright creepy, as Andrew falls in love with Portia, the human granddaughter of the little girl — whom he calls only “Little Miss” — he once cared for. Did we mention she looks just like “Little Miss” and that’s what Andrew is attracted too? If your movie is trying to convince us a robot is human, it’s best to avoid implying he’s the wrong kind of human.

1. “Robot Monster” (1953)

If “Robot Monster” sounds like something a 5-year-old would make up, well, you’re not too far off. The central conceit of the film is all right –- a robot needs to exterminate all humans, finds it problematic when he falls in love with one –- but when combined with dinosaurs, characters boasting death ray immunity and a “It was all a dream!” ending, we think a 5-year-old might have scripted it better. At the very least, a kid would have also made sure the film had a robot, knowing no audience member would buy a gorilla suit in its place. It’s not just the worst robot movie ever made, but one of the worst movies ever put on celluloid.


Categories: Features

Tags: Bicentennial Man, I robot, Mtropolis, Robot and Frank, Robot Monster, Terminator, Terminator: salvation, The iron giant, Wall-e, Westworld