Cyborgs and robots. Some of us can’t live without ’em!…though a robot can increasingly function without us, and they seem to be stealing jobs as they threaten to turn us into their servants (Thanks, automation and A.I innovation!). Still, let’s put realistic dystopian drama aside for now to examine the dystopian drama of cyborgs and robots in film and television. We’ve got 10 examples for you. Check ’em out!
1. Metropolis (1927)
Often when we think of cyborgs and robots, we think of either the 1950s, “Star Wars” androids or The Terminator. However, such themes were already happening in the late 1920s, in Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic, “Metropolis.” VENTS has already discussed this film a little, but it pays to note just how far ahead of its time this film was. When Brigitte Helm’s character Maria is replaced by a hostile robot impostor, all hell breaks loose among the workers in the city of Metropolis. On the surface this may be a fantastical story element, but there are hints of it symbolizing workers turned against each other by industrialists and automation. Here the industrialist, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), is callous and uncaring, only humanized by his son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich).
Being the master of Metroplis, Joh doesn’t realize the scope of the tragedy he’s unleashed, and how his need to completely dominate and out-maneuver those under him can destroy even himself. While this film has been criticized as being “communist” in its outlook, it’s difficult to not grasp its point as it highlights the fragility of even those who tower above us, striving to call all the shots. Also, Joh’s servile scientist, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), is oddly similar to Frankenstein’s servant, Igor, or Count Dracula’s Renfield.
“Metropolis” may be seen as a Luddite film, complete with a deadly, untrustworthy robot screwing with workers. However, it could be regarded as a cautionary tale about revolution, as Maria actually encourages blind rebellion (every bit as dangerous as blind obedience). “Metropolis” should function as food for thought and as a steady warning against unfettered power in the name of progress.
2. Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. Megalon is obviously far different from “Metropolis,” as no one would take this movie particularly seriously. However, you simply have to love the way that Jet Jaguar (Tsugutoshi Komada) interacts with Godzilla (Shinji Takagi)! The two seem like best buddies as they battle the stupid insectoid beast, Megalon (Hideto Date). Like the average Godzilla movie, this one is pretty fun, as we see the subterranean kingdom of Seatopia unleash Megalon to conquer ordinary humans.
There are times when, despitejust being a robot, Jet Jaguar threatens to steal the show from Godzilla. However, Jet Jaguar’s ability to actually shake Godzilla’s hand and stare meaningfully into its eyes suggest love in addition to intelligence. If you can put the ridiculousness aside, you might find it a surprisingly touching moment for a robot.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” isn’t the easiest film to sum up. This is largely due to the complex nature of its characters. Sure, Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, is complicated enough, but so are those he’s being hired to stalk: The replicants. Though these beings are bioengineered and apparently machine-like, they’re also definitely quite human. Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah and Brion James may seem strange in their roles, but part of their alien-like nature is that they were engineered that way, to be used as nothing but slaves. Of course, they are not mere robots.
While the world of “Blade Runner” appears flashy and futuristic, it’s actually jarring and degrading, with only a faint glimmer of humanity left. A corporate dystopia almost devoid of joy, the humans in “Blade Runner” seem almost as degraded as the replicants slaves it has created. Deckard’s mission to purge the escapees is a bit like the modern need to purge ourselves of uncomfortable truths about modernity, including how we got here. While this point can be hammered at too hard, Scott does it rather artfull with each viewing, and “Blade Runner” reminds us that the future will remain deadly.
4. Inspector Gadget (1983–1986)
Wowsers! Voiced by Don Adams, Inspector Gadget is an inept but lovable police detective. However, it’s apparent that he’s basically a cyborg in the classic formulation —part man, part machine. It’s somehow strange to think of him that way, though, even as his weird gadgets are activated whenever he’s in a jam (most often to comic effect). With the help of Penny (Mona Marshall/Cree Summer/Holly Berger) and her dog, Brain (Frank Welker), Gadget regularly and inadvertently thwarts the sinister plots of Doctor Claw (also Welker).
There isn’t much more to say about Inspector Gadget, except that you’ll either love him or hate him. It is a little annoying how Chief Quimby (John Stephenson/Dan Hennessey/Maurice LaMarche) always gives Gadget credit for solving cases, without Penny even getting an honorable mention. Frankly, you’d have to be a hardcore anti-feminist to not feel a sense of injustice over that crap! Sure, it is only a cartoon, but Penny should definitely have spoke up a bit. Wouldn’t you? Can we get an “Amen,” or at least another “Wowsers!”?
5. RoboCop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” is one of those films that, for whatever reason, is hard to dislike. Played by Peter Weller, RoboCop is what happens when Detroit decides to modernize its police force by turning one of its fallen into a cyborg cop. Will he function as the perfect law enforcement officer? No, not really, Yes, he is tough and all that, but he still retains much of his humanity, despite that not being the intent of his design. While Robocop is basically the film’s hero, it’s very easy to look at him differently, as some mode of mankind’s playing God. He is also strangely quick to use excessive force, which is counter-intuitive for a perfect officer.
The flick definitely plays up the dystopian vibe, but it’s not like the crimes depicted absolutely couldn’t happen in present time. Also, with the apparent popular interest in A.I. and already prominent present of military-grade drone technology, we may not be entirely far off from such a disconcerting future. Isn’t that nice? The film also stars Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy and Ronny Cox.
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
We’ve covered this movie before in our article on time warping films and TV shows.
However, it would be utterly foolish to overlook Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 “Model 101.” Then again, Richard Patrick brings his A game as the T-1000, a liquid metal robot-thingamabob out to utterly destroy John Connor (Edward Furlong) and give the human race a bad time. Of course, what’s interesting about this film is that Arnold plays a good Terminator — initially feared by John’s mom (Linda Hamilton), but ultimately likened to a supreme father figure, complete with a vast database of knowledge to help keep them safe.
The question is, can the human race be kept safe from itself? Such is the great question of a great movie. This movie wins bonus points for its spectacular special effects, which even today are superior to a lot of what studios are pumping out. James Cameron and company may have gave us their best with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” a solid candidate for best action movie ever.
7. Universal Soldier (1992)
It’s easy to write off Roland Emmerich’s “Universal Soldier” as a low-rent “Terminator.” However, that may be part of why it’s so endearing among certain fans (though definitely not most critics). Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a dead Vietnam soldier brought back as a “Universal Soldier” for the U.S. military. With the help of a journalist (Ally Walker), the VanDamme-inator takes on the maniacal Sgt. Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), also a robot.
In the process, Deveraux learns about his past, also realizing that — surprise, surprise! — his memory probably [italics didn’t get 100% erased after all. Well, isn’t that nice! There really isn’t much more to this one. Rinse, explode and repeat. Still, it is rather fun to see the story alternate between zany, awkward, creepy and violent, with extremely light hints of emotional depth. Interesting fact: Van Damme’s son, Kris van Varenberg, plays a younger version of his father’s character in this film.
8. The City of Lost Children (1995)
Plenty of films imagine a dystopian future containing cyborgs. However, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vision is on the unique side. Their film “The City of Lost Children” envisions a cyborg cult called the Cyclops who kidnap children, supplying them to a weirdo named Krank (Daniel Emilfork) who uses a dream-extracting machine to steal the children’s dreams. If that sounds odd, it’s because it really is. It’s also an amazing film to watch. There are amazingly weird Santa Claus moments, and the infamous teardrop scene alone is food for thought (reminiscent of the “butterfly effect” theory regarding chaos). Honestly, no review can truly do this film justice. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
While some advise to watch the French version with English subtitles, the dubbed version isn’t absolutely horrible or anything (in fact, it’s pretty well done dubbing). “The City of Lost Children” prominently features Ron Perlman as a circus strongman named One, Judith Vittet as Miette, Dominique Pinon as the diver and his clones, Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet as the Octopus twins, Jean-Louis Trintignant as Uncle Irvin (the voice of a brain in a vat), and the most prominent Cyclops members are: Serge Merlin and Daniel Adric.
9. Future War (1997 Video)
What to say about Anthony Doublin’s “Future War”? Perhaps MST3K’s Crow T. Robot put it best: “You know, I could point out that it’s not the future, and there isn’t a war, but you know me; I don’t like to complain.” That aside, “Future War” is an oddly fun movie to watch, featuring dinosaur-like creatures called trackers, two cyborgs (Robert Z’Dar and Solly Assa), a renegade nun (Travis Brooks Stewart) and a Jean Claude van Damme -escue Daniel Bernhardt as “The Runaway.”
The Runaway does most of the butt-kicking, of course, but the cyborg guys come after him pretty strong. “Future War” is utterly quirk-tastic. The dinosaurs explode sometimes and a factory full of empty cardboard boxes is rather prominent. The movie stinks, but in a fairly wonderful way. If the future really is a war, I’d like it to be full of exploding dinosaurs and cyborgs. Why not throw in some zombies while we’re at it, and witches and demon clowns? Then again, maybe we shouldn’t get too crazy.
10. Futurama (1999–2013)
Matt Groening’s “Futurama” gave us a lot of great things, with one of them being Bender Bending Rodríguez (John DiMaggio). A wisecracking, booze-swilling robot and occasional thief, Bender is one of television’s most memorable antiheroes — and this is on a show full of them. In fact, Phillip Fry, Professor Farnsworth and Zapp Brannigan (Billy West) are definitely also antiheroes sometimes. Still, Bender leads the charge in this regard. Possibly the best Bender quote: “Blackmail is such an ugly word. I prefer ‘extortion’. The ‘X’ makes it sound cool.” What a robot!
That’s it for now. Did we miss any robots and cyborgs? Let us know in the comments!