With Robot & Frank reminding us that having a robot pal doesn’t necessarily mean having to get embroiled in an endless war with the bloody Decepticons, time was ripe to explore the other artificially-intelligent helpers out there to see what’s what in the robot business. And do you know what we discovered? Most of them are pretty disastrous. We’ve looked at the best in the market for binary finery and identified one or two wiring issues that will soon have you reaching for the trouble-shooting guide.
Film: Short Circuit (1986)
Heeeeeere’s... erm, Johnny Five. It’s a little weaponised automaton that can play keyboard, make you a terrific G&T and nuke the nearest continental landmass, all with one flutter of its Eugene Levy eyebrows. It’s cute and, paired up with Steve Guttenberg, offers a never-to-be-repeated on-set combo of metal and wood, but do you really want it in your home? No, you don’t. Not unless you want pancake-covered walls, endless interruptions during your TV viewing, backchat and sleazy double entendres when your girlfriend is in the bath (“Nice software!”). Number Five may be alive, but after it’s called your mum a “snow blower” a few times, you’ll wish it wasn’t.
Film: Westworld (1973)
Proof that robots don’t make good holiday reps comes in Michael Crichton’s sci-fi, Westworld. Designed to amuse tourists by simulating the behaviour of Wild West gunslingers, a Yul Brynner-shaped pistolero should be a fun-filled adjunct to your sci-fi holidays. Unfortunately for Peter Martin and John Blane, RoboYul goes murderous on them when there’s a malfunction in the mainframe at Delos amusement park and there’s actual shootin’ to go with all the rootin’ and tootin’. Before they can say “Golly gee willikers, there’s a frightening bald man on our trail!”, Brynnerbot is hounding them up valley, down gulch and over cattle grid. And as a member of The Magnificent Seven, he’s pretty darn good at it.
Film: Logan’s Run (1976)
The year 2274’s dimmest automaton, Box is designed to keep the futuristic Dome city in tucker (“Fish, plankton, sea greens and protein from the sea,” it prattles, as though your local Tesco Metro has swallowed a book of verse), and has killer onboard gadgets and an outsized vocabulary to help with the task. Sadly, its haphazard efforts mean that a lot of Dome dwellers are going to go hungry. Seriously, this oversized kettle has ONE JOB to do, but the merest appearance from Jenny Agutter and it loses focus and ends up crushed beneath its own cave. Besides, who the hell eats plankton?
Film: Prometheus (2012)
If loveable ‘robs Huey, Dewey, and Louie are the ideal spaceship companions aboard Silent Running’s Valley Forge, New Romantic man-droid David 8 (Michael Fassbender) pops up at the opposite end of the spectrum aboard the Prometheus. Combining the snakey smarm of the Nostromo’s science officer Ash, the vanity of T.E. Lawrence and the haircut of an 19th century fop, David’s there to help, it’s just not necessarily you he’s helping – it could be that odd bloke on the C-deck. On the upside, he’ll keep you amused with his language skills, David Lean trivia and detachable head; on the down side, he will serve you some kind of killer alien beverage. Don’t, whatever you do, try one of its Black Goo-tinis...
Film: Bicentennial Man (1999)
If he’d seen Chris Columbus's Bicentennial Man, Isaac Asimov might have added another law to his Laws Of Robotics – something like: “A robot must obey orders – unless it’s played by Robin Williams, in which case it can find love and gurn a lot”, or just, "Oh god, the horror!". Asimov didn’t live long enough for his carefully constructed scientific worldview to be dismantled so emphatically, but he did spawn the idea of a robot Andrew (Williams), NorthAm Robotics’ NDR-114 model, being given a positronic brain chip that makes it yearn to live as a sentient (and exceptionally annoying) kinda-human. So it’s his fault, really. Imagine your toaster turned into Malcolm X and you’ve got the nightmarish scenario he’d given birth to.
Film: Iron Man (2008)
Perhaps everyone’s favourite cinematic armature robot – well, can you think of any others? – Dummy has one purpose on this earth: to put out fires. And it’s not that he’s bad at that, it’s just that he’s so eager to do so he’s often a little... premature. “If you douse me again and I'm not on fire, I'm donating you to a city college,” grimaces Tony Stark. His master, the one and only Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist himself, doesn’t hate Dummy as such, but there’s a definite vibe that if there were anyone else available, that would be preferable: “Day 11, Test 37, Configuration 2.0. For lack of a better option, Dummy is still on fire safety.” Poor Dummy – and from the looks of Iron Man 3, Mr. Stark will need a new fire safety officer.
Film: Spaceballs (1987)
In Mel Brook’s Star Wars spoof, robo-chaperone Dot Matrix is to Princess Vespa what Sabé, Rabé and co. were to Princess Amidala in The Phantom Menace – only in droid form and more useless. Dot lumbers around the desert, slowing everyone down and complaining about a lack of oil – robot-up, for Pete’s sake – before getting between the princess and her love interest, swarthy spacefarer Lone Star (Bill Pullman), with an built-in ‘virgin alarm’ (“programmed to go off before you do”). The bling-clad droid may be designed to keep its charge chaste and queenly as they elude the villainous Dark Helmet, but, hey, Druidia isn’t going to repopulate itself. Imagine if this chrome-plated passion killer had been around to get between Luke and Princess Lei... actually, never mind.
Films: The Star Wars franchise (1977-)
Panaka calls him “an extremely well put-together little droid”, and that’s true: he has a lightsaberport, a hologram projector, a computer slicer, a fire extinguisher and the ability to man an X-wing. He is, without a doubt, a useful box of tricks – but he’s also a nightmare to live with. He's a snarky bugger, can’t climb stairs properly, and moves at a snail’s pace. It’s no wonder C-3PO went slightly mad walking through the desert with him, frankly. Then there’s his weight. A portly little droid, you're nigh on guaranteed to sprain something getting him in and out of your sandcrawler. And remind us why he can only speak in bleeps when his projection unit can play voices? Expect a lifelong relationship with this particular droid to result in you saying, “This is all YOUR fault” on a surprisingly regular basis.
Film*:* Total Recall (1990)
Cheerier than your average cabbie, Johnny Cab is sadly let down by plodding driving skills, an ass-achingly literal outlook on the world around him (“Shit, drive!”, a chased Quaid swears at him, to which he replies, “I am not familiar with that address”), and the fact that his car frickin’ explodes if you don’t pay your fare. Arguably, none of these are really his fault – Johnny didn’t programme himself and apparently they don’t have sat-nav on Mars – but together these conspire to make him a lot less like an 2084’s answer to Addison Lee and a lot more like a giant menace to society. Arnie certainly thinks so – he rips Johnny's head off with the classic parting shot, “Sue me, dickhead.”
Film: The Stepford Wives (1975)
William Goldman’s take on Ira Levin’s creepy-scary novel introduced the fembot to the public consciousness long before Austin Powers or Desperate Scousewives came along. This lot don’t have breast cannons but do have Polar Express eyes and a relentless urge to dust that makes them formidable for unsuspecting suburbanite Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross). Like any sci-fi satire worth its unobtainium, The Stepford Wives has a political message, here spelt out by the fact that these women’s lives revolve solely around cooking, cleaning and ‘performing marital duties’. The fact that they're also bent on killing all other women and replacing them with more fembots might be considered some sort of career and therefore some kind of redeeming feature, feminism-wise, were they not doing it all at their husbands' behest. Oh ladies! Throw off the shackles already!
Film: The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (2005)
Douglas Adams defines a robot as “a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man.” The marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as “Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With”. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy defines the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation as “a bunch of mindless jerks who'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.” We define Marvin The Paranoid Android as the Sirius Cybernetics Coproration’s most useful (and most irritating) creation, a robot with a brain the size of a planet and a personality as fun as a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster-induced hangover. He may be able to fix all of the major mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, philosophical, etymological, meteorological and psychological problems of the universe except his own, three times over, but he’s absolutely lousy at a party. Avoid.