This post was originally published in 2015 with the release of Chappie. It has been updated (or should we say … upgraded?) to include two newer robot movies, including The Creator.
Ever since the early years of cinema — even before the term “robot” was coined, in fact — the movies have been obsessed with them. They symbolize so many of our neuroses — our queasiness about technology and the unknown, our wonder at what it means to be human, our fear that, ultimately, we might be replaceable. So, we thought it might be fun, in honor of Chappie (or as a corrective to it … you decide), to rank the best robot movies in film history. However, a note: We specifically focused on movies that are essentially about robots — not, in other words, movies that happen to have robots in them, like Alien(s) or Interstellar or Forbidden Planet. We also avoided films that were specifically solely about computers — so, no 2001: A Space Odyssey. (But The Matrix makes it in, because it’s actually full of robot creatures.) And, as always, only one film per franchise.
The Creator (2023)
Despite the looming shadows of the Terminator and Matrix franchises, modern movies have actually been relatively kind to artificial intelligence. Take Gareth Edwards’s The Creator, which starts off as a sci-fi action flick about an American soldier (John David Washington) fighting a world war against AI, only to wind up on the other side. He takes on the task of protecting an artificially intelligent child who has been designed as the “ultimate weapon” against the U.S. Of course, her power is mainly that she can defuse any and all weapons. Does The Creator have anything new to say about robots or AI? On the surface, not really. Aside from a nifty cylindrical hole in the middle of their heads, this film’s AI are Just Like Us — which suggests that the movie isn’t really about AI at all, but a metaphor about how we see and dehumanize the Other. At the same time, the fact that the film can actually portray AI in that way without batting an eye serves as an interesting cultural barometer of how we see post-human life.
This star-studded animated flick (Ewan McGregor! Robin Williams! Mel Brooks!) wasn’t particularly well-liked when it first came out, but it’s enchanting and beautiful. Set in a world populated entirely by robots (like Cars, but with robots), it’s filled with elaborate contraptions and eye-popping visuals, with an aesthetic that seems to have been borrowed from every era of futuristic design imaginable. You could lose yourself in it for hours.
For much of cinema history, robots were seen as scary, mysterious things. That tide turned in recent years, but luckily, here’s M3GAN to remind us that robots are, in fact, still pretty scary, especially when they’ve been crossbred with the “mean girl” archetype. Gerard Johnstone’s instant horror classic is all about an artificially intelligent, child-size humanoid-robot prototype brought into the home of a grieving 8-year-old to keep her company. Soon enough, the two have formed an unbreakable bond, and M3GAN starts to wreak unholy havoc. What makes the movie fun aren’t so much the horror set pieces or the suspense, but M3GAN herself, with her unnatural movements and her stone-faced gaze. In some senses, she’s much more of an old-school robot — and the film is a reminder that such a figure can still evoke fear, even as it occasionally strays (or TikTok-dances) into camp.
Okay, forget how much you hated the sequels for a second. Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie was actually pretty fun — a peculiar mix of broad humor, badass fighting-robot heroics, apocalyptic CGI, and the director’s patented military fetishism. Let’s also not forget that the idea of a big budget Hollywood movie based on a 1980s toy franchise — especially one as ridiculous as this one, which posits an alien race of robots that have come to Earth and assumed the ability to turn into everyday vehicles and other machines — was by no means a surefire hit. And yet, Bay pulled it off. Bloat and self-importance would eventually consume the franchise, but this first one still holds up.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Disney’s blockbuster animated film from last year was surprisingly dark; it was, ultimately, a movie about how different people cope with loss. And at the heart of it was a sensitive relationship between its young orphan hero and Baymax, the cuddly, puffy medical droid created by his late brother. As the boy tried to teach the gentle Baymex to fight, we got a heartfelt exploration of the limits of grief and the value of helping those in need.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s anime masterpiece is one of the more important films of any kind made in the past 30 years, thanks in part to the way its influence has filtered out through The Matrix movies. With its hot female cyborg hero (an empowered female who, alas, comes straight out of a teenage boy’s fantasy) and a story in which characters can shapeshift and enter in and out of digital realms, it’s a film about the increasingly blurred lines between humanity and technology — the fundamental dilemma at the heart of most robot films.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
True, Robert Wise’s 1951 film is less about robots than it is about aliens and world peace — with Michael Rennie’s Klaatu arriving on Earth as an interstellar ambassador from another planet to exhort us to stop killing each other. But the film’s showstopper is actually Gort, a giant robot from an alien race of robot enforcers who have been empowered to destroy humanity if we don’t heed their warnings. Sure, the film isn’t really grounded in anything resembling science, but it’s a fascinating time capsule of our attitudes towards unchecked technology and power in the nuclear era.
The Iron Giant (1999)
Brad Bird’s touching animated film, based on Ted Hughes’s children’s book, is an underseen marvel. It marries two seemingly opposite concepts: the fact that robots often symbolize all our fears of unchecked technological progress with the idea that having a robot buddy is the ultimate childhood fantasy. It’s a wonderful family drama, a great kids’ movie, and an exciting plea for peace. And it’s still got the best performance of Vin Diesel’s career, as the voice of the Giant.
The Stepford Wives (1975)
Saying that The Stepford Wives is a robot movie would be considered a spoiler in some quarters, since that’s actually the grand reveal — that these mindless, doting, superficial, immaculately coiffed housewives are, in fact, machines. A seminal film that brings together many of postwar America’s great neuroses in one dark comedy: our obsession with class, the suburbs, sexual relations, and technology.
What the hell did Michael Crichton have against amusement parks, anyway? Years before he wrote Jurassic Park, the author wrote and directed this ridiculously fun sci-fi Western-horror satire about a futuristic park where the android entertainers, chief among them a gunslinger played by Yul Brynner (doing a robot riff on his character from The Magnificent Seven), go haywire and start killing the visitors.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
When Stanley Kubrick died he left behind this long-awaited project about a young, sentient robot-boy’s attempts to become fully human. Kubrick fans will argue forever about whether Steven Spielberg (whom Kubrick had reportedly handpicked to direct the film) did justice to Kubrick’s vision, but it can’t be denied that he poured his heart and soul into this film. True, Spielberg’s film is not so much about artificial intelligence and the philosophical question of sentience; rather, it’s the moving tale of a young boy (played by then-boy-of-the-moment Haley Joel Osment) looking for acceptance, and learning what it means to love. And it’s beautiful.
Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece is a lot funnier than you might remember. It’s also a lot more violent, as we spend much of the movie watching gentle hero cop Murphy (Peter Weller) slowly edge his way towards his inevitable — and inevitably brutal — comeuppance, whereupon he will be transformed into the futuristic cyborg of the film’s title. To be fair, that technically makes RoboCop not a robot — he’s part human, after all — but the film is all about this push-pull between Murphy’s human side and his robot side. (And, ED-209 is a true robot if there ever was one.)
The Matrix (1999)
The great fear underlying artificial intelligence movies is the notion that after a certain point, the world won’t need us anymore. The Matrix gives that idea one of its most resonant portrayals: In this future, humans are used as batteries for giant robot creatures while their minds are kept busy with a virtual reality simulacrum of the world. Thus, it brings together the technological fear inherent in most robot stories with a Zen questioning of the nature of reality. Years later, it’s still fantastic.
Blade Runner (1982)
For all its revolutionary design and its status as an iconic sci-fi film, Blade Runner at times feels more like a philosophical exploration than a vision of the future. The replicants in the film — they’re not the metallic androids we’ve grown to know and love, but they’re biomechanically engineered all the same, so I’m counting them as robots — are only detectable due to the answers they give to certain seemingly mundane questions. Plus, they can die — often in surprising, poetic ways. In other words, they have souls. And among the questions the films asks is whether one type of soul is more valid than another.
From its nearly wordless first half to its hilarious slapstick finale, from its heartrending portrait of an environmentally devastated Earth to its biting vision of humanity grown alarmingly pudgy from comfort and stasis, this is one of Pixar’s greatest films. And it’s the rare film that manages to put a non-humanoid robot at its center, complete with his non-humanoid robot love interest.
In Fritz Lang’s crazy, visionary 1927 masterpiece, a mad scientist creates a female robot version of his late beloved. But later, he turns this robot woman into a fake version of the film’s heroine, a charismatic revolutionary named Maria, to try to quell an uprising. Robot-Maria then proceeds to use her magical, nefarious powers to entrance the populace of this dystopian society. There’s no science behind this robot, of course; her powers are basically fantastical. (The film at times seems to be more about the threat of sexuality than about the threat of mechanization.) But in her embodiment of the potentially monstrous power of science, Maria — and, by extension, the film — presents a prescient cautionary tale about the forces that the 20th century would soon unlock.
The Terminator (1984)
For many years the robots that threatened us in sci-fi movies looked like actual robots. They were made of metal and gears and spinning doodads and spoke like machines. But when James Cameron cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as the killer robot from the future in the first Terminator film (which, to be fair, owed a lot to Westworld) he not only helped realize our deepest fears about robots (that they would be better, more powerful humans than even humans themselves) but he also found the perfect part for an Austrian behemoth with limited range and drone-like delivery. Years later, with the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron revolutionized the culture yet again: This time, he helped turn a politically ambitious Schwarzenegger into an almost cuddly, family-friendly figure, and he also used state-of-the-art CGI to give us the T-1000, whose “polymetal alloy” existence was closer to magic than to mechanics.