August 21, 2007

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

(Each day I like to post around a thousand words of original content here to the CCLaP website; the days I don't have a review of a contemporary book or movie ready, I like to try other ideas, like this series of hopefully funny, hyper-specialized themed movie lists. For the full list of "Ten Movies About..." entries, click here.)

Today: Ten great movies about creepy-ass robots. Listed as always in chronological order.

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Metropolis (1927)
I've actually reviewed this film in detail in the past, but didn't get a chance to mention this -- that the robot at the center of the story, which eventually became the icon by which this movie is mostly known, is one creepy-ass cyborg, both in her metal form and flesh. Originally created by a mad scientist as a way to replace his dead wife, the scientist's wealthy patron commandeers the gynoid instead, making her into a lookalike version of the workers' hero and matron saint (the lovely proletariat Maria, played by Brigitte Helm), who promptly becomes an exotic dancer and riles up the workers enough to revolt and destroy their entire infrastructure. Eventually the robot Maria is burned at the stake by the revenge-seeking mob (subtle), while the flesh-and-blood Maria helps usher in a new utopian age, based on what might just be a very coded approval from filmmaker Fritz Lang of fascist governments (or at least is how Hitler always viewed it).

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Westworld (1973)
One of Michael Crichton's early Hollywood hits, along with The Andromeda Strain, this movie posits a world where Disneyesque animatronics have gotten so good, semi-sentient robots can now actually walk around and interact with you. And thus has the ultimate amusement park been created, split into three themes (the wild west, decadent Rome, and medieval England), thus allowing these early-'70s customers the chance to f--k and kill as much as they want within a fantasy environment, guilt-free. Ah, but then the central computer running the thing goes haywire, turning the perpetual robot victims into the perpetrators for the first time, sending them on an actual slaughter of our upper-class heroes instead of a virtual one. Cheesy and brilliant; parodied quite well, too, a number of years ago on the Simpsons, when the family visits Itchy & Scratchy Land. "Why? Why was I programmed to feel pain?"

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Logan's Run (1976)
One of my favorite movies growing up, one I still have a soft spot for, although increasingly recognize just how ridiculous it is. Based on an edgier novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, softened in certain respects for the sake of Hollywood, the film tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world, where the air outside is radioactively poisoned and thus has led to domed cities and a carefully-controlled population size. And how is this population controlled? Easy; you're simply killed on your 30th birthday, something that's been built into the cities' religions and is supposed to be voluntary, but that sometimes require the help of lethal policemen known as "Sandmen." Michael York plays one of them, who's been tasked with getting the lowdown on the perpetual rumor of "Sanctuary," a section of clean environment away from the cities where people can grow old naturally. Here, as part of his journey into the city's catacombs, a forgotten robot who has literally gone crazy. Plus gratuitous footage of Jenny Agutter's boobs! What's not to like?

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

The Black Hole (1979)
Wow, the '70s really was a great decade for creepy-ass robots, wasn't it? And they didn't get much creepier than the tall, red, steel, flying hulk of a psychopath, robotic villain Maximillian from this criminally underrated secret Disney classic. Constituting a bold new direction from the company to finally branch into PG films, the movie purposely tells a dark tale with moody atmospherics and soundtrack, like Escape To Witch Mountain but with the ability to give the youngest audience members nightmares. (Actually, Escape To Witch Mountain used to give me nightmares as a kid, so...never mind.) And let's be honest, that even the movie's plucky robot heroes (the possibly gay VINCENT and the southern masochist BOB) are pretty creepy-ass in their own right.

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Saturn 3 (1980)
All right, well, this ain't exactly a classic -- more like a fascinating trainwreck hastily assembled in the middle of the late-'70s space-opera period, mostly watched to see one of the only times Farrah Fawcett has shown her boobs in public. What this movie does have, though, is one of cinema's all-time creepy-ass robots; named Hector, he turns out to be not only quite efficient at the bumping-off of pesky humans, but also horny (!) as well. Also featuring Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel in what might be the worst film of both of their careers, this is one of those ones to catch on late-night television, a midnight screening, or in other situations where the specific point is to laugh.

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Blade Runner (1982)
The classic underground staple, one of the first of now many Hollywood adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories (and inarguably one of the best), which also first established the career of Ridley Scott. In fact, the entire premise revolves around the concept of creepy-ass robots: ones meant to be cheap labor and prostitutes at far-flung space colonies, who have gotten loose and are creating havoc on Earth (because of looking exactly like humans, of course), and with a former gumshoe named Decker (Harrison Ford, in an early career-defining role) in charge of hunting them down and killing them. In reality a hard noir tale but with science-fiction elements, this is one of the finest films this genre has to offer, a cinematic experience that will please and thrill even those who normally hate science-fiction.

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Tron (1982)
And then of course in that same year we got this film as well, Disney's second attempt at entering the slightly darker realm of PG-rated movies, which many argue is much more successful than its first. Even if you don't like the witty story which extrapolates real early-'80s technology and terminology, the main reason of course for this to be in the archives is its then-stunning use of computer animation, not much more than a cutting-edge experiment and toy at the time. And let's not forget the reason this made the list; the Master Control Program, that is, or MCP, which has a 68.71 percent chance of kicking your ass! The anniversary DVD of this movie is a must-see, and especially the brilliant "making-of" documentary; it's astounding, for example, to find out just how many "computer" graphics in the movie are in fact clever analog effects instead, literally because computers weren't powerful enough back then to do everything the filmmakers wanted. A movie that would be impossible to remake, because the cruddy low-tech charm is what makes it enjoyable in the first place.

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Dune (1984)
So if the point today is to point out creepy robots, it doesn't get much creepier than the concept of "mentats," as expressed by Frank Herbert in this fantastical universe; that because of a ban on all "thinking machines," because of a human/machine apocalyptic war thousands of years ago, certain humans now undergo rigorous monklike training for decades to become biological versions of computers. Part mystical, part logical, just like a lot of this story in general, such human computers are employed for statistical purposes by the series of ancient "houses" (Shakespearean families) that now control the universe. And as portrayed by the wonderful Brad Dourif in the 1984 David Lynch version, mentat Piter De Vries could very easily be a character right out of Eraserhead, as could most of the details of this unfairly derided but nonetheless mostly incomprehensible visual masterpiece.

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

Lost In Space (1998)
Now note that I'm referring here to the surprisingly good 1998 remake starring William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham and others, not the cheesy early-'60s television show on which it was based; that's the whole reason it makes the list, in fact, that out of an almost-entire overhaul of the original plot and look, to please a modern PG-13 audience, they did leave in the exact look and booming '60s authoritarian voice of the original robot on board, Robby. It's a jarring thing to witness in this film, which otherwise works as almost a textbook example of how to compile a great three-act screenplay, something so genre-perfect that film students would be wise to study it. "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!"

Ten Movies About...Creepy-Ass Robots

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Once again, a movie that's been unfairly maligned over the years, where the entire premise itself revolves around creepy-ass robots; artificially intelligent ones, that is, that serve as everything from servants to lovers to cops. A brand-new type has just been invented, in fact -- a small child, designed for bereaving parents, with a special "bonding" feature that will make him permanently love you by repeating a series of code words out loud to him. The very first beta tester of this child does that, in fact; then within a few weeks is so creeped out by him that she dumps him in the woods to fend for himself. And that's where the real saga of this movie begins, as Steven Spielberg takes a script half-finished by the late Stanley Kubrick, stretches it out longer than Kubrick would've himself, and in fact turns the entire thing into a grand and visually flabbergasting fairy tale, one that combines all kinds of Grimm-Brothersesque darkness with the woods-based journey of a Hansel & Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood. A movie to watch again, if you only saw it right after its release and was disappointed by its hype; it really is much better than you remember.

Have your own suggestion of a great movie featuring a creepy-ass robot? By all means, feel free to leave it as a comment!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:48 AM, August 21, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |