So we’re not talking here about robots that are meant to be cute, like R2-D2, or Twiki from the Buck Rogers TV show, or Huey, Dewey and Louie from Silent Running. Nor are we concerned here with those robots that truly are a little bit scary, like Maximilian in Disney’s otherwise forgettable The Black Hole (1979), Harvey Keitel’s aide Hector in the otherwise laughable Saturn 3 (1980) or Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
No, the subject today, in honor of the titans of Pacific Rim, who after all were overcome by Despicable Me 2’s minions last weekend and may well be bested again this weekend by a snail, are those robots that we’ve been assured by the mad scientist or whoever are incomparably destructive, that could lay waste to the surface of the planet if they wanted to, or were ordered to, but…just don’t come across as all that formidable. It doesn’t really seem fair to us potential cowering victims. If you’re going to create an all-powerful anthropomorphic super-weapon to help you realize your power-mad schemes, you should devote some effort to the design, to make sure that we take the danger seriously.
It should also be noted that not being intimidating doesn’t mean a robot isn’t cool. A number of the robots on this list are iconic figures in sci-fi, and most of them are elegant, charming, even endearing…but sometimes unintentionally.
Here are ten clanking, lumbering, mobility-challenged mechanical menaces.
10. The Robot in The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy (1958)
Much of this south-of-the-border rib-tickler is devoted to stock footage from the earlier Aztec Mummy flicks. But toward the end, the criminal scientist known as The Bat unveils his creation. Here’s a sample of the buildup he gives it: “You’re about to see something that will astonish you…There you have the greatest creation of man’s intelligence…This thing I’ve created has enormous power…You can see it standing there, a marvelous machine, a tribute to the great intelligence of man…A human robot! With this shiny creature, no human being on this earth can oppose me, do you understand?”
But when we finally get a good look at it, and we see a standard metal-box with stovepipe arms and legs, and a disembodied human head floating in a case at the top, it’s hard not to ask “How’s he going to climb a flight of stairs?” It’s no good pointing out that this is also true of the classic Daleks – rightly or not, Daleks are scary, if a bit comically so. It’s all a question of attitude, I guess. Anyway, in the final minutes of this movie the robot loses a brief shoving match with the frail-seeming Aztec Mummy, who looks rather like a cross between latter-day Mickey Rourke and late-period Jessica Tandy.
9. Chani in Devil Girl From Mars (1954)
We get the same sort of oversell–hyperbole in place of special effects–from the chic and unflappable dominatrix-clad title character (Patricia Laffan) in this peerlessly straight-faced sci-fi drama. Shot at with a gun, she sneers “You poor demented humans. To imagine you can destroy me with your old-fashioned toys. What do you know of force? Force as we use it on Mars? But you shall know…you and the rest who dwell on this planet. I can control power beyond your wildest dreams!”
That is, unless you’re able to dream of an old-school gasoline pump with spindly limbs, slowly waddling along on big hoof-like metal feet. That’s the mechanical terror, known by the singularly un-scary name of Chani, that the DGFM summons from her spaceship with the words “Now earthmen, look! Watch the power of another world!” Chani then demonstrates his might by disintegrating a tree, a pickup truck and a barn with energy blasts from his head. But you have the distinct sense he’d have a harder time with a moving target.
8. M-4 in Star Trek: Requiem for Methuselah
Reclusive space curmudgeon Mr. Flint (James Daly) also lays it on pretty thick about the power of his mechanical butler/security guard. But the floating, blinking little dude looks suspiciously like two metal heat lamp shades glued together around a photo enlarger or something, and when it floats toward the camera it looks a bit like a cyclopean smiley face. Later in the episode, it threatens Kirk, shutting down his phaser, but Spock zaps it away from behind. “Fortunately,” he observes, “the robot did not detect my presence and deactivate my phaser.” Um, yeah, now that you mention it, that was fortunate. And inexplicable.
7. Big Loo
“Your friend from the Moon,” as this 1963 creation of the Marx Toy Company was called, was certainly armed to his piano-key-like teeth. He could launch rockets from his feet, darts from his chest and balls from his hollow left arm, and squirt water from a hole in his abdomen. His eyes lit up, and his pointy, artillery-shell-shaped forehead had a sight with crosshairs you could peer through. But something about Loo’s big, insipid, desperate-to-please grin makes him seem more like the maitre d of a restaurant that’s on the verge of bankruptcy. Still, Los Lobos saw fit to adorn their 1996 album Colossal Head with Loo’s smiling mug.
6. The New Brainiac
The venerable Superman nemesis was reborn, from the bowels of the vast spaceship in which he was imprisoned, as a new robotic version of himself in Action Comics #544 (June 1983; a newly souped-up Lex Luthor was introduced in the same issue). Through Marv Wolfman’s characteristically reserved, low-key pen, we’re given Brainiac’s self-confident new attitude: “I have traveled the Universe. I have seen the beginning of time. I have waked the paths once trod only by the gods themselves…and I have become like the gods. Compared to me, Superman, you are but a common fly. An annoyance I shall, at long last – SWAT.” When we see him, however, in the final panel of the issue, he looks a bit, well, dandified. And a lot like Skeletor.
5. The Recognizers
Atari’s Tron game of the ’80s featured these bipedal perils, familiarly known to players as “Stompers.” The nickname sounds more menacing, but not quite enough to make these ponderous, pigeon-toed giants scary. They look too much like ambulatory shopping mall signage, an impression that isn’t weakened by their habit of revolving. You half expect to see a marquee with movie titles on their sides.
4. Dr. Zorka’s Robot in The Phantom Creeps (1939)
It’s doubtful that anybody in cinema history ever did the megalomaniacal rant with as much intensity and passionate glee as the great Bela Lugosi. In this splendid 12-chapter cliffhanger from Universal, he’s Dr. Zorka, power-mad master of various technical terrors, including a gangly robot. The design of this glowering, totem-like chap, played by circus giant Ed Wolff, is very cool and distinctive, but he doesn’t seem much more mobile than any of the others. He teeters and plods, and boxes the air like a three-year-old. Yet the Doc is certain that he’s his ticket to total domination: “One by one, my enemies will be disposed of until I am master of the Universe!” No pressure there, robot.
3. The Colossus of New York (1958)
Towering Ed Wolff from The Phantom Creeps also wore the suit in this saga, in which the brain of a brilliant scientist (Ross Martin) who’s died in an accident is placed in the melon of the hulking Colossus. Again, a cool, Frankenstein-ish design, plus he shoots rays from his eyes, but all this is undercut by his lack of flexibility. He looks, as so many movie robots do, like a senior citizen doing laps at the shopping mall. There’s also an unsavory moment toward the end when he asks his little son to push a lever under his cloak. If you tuned in a second late, just in time to hear the Colossus repeatedly saying “Harder, Billy, harder!” you might get the wrong idea.
2. Tobor the Great (1954)
The oversell is right there in the title of this one. The robot, who’s designed for space travel, has a certain midcentury charm, certainly. And he gets points for his name, which, like Dracula Jr.’s alias “Alucard,” is a cunning, nearly impenetrable alias. But “great?” That may be pushing it. The trailer assures us, however, that he’s “The most human outer space man ever seen on Earth!” Maybe, but he looks like just another metal man, waddling around like he’s got a load of something in his pants, except he’s not wearing pants. But Tobor is notable if only because he was designed by Robert Hinoshita, who would go on to design two other immortal robots, Will Robinson’s companion from Lost in Space, and also…
1. Robby the Robot
Yes, I know, sci-fi icon, classic robot. The robot that started it all, in a sense. I love Robby. There’s a miniature Robby on my desk, staring at me reproachfully as I type these words. But Hinoshita’s bubbly Michelin-Man body design, and his outstretched arms which somehow suggest a needy request for a hug, keep him from exuding danger. This was fine in Forbidden Planet (1956), where he was basically a cabana boy for Dr. Morbius, freezing up when asked to defend his master from the attacking Monster from the Id, because the threat is derived from Morbius’ psyche and Robby’s programming forbids such disloyalty. But Robby’s follow-up feature, The Invisible Boy (1957), showed his limitations as a performer. He kidnaps the title character at the request of an evil supercomputer, but we never really believe he’s going to harm the lad. Cool robot? Sure. Urbane robot? No question. Badass robot? Sorry.
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