“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This is the first of three Laws of Robotics, as featured in hit films like I, Robot and Bicentennial Man. These two throwbacks are certainly honorable mentions for our top five list below of the best films about androids of all time. An android, for those not familiar, is “a mobile robot usually with a human form.” Not to be confused with the popular cell phone model, of course.
Ever since Fritz Lang’s 1927 landmark sci-fi film Metropolis, androids have both terrified and fascinated moviegoers in equal measure. Not surprisingly, some of the finest robot and android films are also considered among the best features of all time.
As machines have advanced throughout human history, it was inevitable that we’d try to recreate ourselves. And with hit films like Swan Song and After Yang hitting the masses these days, it’s clear that the notion is still popular among the visual medium. Here’s a closer look at the greatest films centered around robots that look like us.
5 After Yang (2021)
After Yang has been making the rounds at prestigious festivals and garnering critical claim. In a near-future society, a young girl’s beloved companion—an android named Yang—malfunctions, and her father Jake (played by a graceful Colin Farrell) searches for a way to repair him. In the process, Jake discovers the life that has been passing in front of him as he tries to reconnect with his wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) and daughter across a distance he didn’t know was there. The tear-jerking story from versatile filmmaker Kogonada and production company A24 deals with themes of questioning love, connection and loss.
“There was nowhere to hide in the script,” Farrell recently told TheWrap. “It’s not a script that has any pointed moments, any super emotional moments or any scenes that felt like they were loud. And yet, all the important themes that I certainly have dealt with and deal with and will deal with in the future — loss, grief, family, belonging, the ostracization we can feel sometimes from ourselves and those we love, parenting — all of that stuff was what the film fundamentally was about. And so I read the script and was haunted by [it] and just really, really wanted to be a part of it.”
4 Ex Machina (2015)
Before he dropped the thought-provoking FX miniseries Devs, Alex Garland impressed us with an Oscar-winning achievement, Ex Machina. Most of us sci-fi lovers have seen it: A young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, son of veteran actor Brendan) is selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I. He spends a week at a private mountain retreat belonging to the company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac in an edgy role that secured his Hollywood A-lister status).
Made on a budget of $15 million, the film grossed $36 million worldwide and received largely positive reviews. While Gleeson and Isaac were reliably superb, it is Vikander’s performance that garnered the most acclaim. And wouldn’t you know it: She’s the one playing an android.
Where the film also succeeded, besides the obvious award-winning visual effects, was in its unique twists and turns. That epic moment in the third act when we realized Caleb has successfully outsmarted the heavy-drinking Nathan (without giving too much away…) just floored us. What an achievement in clever storytelling.
3 RoboCop (1987)
“I know you. You’re dead! We killed you!” exclaimed one of RoboCop‘s antagonists upon realizing the brutalized police officer was still “alive.” The 1987 classic takes place in a dystopian and crime-ridden Detroit, where a terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg haunted by submerged memories.
Since its release, Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent film has been analyzed for themes including the nature of humanity, personal identity, corporate greed and corruption, and is seen as a rebuke of Ronald Reagan’s policies. The film was conceived by Edward Neumeier while working on the set of Blade Runner (1982), another classic involving humanoids. Verhoeven emphasized violence throughout the film, but despite these predicted difficulties in marketing the film, it was expected to perform well based on pre-release critic screenings and positive word of mouth.
The success of RoboCop created a franchise that includes sequels, TV shows, video games, comic books and merchandise. A direct sequel to the original 1987 film, tentatively titled tentatively titled RoboCop Returns, is in development as of 2020. Similar to the vain of Terminator: Dark Fate, this upcoming sequel will ignore all other entries in the series besides the 1987 classic.
2 Alien (1979)
Alien is perhaps Ridley’s Scott finest achievement, and the evil android played by Ian Holm is probably still haunting our nightmares to this day. The story takes in the distant future, where the crew of a commercial spaceship are on their way home when they pick up a distress call from a distant moon. The crew are under obligation to investigate, and the spaceship descends on the moon afterwards. After a rough landing, three crew members leave the spaceship to explore the area on the moon. At the same time as they discover a hive colony of some unknown creature, the ship’s computer deciphers the message to be a warning, not a distress call. When one of the eggs is disturbed, the crew realizes that they are not alone on the spaceship—and they must deal with the consequences.
Surprisingly, Alien was met with mixed reviews on release but was a box-office success, winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The success of Alien spawned a media franchise of films, novels, comic books, video games and toys. It also launched Weaver’s acting career, providing her with her first lead role. A crossover with the Predator franchise produced the Alien vs. Predator films, and a prequel series includes Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), both directed by Scott. Nothing will live up to his 1979 classic—not even his own Director’s Cut of the film, which he reveals explicitly in a write-up included with the DVD.
1 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
And then there’s Ah-nold. (“Come with me if you want to live,” anyone?) What else could top our list than the legendary follow-up to James Cameron’s 1984 classic. The 1991 sequel stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick and Edward Furlong in career-defining roles. In its plot, the malevolent artificial intelligence Skynet sends a Terminator—a highly advanced killing machine—back in time to 1995 to kill the future leader of the human resistance, John Connor, when he is a child. The resistance sends back its own reprogrammed Terminator to protect Connor and ensure the future of humanity.
Its visual effects saw breakthroughs in computer-generated imagery, including the first use of natural human motion for a computer-generated character and the first partially computer-generated main character. At the time of its release, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the most expensive film ever made. Fortunately, it was a critical and commercial success upon release, with praise for the acting, action scenes and visual effects. Other films followed: two sequels, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009); a reboot, Terminator Genisys (2015); and the Cameron-produced film Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) which was intended to be an alternate sequel to T2.
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