To commemorate the release of Robot & Frank, the story of an ageing jewel thief’s relationship with an advanced domestic robot, we asked our writers to pick their favourite metallic companion from the history of film and TV.
Robby the Robot, Forbidden Planet (Wilcox, 1956)
Tempted by my beloved Star Trek, this was a difficult choice to make. However, with over thirty appearances on film and television, Robby the Robot is in essence the founder of modern robotics on both the silver screen and reality. Previous imaginings such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were more fantastical than Sci-fi, and until Forbidden Planet robotics were a thing of pulp fiction and cheap comics. With his mechanical build, he may appear as archaic in comparison to today’s cybernetic conceptions. Nevertheless, with a built-in replicator, fluent in 187 languages and designed with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, he is the first of a long heritage of robots and AI from C-3PO, R2D2 to HAL and KITT. Today he is still with us through his reimagined appearance as the “Protectron” robot in the Fallout videogame franchise. Thanks to Robby, robots were pushed into the mainstream. And for that, we must be grateful.
Johnny Five, Short Circuit (Badham, 1986)
For a robot that starts out as a highly sophisticated and disciplined military machine, Number Five certainly attains some new and quirky characteristics when lightening strikes and transforms him into a completely different person. Yeah you heard me, person. From his first meeting with Stephanie, to the time he stays up the entire night attempting to feed his unquenchable craving for input, up until he magnificently outwits all four of the other prototypes, turning them into an uncanny living re-enactment of the Three Stooges (his favourite Input), Johnny Five demonstrates more human characteristics than some of the humans. In the process Johnny Five learns what it means to be human, notably after his accidental squashing of a grass hopper and his subsequent understanding of ‘death’, or being disassembled.
There are regular references to film and music throughout, as Five’s love for popular culture becomes clear, with the likes of Night Fever gracing our ears whilst he cracks out the moves in front of the TV. Number Five is a smart-ass, yet adorable friend, right up until the heart wrenching moment that he is finally ‘disassembled’, or at least he tricks everyone, including the entire audience, into thinking that we have seen him for the last time. But no, ‘Number Five is alive’.
Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
So I caved in and thought I’d add something about Star Trek’s resident Android, Data. Equally as ground-breaking as Robby, Data was a unique addition to the world of robotics in an entirely different sense. Previously, self-aware Artificial Intelligence from the T-800, HAL and the Replicants from Blade Runner tended to be portrayed as perils that would enslave humanity. However, Data helped break the mould by merging of cybernetics and childlike innocence. Stronger with vastly superior intelligence, Data is the benevolent second officer aboard the Enterprise-D. Although emotionless, he endeavours to understand human behaviour. Following his adventures, we explore the beauty of our own nature which we often take for granted through his unique perspective as he strives for his own humanity. As closing note, Brent Spiner, who portrayed Data, had stated in an interview that he used the character of Robby the Robot as a role model for his character.
Marvin, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Jennings, 2005)
The universe of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is overflowing with cheerfulness. You have flattering doors, a hysterical two-headed alien president, an eloquent sperm whale, and Zooey Deschanel. It is so full of cheer and joy in fact that it is almost too sugary. I say almost because one marvellously gloomy character is so depressing, he manages to bring down the entire universe’s happiness quotient all by his lonely self. I refer, of course, to Marvin the Paranoid Android. With a brain too big, a body too small and a permanent frown on his face, Marvin is the perfect helper. He knows exactly what needs to be done and where others might foolishly raise your hopes with their optimism, he is sure to keep you grounded and therefore pleasantly surprised with your success. Plus, he’s a bloody good shot with a Point-of-view gun.
Wall-E, WALL•E (Stanton, 2008)
Stranded alone on the waste-covered earth of the far future, Wall-E goes about his unending duty of clearing the mess left by humans with Little Tramp-esque enthusiasm. Pixar has long understood that the key to anthropomorphism is all in the eyes, and with Wall-E, they got it spot on. The first half of WALL-E is a tale of loneliness as the little robot sifts through the mountains of rubbish with his cockroach companion, his expressive eyes displaying moments of joy and adulation, mixed with those of sadness and longing. He may not be the coolest robot, but what he lacks in looks he makes up for in personality. His adoration for the more advanced and elegant EVE is sweet and uncomfortably relatable. Wall-E is the underdog, he is the little robot who could, and a benchmark for giving personality to a non-human character.
Did we miss your favourite? Let us know below.