Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

The Automata of Terror: Cinema's 8 Scariest Robots

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

For the most part, real robots and movie robots have something in common—they aren’t actually scary. The internet’s nervous Nellies notwithstanding, no one runs screaming when real-world humanoid bots stalk across a laboratory, and no one, not even the most simpering of humans, dives under the covers when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s machine assassin racks up another effortless, disinterested kill. It takes more than fictional murder to turn a cinematic robot into a nightmare delivery system. It’s the violence hardwired into them, and the malice that bubbles up through the code. Here are film’s most frightening automatons—not the most iconic, or the most feasible systems, but the ones whose twisted functionality will haunt your silly, human dreams.

1. Ash — Alien

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Sometimes, a Hollywood robot will simply break, and produce a genuinely chilling moment. Consider the first time you saw Robocop’s ED-209 slip into its “You have 20 seconds to comply” fugue state. But what’s wrong with Ash can’t be chalked up to defective programming, or to an android simply following orders from his distant, corporate masters. When Ash attacks Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, he does it with the relish of a serial killer, and in a decidedly non-robotic, inefficient manner, inexplicably trying to choke his victim with a rolled-up magazine. There’s no evidence that androids are designed to be malicious—that’s a feature Ash developed all by his lonesome. And even when he’s decapitated, the doctor-turned-killer manages to become even more of a horror, dripping and spewing milk-like blood throughout sci-fi’s most disturbing interrogation scene.

2. Michael — A Boy And His Dog

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By the time you meet this mime-faced robot enforcer, A Boy And His Dog may already seem about as bleak—and as surreal—as a movie can get. The boy (a very young Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog (nowhere near as cute as it sounds) have wandered the irradiated post-apocalyptic wastelands for years, picking at civilization’s bones, finally discovering an underground utopia. The inevitable catch is too strange and complex to get into, since it distracts from the movie’s greatest horror: Michael, a grinning android in vaguely perverted clown makeup and decked out in the straw hat and overalls of a cartoon farm-hand. Michael kills with his hands, all smiles and rosy cheeks as he pulps necks and crushes heads.

3. Colossus — Colossus: The Forbin Project

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HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey is deeply unsettling, and a fascinating take on how an artificial intelligence (AI) could suffer a very human-seeming psychotic break. Colossus, on the other hand, is a monster from birth, an AI that’s designed to automate the United States’ nuclear defenses, but who quickly (maybe even instantly) evolves into a petty despot. By the end of the first act of Colossus: The Forbin Project, the AI has already taken control of the planet, colluding with its Soviet AI counterpart, and threatening global destruction if any resistance is detected. The humans resist, but despite the death and destruction that results, it’s Colossus’ final speech that sticks with you. “We can coexist, but only on my terms,” it drones, informing its creator that he will continue to serve the AI, despite having masterminded the campaign to destroy it. “In time, you will come to regard me not only with respect, and awe, but with love.” Colossus doesn’t just beat humanity—the damn thing gloats about it.

4. Police Bots — Elysium

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Elysium is a rarity—a big-budget protest movie, balancing breath-taking visuals with overstuffed social commentary, including the hyper-outsourcing fantasy of robots absently tending to Earth’s planet-wide ghetto. And as conceptually blunt as it is to depict robot cops manhandling Matt Damon’s character, it’s more than a little scary. The bots don’t just hassle him. They casually snap his arm, a moment of senseless, outsourced police brutality that feels strangely realistic. Why wouldn’t a fully automated security force, with no accountability, empathy, or drive to succeed, resort to fear and random violence to maintain order?

5. M.A.R.K.-13 — Hardware

Think too hard about Hardware’s ultra-powerful robo-bogeyman, and it’s almost too stupid to suffer—the military robot enters the movie as a handful of parts scavenged from the bombed-out dunes, only to miraculously reassemble itself and launch a killing spree. And yet, the M.A.R.K.-13 is haunting, its name an apparent reference to an apocalyptic Biblical passage (the phrase “no flesh will be spared” comes up multiple times), and its body an ungainly, almost insect bulk attached to a skull-like head (which is painted like an American flag, since the scrapped bot was intended as a sculpture). What pushes M.A.R.K.-13 over the edge is its sheer brutality, with six primary limbs and three auxiliary limbs, most of which seem specifically designed to drill, saw, or otherwise mangle. The movie suggests that the bot is built to reduce the resource-strained post-nuclear-war population, one mutilated human at a time.

6. Drone Sphere — Phantasm

Anyone claiming to know what the hell is going on in Phantasm, or its three sequels, is a stone-cold liar. This much is clear, though: A floating silver sphere that lodges itself in its target’s head with a pair of blades, and then drills into the brain sending blood and gray matter squirting through the orb’s handy rear port, is unforgettable cinema. The movie is definitely more supernatural horror than sci-fi, but proof of the sphere’s technological underpinnings is right on the franchise’s official site, which describes it as composed of “Unobtainium 426” and propelled by an “Anti-matter plasma cell.” Nonsense, all of it, but the point stands: The scariest thing about Phantasm is a robot, one that’s as dream-like as it is ridiculous, and as impossible to un-see as the rest of the film.

7. Hector — Saturn 3

Saturn 3 doesn’t deserve Hector, a towering killer humanoid whose tiny, snail-like stalk of a head rises from a bizarrely muscle-bound body, and whose deranged appeal can’t save the terrible B-movie from itself. The robot’s look is distressing enough, but the psychopath who assembles and programs Hector (as a possible replacement for researchers on a moonbase orbiting Saturn) accidentally transfers his own predatory lust for Farrah Fawcett’s character. Throw in the fact that Hector’s own brain incorporates fetal brain tissue, and the robot couldn’t be more repulsive.

8. Hunter-Killers — Terminator

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The T-800 is a cool villain, all grim and Arnoldy on the outside, and shiny, skull-faced doom on the inside. But the robots that turned the Terminator series into the foundation for countless thought-experiments about machine uprisings didn’t walk on two legs or kill people for their clothes. They were the ones rolling across piles of human bones, and patrolling the nuke-dimmed skies, faceless unmanned military vehicles scanning for more humans to exterminate. The ground-based and airborne Hunter-Killers looked like instruments of extinction, that name delineating the grim, one-sided process of wiping out a species. Though the HKs seem almost painfully prescient in today’s age of drone warfare, it was back in the '80s when they were most jarring, replacing another kind of shambling movie monster with something stranger, and much worse: the entire military industrial complex gaining sentience, and burning the world out of fear and self-interest.

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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (female writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), and Beery won for The Champ, which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.


By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.


The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.


More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.


The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

11 Haunting Facts About Beloved

Toni Morrison—who was born on February 18, 1931—made a name for herself with The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon, but it wasn’t until 1987’s Beloved, about a runaway slave haunted by the death of her infant daughter, that her legacy was secured. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in the decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize in 1993. All the awards aside, Beloved is a testament to the horrors of slavery, with its narrative of suffering and repressed memory and its dedication to the more than 60 million who died in bondage. Here are some notable facts about Morrison’s process and the novel’s legacy.


While compiling research for 1974's The Black Book, Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who escaped with her husband and four children to Ohio in 1856. A posse caught up with Garner, who killed her youngest daughter and attempted to do the same to her other children rather than let them return to bondage. Once apprehended, her trial transfixed the nation. "She was very calm; she said, 'I’d do it again,'" Morrison told The Paris Review. "That was more than enough to fire my imagination."


The book was originally going to be about the haunting of Sethe by her infant daughter, who she killed (just as Garner did) rather than allow her to return to slavery. A third of the way through writing, though, Morrison realized she needed a flesh-and-blood character who could judge Sethe’s decision. She needed the daughter to come back to life in another form (some interpret it as a grief-driven case of mistaken identity). As she told the National Endowment for the Arts’ NEA Magazine: "I thought the only person who was legitimate, who could decide whether [the killing] was a good thing or not, was the dead girl."


Morrison has said she likes to know the ending of her books early on, and to write them down once she does. With Beloved, she wrote the ending about a quarter of the way in. "You are forced into having a certain kind of language that will keep the reader asking questions," she told author Carolyn Denard in Toni Morrison: Conversations.


To help readers understand the particulars of slavery, Morrison carefully researched historical documents and artifacts. One particular item she became fascinated with: the "bit" that masters would put in slaves' mouths as punishment. She couldn’t find much in the way of pictures or descriptions, but she found enough to imagine the shame slaves would feel. In Beloved, Paul D. tells Sethe that a rooster smiled at him while he wore the bit, indicating that he felt lower than a barnyard animal.


In an appearance on The Colbert Report last year, Morrison said she finally got around to reading Beloved after almost 30 years. Her verdict: "It’s really good!"


When accepting an award from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1988, Morrison observed that there is no suitable memorial to slavery, "no small bench by the road." Inspired by this line, the Toni Morrison Society started the Bench by the Road Project to remedy the issue. Since 2006, the project has placed 15 benches in locations significant to the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for 40% of slaves brought to America.


After the snub, 48 African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., signed a letter that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. "For all of America, for all of American letters," the letter addressing Morrison read, "you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people."


Between 2000 and 2009, Beloved ranked 26th on the American Library Association’s list of most banned/challenged books. A recent challenge in Fairfax County, Virginia, cited the novel as too intense for teenage readers, while another challenge in Michigan said the book was, incredibly, overly simplistic and pornographic. Thankfully, both challenges were denied.


Ten years ago, Morrison collaborated with Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour on Margaret Garner, an opera about the real-life inspiration behind Beloved. It opened in Detroit in 2005, and played in Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York before closing in 2008.


Although she publicly claims otherwise, according to a New York magazine story, Morrison told friends she didn’t want Beloved made into a movie. And she didn’t want Oprah Winfrey (who bought the film rights in 1988) to be in it. Nevertheless, the film came out in 1998 and was a total flop.


The Folio Society, a London-based company that creates fancy special editions of classic books, released the first-ever illustrated Beloved in 2015. Artist Joe Morse had to be personally approved by Morrison for the project. Check out a few of his hauntingly beautiful illustrations here.

This article originally appeared in 2015.


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