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
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
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
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
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
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.