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The Automata of Terror: Cinema's 8 Scariest Robots

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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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9 Mysterious Facts About Murder, She Wrote
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For 12 seasons and 264 episodes, the small coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine, was the scene of a murder. And wherever there was a body, Jessica Fletcher wasn’t far behind. The fictional mystery author and amateur sleuth at the heart of the CBS drama Murder, She Wrote was given life by actress Angela Lansbury, who made a name for herself in the theater world and in movies like 1944’s Gaslight and 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Though the show was supposed to skew toward an older audience, the series is still very much alive and being discovered by new generations of audiences every year. Unravel the mystery with these facts about Murder, She Wrote.

1. ANGELA LANSBURY WAS “PISSED OFF” AT THE TV ROLES BEING OFFERED TO HER BEFORE MURDER.

After years of high-profile parts and critical acclaim in the theater, Angela Lansbury was in her late fifties and ready to tackle a steady television role. Unfortunately, instead of being flooded with interesting lead roles on big series, she said she was constantly looked at to play “the maid or the housekeeper in some ensemble piece,” leaving her to get—in the Dame’s own words—“really pissed off.”

After voicing her displeasure, she was soon approached with two potential solo series, one being Murder, She Wrote, which grabbed her attention because of its focus on a normal country woman becoming an amateur detective. After meeting with the producers and writers, it was only a matter of time before Lansbury agreed to the role and began the 12-season run.

2. THE SHOW TOOK A SHOT AT FRIENDS IN ITS FINAL SEASON.

In 1995, CBS made a bold move: After airing on Sundays since 1984, Murder, She Wrote moved to Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. for its twelfth and final season, going head-to-head against Mad About You and Friends over at NBC. On a night dominated by younger viewers, Lansbury was at a loss.

"I'm shattered," she told the Los Angeles Times. "What can I say? I really feel very emotional about it. I just felt so disappointed that after all the years we had Sunday night at 8, suddenly it didn't mean anything. It was like gone with the wind."

Maybe not so coincidentally, during that last season of the series there was an episode titled “Murder Among Friends,” where a TV producer is killed in her office after planning to get rid of a member of the cast of a fictional television show called Buds. Complete with its coffee shop setting and snarky repartee, Buds was a not-so-subtle stab at Friends, coming at a time when Murder, She Wrote was placed right against the hip ratings juggernaut.

Putting the murder mystery aside for a moment, Fletcher takes plenty of jabs at Buds throughout, literally rolling her eyes at the thought of six twentysomethings becoming a hit because they sat around talking about their sexuality in every episode. The writing was on the wall as Murder, She Wrote was being phased out by CBS by the end of 1996, but Lansbury made sure to go down swinging.

3. JESSICA FLETCHER HOLDS A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD.

Here’s one for any self-respecting trivia junkie: Jessica Fletcher holds a Guinness World Record for Most Prolific Amateur Sleuth. Though Guinness recognizes that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple has been on and off screen longer—since 1956—Fletcher has actually gotten to the bottom of more cases with 264 episodes and four TV movies under her belt.

4. THE SHOW’S FICTIONAL TOWN WOULD HAVE BEEN THE MURDER CAPITAL OF THE PLANET.

Quiet, upper-class New England coastal towns aren’t usually known for their murder count, but Cabot Cove, Maine, is a grisly destination indeed. In fact, if you look at the amount of murders per the population, it would have the highest rate on the planet, according to BBC Radio 4.

With 3560 people living in the town, and 5.3 murders occurring every year, that comes out to 1490 murders per million, which is 60 percent higher than that of Honduras, which only recently lost its title as the murder capital of the world. It’s also estimated that in total, about two percent of the folks in Cabot Cove end up murdered. 

5. SOME FANS THINK FLETCHER WAS A SERIAL KILLER THE WHOLE TIME.

That statistic leads us right into our next thought: Isn’t it a little suspicious that Fletcher keeps stumbling upon all these murders? We know that Cabot Cove is a fairly sleepy town, but the murder rate rivals a Scorsese movie. And this one person—a suspicious novelist and amateur detective—always seems to get herself mixed up in the juiciest cases. Some people think there’s something sinister about the wealth of cases Fletcher writes about in her books: It’s because she’s the one doing the killing all along.

This theory has gained traction with fans over the years, and it helps explain the coincidental nature of the show. Murders aren’t just exclusive to Fletcher and Cabot Cove; they follow her around when she’s on book tours, on trips out of town, or while writing the script to a VR video game for a company whose owner just so happens to get killed while Fletcher is around.

Could Jessica Fletcher have such an obsession with murder mysteries that she began to create her own? Was life in Cabot Cove too boring for a violent sociopath? Did she decide to take matters into her own hands after failing to think of original book ideas? We’ll never know, but it puts the whole series into a very different light.

6. LANSBURY WAS NOT HAPPY ABOUT A PROPOSED REBOOT.

Despite its inimitable style, Murder, She Wrote isn’t immune to Hollywood’s insatiable reboot itch, and in 2013 plans were put in motion to modernize the show for a new generation. NBC’s idea was to cast Octavia Spencer as a hospital administrator who self-publishes her first mystery novel and starts investigating real cases. Lansbury was none too pleased by the news.

"I think it's a mistake to call it Murder, She Wrote," she told The Hollywood Reporter in November 2013, "because Murder, She Wrote will always be about Cabot Cove and this wonderful little group of people who told those lovely stories and enjoyed a piece of that place, and also enjoyed Jessica Fletcher, who is a rare and very individual kind of person ... So I'm sorry that they have to use the title Murder, She Wrote, even though they have access to it and it's their right."

When the plug was pulled on the series, Lansbury said she was "terribly pleased and relieved” by the news, adding that, "I knew it was a terrible mistake."

7. JEAN STAPLETON TURNED DOWN THE LEAD ROLE OF JESSICA FLETCHER.

It’s impossible to separate Angela Lansbury from her role as Jessica Fletcher now, but she wasn’t the network’s first choice for the role. All in the Family’s Edith Bunker, actress Jean Stapleton, was originally approached about playing Fletcher, but she turned it down.

Stapleton cited a combination of wanting a break after All in the Family’s lengthy run and the fact that she wasn’t exactly thrilled with how the part was written, and the changes she wanted to make weren’t welcome. Despite not being enthralled by the original ideas for Fletcher, Stapleton agreed that Lansbury was “just right” for the part.

8. FLETCHER’S ESCAPADES HAVE LIVED ON IN BOOKS AND VIDEO GAMES.

For anyone who didn’t get enough of Fletcher during Murder, She Wrote’s original run, there are more—plenty more—dead bodies to make your way through. Author Donald Bain has written 45 murder mystery novels starring Fletcher, all of which credit Fletcher as the "co-author." The books sport such titles as Killer in the Kitchen, Murder on Parade, and Margaritas & Murder. Not even cancellation can keep Cabot Cove safe, apparently.

On top of that, two point-and-click computer games were released based on the show in 2009 and 2012. Both games feature Fletcher solving multiple murders just like on the show, but don’t expect to hear the comforting voice of Angela Lansbury as you wade through the dead bodies. Only her likeness appears in the game; not her voice.

9. LANSBURY WOULD BE GAME TO REPRISE THE ROLE.

When recently asked about her iconic role by the Sunday Post, Lansbury admitted that she'd be into seeing Murder, She Wrote come back in some form. "I was in genuine tears doing my last scene," Lansbury said. "Jessica Fletcher has become so much a part of my life, it was difficult to come to terms with it being all over ... Having said that, there have been some two-hour specials since we stopped in 1996 and I wouldn’t be surprised if we got together just one more time."

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10 Things You Should Know About Ray Bradbury
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For such a visionary futurist whose predictions for the future often came true, Ray Bradbury was rather old-fashioned in many ways. In honor of what would be Bradbury's 97th birthday, check out a few fascinating facts about the literary genius. 

1. HE SCORED HIS FIRST WRITING GIG WHEN HE WAS STILL A TEEN. 

Most teenagers get a first job bagging groceries or slinging burgers. At the age of 14, Ray Bradbury landed himself a gig writing for George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio show.

“I went down on Figueroa Street in front of the Figueroa Playhouse,” Bradbury later recalled. “I saw George Burns outside the front of the theater. I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Burns, you got your broadcast tonight don’t you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You don’t have an audience in there do you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Will you take me in and let me be your audience?’ So he took me in and put me in the front row, and the curtain went up, and I was in the audience for Burns and Allen. I went every Wednesday for the broadcast and then I wrote shows and gave them to George Burns. They only used one—but they did use it, it was for the end of the show.”

2. IT TOOK HIM 22 YEARS TO ASK A GIRL OUT.

At the age of 22, Bradbury finally summoned up the courage to ask a girl out for the first time ever. She was a bookstore clerk named Maggie, who thought he was stealing from the bookstore because he had a long trench coat on. They went out for coffee, which turned into cocktails, which turned into dinner, which turned into marriage, which turned into 56 anniversaries and four children. She was the only girl Bradbury ever dated. Maggie held down a full-time job while Ray stayed at home and wrote, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1940s.

3. HE IMPRESSED TRUMAN CAPOTE.

George Burns isn’t the only famous eye Bradbury caught. In 1947, an editor at Mademoiselle read Bradbury’s short story, “Homecoming,” about the only human boy in a family of supernatural beings. The editor decided to run the piece, and Bradbury won a place in the O. Henry Prize Stories for one of the best short stories of 1947. That young editor who helped Bradbury out by grabbing his story out of the unsolicited materials pile? Truman Capote.

4. HE HAD AN AVERSION TO CARS.

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Not only did Bradbury never get a driver’s license, he didn’t believe in cars for anyone. His own personal aversion came from seeing a fatal car accident when he was just 16. In 1996, he told Playboy, “I saw six people die horribly in an accident. I walked home holding on to walls and trees. It took me months to begin to function again. So I don't drive. But whether I drive or not is irrelevant. The automobile is the most dangerous weapon in our society—cars kill more than wars do.”

5. HE WROTE FAHRENHEIT 451 IN JUST OVER A WEEK.

It took Bradbury just nine days to write Fahrenheit 451—and he did it in the basement of the UCLA library on a rented typewriter. (The title of his classic novel, by the way, comes from the temperature at which paper burns without being exposed to flame.)

6. HE DIDN'T ATTEND COLLEGE.

Though he wrote Fahrenheit 451 at UCLA, he wasn't a student there. In fact, he didn’t believe in college. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money,” Bradbury told The New York Times in 2009. “When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

7. HE LOATHED COMPUTERS.

Despite his writings about all things futuristic, Bradbury loathed computers. “We are being flimflammed by Bill Gates and his partners,” he told Playboy in 1996. “Look at Windows '95. That's a lot of flimflam, you know.” He also stated that computers were nothing more than typewriters to him, and he certainly didn’t need another one of those. He also called the Internet “old-fashioned": “They type a question to you. You type an answer back. That’s 30 years ago. Why not do it on the telephone, which is immediate? Why not do it on TV, which is immediate? Why are they so excited with something that is so backward?”

8. HE WAS PALS WITH WALT DISNEY.

Not only was Bradbury good friends with Walt Disney (and even urged him to run for mayor of Los Angeles), he helped contribute to the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot, submitting a story treatment that they built the ride around.

He was a big fan of the Disney parks, saying, “Everyone in the world will come to these gates. Why? Because they want to look at the world of the future. They want to see how to make better human beings. That’s what the whole thing is about. The cynics are already here and they’re terrifying one another. What Disney is doing is showing the world that there are alternative ways to do things that can make us all happy. If we can borrow some of the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World and Epcot, then indeed the world can be a better place.”

9. HE WANTED HIS ASHES TO BE SENT TO MARS IN A SOUP CAN.

He once said that when he died, he planned to have his ashes placed in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and planted on Mars. Then he decided that he wanted to have a place his fans could visit, and thought he’d design his own gravestone that included the names of his books. As a final touch, a sign at his gravesite would say Place dandelions here, “as a tribute to Dandelion Wine, because so many people love it.” In the end, he ended up going with something a whole lot simpler—a plain headstone bearing his name and “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” Go take him some dandelions the next time you’re in L.A.—he’s buried at Westwood Memorial Park.

10. NASA PAID TRIBUTE TO HIM.

Perhaps a more fitting memorial is the one NASA gave him when they landed a rover on Mars a few months after Bradbury’s death in 2012: They named the site where Mars Curiosity touched down "Bradbury Landing."

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