It’s Debate Day on Trope and Dagger! This week we’re discussing the best robot in cinema history. The rule we’re using is they have to be essentially machines, so no cyborgs or replicants. Clearly I’m 100% right about this, as usual, but if for some masochistic reason you want to read Aaron’s incorrect ramblings, you can find them here.
Ah, robots, our metallic friends. They can cook and clean for us, perform heavy lifting, solve complex math problems in seconds, and sometimes even fly and shoot lasers. I think we can all agree that robots are pretty badass. But here’s the million-dollar question: out of all our chrome-plated compadres, which of them is the raddest of the rad?
There were a lot of likely candidates. The Terminator is a strong contender (the Arnold incarnation, although Robert Patrick was no slouch). I really like Maximilian, the evil murderbot from the awesomely cheesy The Black Hole. And no list would be complete without mentioning the unstoppable Bishop from Aliens. But none of them make the cut for me. No, there’s only one best robot in cinema history, and it’s this guy:
Robby the Robot is the OG of movie robots. First featured in Forbidden Planet (1956), he starred alongside Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis. He played a crucial role in the tale of a military vessel that lands on a seemingly uninhabited planet, only to discover that it’s fraught with unseen danger. Robby became an instant icon, and has gone on to appear in movies, television, comics, video games, and sci-fi conventions across the country. I would hazard a guess that no robot, with the possible exception of R2-D2 or the Terminator, is more recognizable.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to discuss the plot of a 60-year-old film. You’ve been warned!
For a bot conceived in 1956, Robby puts a lot of modern bots to shame, even those fancy metal chaps from Interstellar who could do all that stuff like rolling around and piloting spaceships. Robby was built by Dr. Morbius, a Prospero-like figure who lives alone on an abandoned planet with his beautiful daughter, Altaira. Morbius, we eventually learn, is the lone survivor of an expedition to the planet which was wiped out by an invisible monster. He built Robby as a protector and servant for his family based on technology he cribbed from the planet’s long-dead native race, the Krell.
Robby, being based on highly-advanced Krell technology, is an absolute monster of a robot. He stands seven feet tall and can lift extremely heavy objects like nobody’s business. When the space marines first meet Robby, he’s tearing across the desert in a hovercraft like a 50s greaser on a joyride. He’s terrifying at first, but fortunately Robby is governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which is that a robot must never harm a human. This gets put to the test at the end of the film when Robby refuses to harm the invisible monster because he recognizes it as an Id-projection of Dr. Morbius. Not a human-murderer: check.
Robby’s coolest feature is the ability to synthesize any type of matter with no trouble at all. He’s able to create hyper-advanced spaceship components in a matter of hours, and has no difficulty making a dress for Altaira which is covered in diamonds and emeralds. That’s right, folks: Robby is the king of bling. You know what else he’s the king of? Bootlegging alcohol. When the ship’s stinking drunk of a cook asks Robby to produce some extra whisky for him, Robby replies with: “Would 60 gallons be sufficient?” And you better believe he makes those 60 gallons, even duplicating the bottle and label of the cook’s favorite brand. Enables a crippling alcohol addiction: check.
A good bot isn’t complete without a strong personality. Some bots, like R2-D2, can pull this off without language, but usually a robot needs to talk to really form an impression. Fortunately, Robby is chatty as hell, and spouts off dialogue that could either be unintentionally funny or bone dry wit, depending on how his snark circuits are firing on any particular day. For example, when Commander Adams (played by Nielsen) tells Robby, “Nice climate you have here. High oxygen content,” Robby replies, “I seldom use it myself, sir. It promotes rust.” Witty banter: check.
When Morbius and the Id-monster destroy one another, and Captain Adams sets the planet to self-destruct so that the Krell technology doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, you might think Robby would decide to stay behind to protect the universe. But not this homebot. He peaces the fuck out of there with the rest of the space marines to spread the good word to the far corners of the galaxy. Ain’t nobody gonna misuse Robby’s abilities, cause only chumps get used. When Altaira, Commander Adams, and the rest of the humans are dead and gone, Robby will still be out there making booze and cracking wise, an inspiration to us all. Lives forever: check.
Even though this movie was made in 1956, Robby looks pretty good even today. Sure, he’s kind of slow and lumbering, but there’s something really charming about how the rings on his head spin around and the lights on his monochromatic blue “mouth” light up. The original Robby, built by engineer Robert Kinoshita, was exhibited at a museum in Florida for a long time where he was repeatedly vandalized. In 1980 Robby was purchased by collector William Malone, who completely restored him using original spare parts built by MGM. Robby is still in Malone’s collection today, where he presumably continues to go joyriding in his hotrod and make diamonds for fun.
There have been a lot of good bots in cinema history, but credit where credit is due: Robby the Robot is not only the original baddest bot, he’s still the baddest bot. All future automatons owe their style and sophistication to this stainless steel player. When the others have rusted on the junk heap of history, Robby will still stand supreme.