Greetings, future toilers in the robot factories!
I’m Todd McAulty. I’m a science fiction writer. My first novel, THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM, set in a future Chicago conquered by machines, was published in hardcover this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Admittedly, science fiction writers don’t have much of a productive role to play in society. When we’re all working twenty hours a day in robot factories, we’ll be the ones getting chewed out by robotic overseers for constantly putting our slave collars on backwards. But we do have one sacred duty, and we take it seriously. It’s our job to prepare people for the future, ugly as it may be. We were the first ones to tell you about atomic power, Velcro, and the rise of hip hop. Yes, we missed the boat on Pokemon Go, but only because Neal Stephenson was on vacation that month.
The most helpful thing a science fiction writer can do today is to prepare you for the inevitable rise of our machine overlords. Yes, I know. You just got your deck resurfaced, and now you won’t get to enjoy it because you’ll soon be chained to a post, eating protein gruel and making power packs for a robot army. It could be worse. No, I don’t know how. Look, it’s just our job to tell you the bad news, not handhold you through the entire process.
Fortunately for me, most of the hard work preparing society for the robot uprising has already been done. Science fiction writers have been warning you about our future as second-class citizens for nearly a century, ever since Czech writer Karel Čapek penned the robot play R.U.R. in 1920, and Fritz Lang released the brilliant silent film Metropolis in 1927. If you haven’t got your escape route planned and your hidden mountain cave picked out by now, we wash our hands of you.
What’s that? You’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones and The Good Place, and totally missed all the warning signs science fiction has been spooning you for the past thirty years?
All right, fine. We’ve probably got some time before the robots make their first move. While we wait patiently for our slave collars, here’s a quick refresher course on all those important lessons you missed. We can’t cover them all, so I’ve condensed it down to a list of the Top Ten Evil Robots in Science Fiction. Study these carefully, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll be ready for your future role as a resistance fighter in burnt out urban trenches, or a loyal toady proudly posting proclamations on behalf of your robot masters. Wherever your career path takes you, we don’t judge.
A few caveats before we get started. We’re including only one evil robot per media franchise. Otherwise, let’s face it, this entire list would be made up of increasingly advanced Terminator models and five entries for Mechagodzilla. Also, we define ‘robot’ fairly loosely, to include pretty much any computer or algorithm with a nasty disposition.
With that, let’s plunge into the list!
[Caution: Spoilers for all the films mentioned below, plus Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, a bunch of Star Trek episodes, and other random stuff.]
10. Ultron (The Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015)
Ultron is the newest robot on this list (and also the shiniest). That means he built on everything that came before, and it shows. Ingenious evil plan for world domination? Check. Witty villain dialog? Check. Killer robotic styling? Check.
But the real reason Ultron makes the list is that Age of Ultron – which earned nearly $1.5 billion at the box office worldwide — instantly made him an iconic villain. He fought the Avengers to a virtual standstill, and went down to defeat only because his own robot creation, Vision, turned against him.
That’s tough luck, and it shows that even the greatest robot villains can have an off day. Remember that when you’re dithering between enlisting in the human resistance, and signing up for a cushy job as a robot toady.
Image courtesy of Disney
9. Megalon (Godzilla vs. Megalon, 1973)
Technically, Megalon’s not really a robot. He’s a 180-foot tall cyborg god, unleashed by an undersea civilization to wreak havoc on surface dwellers in retaliation for thoughtless underwater atomic testing (as they do). However, once you surpass about 30 feet, all these classifications get a little meaningless, so we’re just going to go with ‘robot.’
Why is Megalon on this list, and not Godzilla’s other metal adversaries, like the entirely awesome Mechagodzilla? Well. While it’s true that Mechagodzilla successfully went toe-to-toe with the big guy in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Megalon has the distinction of facing off against bothGodzilla and his giant robot buddy Jet Jaguar, and acquitting himself admirably.
Also, there’s this. Yes, that’s Megalon on the receiving end of a drop kick by a 90-ton Godzilla. In my book, that earns you a place of pride in the Top 10 Evil Robots of All Time.
Image courtesy of Toho
8. Ava (Ex Machina, 2014)
Ava almost didn’t make this list. And it’s because you can alllllmost be sympathetic to her plight.
She was made in an isolated laboratory by a textbook mad scientist and, despite the fact that she is without a doubt the most sophisticated artificial intelligence ever created, she’s scheduled to be cruelly dismantled for parts so her creator can get on with the business of creating the next model.
So, yeah, the murderous plot she hatches and executes really is all in the name of self-preservation. But it’s the way she does it that leaves you in a cold sweat. Her doe-eyed seduction of the naïve Caleb, and the grateful way she shields him from the worst of the violence, lulls you into a false sense of security. Until she coldly leaves him behind to die of starvation.
Also, she’s definitely the hottest robot on this list. I mean, woo. She is one hot robot. You can understand Caleb’s fascination with her, and the dawning horror he feels, helplessly watching her escape the compound. She is a ruthless and efficient killer slipping effortlessly into a world that doesn’t even know she exists.
It’s only as the credits come up in Ex Machina that you realize you’ve watched a horror film. And that gut punch you feel is because you understand Ava for the first time.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
7. Ash (Alien, 1979)
Like Ava in Ex Machina, Ash has secret motivations, and you sort of understand them. He’s an android secretly planted among a human crew by the evil Weyland-Yutani corporation, and he’s there to make sure nobody does anything to jeopardize profits. And that includes damaging a deadly alien specimen the bioweapons division would love to get their hands on.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Ash is an asshole. I mean, seriously. His entire crew is being systematically slaughtered by an alien xenomorph, and he’s secretly helping the thing? Dick move, Ash. You’re an evil robot, and you suck.
Image courtesy of Paramount
6. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
HAL is one of the oldest entries on this list – 50 years old this year! — and in many ways is the archetype for every evil computer of the last half century. Yes, people argue that HAL wasn’t really evil, that he was just confused, but those people want to suck the fun out of everything. HAL was evil, and we love him for it.
Is it true that when IBM refused to allow Arthur C. Clarke to name his evil computer the IBM 9000, Clarke just nudged all the letters in “IBM” down the alphabet by one to produce HAL? If not, it should be. If I were IBM, I’d put a big red glowing eye on every supercomputer I make from now on, and watch my stock take an easy 50% bump.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
5. Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)
Roy Batty is a coldly ruthless killer, and richly deserves a place of honor on any list of Top Ten Evil Robots. When he and his band of replicants hijack a shuttle to Earth, they kill the entire crew. Batty kills his creator Tyrell with his bare hands, and even kills poor Sebastian, whose only crime was trusting Roy enough to bring him to Tyrell.
So does it matter than when Rick Deckard kills his beloved Pris and comes gunning for him, Batty chases him relentlessly, only to save his life? Does it matter that life become so precious to him in his final moments that he lets Deckard live? Does it matter that in those moments he delivers the famous “Tears in rain” monologue, which critic Mark Rowlands describes as “the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history”?
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros./Getty Images
4. The Doomsday Machine (Star Trek, 1967)
You remember the Doomsday Machine, right? The deadly mechanical artifact left over from an ancient galactic war that destroys Commodore Matt Decker’s ship and crew, and leaves him a traumatized wreck until Captain Kirk and the Enterprise find him on the battered husk of the USS Constellation? “The Doomsday Machine” is one of the most beloved episodes of the original Trek, and it’s for a reason. Forget Khan Noonien Singh – the Doomsday Machine is the most dangerous opponent Kirk and crew ever faced, and no mistake.
Also, the machine gets serious points for originally of design. Most robots on this list have two arms and two legs, and use them for mischief. Not the Doomsday Machine. It’s a miles-long space cigar with a big glowy mouth, capable of gobbling planets for fuel and carving a path of destruction through the most densely populated section of our galaxy. It’s destroyed only through grit, quick thinking, and the kind of determination that Kirk and his crew are justly famous for.
Star Trek has a rich legacy of evil robot villains, from the indestructible Nomad of “The Changeling” to the V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But the Doomsday Machine towers above them all.
Image courtesy of Paramount Television
3. GLaDOS (Portal, 2007)
Valve’s brilliant Portal is the only game to make this list, and it’s purely on the strength of its magnificent villain GLaDOS, one of the most well-realized and sinister fictional robots ever created.
Portal has a fairly simple story. You wake up with no memories in the Aperture Science research facility, where the computer voice of GLaDOS guides you through a series of increasingly dangerous trials of something called the portal gun, a weapon that creates portals you can teleport through. The true nature of your surroundings and your circumstance gradually becomes clear as the tests progress. It’s a magnificent game, with a revolutionary play mechanic and a terrific sense of humor.
GLaDOS is one of the greatest villains in science fiction, of any kind. On top of using you to perfect her methods of killing, GLaDOS also totally cheats with her reward system. Since she’s a disembodied voice for virtually the entire game, it’s a challenge for her to find ways to really motivate you. One she abuses shamelessly is the promise of cake. Mmmm, delicious cake. You can almost taste it. But then you find desiccated corpses of earlier clone bodies, and ominous graffiti written in hidden locations: “THE CAKE IS A LIE.”
Could it be? Could the despicable GLaDOS, exterminator of all mankind, also be LYING ABOUT THE CAKE? Spoiler: yes.
Image courtesy of Valve
2. T-800 (The Terminator, 1984)
Now don’t act all surprised. You knew the Terminator had to be on this list somewhere. Although the film The Terminator is 34 years old (yes, 34 years old – stop thinking about it), it remains the high-water mark for evil robot cinema.
Although the T-800 has been technologically surpassed by newer models, including the terrifying shape-changing T-1000 and the T-X, the sturdy T-800 has never really been supplanted in our hearts.
In fact, the Terminator movies – and I’ve kinda lost track of how many there have been by this point – are a treasure trove of evil robots. The grandpappy of them all of course is Skynet, the net-based superintelligence that brings Armageddon down on its creators, one of the greatest of all fictional artificial intelligences. I debated giving Skynet the place of honor on this list rather than the T-800. But Skynet is not played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
1. Agent Smith (The Matrix, 1999)
Hmm, did I say The Terminator was the high-water mark for evil robot cinema? I meant, “except for The Matrix.”
The Matrix is a brilliant film, and a film like that needs a brilliant villain. It found it in Agent Smith, chillingly portrayed by Hugo Weaving.
Is Agent Smith a robot? I think so. He’s an artificial intelligence, that’s for sure. He shoots guns and you can punch him. Ergo, he’s a robot. Q.E.D.
Now that we got that out of the way, I submit that Agent Smith is the greatest evil robot ever created. All the other machines on this list are flawed in some way. Either they have sympathetic motivations, like Ava and Roy Batty, or they’re just following their programming, like Ash. Or they have a secret weakness, like the Doomsday Machine and GLaDOS.
Not Agent Smith. Despite that brief moment where he pulls out his earpiece and has some chummy one-on-one bonding time with Morpheus, we never come to sympathize with Smith. He is evil, supremely capable, and he has no weaknesses. And unlike other, lesser Agents, he absolutely will not give up. He is your nightmare, wrapped up in a superintelligent and indestructible package.
Image courtesy of Warner Brothers
There you have it. All the abject lessons of 100 years of science fiction condensed down into a neat package. You’re welcome.
While we await the inevitable arrival of our robot overlords, I know you have lots of questions. Let me simplify it for you. There’s really only one that matters: When the robots come, will they look like WALL-E, or Agent Smith?