Top 10 Scariest Robots, Cyborgs and Artificial Intelligence

Top 10 Films takes a look at the most frightening robots, cyborgs and artificial intelligence to grace the screens of horror and science-fiction.

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When I think of scary robots, there are two that come directly to mind. These are the first monster machines I ever saw and they remain two of the most chilling. First, it was Arnie in The Terminator. I remember him asking the gang of leather-clad punks for clothes, their uncontrolled jibes about the naked man inviting some sort of reaction. But little did they, or indeed the audience, expect such a devastating and deadly act of retribution.

My second introduction to killer robots occurred in RoboCop, on one of the highest floors of the Omni Consumer Products building in Detroit. The mega-corporation has taken over control of the police and wants to use robots to carry out law enforcement where human action is failing. One machine, named ED-209, is revealed at a board meeting where it displays its abilities when faced with a man holding a gun. First, it asks him to lay down his weapon, which the junior executive duly does. Then it asks him again, aiming and arming the two heavy duty automatic canons attached to its arms. The scientists who developed the robot frantically flick buttons on their remote console to no avail. The junior executive panics, running around the room only to be tracked at every turn by the robot’s weapons. ED-209, malfunctioning and failing to respond to its creators, believes the man in its aim still holds the gun and begins a countdown. A countdown that climaxes in an innocent man being gunned down. Perhaps what is most frightening about ED-209 isn’t necessarily its malfunction but its relentless firepower that leaves the junior executive not only dead, but unrecognisable.

It was many years later that I discovered a much older film – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film was originally released in 1968 and featured an artificial intelligence known as HAL 9000. Appearing as a disembodied voice, HAL is in control of the lives of those aboard the spaceship Discovery One. The “character” is a chilling construction of intelligent power that has at its fingertips life itself. Distinguished from the tangible physical threat of the Terminator or ED-209, HAL 9000 is unquestionably disturbing in both its disembodiment and its calculated motivation that views life and death without the hindrance of emotional context.

More on Top 10 Films you might like: Top 10 Robots | Top 10 Robots Who Think They’re Human | Top 10 Scariest Robots, Cyborgs and Artificial Intelligence

10. Ed 209 (RoboCop, Verhoeven, 1987)

Ed 209’s introduction is one of the most devastatingly effective in modern science-fiction. This prone-to-malfunction prototype aspires to bring law and order to the streets of a crime-ridden metropolis but only seems to create further destruction.

9. Hector (Saturn 3, Donen, 1980)

Due to overcrowding on earth, scientists carry out research on distant planets across the solar system to maintain the planet’s survival. When Harvey Keitel’s Captain Benson arrives with a robot to replace one of the scientists at a research station on Saturn’s third moon, Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett’s sedate existence is turned upside down.

8. Warbeast (Death Machine, Norrington, 1995)

Undoubtedly one of the ugliest robots in film, Warbeast is the horrific creation of a mad scientist which tracks its prey through the pheromones released during moments of fear. The moral of the story: stay happy, stay alive!

7. Proteus IV (Demon Seed, Cammell, 1977)

From the mind of horror novelist Dean Koontz comes Proteus IV, a ghoulish route through absolute terror as an artificial intelligence attempts to maintain its own existence by impregnating a woman.

6. Colossus (Colossus: The Forbin Project, Sargent, 1970)

What happens when computers wise up? We can make these super computers with unimaginable, incomprehensible intelligence to further advance human discovery but what happens when they’ve had enough of their human commanders? The answer: things like Terminator happen! In Colossus, two defence computers from opposing sides during the Cold War decide instead of fighting against each other for their human creators, they will team up to destroy mankind if it fails to obey them.

5. Mother (Alien, Scott, 1979)

Mother is the name given to the spaceship Nostromo’s onboard computer system. Mother’s control over her human cargo is less pronounced than HAL in Kubrick’s 2001, with most of the dastardly deeds left up to her partner in crime – the robot named Ash. Yet, a computer system without emotion, one that is unaffected by human fears of death, pain, the unknown, is a frightening proposition. When the computer tells the crew via an onscreen display that they are expendable – that their lives are less important to the company than the life of the alien creature killing them one by one – it highlights the very real disconnect between artificial intelligence and human thought.

4. Evil Maria (Metropolis, Lang, 1927)

Undeniably iconic, robot Maria’s appearance is one of classic cinema’s most indelible images. Her ability to inspire lust in the men she comes into contact with sets in motion the events that bring the city to its knees.

3. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick, 1968)

Maybe only the great Stanley Kubrick can make a red light enclosed in a circular transparent shell so damn frightening. He manages the feat in his masterpiece 2001 in the form of HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence overseeing the operation of spaceship Discovery One. Thanks to Douglas Rain’s emotionless speech as the voice of HAL and the fact its embodiment resembles a menacing eye, Discovery One’s computer is a complex, disturbing character.

2. Ash (Alien, Scott, 1979)

One of cinema’s most frightening robots appears in the form of scientist Ash in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Programmed to bring a dangerous species back to earth for the bio-weapons division of a futuristic corporation, his orders, which must be carried out at all cost, make the human crew expendable. The cold lack of value for human life makes Ash a memorably unnerving cinematic robot.

1. The Terminator (The Terminator, Cameron, 1981)

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s limited range as an actor was perfect for his career-defining role as the Terminator, a robot sent from the future to kill in the past to protect the “computer’s” rule following the destruction of mankind. His significant stature and unbreakable desire to kill makes the character a frightening proposition.

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.

Top 10 Films asks: what is your favourite scary robot, cyborg or artificial intelligence?

More on Top 10 Films you might like: Top 10 Robots | Top 10 Robots Who Think They’re Human | Top 10 Scariest Robots, Cyborgs and Artificial Intelligence

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    le0pard13 Reply

    Great list, Dan. I’m a fan of the cyborg named Mark 13 from HARDWARE, too.

  2. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    If Arnie’s up there, it’s arguable that Robert Patrick in Terminator II should be as well …

    The guy in the gorilla suit and the deep sea diving helmet in Robot Monster (not too scary, but definitely a favourite)…

    Rutgar Hauer in Blade Runner

  3. Avatar
    Chris Reply

    The Terminator terrified me as a kid therefore can’t argue with number one. But Mark’s right about the T-1000 in T2…a scary proposition.

  4. Avatar
    Fogs' Movie Reviews Reply

    Oh wow! Ash over Hal? What??!! 😀 I could see Ash being on the list, but not that high… he had the villain excuse of “I was only following orders”, no?

    Anyways, well researched list! I hadnt heard of half of these… 😯

  5. Avatar
    Evan Reply

    Great list Dan. There are some scary robots on it that I expected like Ed 209, Ash, HAL 9000, and The Terminator along with a few interesting ones I wasn’t familiar with such as Hector, Warbeast, Proteus IV, and Colossus. My favorite one that you put on here was Mother, a callous computer I often forget about when thinking about Alien, because Ash is so memorable. I believe part of that has to do with Ian Holm’s excellent performance. You’re right though that Mother is just as cold and calculating. I know I’d be pretty pissed if a machine considered my life expendable.

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    Colin Biggs Reply

    That scene where Ash loses his shit creeped me out so badly when I was small. If artificial intelligence can lose its composure, then we’re boned.

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    Josh Lyons Reply

    I’d definitely have to agree with others in that I always found T-1000 to be far scarier than Arnie’s Terminator as a kid. That dude gave me the creeps.

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    Dan Reply

    I definitely agree that the T-1000 was a scary proposition but he/it never had the same impact on me as Arnie’s older “machine”. There was more of a mechanical, nuts and bolts (and red, burning irises) quality to Arnie’s robot, especially when he started to lose his flesh, that was always far more terrifying than the T-1000’s liquid metal…at least for me. Both actors provided dead, almost characterless performances which is instantly unnerving but while T-1000 might appear more unbeatable it was the T-800’s mechanical fallibility that made the threat more tangible.

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    Mark Reply

    For burning robot flesh, Yul Bynner in Westworld gives Arnie a run for his money …

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