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From 'RoboCop To 'Robot & Frank': Best RoboMovies Of All Time


Two writers can take credit or blame for the legions of metal men that marched through the movies - Karel Capek, who coined the word robot in his play "R.U.R." in 1920, and Isaac Asimov, who codified the Three Laws of Robotics and a series of stories collected in "I, Robot," and mostly ignored in the Will Smith movie of the same name.


WILL SMITH: (as Detective Del Spooner) You know what they say, laws are made to be broken.

BRIDGET MOYNAHAN: (as Doctor Susan Calvin) No. Not these laws. They are hard-wired into every robot. A robot can no more commit murder than a human could walk on water.

SMITH: (as Detective Del Spooner) Well, you know, there was this one guy a long time ago...

CONAN: Crash, crash, bang, bang, out comes the robot who will threaten humanity, as robots return to the big screen next month in Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim." We want you to nominate your favorite robot movie. 800-989-8255. The email address: talk@npr.org. Send us a tweet, @totn. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Back with us here in Studio 42, our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz. Nice to have you back in the program.

MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: It's great to be back, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: And what makes it a robot movie, do you have to have metal?

HORWITZ: Yeah. Well, we - look, there are so many different kinds of robots. There have just been a zillion, you know, robotic characters, androids and gynoids and cyborgs and bionic men and women, but - and just artificial intelligences.

CONAN: Right. Well, for example, "2001." Is HAL...

HORWITZ: "2001." HAL 9000...

CONAN: ... a robot?

HORWITZ: Sure, in a way, but we have to draw a line.

CONAN: More a computer.

HORWITZ: Do me a favor. Would you like to know our ground rules for today?

CONAN: Let's have some ground rules.

HORWITZ: So we're not just talking about an artificial intelligence. I mean, this is something that needs to have locomotion, you know, independent motion, machines that move around, and usually they think in the movies. We're not talking about - here's another thing that's going to disappoint a lot of folks. We're not talking about engineered human bodies like "Frankenstein" or even the replicants in "Blade Runner," who are somehow, you know, biological creatures.

CONAN: Cooked.

HORWITZ: Right, right, right. Cooked. You know, cyborgs are OK.

CONAN: Yeah. Cyborgs are OK. Yeah.

HORWITZ: Like "Robocop," one of my favorites. Again, as always, we're not talking about TV shows. I was...

CONAN: Data did show up in the movies though.

HORWITZ: Yes, Data did. And also - and of course there are TV shows that make it to the big screen and those count. But one of my favorite robots of all time was in a "Twilight Zone" episode, where I think it was Jack Warden who fell in love with a robot woman. But robots populate or we might even say overpopulate...


HORWITZ: ...hundreds of sci-fi movies, but few of these are classics. So we want your memorable, lasting robot movies.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Milo in New Carlisle, Ohio. One of my favorite...

HORWITZ: Right near my hometown in Dayton. I'm sorry.

CONAN: Well, he mentions the "Twilight Zone" episode where Jack Warden as a condemned man in space. But anyway, one of my favorite robot movies is "The Day the Earth Stood Still," an apocalyptic film about - well, it's a lot of different things, but it does feature a hulking humanoid robot.


KYLE CHANDLER: (as John Driscoll) So is it a machine or a living thing?

TY OLSSON: (as Flash Chamber Colonel) Both or neither.

CHANDLER: (as John Driscoll) What do you mean neither?

OLSSON: (as Flash Chamber Colonel) It seems to be some sort of silicone-based hybrid. We're calling it GORT, Genetically Organized Robotic Technology.

CHANDLER: (as John Driscoll) The military and their acronyms.

CONAN: I remember when Michael Rennie called it GORT

HORWITZ: Right, right. That's right. And what else did he say to GORT? He said, Klaatu barada nikto.

CONAN: Klaatu barada nikto.

HORWITZ: Right, exactly so. And we'll translate - I don't know - on another program for those of you...


CONAN: So as we get in, was there a first robot movie?

HORWITZ: No. Probably, but I swear I can't tell you exactly what it was because, you know, robots go way, way back. It's an extremely old tension, this tension between the human and the machine, the human and the inhuman. I mean, in Genesis, right, God makes man out of clay, and Prometheus makes a man out of clay. In the Iliad, Hephaestus uses these golden maiden robots to make the armor of Achilles. So it goes - it's a way of our coming to terms with technology, and I guess of examining the questions raised by humans interacting with technology. And - the further point, I was talking to my son about this, and we said, you know, it's also about how we relate to our own humanity, because if a machine can think and feel, then what's our value? And if, like Jack Warden in "The Twilight Zone," we can fall in love with a robot, well, you know, what are the consequences of that?

CONAN: Well, we'll have to see. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. John is on the line with us from Phoenix.

JOHN: Hello?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Yes. My nomination would be "Metropolis." This goes way back to the 1920s. It was made by a great German filmmaker, Fritz Lang, and it was a very expensive science-fiction movie. And it features a robot that is given a female form and a life-like look.

HORWITZ: Yes, a very erotic - the robot Mariah and - or Maria.

CONAN: Is that what they call the wind Mariah?


CONAN: That's a different time.

HORWITZ: No, no. But she's sort of hyper sexualized and kind of dangerous, not like her virtuous human counterpart. She's played by Brigitte Helm. And you're right. I don't know if she's the first one to appear on film, but 1927, Fritz Lang, it's a classic.

CONAN: German days before he came to Hollywood. John, thank you very much. Here's an email. This is from Betsy, and I think we're getting a lot like this: My favorite robot movie is "WALL-E." It's a touching, funny and beautifully crafted movie that also sends a poignant message about the dangerous possibilities of our future. Disney Pixar did an amazing job creating a beautiful little hero without needing him to say a single word.



CONAN: And that's about all the dialogue there is for most of that (unintelligible)

HORWITZ: I was just going to say our crack TALK OF THE NATION staff give it - leave it to them to find the only possible dialogue you got in the whole movie. "WALL-E" is, what, everybody's favorite. I mean, it's hard to take exception to that film. It's a great film. Like you said, it won the Oscar. And "Wall-E" is, you know, is not really a humanoid robot, but it's kind of got a face and so it - it's a character, and we all relate to him. And it's a terrific movie.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Lyric(ph), and Lyric is with us from Fairbanks.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

LYRIC: Yes. My nomination was "Short Circuit," typical '80s movie. But for me, it was one of the first movies where I saw a robot. It wasn't scary. It was very, you know, I could relate to it. It was loving and caring, and I just thought that was fabulous.

CONAN: The robot was Johnny Five, part of a group of experimental robots. And he gets electrocuted, becomes intelligent but still doesn't understand this little concept we have called death.


TIM BLANEY: (as Johnny Five) Error. Grasshopper disassembled. Re-assemble.

ALLY SHEEDY: (as Stephanie Speck) Huh?

BLANEY: (as Johnny Five) Re-assemble.

SHEEDY: (as Stephanie Speck) I can't re-assemble him. You squashed him. He's dead.

BLANEY: (as JohnnyFive) Dead?

SHEEDY: (as Stephanie Speck) Right. Dead as a doornail.

BLANEY: (as Johnny Five) Re-assemble, Stephanie. Re-assemble.

SHEEDY: (as Stephanie Speck) I know you don't understand. But when you're dead, you're dead. It's just the way it is.

CONAN: And the robot gives us the opportunity, Murray, to explore stuff that, well, even a child would understand but an intelligent machine...

HORWITZ: Right. It does not.

CONAN: I got to explain it.

HORWITZ: Right, right. It's very true because, you know, does it have humanity or does it not? Lyric, I'm grateful to you because - especially the timing of this. You can almost say that Johnny Five is like a tall WALL E and adorable and we - and you're right. It's a typical '80s film. It's kind of a cult film now. And it's sort of been formed by that '80s "E.T." sensibility, so sort of this innocence that you talked about, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

LYRIC: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go next to - this is Budd, and Budd on the line with us from Phoenix.

BUDD: Hi there. I think the definitive robot is the one in "Forbidden Planet," and I think his name was Robby, was it?

CONAN: His name was indeed Robby the Robot.

HORWITZ: And it still is and ever shall be. Thanks, Buddy.

CONAN: As the crew...

BUDD: Robby T. Robot.

CONAN: Robby the Robot arrives to welcome a crew led by Leslie Nielsen to Altair IV.


FRANKIE DARRO: (as Robby the Robot) If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.

LESLIE NIELSEN: (as Commander J.J. Adams) Colloquial English will do fine. Thank you. This is no offense, but you are a robot, aren't you?

(as Robby the Robot) That is correct, sir.


HORWITZ: Robby the Robot, one of MGM's greatest creations and - you know what, I have to stop because mentioning MGM means that we have to take a small second to mourn the passing of Esther Williams...

CONAN: Of course, yes.

HORWITZ: ...who went today and one of MGM's greats.

CONAN: Not a robot.

HORWITZ: Not a robot in any sense of the world - word and a wonderful star. But Robby was a big MGM star, and actually, I think, makes a few other appearances in other movies. And, you know, it's interesting...

CONAN: Danger, Will Robinson.

HORWITZ: Danger - well - yes, right. And the other thing that Robby really shows us is even in that one movie, he's capable of - it depends on who's asking him to do stuff. So robots can be good, they can be evil, a little bit like human beings.



CONAN: I love the scene. Of course, this is based on "The Tempest," but I love the scene where Robby makes alcohol...

HORWITZ: Right. Exactly so.

CONAN: ...for two boisterous members of the crew.

HORWITZ: And many cases of it as a result.

CONAN: And many cases indeed. Budd, thanks very much. This is an email we have from Gary in Buffalo: In your talk, don't forget to mention "Robot Monster," one of the worst movies ever, robot or otherwise. If you're unsure of it, they had an actor in a gorilla suit wear a deep-sea diver's helmet to portray Ro-Man, a robot from the moon. Worth it for the laugh.


HORWITZ: I'm so glad. "Robot Monster," it's got to be on my queue.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is an email - "The Terminator" - from Eric Brown.

HORWITZ: Oh, well...

CONAN: A terrifying robot played on our nightmares where just can't get away from someone or something trying to kill you even the third time around.


NICK STAHL: (as John Connor) Do you even remember me? Sarah Connor? Blowing up Cyberdyne? Hasta la vista, baby? Ring any bells?

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (as T-101) That was a different T-101.

STAHL: (as John Connor) What, do you guys come off an assembly or something?

SCHWARZENEGGER: (as T-101) Exactly.

CONAN: Exactly.


CONAN: That's from "T3," of course.

HORWITZ: It starts at an interesting place at "Terminator" because, you know, usually the question is will the robots take over the world. I mean, that's sort of what happens in the original play, "Rossum's Universal Robots," "R.U.R..."

CONAN: Indeed.

HORWITZ: ...where the robot, you know, starts a revolution. And in this one, we - the robots have taken over the world. And so one of them is sent back in time to - the rest is pretty history.

CONAN: (unintelligible).


CONAN: We're talking with Murray Horwitz, our favorite film buff on our favorite robot movies. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Nicholas is on the line with us from Houston.

NICHOLAS: Hello. Well, one of my favorites is a little bit different. It's the "Ghost in the Shell" series, where it deals with people being put in the robots.

CONAN: This is a Japanese anime.

NICHOLAS: Correct.

CONAN: I don't know if you've been watching these.

HORWITZ: No. And - but the idea of humans being inside machines, by me, this is not a real robot. So an interesting distinction, Nicholas, is in the current movie "Iron Man 3." I mean, in the first two "Iron Man" pictures he's a guy in a metal suit...

CONAN: Correct.

NICHOLAS: Correct.

HORWITZ: ...but in "Iron Man 3," he's now got a whole fleet of robots, robot Iron Men. And so those are true robots to me.


CONAN: So you fail on ground rule.



NICHOLAS: I do fail on ground rules, but...


NICHOLAS: ...(unintelligible) the TV shows I couldn't call in showbiz.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

HORWITZ: Thanks a lot, Nicholas.

CONAN: Let's see if we can - this email is next from Mark: A charming, funny and touchingly human robot film from 2012 a lot of people may overlook. "Robert & Frank," a near future film in which Frank Langella plays an elderly man who gets a robot helper, which he doesn't really like.


FRANK LANGELLA: (as Frank) You have got to be kidding me? I'm not this pathetic. I don't need to be spoon-fed by some (bleep) damn robot.

JAMES MARSDEN: (as Hunter) Dad, it's not like that. It's new. It's more like a butler.

LANGELLA: (as Frank) You're going to leave me with this death machine?

MARSDEN: (as Hunter) What's the problem? It's a robot.

PETER SARSGAARD: (as Robot) Hi, Frank. It's a pleasure to meet you.

LANGELLA: (as Frank) How do you know?

CONAN: Oh, anything with Frank Langella.


HORWITZ: It's a great Frank Langella line. This is essentially, you know, it's just like, you know, "Terminator" is basically a chase movie. And "Robot & Frank" is basically a buddy movie. It's, you know, old man and his robot.

CONAN: Let's go next to Willie. And Willie is on the line with us from Ocean City, Maryland.

WILLIE: Hi, Neal.



WILLIE: I wanted to bring out the Borg from (unintelligible) Star Trek (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Wind is blowing a little there on the beach. Willie, well, I have to let you go for your cellphone. But he nominates the Borg from the "Star Trek" movie or I think number nine in the series.

HORWITZ: Right. And sure enough that's - I mean, to me, is that really a classic robot? And I'm glad Willie thinks so. And it's - well, (unintelligible)...

CONAN: It's (unintelligible) then they did have a lot of metal in him...


CONAN: ...But I don't know.

HORWITZ: It's true, it's true.

CONAN: This is an interesting one. We forget about this one. Yul Brynner was the best in "Westworld."

HORWITZ: We did not forget about it. And, in fact, this is one of my favorite ones at all...

CONAN: I forgot.

HORWITZ: ...because this is a supremely evil, you know, pre-Terminator, pre-Arnold Schwarzenegger, supremely evil robot. It's basically kind of like "Jurassic Park" with - it's an amusement park where you can go and test your quick draw against robots. And guess what? One of the robots dressed in black is Yul Brynner, and he's evil, and is - shoots up the whole works.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is John. And John is on the line with us from Rancho Cordova in California.

JOHN: Hi. Yeah. I would like to mention "Bicentennial Man," which was the true Isaac Asimov movie, and where they, you know, actually paid - I think fully paid homage to Isaac Asimov's vision, unlike the Will Smith movie where they just kind of decided to do their own thing with a totally different script. Anyway...

CONAN: And even more amazingly, they got Robin Williams to actually read the actual words in the script.


SAM NEILL: (as Sir) Why did the chicken cross the road?

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (as Andrew) One does not know, sir, possibly a predator was behind the chicken, or possibly there was a female chicken on the other of the road, if it's a male chicken. Possibly a food source, or depending on the season it might be migrating. One hopes there's no traffic.

NEILL: (as Sir) To get to the other side.

(as Andrew) To get to the other side. Uh, why is that funny?


CONAN: It's a nice pick, John.

HORWITZ: And the delicious irony of that being one of the funniest people, Robin Williams, doing that. It's a Chris Columbus film. And it is a great pick, John. Thank.

CONAN: We have just a little bit of time left, so we need to find out which picks win for Murray.

HORWITZ: Oh, God. This has been a really tough one because "Westworld" was on my lists and "Metropolis" is on the list. But I have to say - nobody has phoned in with this one - but really my favorite of all of them is "RoboCop."

I really love "RoboCop." It's a Paul Verhoeven movie. Paul Verhoeven always said it was like a Jesus story that this cop is, you know, sacrificed but then he is reborn and resurrected in a mechanical form. And it's - maybe, you know, a guilty pleasure, cheap thrills, but I love that movie.


PETER WELLER: (as RoboCop) Drop it. Dead or alive, you are coming with me.

PAUL MCCRANE: (as Emil Antonowsky) I know you. You're dead. We killed you.

CONAN: No, you didn't.


HORWITZ: You didn't.

CONAN: Well, we didn't - we're going to kill you yet, Murray. We're going to bring you back next week for...

HORWITZ: Next week.

CONAN: ...great endings. Where did it come up (unintelligible).

HORWITZ: It's great endings, great endings. OK. Or farewell scenes.

CONAN: Great farewell - well...

HORWITZ: Let's tweak it.

CONAN: We'll tweak it. All right. (unintelligible) again...


HORWITZ: Thank you so much.

CONAN: ...next week right here in Studio 52. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. And it's on Monday, we'll be back to talk to you again. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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