“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This is the first of three Laws of Robotics, as featured in hit films like I, Robot and Bicentennial Man. An android, for those not familiar, is “a mobile robot usually with a human form.” Not to be confused with the popular cell phone model, of course. Ever since Fritz Lang’s 1927 landmark sci-fi film Metropolis, androids have both terrified and fascinated moviegoers in equal measure.
Not surprisingly, some of the finest robot and android films are also considered among the best features of all time. As machines have advanced throughout human history, it was inevitable that we’d try to recreate ourselves. And with hit films touching on the topic being released each year, it’s clear that the notion is still popular in the visual medium. Here’s a closer look at the greatest films centered around robots that look like us.
Updated on September 8th, 2023 by Danilo Raúl: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
10 A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
The last film in the late Stanley Kubrick’s slate before his untimely passing. A.I. Artificial Intelligence was taken over by Steven Spielberg. The story is based on the book “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” and narrates the story of a robotic boy named David who has been programmed to love unconditionally. After a family nearly loses their son, David is assigned to the family as a test case. When their parents experience the sudden recovery of their real son, David is neglected and eventually abandoned.
Thinking the solution to his problems lies in the tale of Pinocchio (which he takes at face value), David embarks on a journey to discover his place in the world and to find the means to become a real boy. It’s a heartbreaking story with all the feel-good beats Spielberg is known for and one that’ll have you wondering how inhuman living beings can be.
9 Bicentennial Man (1999)
The Bicentennial Man is another film based on Asimov’s works. Chris Columbus certainly surprised all of us with the wholesome story of a robot who dreamed about being a man. Starring the always-revered Robin Williams, this story follows the Martin family as they buy a robot nicknamed NDR-114, which is brought to the household to help with house chores.
Soon enough, the robot realizes he’d like a name, so he becomes Andrew. Eventually, Andrew begins asking questions and experiencing emotions, which leads the Martins to realize Andrew is no mere house appliance. The film is a generational journey as Andrew explores humanity through the ages, always at the side of the Martin family and their descendants.
8 I, Robot (2004)
I, Robot is the film exploring the three basic rules of robotics of Isaac Asimov as depicted in the novel “I, Robot, The Caves of Steel.” The movie, directed by Alex Proyas, follows the life of Detective Del Spooner as he investigates the alleged suicide of U.S. Robotics founder Alfred Lanning.
Spooner’s animosity against robots leads him to think it was one of his creations who did the deed, but he needs the help of Lanning’s assistant to prove it. His research unravels a web of conspiracy by the corporation developing the newest Robots and the A.I. in charge of programming their conduct code after the program gains sentience. It considers humanity a danger to itself and its existence.
7 Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ghost in the Shell is the film that introduced everybody’s robotic crush in the 1990s: Major Motoko Kusanagi. Ghost in the Shell is a film based on the works of Masamune Shirow that works as a near-perfect page-to-screen adaptation. Motoko is a cyborg federal agent who constantly ponders about her humanity and whether there’s any of it in her robotic body.
Her federal agency tasks her to find “The Puppet Master,” a hacker capable of infiltrating the minds of human-cyborg hybrids alongside her partner Batou and the only human recruit in the force, a man named Tosuga. It’s a thrilling story full of philosophical themes and hard-hitting questions about the traits that make us inherently human and how machines can grasp our emotions with nuanced approaches.
6 Chappie (2015)
Following a string of successful collaborations, we have Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley teaming up once again to tell us a great story that includes the usual beats we get from the director. Chappie is a film set in the not-so-distant future, where mechanized police are used to keep the peace in many places worldwide. However, these androids don’t treat humans as such, which sparks a rebellion.
In the confusion, one police droid is stolen and given a new programming, allowing him to gain sentience and the ability to feel and think for himself. Chappie fights on the side of humans, and his stance on human control through technology is the hot topic that brings the conflict in the film. It’s an excellent movie that makes us wish Blomkamp was more prolific in his output.
5 After Yang (2021)
In a near-future society, a young girl’s beloved companion—an android named Yang—malfunctions, and her father Jake searches for a way to repair him. In the process, Jake discovers the life that has been passing in front of him as he tries to reconnect with his wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) and daughter across a distance he didn’t know was there. The tear-jerking story from versatile filmmaker Kogonada and production company A24 deals with themes of questioning love, connection, and loss.
“There was nowhere to hide in the script,” Farrell recently told TheWrap. “It’s not a script that has any pointed moments, any super emotional moments, or any scenes that felt like they were loud. And yet, all the important themes that I certainly have dealt with and deal with and will deal with in the future — loss, grief, family, belonging, the ostracization we can feel sometimes from ourselves and those we love, parenting — all of that stuff was what the film fundamentally was about. And so I read the script and was haunted by [it] and just really, really wanted to be a part of it.”
4 Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland impressed us with an Oscar-winning achievement, Ex Machina. Most sci-fi lovers have seen it: A young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, son of veteran actor Brendan) is selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I. He spends a week at a private mountain retreat belonging to the company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac in an edgy role that secured his Hollywood A-lister status).
Made on a budget of $15 million, the film grossed $36 million worldwide and received largely positive reviews. While Gleeson and Isaac were reliably superb, it was Vikander’s performance that garnered the most acclaim. And wouldn’t you know it: She’s the one playing an android. Where the film also succeeded, besides the obvious award-winning visual effects, was in its unique twists and turns that make it a film for the ages.
3 RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop is the best film of 1987. It’s a story that takes place in a dystopian and crime-ridden Detroit, where a terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg haunted by submerged memories. Since its release, Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent film has been analyzed for themes including the nature of humanity, personal identity, corporate greed, and corruption, and is seen as a rebuke of Ronald Reagan’s policies.
The film was conceived by Edward Neumeier while working on the set of Blade Runner (1982), another classic involving humanoids. Verhoeven emphasized violence throughout the film, but despite these predicted difficulties in marketing the film, it was expected to perform well based on pre-release critic screenings and positive word of mouth.
2 Alien (1979)
Alien is Ridley’s Scott finest achievement, and the evil android played by Ian Holm is probably still haunting our nightmares to this day. The story takes in the distant future, where the crew of a commercial spaceship are on their way home when they pick up a distress call from a distant moon. The crew is under obligation to investigate, and the spaceship descends on the moon afterward.
After a rough landing, three crew members leave the spaceship to explore the area on the moon. At the same time as they discover a hive colony of some unknown creature, the ship’s computer deciphers the message to be a warning, not a distress call. When one of the eggs is disturbed, the crew realizes that they are not alone on the spaceship—and they must deal with the consequences.
1 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
What else could top our list than the legendary follow-up to James Cameron’s 1984 classic? The 1991 sequel stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, and Edward Furlong in career-defining roles. In its plot, the malevolent artificial intelligence Skynet sends a Terminator—a highly advanced killing machine—back in time to 1995 to kill the future leader of the human resistance, John Connor, when he was a child. The resistance sends back its own reprogrammed Terminator to protect Connor and ensure the future of humanity.
Its visual effects saw breakthroughs in computer-generated imagery, including the first use of natural human motion for a computer-generated character and the first partially computer-generated main character. At the time of its release, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the most expensive film ever made. Fortunately, it was a critical and commercial success upon release, with praise for the acting, action scenes, and visual effects.