This weekend, we'll all be watching giant robots turn into trucks and dinosaurs, and it'll be like fireworks for your brain. But robots can do more than just throw down — they can make us question the nature of existence. Here are 12 mindblowing indie movies about robots that you could watch instead of Transformers.
Top image: RoboCop/Terminator: Kill Human #2
1) Silent Running (1973)
Director Douglas Trumbull had done the special effects sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he still didn't have a huge budget to work with as he created this story of Bruce Dern stuck in space with three little robots, trying to protect our last forests. Because of the low budget, most of this film was shot inside an aircraft hangar and an aircraft carrier. This film has a lot on its mind, including environmentalism and loneliness — but the most memorable stuff involves the three robots who become the best friends a lonely man ever had.
2) Dark Star (1975)
This is the ultimate low-budget science fiction movie — the movie's alien is a beachball with feet — and it's a weird/silly space romp. But it's the sequences with the robot bomb that wants to detonate, and gets into a philosophical discussion with the guy trying to defuse it, that have made this movie an immortal classic.
3) Android (1982)
I don't know if this is a great movie, but it's definitely a thought-provoking and fascinating one. Don Keith Opper is an android who's jealous that his creator Dr. Daniel (Klaus Kinski!) is creating a new, superior female android (Kendra Kirchner). But when a group of humans arrive on the space station where Dr. Daniel is illegally experimenting with creating artificial life, the androids have to learn about sexual jealousy and murder.
4) The Terminator (1984)
For the Terminator sequel, James Cameron had a higher budget and also spent a lot more time exploring the nature of artificial consciousness, and what it would be like to try and reprogram a killing machine. But this first, less-expensive effort still has some great moments where we get to see through the eyes of a killer robot sent from the future to wipe out Sarah Connor. And it's shaped our understanding of deadly artificial intelligence for all time.
5) Cherry 2000 (1987)
This movie isn't necessarily a classic — but it's definitely a cult classic. And this story of a man venturing into a Mad Max-style wasteland to find a replacement for his beloved sexbot is all about the bond we form with technology and the lengths we'll go to for it. And ultimately, the reawakening of human connections. Oh, what the hell — it's mostly about Melanie Griffith with a big gun. But it's pretty awesome.
6) RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop himself isn't really a robot, as anyone who's seen this classic will attest. He is, essentially, a zombie who's been reprogrammed and turned into a fighting machine. But he's up against actual robots, the ED-209s, which keep malfunctioning and killing the wrong people. And he's a victim of a twisted corporate culture that tries to turn people into machines. The contrast between the still-human RoboCop, who manages to think for himself, and the purely obedient ED-209s is the heart of the film in many ways.
7) Hardware (1990)
When a guy goes out into the post-apocalyptic wilderness to scavenge stuff, he finds a cool looking robot head, which he gives to his girlfriend as a present. And she decides to use it as... an art project. Turns out the robot head has an art project of its own that it wants to pursue, one that's somewhat more deadly. This is a twisted cult classic that takes a lot of the same themes as Terminator in weirder directions.
8) Robot Stories (2003)
We've sung the praise of this anthology film from comics scribe Greg Pak before, but it always deserves more love. This is a collection of short stories about robots, ranging from a couple "raising" a robot baby to a mother collecting robot toys for her ill son, to two robots falling in love illegally. These are some of the most memorable robot narratives we've seen on screen, all in one tight package.
9) Casshern (2004)
This post-apocalytic Japanese film has a lot of great philosophical ideas on its mind, and some really intense greenscreen visuals. And it involves heroes going into an ancient stronghold that includes robot warrior-making facilities, leading to some fantastic robot-vs-human fights.
10) Moon (2009)
Duncan Jones' brilliant low-budget debut includes a whole lot of Sam Rockwell confronting the bleakness of existence in a mining base on the Moon... but the film works, in large part, because of the robot Gerty (Kevin Spacey) and its relationship with Sam Rockwell's character. Gerty's evolution over the course of the film is subtle but vitally important.
11) Robot and Frank (2012)
This might be the best movie about humans and robots we've seen in the past decade — the story of a former burglar (Frank Langella) with dementia, who gets a robot helper is touching and incredibly sad, but also a wonderful exploration of exactly how robots might complete us. And how we might change robots in the process.
12) The Machine (2013)
And finally, this movie about another killing machine who develops a conscience is almost too overstuffed with ideas and subplots to work. But it has some dead-on perfect notions about artificial consciousness needing to be programmed through human interaction, and the ways in which people might try and pervert that interaction to turn a robot into a weapon.