Actors have played robots in movies since the dawn of modern cinema; it’s a tradition that dates back to the Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and has grown alongside technology, with Alan Tudyk’s state-of-the-art, performance-capture droid K-2SO in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One. It’s a fine lineage of automatons, but these days, the interesting robotic roles are the kind of morally ambiguous synthetic humans that are the focus of the forthcoming movie Morgan.
The titular character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is the latest in a line of the synthetic humans that are trying to figure out what it means to be human while harnessing powers that make them so much more. It is a major leap from the likes of Roy Batty (or Rick Deckard) from Blade Runner, Ian Holm in Alien, or Michael Fassbender in Prometheus — those characters didn’t worry much about their humanity or souls.
As we look to a new generation of startlingly real synthesized humans, here are some of the best performances given in this very difficult sub-genre of acting.
5. Yul Brynner in Westworld
If The Simpsons had an entire episode devoted to making fun of your movie, chances are you’re part of the (slightly geeky) zeitgeist. Part of the reason that Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi thinker is so memorable is Brynner’s turn as the evil unnamed gunslinger who terrorizes the near-future theme park. Brynner is a scary dude who you would mistake for a robot in the real world anyway, and his steely performance (partly based on his own appearance in The Magnificent Seven) as a robot just following what his circuits tell him to do (i.e. kill helpless guests) makes him the perfect unstoppable inhuman menace.
4. Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina
It’s tough to lend humanity to a robot, doubly so when the character has to become a remorseless creep. As Eve in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Alicia Vikander really plays two roles: A robot who wants to believe she is human, but one who is also self-aware enough to want to protect herself. She’s at the whim of the humans who created her, and her best trick is feigning human vulnerability to convince the real humans in the film to help her. Vikander puts in the type of subtly complex that makes the role truly one of the new classic pillars of on-screen A.I.
3. Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Speaking of artificial intelligence, former kid-who-saw-dead-people Haley Joel Osment was lucky enough to work with Steven Spielberg on this very simply titled 2001 epic. Osment’s role as David, a robotic boy programmed with the ability to love, was supposedly going to be played by an actual robot in original director Stanley Kubrick’s version, but that idea proved too lofty when Spielberg came onboard. Osment’s David is noteworthy due to the inclusion of such a complex human emotion that drives his actions, making the Pinocchio-of-the-future character unlike a lot of other on-screen androids. Appropriately enough though, Osment plays David as if he were a real robot unable to process those decidedly un-robotic, emotional responses.
2. Peter Weller in RoboCop
The genius of filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is that he elevates violent, often outrageously disturbing schlock into potent intellectual cinema. You can be snobby in talking about the film, while also embracing the ridiculous violence of Peter Weller’s officer Alex Murphy getting dismantled by a group of thugs. Though the titular robotic cop was human, Weller plays him as a machine trying to remember his lost family instead of as a mindless cyborg bringing up compatible data files of zeroes and ones. Weller acts the shit out of that role — when he isn’t firing back his own huge gun — and he does it mostly with the bottom part of his face.
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Though he was an adequate robot villain in James Cameron’s 1984 original, Arnold’s turn in the hugely successful 1991 follow-up solidified him as the most important robot on the planet. The reason his weird Austrian accent works without question is that you just get the sense the digital bots of Skynet tried their best to figure out what human speech was like and it came out sounding like Arnie. It’s the kind of role Schwarzenegger seemed born to play, a giant leather-clad cybernetic organism with a heart. Though his more recent turns as the T-800 have been less memorable, that thumbs-up as he’s lowered into a vat of molten steel is a little less cheesy because Arnold is so good.