Our friends electric: Wall.E & family

Humans can't get enough of mechanised creatures, whether they're evil terminators or lovable eco-warriors. By Cole Moreton
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The Independent Tech

Look around you: the future's here. Robots build our cars. They save our lives, defusing terrorist bombs. They go to war, flying pilotless over enemy territory. And now comes a robot with the conscience of Al Gore and the comic timing of Charlie Chaplin, to save the planet and make everyone laugh.

Wall-E is the latest film from Pixar, the company behind Toy Story and Ratatouille. It opens here this week, but has already attracted ecstatic reviews in the US. The Chicago Tribune called it "visual poetry"; The New York Times praised its eco-message – a warning of a trash-filled future world – and even said Wall-E would make a better President than either of the men running for office. Many reviewers have called Wall-E the cutest 'droid since R2D2 in Star Wars. So what is it about robots? Why does the sight of them on screen so enthral us? And as we look at their evolution through the 10 shown here, what do they say about us?

The idea appears in The Iliad, but the word was popularised by the Czech writer Karel Capek in a 1921 play, Rossum's Universal Robots. The first great film robot, in Metropolis by Fritz Lang, is essentially a beautiful metal version of Frankenstein's monster. There have been so many since then, because robots mirror humanity in a way animals never can. Dancing penguins are still penguins. "We anthropomorphise as much of the world as we can," says the science writer Simon Ings. Since robots have no personality of their own to get in the way of ours, they can be anything.

Giant alien ones such as Gort or Optimus Prime can represent a higher power than humanity. Terrifying warriors such as the Terminator can reveal the horror of brilliant technology being used without emotion or compassion. Films such as I, Robot explore the fear that one day machines will destroy us. And some robots are just good for a laugh.

People will probably love Wall-E, for the same reason that they loved Nemo the lost clownfish. Because they love the little guy who takes on bad stuff against all the odds. And because Pixar has worked out how to turn a waste-crusher with binoculars for eyes into a sympathetic character.

The film may turn out to be trash. But the signs are good, judging from online clips in which Wall-E plays with a hula hoop and a vacuum cleaner. He's Chaplin's little tramp, with caterpillar tracks. What's not to love?

K9

'Doctor Who' (1977)

Smart-talking electronic hound who appeared by the Doctor's side in the same year as 'Star Wars' – which was no coincidence at all. Cute robots were all the rage on children's TV. K9 endures, most recently appearing in the latest series finale. With no hair, no danger of little accidents, and a mind capable of doing far more than fetch, is K9 the perfect pet? "Affirmative, Master." The first robot to hate cats

R2D2

'Star Wars' (1977)

Much more interesting than his brassy, fussy companion C3PO, the little guy can't speak English but he's a more rounded character than most of the humans in the 'Star Wars' franchise. Repairs spaceships, rescues people, carries vital messages and helps to blow up the Death Star. Has been in 'Sesame Street', 'The Simpsons' and even 'The Goodies', and spawned a generation of diminutive, warbling tin cans. (Wobble forward, Twiki out of 'Buck Rogers'.) The first robot to be named by his director (George Lucas, in this case) as his favourite actor

The Terminator

'The Terminator' (1984)

This time it's impersonal. A cyborg assassin who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger hunts a boy destined to lead a human resistance against machines. He fails. The best example of two human obsessions: the robot as a perfect fighting machine, and machines taking over. Which this one has. The first robot to be Governor of California

Wall.E

'Wall.E' (2008)

A mechanical dustman who clears up the mess on a desolated Earth, with a cockroach as his best friend. Oh, and he has no real language. But he loves 'Hello, Dolly!'. Only Pixar, the people who turned sports cars and rats into heroes, would dare to try that. But the film, released this week, stars a piece of junk with more personality than Charlie Chaplin. Forget Rodney in 'Robots', a failed attempt three years ago to make a cute 'droid. The lonely last Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class, is the most adorable since R2D2, say the critics. Certainly the first to get laughs out of recycling

Optimus Prime

'Transformers' (TV 1984, film 2007)

Yeah, but what if all the cars and planes and things could, like, transform into giant robots that battled to rule the Earth, man? Wouldn't they make great toys? Optimus Prime is big and brave, has a strong sense of justice and is, erm, a truck. Created as a range of Japanese playthings, the Transformers were bought by Hasbro and a back story invented for them. Last year it became an expensive feature film with as much humanity as an articulated lorry

Sonny

'I, Robot' (2004)

Inspired by the writings of Isaac Asimov, this film asks what would happen if robots evolved their own consciousness. Sonny, an NS-5 humanoid who has dreams, is accused of murdering his creator and goes on the run. He's tracked down by a robophobic policeman (with a mechanical arm) played by Will Smith. It's set in 2035, but the future seems closer than that when you consider that Honda's real-life robot, the Asimo, can interact with people, conduct an orchestra and even (K9, take note) climb stairs

Gort

'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951)

"Klaatu barada nikto!" Those are the words to say if a giant silver robot ever steps out of a flying saucer and is about to vaporise you. Klaatu is the human-like alien who tries to tell the people of the world not to take their violent conflicts into space; Gort is his big companion, who turns out to have the power to destroy the world. A huge hit of the early Cold War era, this film is really about nuclear war

Maria

'Metropolis' (1927)

The first great screen robot is every inch a metal woman. Fritz Lang's revolutionary film is set in a futuristic city where the workers toil underground and the thinkers enjoy a life of privilege above them. The robot – or Maschinenmensch – is created in the image of Maria, love interest and heroine of the movie. It creates havoc among the workers, who rise up against their masters. The first (and possibly only) robot to perform as an exotic dancer, then get burned at the stake

Robby

'Forbidden Planet' (1956)

Despite being 7ft 7ins tall, with claw-like hands and a glass head that shows his gears, Robby was the first lovable screen robot. Part Jeeves, part clown, part Aga, he can "produce, on order, ten tons of lead or a slinky evening gown" and is suitably smug about it. Based on Ariel, the sprite from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest', believe it or not, he was a massive success as both a character and a toy. Also the first robot to get equal billing with the human stars in his film

Marvin the Paranoid Android

'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (TV 1981, film 2005)

"Here I am, brain the size of a planet." Marvin is what happens when you give a robot a personality and it goes wrong. Companion of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, he is 50,000 times more intelligent than a human, and knows it. "I didn't ask to be made. No one consulted me or considered my feelings." More depressed than paranoid, he was modelled on AA Milne's Eeyore by Douglas Adams. "Life? Don't talk to me about life." The first robot to get really, really down

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