Sam loves movies and enjoys science fiction, zombie movies, and pessimistic survival films.
Cyborgs vs. AI
What differentiates an android from a cyborg? Easy. An android is a completely artificial entity, which is programmed and designed to emulate a human being. A cyborg is, in principle, a human being who, for various reasons, has cybernetic components in their body that enhance abilities in some way.
The number of artificial components in a cyborg can vary. From a finger that shoots fire to a whole carcass storing a human brain, the rule is simple: It has to definitely be a hybrid between human and machine (which is why you will not find Ex Machina in this list, but probably in my AI list).
Cyborgs seem to not have received the cinematographic love they deserve. While androids have inspired dozens of stories full of high-quality entertainment and interesting philosophical debates on the limits of what makes us human, cyborgs seem to have been relegated to a more superficial space, almost merely to highlight character design.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Not all sci-fi films are about artificial intelligence and Pinocchio syndrome. There are several works where the cyborg, in aesthetics and substance (and sometimes both), are fundamental in the narrative.
Here is our selection of the best cyborg movies.
15. Dr. No (1962)
We start the list with the very first James Bond movie. This was the introduction of Sean Connery, his martinis, subtle misogyny and cool attitude towards danger.
And who was his main villain/S.P.E.C.T.R.E. member? Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), a Chinese-German mad scientist with ultra-powerful bionic hands as a result of his exposure to radiation.
Sure, Dr. No appears in the last minutes of the movie and by current standards, he's a pretty idiot and borderline racist villain. But we are talking about an iconic character who started another icon. Dr. No and the phobia to the intervened dehumanized individual was the catalyst for the cinematic James Bond.
14. Jason X (2001)
When slasher franchises run out of ideas, the only thing they have left is to embrace the shark jump by going into space. Of course, that doesn't work all the time. The difference with "Friday the 13th in Space" is that Jason X is actually a very funny, campy, bloody and creative film. It's essential for lovers of the saga and the genre.
Just for the sequence where the survivors try to fool Uber Jason with a holographic simulation of Crystal Lake, the whole movie is worth it. But in addition, this film has what many consider to be the most brutal Jason kill.
And, let's face it, cyborg Jason was something that simply could not be left out of this list.
13. Deadly Friend (1986)
Deadly Friend are two Wes Craven films (the one he wanted to do and the one that the studio forced him to fix) into one, blocking each other.
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But despite that, the genius of good ol' Wes comes to life and even in this flawed film, there is an interesting story of love and obsession between a young scientist and his former naive girl-next-door-turned cyborg.
It also has an awesomely stupid android called BB voiced by Donald Duck and an absurd death (and instant laughter generator) made with a basketball.
12. Nemesis (1992)
Say whatever you want about this bumpy B-movie script, but Albert Pyun went the distance to achieve a highly entertaining movie, with astonishing visual quality, good rhythm, and creative action sequences. All with the freedom and insanity that only independent projects can achieve.
In addition, Nemesis has a fantastic gallery of kickass empowered female visual treats in the characters of Merle Kennedy, Marjorie Monaghan, Maerjean Holden, Deborah Shelton, and Jennifer Gatti. The bottom line is that Nemesis is a great movie full of cyborgs, infiltrated cops, explosions, and conspiracies to control humankind.
11. Elysium (2013)
The only "sin" Elysium committed was being the follow-up Neill Blomkamp film to the already-classic District 9. Comparisons were instantaneous and the Matt Damon-lead film ended up being a "slight" disappointment. Yes, Elysium doesn't have the heart of District 9 or the charisma of characters such as Wikus or Christopher Johnson.
But is undeniable that this is a fantastic sci-fi movie, where a cyborg Matt Damon, dying by radiation poisoning, decides that enough is enough and shoot (and smuggle and hack) his way out to the elitist space habitat Elysium, the only place where a person can get—among other things—adequate medical treatment.
Class struggle, access to health care, excessive violence and the good fight in the search for social justice. Elysium is a thing of beauty.
In the pantheon of legendary anime, Appleseed doesn't stand a chance. Its interesting plot around humans, cyborgs and "Bioroids" (half human, half-clones, genetically designed to avoid reproduction and strong feelings such as anger, among other modifications) created to avoid future wars is an enough interesting topic that is worth a look but doesn't have the connection other masterpieces have.
Its animation, on the other hand, is of undeniable high quality. His aesthetic is a cyborg in itself: a computer animation skeleton with a traditional drawing cover.
Yes, Appleseed is more style than substance. Sometimes, that's more than enough.
9. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
In a filmography as legendary as Stanley Kubrick's, it's normal that movies like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange or 2001: A Space Odyssey are always the chosen one as "the best".
But don't get it twisted, Dr. Strangelove is also the favorite movie of many Kubrick fans, and with great reason. This incisive, dark and marvelous political satire focused on the paranoia behind the cold war, was way ahead of its time.
The great Peter Sellers plays (in addition to two others) the title character. Dr. Strangelove is a former Nazi, mad scientist confined to a wheelchair that takes the role of nuclear war advisor to the president of the United States. He is also a cyborg, whose bionic hand seems to respond to its own impulses, such as to make the Nazi salute in moments of great excitement.
The character of Dr. Strangelove and his mild cyborg condition is a ruthless but fair criticism about the number of Nazi scientists who, while still a fundamental part of one of the most inhuman regimes of all time, were hypocritically pardoned and assimilated by the new world powers in order to take advantage of their knowledge.
8. I, Robot (2004)
The I, Robot plot revolves around dangerous androids, but its protagonist is a Chicago detective named Del Spooner who after a horrendous traffic accident, has several cybernetic enhanced parts in his body.
And although that cyborg is Will Smith playing the not-so-complex role of “future Will Smith” with a fixation (rather opportunity of product placement) for old school Converse All-Star shoes, director Alex Proyas manages to create an interesting hero out of the Hollywood icon, whose bionic arm stars in a couple of key moments in the film.
Del Spooner is a character with more depth than meets the eye. His distrust of the androids comes as a result of his traumatic car crash, when one of them saved his life instead of a little girl for a matter of "calculation of the probability of survival." In parallel, that accident meant a concrete loss of humanity in Spooner, forcing him to have cybernetics enhanced body parts (the Converse shoes bit is also a way to show his traditional, dated view of the world). That process of self-acceptance (and acceptance of the artificial as an undeniable part of his reality) is the background theme of the film.
7. Iron Man (2008)
That's right. I bet you just realized that Tony Stark is a cyborg. And I'm not referring to his ultra-technological iron armor, but to the fact that his technology only works thanks to the arc reactor he has implanted in his chest.
Iron Man is probably the most positive cinematic display of a cyborg. With zero technophobia, this film makes it clear that a cyborg can be a leader and a hero, not a mere threatening henchman.
Iron Man, moreover, not only meant the beginning of that immense cinematographic effort called The Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it stabilized the Robert Downey Jr. career and life, a fact that is a triumph for everybody.
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
With the Terminator saga, the definition of cyborg becomes somewhat extreme.
Models like the T-800 or the T-850 (AKA Arnold Schwarzenegger) call themselves "cybernetic organism" because they are androids with real human skin, designed and manufactured through cloning methods. So yes, technically there is humanity in its conformation.
However, this somehow far-fetched definition ends up condemning the saga to not make the top 5 places of this list. And although Terminator Salvation was the only movie in the series that for the first time has in its ranks an undeniable cyborg in Marcus Wright, Terminator 2: Judgment Day will always be the chosen one to represent the saga. In addition to being one of the best blockbusters of all times, this was the one that best knew how to transmit their questions about our humanity and our relationship with our technological creations.
5. The Colossus of New York (1958)
A family of New York scientists and philanthropists decide to transplant the brain of one of their deceased members into an artificial body—which for some unexplained reason is horribly designed as a giant monster—so that humanity doesn't lose the scientific contributions of a one-of-a-kind brain.
Of course, after the accustomed loss of humanity, suffering and a small wave of violence courtesy of eye lasers, the "colossus" makes clear its intention of not wanting to remain in that "limbo state".
The Colossus of New York was the first clear representation of a cyborg in the history of the cinema. But the best thing about its inclusion on this list is that is not just out of respect for its historical legacy. With its obsolete technology, dramatic acting, short duration and clever visual effects for the time, The Colossus of New York remains an entertaining, funny and engaging experience.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
That's right, another superhero movie and this time in the top 5. The chosen movie is none other than the BEST of the 16 that so far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has released.
The Winter Soldier revolves around the reappearance of Bucky, Steve Rogers' best friend. Reemerged as a lethal and brainwashed assassin with a cybernetic arm, Bucky is now practically Captain America's nemesis. The reassignment of identity and of course, the loss of humanity in the construction of the perfect obedient soldier, are the central themes of this phenomenal movie.
The eternal struggle between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra and a structure that moves away from the traditional Marvel formula to focus on more visceral action sequences a-la-Brian-De-Palma with a conspiracy fiction tone. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fantastic film of spies, failed superheroes and a pair of friends separated by the great machineries that administers violence.
3. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Too much has been written about the legacy of the work of Mamoru Oshii to ignore its deserved place in this list.
Equal parts explosive entertainment and a deep narrative about identity, Ghost in the Shell is simply one of those films that must be rewatched from time to time.
Its premise about human consciousness (ghosts) that can be stored in fully artificial augmented bodies (shells) is a wonderful catalyst for debates about the necessity (or not) of immortality, gender roles and moral responsibility of those who monopolize violence and technological advances.
2. RoboCop (1987)
When we think of the word cyborg, one of the first images that come to mind is RoboCop. There's no doubt that the creation of Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner, and Paul Verhoeven is an absolute icon since its release in the late 80's.
RoboCop is, first of all, a brazen satire on the dangers of private enterprise developing technology and administering social policies, but it's also an engaging story about a human being turned into a political law-enforcer tool against his will that must fight against the system in order to regain his humanity.
And there's only one reason why this iconic movie isn't # 1.
1. Return of the Jedi (1983)
There is no other saga with such an impact and legacy, where the cyborg figure is fundamental, like Star Wars. I hear you thinking that the link between Star Wars and a list of excellent cyborg films is rather tenuous at best. I think the question about being human, good or bad and where the limits are is the focal point for the entire Star Wars movie series
In Return of the Jedi that's even truer. The word is not uttered once, but both Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader are cyborgs. Not only that, but the loss of humanity channeled through the dark side of the force is in direct relation to the cybernetic replacements. Emperor Palpatine initiates a deepening of his manipulation when the Skywalkers lose some of their limbs. Check it out.
Return of the Jedi is a tale of the loss of physical and spiritual humanity. The phantom pain that poisons the soul. It's an immortal story of redemption. The son who doesn't succumb to the pleasures of the dark side, in the process saves the human soul of his father and the father who sacrifices his life to eliminate his dark side. Vader's last wish is "Just for once ... let me look on you with my own eyes". It's the ultimate pop culture cyborg clinging to his last vestige of humanity.
There just cannot be another number 1 cyborg movie. Allthough Terminator 2 is maybe a better action film for me...
More Good & Not-So Good Cyborg Movies
There are some sci-fi movies that deserve a special mention. You can find cyborgs fighting for the last living fetus in American Cyborg: Steel Warrior. Tetsuo: The Iron Man's frenzy borderline snuff is unforgettable.
Although these films don’t necessarily revolve around being cyborg, you can find iconic characters like David Carradine's Frankenstein in Death Race 2000, Tetsuo in Akira, Dr. Arliss Loveless's marvelous cyberpunk cyborg (Kenneth Branagh) in Wild Wild West, the great Jet Black in Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, John Silver in Treasure Planet, and the great Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2. Logan also has a cyborg villain that is excellent.
Guilty pleasures? check out the failed Inspector Gadget and The Stepford Wives (2004). For historical curiosity, go watch Cyborg 2087 and The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy. Finally, you can watch Jean Claude Van Damme in Cyborg (1989) and the debut of Angelina Jolie in the sequel, Cyborg 2.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on April 03, 2019:
PS: this one was written before Alita was out in the theatres. Probably the movie would have made the cut, but I haven't added anything new to the list since last year.
Will update the list in a month or 2. You can always give me some recommendations. Some movies will be on my AI or robot list, like Ex Machina.