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Movies & TV / Columns

The Movies/TV 8 Ball: Top 8 Movie Cyborgs

March 28, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

Top 8 Movie Cyborgs

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

This week one of the most anticipated (and dreaded) films of the first part of the year hits in Ghost in the Shell. Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of the classic manga and anime stars Scarlett Johansson in an action spectacle that has people desperately hoping it holds up to its predecessors, while having plenty of reason to be concerned why it won’t. Johansson’s Major is just the latest example of the cyborg, a popular trope of science fiction cinema for decades. There is no small amount of history that Hollywood has with “man and machine” stories; the concept has been around since well before movies existed and finds a spiritual successor in stories like American folk hero John Henry, who in a tall tale competed against a steam-powered hammer to build a railroad faster and better. This week we’re going to take a look at the film industry’s exploration of half-man, half-machines as we count down the best cyborgs in cinematic history.

Caveat: There’s often a lot of debate over what qualifies as a cyborg as opposed to, say, an android, robot or just artificially-created or enhanced individuals. For the purposes of this column, I’m using the most commonly-accepted definition as follows: a cyborg is an organism consisting of both biological and artificial parts, with the mechanical or electronic components usually (but not always) enhancing the original biological entity. This makes them distinct from androids, which are essentially robots created in a way to simulate real life.

Two notable possibilities were left off this list: first, while the Terminator is both biological and artificial, the outer flesh and blood is just a mask and as we’ve seen, it can fully function without it. As such, I didn’t consider it a cyborg. Finally, there was a ton of debate regarding the replicants from Blade Runner and what they qualify. I chose to disqualify them because while they are artificial and enhanced, there is no evidence to suggest they have anything other than biological parts. (Consider that the only way to detect them is the interview, and thus not detectable via any sort of scan for artificial components.)

Just Missing the Cut

• Jason Voorhees (Jason X)
• John Silver (Treasure Planet)
• The Colossus (The Colossus of New York)
• Pearl Prophet (Cyborg)
• Gigan (Godzilla vs. Gigan)

#8: Winter Soldier (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

First up on our list is one that I went back and forth on whether to qualify for this list. The Winter Soldier certainly isn’t a full-body cyborg like his fellow MCU character Deathlok (who, not being in the films yet, didn’t qualify) but by the definition listed in the caveat, he fits. Sebastian Stan did very fine work as Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger but the character became truly great when he got picked up by a Soviet solder from his presumed death fall and turned over to Hydra, who fitted him with a cybernetic arm and brainwashed him into becoming the Winter Soldier. The Soldier has become an integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, factoring into (of course) Captain America: The Winter Soldier in a major way and becoming a driving point of the following film, Civil War. He is a character who, in his own way, symbolizes the conflict of loyalty that cyborgs often experience. With most cyborgs it is the battle of humanity vs. machine; for Bucky it is similar, as his morality and human connections struggle against his programming from Hydra. He’s a fantastically complex character and while he may not be as obvious a cyborg as some, he definitely qualifies among the best examples in film.

#7: Luc Deveraux/GR44 (Universal Soldier)

Jean-Claude Van Damme had worked with cyborg stories before on film, specifically in — well, the film Cyborg. This was the first film in which he actually played one though. There is an argument out there (and an understandable one) that Luc Deveraux and the rest of the UniSols are not in fact cyborgs, and are simply reanimated dead along the lines of Frankenstein’s monster. However, it is heavily implied that the UniSols are in fact enhanced with technology in some way, and this is reinforced by the fact that the film obviously borrows from the Marvel Comics character of Deathlok. Even the eyepiece suggests Deathlok’s image. Deveraux is of course the protagonist and most heroic of the UniSols and he even manages to get his personality back where most of the subjects remain autonomous. Van Damme would return to reprise the role for the disastrous Universal Soldier: The Return, which is no longer considered canon in the franchise. Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, while not particularly great films, helped redeem the franchise a bit and also Deveraux as a character. He is an excellent example of the human spirit fighting against machine control and while he may not be the obvious cyborg that others are, the themes alone would earn him entry even if the mechanical components are fairly subtle.

#6: Doctor Octopus (Spider-Man 2)

Otto Octavius is one of Spider-Man’s greatest villains (even more so in the era of the Superior Spider-Man comic run) and he deserved a classic portrayal on the big screen. He received that in Spider-Man 2, which is rightfully considered the best of the Spider-Man films to be released to date out of any iteration. Sony scored a coup when they cast the great Alfred Molina in the role; he makes the character of Otto a more sympathetic one than it otherwise might have been and nails the role perfectly in the process. The AI of the cybernetic arms trying to assert dominance over Otto’s personality is a classic cyborg theme, enhancing the story above that of “just another comic-book movie.” He is arguably the best portrayal of a Spider-Man villain in a live-action film to date, depending on your opinion of Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, and the tragedy of Otto is portrayed quite well. Sam Raimi’s digital effects team does fantastic work with the arms and his look is definitely more impressive than what we get in the comics without completely invalidating it, adding the finishing touches to one hell of a cyborg supervillain.

#5: Dr. Julius No (Dr. No)

When it comes to cybernetically-enhanced villains, there’s little doubt that Dr. No is a giant among men. Some may debate the Bond villain’s status on this list, as his prosthetic hands aren’t exactly the same kind of cybernetics as, say, Doc Oc. But again, by the definition he does fit as he’s absolutely a mix of mechanical and electric components with biological life. The film version are explicitly bionic and, while crude and lacking in manual dexterity, still serve him quite well in other fashions — even if they do ultimately led to his death at the end of the film. Joseph Wiseman did a fantastic job bringing the character to life for the first of the James Bond films and instantly set the stage for what a Bond villain should be. Intelligent but ruthless and larger than life, he was influential not just in the field of cybernetic villains but in the spy genre in general, earning his place on the list with ease.

#4: The Borg Queen (Star Trek: First Contact)

I find it interesting that my list is more or less split between protagonists and antagonists on this list (with a couple that straddle the line). It wasn’t an intentional move; it just happened that way. The highest-ranked pure villain in the list is here, with that of the Borg Queen. The Borg are perhaps the greatest addition of a race to the Star Trek universe during the Next Generation era. There were several races introduced during this timeframe of course: Ferengi, Betazoids, Cardassians, the Q, Bajorans and more. But the Borg are certainly the most formidable villains from the era. They were dangerous during The Next Generation but when Star Trek: First Contact came about, they hit a new level of threat. No small part of that was due to the introduction of the Borg Queen, as exquisitely played by Alice Krige. The Queen was the previously-unknown leader of the Collective — one of the few who could distinguish themselves as an individual — and Krige was wonderfully creepy in the role. She is Data’s tempter in the movie and very nearly succeeds. She proves quite formidable as a mental and physical adversary and returned to play the role in the series finale of Star Trek: Voyager. She certainly earns her spot on this list.

#3: Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell)

While I may have concerns about how the live-action Ghost in the Shell will turn out, I have to at least admit that it is comes from a strong pedigree in the classic sci-fi anime. While cyborg existence sometimes seems to be more of a boys’ club (especially for heroic cyborgs), there are a solid number of man-machine hybrids of the female variety. For my money, none of them quite match up to Major Motoko Kusanagi. Motoko is the protagonist of the many Ghost in the Shell properties -– the manga, the anime series and the film — and while her characterization and appearance tends to vary from one to the other, she is pretty much amazing in all of them. The film version of Motoko is a more androgynous, brooding character who struggles with the notion of how much humanity she has left due to her cybernetic body. She even questions if she is entirely synthetic and just programmed to believe she was once a human. She eventually finds what she’s looking for in the hacker she’s hunting, the mysterious Puppet Master. Motoko is a more cerebral take on the cyborg and directly addresses most of the questions we ask about the nature of humanity and technology. It’s a supremely good story and a very strong character. Whether or not the Scarlett Johansson film succeeds or fails, Major Kusanagi’s place on this list is pretty much unassailable.

#2: Robocop (Robocop)

Paul Verhoeven has a reputation for bad films and make no mistake: he’s made some very bad ones. Showgirls nearly killed his career and stigmatized him forever. But he has also made some wonderful science fiction films such as Total Recall, Starship Troopers and this 1987 slice of genius. RoboCop is often viewed as a cult classic today and considered “charming,” both views of which belie the fact that it is a damned good movie which was both well-received and a legitimate hit. It tackles a lot of serious themes amidst the ultra-violence, including a hard look at the corruption of media, class war and corporations. Peter Weller was a perfect fit for the role of Alex Murphy and Robocop is a symbol that stands in the face of people who claim that sci-fi wasn’t socially relevant in the 1980s. Weller plays the role with a perfect tenor, capturing both the robot and the man. It must also be noted that Weller conveys all of the emotion in his character (and there is emotion there, let’s be clear about that) with just the lower half of his face. That’s a deceptively difficult thing to do. And if you’re not interested in him as a person, let’s just note that he kicks some serious ass as well. Later films would try to drag him down and they largely contribute to views that marginalize the character, but he’s a major part of sci-fi lore and a worthy addition to the list.

#1: Darth Vader (Star Wars films)

Bow down to the dark lord of cyborgs, ladies and gentlemen. Darth Vader isn’t the original cyborg by any remote stretch but he’s certainly the most well-known. The Sith Lord began as the Jedi Anakin Skywalker and was tempted over to the Dark Side by the skilled manipulation of Darth Sidious. Vader represents so much on a thematic level that it is almost difficult to quantify. He is viewed as a symbol of technology vs. religion or spirituality, as a struggle between man and machine. He has become a symbol of evil in pop culture, but also one of redemption thanks to his acts at the end of Return of the Jedi. He’s the oppressive government regime and his characterization is even taught as an example of classic borderline personality disorder. And throughout it all, he remains one of the most well-known and beloved science fiction figures of all time. It has been said that his image is one of the most universally-recognized on the planet and for good reason. James Earl Jones’ deep, booming voice and that gas mask breathing can still bring a chill down my spine. There are no ifs, and or buts about it to me: Darth Vader is the easy #1 choice for best film cyborgs.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411wrestling.com! JT out.

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