An Early History of Our Cinematic Cyborgs

By  · Published on February 14th, 2014

“You got your robotic exoskeleton on my human brain!” “You got your human brain in my robotic exoskeleton!”

Like the peanut butter cups of yore, cyborgs have always had a little bit of that best-of-both-worlds quality. They think and feel like we humans do. Their emotions are genuine. Yet they also have the ability to act on those emotions with their crude and powerful robot strength, making it all the more necessary that a cyborg’s human parts are in tip-top psychological shape.

It’s here where the root of the cyborg lies – the inclusion of machine parts, which are neither good nor bad and act without motive, strengthens our human characteristics beyond the realm of human potential. A courageous character, upon becoming a cyborg, becomes an unstoppable superhero; a lawful one becomes a pillar of robo-justice; an unpleasant one becomes our worst nightmare. And in honor of one of cinema’s most famous cyborgs, a certain robot cop who’s getting a gritty new remake this weekend, let’s take a look at how cinematic cyborgs first came to be.

1. The Early Years

The first cyborgs weren’t in movie theaters. They were in books, and those books date back more than 150 years ago. The first true melding of man and machine was in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story, “The Man That Was Used Up.” The story describes a brigadier general with the imaginative name of John A. B. C. Smith, who idles away his days as a neat pile of parts on the floor. When Smith wants to present himself, he must be screwed together, piece by piece- after being captured and tortured by Native Americans, Smith was reduced to a lump of a man that fills in his many gaps with a room full of prosthetic parts. For obvious reasons, the story shows its age. Smith is about as mechanical as the 1850s would allow (that is, not very), and his dialogue is mostly a stream racial slurs against the Indians who mutilated him and the black servant tasked with handing him his various body parts. But the idea’s there- part man, part mechanism.

Cyborgs would continue to pop up in literature every once in a while, bearing robotic hearts eyes and lungs, and existing as human brains in metallic casings. Then, came the advent of the motion picture. For the first few decades, we had no cyborgs. What we had were robots, and robots that were usually of the “guy wearing a cardboard box spray-painted silver” variety. One of the rare exceptions was Maria, of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. She may be the subject of many a scholarly paper on the “Realities of Cyborg Sexual Blah Blah Blah in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” but not really a cyborg in the classic sense of what a cyborg really is. Maria is a robot that looks completely human (a unique find in the film robots of the 1920s) but there’s nothing about her that ever came from a living person. No chunks of the human Maria were excised to create her evil robot doppleganger; she was simply strapped into a science machine subjected to various blasts of light and bubbling liquid, and then poof! Robot Maria looked perfectly human. Aside from her, nothing in the film world would even resemble a cyborg for several decades.

2. The Colossus of New York

And then, in 1958, The Colossus of New York came around. As a monster, The Colossus is not too difficult a concept to grasp- he’s essentially a take on Frankenstein’s monster with the corpse parts swapped out for robot ones. But the big item here is the Colossus’ living human brain. That brain comes courtesy of Dr. Jeremy Spensser (yes, it’s really spelled “Spensser,” and no, I don’t know why) a wunderkind in a family of brilliant scientific minds who dies in a tragic car crash, having just won the prestigious “International Peace Prize.” His genius family slaves away, and soon they’ve got a perfectly functional giant robot body in which to house Spensser’s still-living brain. Things go smoothly at first; Robo-Spensser (also called “The Colossus”) continues his research in secret, but he soon begins to unravel, losing his sanity but gaining psychic powers and laser beam eyes in the process.

Unlike most fictional cyborgs, where machinery makes one’s human qualities more extreme, The Colossus of New York’s personality does a complete 180. As a man, Spensser was good and kind, one who dedicated his life to world peace. As a robot, he hates all peace, proclaiming, “Why should we work to preserve the slum people of the world? Isn’t it simpler and wiser to get rid of them instead?” Typically, the cyborg is a figure of balance, representing man’s dependency on future technology. If the cyborg is overwhelmingly good – say, The Six Million Dollar Man, then the corresponding stance is usually a positive one. If the cyborg has good and bad qualities, like Robocop (he’s a hero, yet he’s also unrelentingly blunt and entirely without subtlety), then the film’s stance on the future seems cautious, yet a little optimistic.

And if a film climaxes with a formerly peace-loving cyborg embarking on a killing rampage in the United Nations building, because he hates the concept of peace that much, it’s not hard to guess where the film stands on technology. Bu eventually, when confronted with his young son, Spensser finally relents in his mission to end all peace, and tells the boy where to find his off-switch. Thus, the threat is ended once and for all with an embarrassingly obvious solution. The Colossus of New York may be the world’s least subtle film, but it was a start, and its gargantuan cyborg frame shattered the glass ceiling keeping so many other cyborgs out of Hollywood.

3. Dr. No

Dr. No might not seem like your classic cyborg story. But he fits the description nonetheless – if Webster’s defines cyborg as “a person whose body contains mechanical or electrical devices and whose abilities are greater than the abilities of normal humans,” then the not-so-good doctor fits right in. Not only does he sport a pair of stylish black robot hands, but they’ve got super strength, giving him a check mark in both categories. And although No might not have the same human to machine ratio as the Colossus, he represents a common yet undervalued kind of cyborg: the mad scientist with robot hands.

Dr. Strangelove was afflicted with a similar robotic prosthesis. As was Dr. Rotwang, the scientist in Metropolis who created the evil robotic Maria. Even Dr. Claw of Inspector Gadget falls into the same category. He may have seemed more like a Blofeld-type, but did obtain some kind of doctorate and was the head of an organization called M.A.D. There’s definitely something there.

These characters are a lesser kind of cyborg, a kind whose inner ugliness manifests itself in something alien and foreign, something that gives their evil-ness a clear visual representation (note that the heroic mostly-human cyborgs, like the Six Million Dollar Man or Will Smith’s character in I, Robot, have no outwardly noticeable cyborg features). Normally, it’s the mad scientist who plays God. And it’s the hubris of outfitting yourself with something powerful yet extremely prone to malfunction, like 60s-era robot hands, that sends so many mad scientists to their doom. Just look what happened to Dr. No.

4. The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy

Despite its misleading title, the robot of The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy is actually a cyborg – one of the cardboard box and spray paint variety, but a cyborg nonetheless. The creation of the villainous Dr. Knupp, this particular cyborg had a human head grafted onto a machine body, which is readily apparent, thanks to the face-hole cut in his standard bucket/antennae robot head (those things must have come standard with 1950s killing machines). It was dippy, it was barely an hour long, and the robot/cyborg confusion wasn’t the only major error in the title: despite touting an Aztec mummy, the filmmakers (Mexican filmmakers, no less) never checked to see if the Aztecs actually mummified their dead. They don’t.

Yet despite all those errors, The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, released the same year as The Colossus of New York, marked a turning point in the history of film cyborgs. With that poorly-made, error-riddled mess, cyborgs were now anyone’s game. They weren’t confined to niche sci-fi writers or Fritz Lang; they had entered the public eye to such an extent that filmmakers looking for a few bucks could churn out a cheap cyborg flicks, confident that some audience, somewhere, would be ready to gobble it up.

By 1960, the word “cyborg” had finally entered the public lexicon, having been coined by Manfred Klynes and Nathan S. Clyne during talks of potential robot/human astronauts. And soon after, cyborgs finally began to find a place in pop culture, in TV shows (the Cybermen of Dr. Who), comic books (Dr. Octopus), and even Japanese manga/anime (8 Man). 1966 sealed the deal with the release of Cyborg 2087, a low-budget actioner where a part human, part robot hero traveled to the past in order to save the future. Only now, the word “Cyborg” was prominently featured, front and center. Cyborgs were here to stay.

So if you’re headed to the movies this weekend, and you happen to see a tall dark stranger who’s comprised mostly of robot parts, think back on all the previous metal men and women that paved the way for his uttering of “your move, creep.”