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Robots makeovers -- ‘Short Circuit’ to ‘Terminator’

By Jevon Phillips and Patrick Day, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

It turns out Johnny 5 is indeed alive.

The announcement in 2008 that Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films would be remaking the 1986 family comedy about a lovable wisecracking robot given a personality by a bolt of lightning is welcome news for vintage robots fans.

Already this decade they’ve seen some of their favorite old-time robots given sparkly new sheens: KITT the car, the dreaded Cylons and Optimus Prime. But what sort of improvements have these recent robot revisions brought? ()
“Weird Science” and “s1m0ne”

BASE MODEL: Lisa, the Barbie doll-turned-hypersexualized mastermind of John Hughes’ 1985 teen comedy “Weird Science,” provided sound advice for hapless geeks and also knew how to throw a party. Powered by mysterious forces, Lisa (played by Kelly LeBrock), could somehow make anything happen, including turning future blockbuster star Bill Paxton into a “turd monster.”

UPDATE: “Simone,” the virtual star of the Al Pacino comedy, had no fancy powers. But then again, she only had to deal with the very un-geeky Pacino.

UPGRADE: More of a downgrade, really. “Weird Science’s” Lisa may have been born from a doll, but she was obviously the most self-aware character in the entire film. By contract, Simone may have been a sensation on screen, but her actual powers were only of inspiration. No turd monsters for Pacino. Pity. (Universal / New Line Cinema)

BASE MODEL: Part-time cab-over semi, part-time robot leader of the peace-loving Autobots of Cybertron, Optimus Prime was the good face of “Transformers” through multiple comic book and TV series. His trailer detached and became the Autobots’ command deck, and his death in “Transformers: The Movie” taught a lot of grade schoolers some hard facts about life.

UPDATE: Michael Bay’s 2007 big-screen interpretation of the long-running franchise expanded the role of humans in the Transformers universe, making their speech capabilities seem even stranger in contrast. But luckily, original Prime voice actor Peter Cullen reprised his role.

UPGRADE: For the movie, Prime ditched his transforming trailer, but retained the little-seen energon power ax he used only once in the original animated series. (DreamWorks LLC / Paramount)

BASE MODEL: Introduced in the Superman comics (1958), the original Brainiac was an alien living computer in humanoid form able to interface with any computer. He was bent on conquering the planet and gaining all the knowledge of all its people.

UPDATE: In subsequent comics and cartoons, Brainiac became a despot and space-faring vessel, looking for more knowledge and power as it roamed. In the CW’s “Smallville,” Brainiac ( James Marsters) is a humanoid revealed to be a creation from Superman’s homeworld attempting to bring back a villain to rule on Earth.

UPGRADE: The early and metallic Brainiac incarnations were always powerful, but clunky and uninspired. “Smallville’s” Brainiac was powerful (mimicking Superman’s powers) and was able to re-form itself into anything or anyone. It also had a clear devotion to hurting Superman. The TV version may not have been as powerful as the comic book version, but was much more dangerous. (Michael Courtney / The CW)
“Bionic Woman”

BASE MODEL: Lindsay Wagner‘s Jaime Sommers was in an accident, and her six-million-dollar boyfriend got her fixed up bionically, with super strength in one arm and both legs, and enhanced hearing in one ear. She was so grateful that she jumped on the chance to do covert ops for the government.

UPDATE: Michelle Ryan’s Jaime Sommers was in an accident, and her scientist boyfriend outfitted her with bionics. Same stuff as the original, but she also has a bionic eye and the government can see through it.

UPGRADE: Ryan’s Jaime receives training on how best to use her abilities, but Wagner’s Jaime is more gung-ho. Ryan’s Jaime has Sara Corvus as a foe, Wagner’s Jaime has the Six Million Dollar Man as a boyfriend/husband. In a mission, training and the bionic eye help a lot, so give Ryan the edge one-on-one. But in the needed backup, and the popularity and quality of the show, Wagner wins it. (Alan Zenuk / NBC / Los Angeles Times)
‘Lost in Space’

BASE MODEL: The B-9 Environmental Control Robot from the 1965 TV series “Lost in Space” was never as famous as its precursor, Robby in “Forbidden Planet.” Perhaps its lack of a catchy name hampered its rise to fame. What it lacked in name recognition, however, it made up for in a single catchphrase: “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” and its signature arm-flailing.

UPDATE: The 1998 big-screen version of “Lost in Space” turned the benign Robot into a lethal killing machine programmed to destroy the entire Robinson family. Luckily young Will Robinson was able to reprogram the machine and turn it into a friend.

UPGRADE: True to all Hollywood big screen remakes, the Robot got to be bigger and badder. While still using the original voice of actor Dick Tufeld, the new Robot had all kinds of weapons to mow down anyone accusing the film of replacing ingenuity with empty spectacle. “Danger, Roger Ebert!” (20th Century Television / Sci-Fi Channel and New Line Cinema)
Knight Rider

BASE MODEL: The shadowy flight into the world of a man who does not exist. Michael Knight (a former cop) is chosen to fight crime through a semi-secret government group. His partner/weapon is KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a super-smart and occasionally snarky Pontiac Trans-Am. Mostly indestructible, with cool weapons, computer savvy and a wicked turbo boost, KITT saved Michael too many times to count.

UPDATE: Mike Traceur (a former Army Ranger) replaces Knight in the ’08 version. And KITT -- the Knight Industries Three Thousand -- is now a Ford Shelby Mustang.

UPGRADE: Though it’s hard to improve on the old KITT, the upgrade is rumored to be able to change shape and have different modes (attack, underwater, flight?), but we’ve yet to see it in action. Personality will be key in determining which is the super car and which is the lemon. (Brad Stanley / Business Wire)
“Daryl” and “A.I.”

BASE MODEL: Daryl (Barret Oliver) was a little boy who’d lost his memory. After living with his parents and showing a remarkable aptitude for video games and computer interaction, it is discovered that he’s not a boy at all, but the “Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform.” A government experiment, he wishes to be human and get back with his family. He makes it back.

UPDATE: In “A.I.”, David (Haley Joel Osment) is an artificial humanoid boy (a mecha) that is programmed with the ability to love. He is placed with parents, but that doesn’t turn out right. In a wayward quest, he ends up submerged in water for 2,000 years, only to emerge with the desire to see his mother.

UPGRADE: Not much was made of David’s physical prowess or intellectual capacity. He’s very curious, but mechas seem pretty human. He does kill his ‘other’ self, and almost drowns his brother. Daryl, on the other hand, has lots going for him. He even gets to fly an SR-71 Blackbird while escaping from the government. David may be more advanced in the long run, but Daryl’s the one to choose. (Paramount and WB / DreamWorks)
“Battlestar Galactica”

BASE MODEL: The original “Battlestar Galactica” featured mean but clunky robotic Cylons that would stop at nothing to destroy the human race. Though their big metal suits prevented any sort of subtle emoting, their big guns displayed all the intent they needed.

UPDATE: The new and improved “Battlestar Galactica” immediately did away with the clunky metal suits in favor of skimpy red dresses. Obviously producers Ronald Moore and David Eick realized their fanbase was mostly male.

UPGRADE: Besides retaining their lethal personalities, the new and improved Cylons could resurrect a nearly unlimited number of times and looked and acted just like normal humans. On the downside, that newfound humanity brought along a penchant for religious crusading and a growing sense of angst. (Justin Stephens / Sci Fi Channel)
“The Terminator”

BASE MODEL: The Terminator Series 800/Model 101 came back to the past to kill the mother of the leader of a future rebellion. He was stopped. Barely.

UPDATE(S): So popular was the original that he came back as a hero. But other models returned to terrorize John and Sarah Connor. The Terminator Series 1000 (“T2") and the Terminator Series X (“T3") were take-no-prisoners, morphing murderous machines. Then came Cameron Phillips, an unclassified model sent back to protect John (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”).

UPGRADE: The morphing capabilities and liquid metal of the “T2" and “T3" terminators are leaps beyond the original and the Cameron models. In a pure battle sense, they should dominate the older models. But the single-minded programming of the upgrades leaves them more susceptible to trickery, and the older models have shown a remarkable ability to learn and adapt. (Robert Zuckerman / Warner Bros. Pictures / Fox)