There are some great tech documentaries out there, but sometimes you just need a good feature film. But which one to choose for the discerning A.I. fan?
Combing through the cinematic archives, we’ve made our picks for the best A.I.-themed movies you have to see before you die. Or, at least, before the machines take over and we’re put to work in the dung mines with no time for frivolous entertainment.
Artificial intelligence wasn’t formed as its own official discipline until the mid-1950s, but the first “must watch” movie on this list pre-dates this by more than a quarter century. Made by German expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang, Metropolis is an epic science fiction film which has inspired countless other movies in the genre.
It tells the story of a dystopian near-future society in which technology has helped the gulf between rich and poor to grow unimaginably vast. The movie’s iconic Maria robot was clearly the inspiration for Star Wars’ later C-3PO. However, another fascinating aspect of the film is the way in which the high tech city is portrayed as an enormous living organism: a glimpse at the future reality of connected smart cities.
Today, the HBO series of the same name is probably where people’s minds go when they hear the title Westworld. However, this 1973 movie — written and directed by techno-thriller master Michael Crichton — remains worth watching.
Like the HBO series, Westworld depicts a kind of dystopian Disneyland where society’s wealthiest can indulge their fantasies by interacting with robots in a Western-themed amusement park.
It’s a great high concept thriller, but what makes it interesting in the context of this list is the way it explores what happens when science and technology is used frivolously by unprincipled business-people wanting to make a quick buck. Crichton explored the same topic, with a focus on genetic engineering instead of robots, in his most famous work, Jurassic Park.
Ex Machina (2015)
Ex Machina does what science fiction does best: take complex philosophical and technological ideas and give them fictitious form. Ex Machina brings a semi-Apocalypse Now vibe to proceedings. Programmer Caleb Smith is invited to the isolated home of intense and unhinged CEO Nathan Bateman, who lives miles from anyone.
Bateman reveals that he has created a robot, Ava, who has passed the Turing Test. Smith’s job is to judge whether she possesses genuine consciousness. Then things take a dark turn. A taut, capable thriller that doesn’t feel like it’s dumbing down its subject matter.
I, Robot (2004)
Based on a story by sci-fi writer extraordinaire Isaac Asimov, I, Robot is set a few decades in the future, in a world where robots are commonplace. Will Smith plays a cop investigating the death of a robotics professor, who may have been killed by one of his creations.
Like Ex Machina, I, Robot does a good job of exploring the philosophical questions in A.I. (in this case, the conundrum of machine ethics) in a way that remains engaging as a story.
Plus, it has one of the greatest interactions regarding the thin line between humans and machines, when Smith’s character asks: “Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?” The robot responds, “Can you?” That’s a robo-mic drop right there!
The Terminator (1984)/Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
“[Skynet] goes online August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m.” Okay, so that timeline might have been missed (although the Terminator movies do make clear that the future is malleable), but Skynet remains one of our most enduring reference points for A.I. run amok.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, T1 and T2 tell the story of cyborgs sent back from the future to influence an unfolding war between machines and humankind. The series went to hell after the first two James Cameron movies, but these two entries in the franchise are masterpieces. They’re both five-star classics, so we couldn’t help but put both on this list.
The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix makes a fascinating counterpoint to the Terminator movies. It echoes the idea of machines overthrowing humanity, but with a twist. Whereas Skynet set out to destroy humanity, the machines in The Matrix instead imprison mankind and sets about harvesting their bodies for energy, while trapping them in a simulated reality.
A.I. might not be the only idea the movie is grappling with, but it’s interesting enough to warrant a place on this list.
Blade Runner (1982)
Set in the dystopian far future of, err, 2019, Blade Runner is a neo-noir sci-fi directed by visionary director Ridley Scott. Its protagonist, played by Harrison Ford, is a world-weary cop whose job involves hunting down synthetic humans called replicants.
At the risk of *SPOILERS* the question of whether Deckard is, himself, actually a replicant has caused many, many, many late night conversations among fans over the years. A brilliant movie which explores the “uncanny valley” divide between human and machine. Its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, is brilliant, too.
Arriving two years after the debut of Siri on the iPhone 4s, Spike Jonze’s Her tells the near future story of a lonely depressed man whose life changes after he purchases a talking A.I. assistant. Named Samantha, they build up a relationship of sorts, bonding over discussions about love and life.
Unlike many of the other movies on this list, Her doesn’t ever come close to tipping over into action or hard sci-fi, but rather remains a soulful, affecting drama. It’s like a much, much better version of 1984’s Electric Dreams, an admittedly prescient movie about a love triangle involving a human and an A.I.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
More than half a century after it was made, 2001’s HAL 9000 remains the most famous A.I. in movie history. The film was remarkably accurate at predicting the future of everything from iPads to voice-based computer interactions. That’s not too surprising considering how many future engineers were inspired by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s vision.
HAL’s chilling delivery of the line “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” has been endlessly parodied, but his hyper-rationality in the face of astronaut Dr. David Bowman’s growing panic remains the perfect encapsulation of many people’s fears about machine intelligence.
There are some superb movies about intelligent computers gone awry, but WarGames remains a sentimental favorite. It arrived at the time that personal computers were just starting to become a fixture in American homes, and tells the story of a kid hacker who manages to accidentally break into a military supercomputer in control of the United States’ nuclear weapons system.
While this is a kids’ movie, the questions about the usage of A.I. in warfare are increasingly relevant in today’s world of military robots and battle drones.