The idea here was to find examples of AI in cinema that you could mention in your inevitable presentation to senior management. I went overboard and indulged my inner cinephile instead. If you read the whole thing, I hope you enjoy it.
Metropolis (1921): there is an awesome, iconic robot design in this sci-fi masterpiece, but it’s arguable as to whether the droid is actually intelligent or just possessed.
Forbidden Planet (1956): Robbie the Robot is a relatively rare positive AI role model; he’s an inherently benign presence incapable of harming people (about whom he displays mild bemusement). Nothing to do with the AI aspect, but if you like sci-fi and haven’t seen this, it’s one of the all-time greats, an impressively lavish and successful space adventure, bizarrely inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): HAL 9000’s paranoid breakdown is one of the most exemplary examples of AI gone wild in cinema, and it’s just one strand of the film. Many movies follow the theme established here – trust the machine with control and then watch the mayhem as it malfunctions.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970): You probably haven’t seen this but it’s hard to imagine The Terminator or The Matrix without it. This is a chilly, thoughtful film about a supercomputer designed to control all US defence system deciding that it (and its Soviet counterpart) can run the world better than pesky humans. In terms of films offering an Awful Warning about thinking machines, it’s probably the best. On the other side, Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) inverts the theme by presenting a God-like AI desperate to understand its creator, not dominate it (it’s a great movie even if you don’t like Star Trek).
Dark Star (1972): not a film primarily about AI, but this low-budget masterpiece features self-aware bombs that engage in philosophical debates about whether they should explode.
Demon Seed (1977): this is a very queasy film, juggling weird ideas that the script isn’t good enough to keep in the air. Julie Christie’s performance as a child psychologist kept prisoner by a computer that wants to impregnate her is solid and it’s visually interesting. But just as the character is a single woman surrounded by arrogant men (including Proteus, the malevolent AI), the film feels a bit like Christie is in the same predicament.
Star Wars and its many sequels and prequels (1977 – present): the interesting thing about the droids here is that they’re just self-aware creatures with personalities; there’s zero analysis of what that means or why that’s the case. They might as well be magic.
Alien and its many sequels and prequels (1979 – present): by contrast, the Alien series has a lot of fun asking what artificial life means and how it would behave. In Alien itself, the ‘synthetic’ is a bit of a plot twist although the film does depict what it would mean if there was a thinking life form that could be programmed (it’s not good). I insist that all the Alien movies have merit, but I particularly defend the prequels. They’re imperfect but agreeably weird and nasty, and they explore increasingly bleak and disturbing scenarios about what a lifeform created by humans would be like (it’s really not good).
Blade Runner (1981) / Blade Runner 2049 (2017): both Blade Runner movies are visual epics, the work of supreme stylists. Both are also unusual in their emphasis on artificial lifeforms not being gods, but victims of exploitation, preyed on in different ways by human beings (and in the sequel, by each other).
The Terminator (1984): even more than The Forbin Project, Terminator offers the most pessimistic vision of artificial intelligence. At least Colossus wants to be God: Skynet wants to erase humanity. This is the version of AI that can think but feels no emotion, like the machines in The Matrix. If you meet me in person, I can do the whole ‘it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse’ speech for you without notes.
Short Circuit (1986): a charming kids’ movie about a self-aware robot that would be a perfect 1980s counterpart to Robbie the Robot if it wasn’t for the bizarre racist decision to have Fisher Stevens play an Indian character in brownface. Do not mention this in your presentation to management. If you want a cute kid’s movie about a robot with a heart, Wall-E (2008) is ready and waiting.
Bicentennial Man (1999) is widely regarded as a failure. It’s the tale of an intelligent robot (Robin Williams, initially in a robot suit) who gradually develops and adapts until the line between machine and human becomes almost impossible to distinguish. The early portion where the robot’s owner (played by Sam Neill) can’t reconcile himself with his electronic servant’s yearning for independence is really good. It’s not a great film, but if you can take the sentimentality, it’s worth watching.
The Matrix (1999) is arguably a film about reality and enforced social identity rather than AI, but the character of Agent Smith is an iconic depiction of an intelligence without empathy. Two things: I saw The Matrix in Chicago in a mainly African-American audience and when Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus tells Hugo Weaving’s Smith ‘All you people look the same to me’, the whole theatre erupted with applause at the inversion of a racist trope. It was joyous. Other thing: The Matrix Resurrections is a masterpiece.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2002) feels exactly like what it is – a collision of a Spielbergian fairy story and a warped Kubrick nightmare. It would be a better film if it was one or the other – a chilly meditation on humanity / inhumanity or the tale of an android Peter Pan. It looks amazing and all the performances are excellent but it’s inelegantly stitched together. I prefer a more conventional and less intelligent film, I Robot (2004) which works slightly better because it slips its exploration of AI autonomy into a slick mystery.
Her (2013) is a sad and funny study of a lonely man becoming romantically attached to Alexa (it’s not Alexa and the program is increasingly intelligent and self-aware but it’s basically that) but if you wanted to use a film as a teaching tool for the perils of getting attached to technology, this is a great one. Or as a friend of mine said recently, ‘Is that the one with the trousers?’ It is the one with the trousers, and if you watch it you’ll know what she meant.
Ex Machina (2014) could be a dull film – while some of the films on this list engage with AI only superficially, this is essentially a drama about the Turing Test (Alan Turing’s idea that a true AI could fool a human), based on one location with a limited cast. But that cast is outstanding and the tension is unbearable, as a nerdy computer programmer goes to the remote home of his billionaire boss, there to meet Ava, a intelligent robot. It capably explores the question of when an AI becomes truly sentient while at the same time being a riveting psychological thriller. Morgan (2016) is a superficially similar film – not as serious, but an entertaining riff on similar ideas.
Transcendence (2014) is a dull film. Like Ex Machina, it’s very deliberately about the dilemmas around the creation of artificial consciousness, but instead of a tense chamber piece, it’s a preachy, self-important epic that wants to Say Something and instead sends you to sleep. Without question, it’s the worst film on this list. All the issues are present and correct, but it’s teeth-grindingly boring.
M3gan (2023) is a B-movie gem. The script doesn’t just pay lip-service to the ideas of artificial intelligence and domestic surveillance. The tale of a bereaved girl befriended by her aunt’s advanced robot creation, it really digs into the idea of AI pursuing its programming with ruthless efficiency. They’ll spoil it with sequels but it’s great fun and offers some good scenarios for how AI could go wrong.
I think most Frankenstein adaptations count as AI movies: from the 1930s onwards: cinema’s depiction of Frankenstein has pitched it somewhere between horror and science fiction, with the best adaptations delving into Mary Shelley’s meditations on the relationship between creation and creator. A lot of the AI tropes are derived from either the book (which you should read) or adaptations of it. The best are probably the double whammy of the early 1930s films Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, but Kenneth Branagh’s admirably bonkers Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1993) is underrated. Ken as a sexy, bare-chested Dr Frankenstein is a sight to see, while Robert De Niro plays a rare creature that really does looks stitched together from body parts.
Any other business
The Tin-Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939) isn’t an AI-driven robot; he’s magic. In the same way, Child’s Play(1985) and its many sequels does not feature artificial intelligence. The doll is a robot but it is possessed by the soul of a serial killer.
Robocop (1988) is not an AI or a robot. He’s ultimately a man with robotic enhancements.
Both Superman (1978) and Man of Steel (2013) feature AI: Superman only meets his father Jor-El in the form of a semi-aware electronic ghost. This is not remotely significant; neither is the Jarvis / Vision character in the Marvel movies.
I haven’t seen Electric Dreams (1984), Chappie (2015) or Ghost in the Shell (either version).