Beyond the noise of blockbusters and celluloid spectacles, movies are capable of changing people and expanding a viewer’s perception of reality by injecting notions into their heads. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science are some of the popular terms in today’s world and it is only natural that mainstream films around the globe have depicted them on a massive scale. Be it the nuanced take of Joaquin Phoenix’s Her or the action commercial take of Shankar’s Robot, there is more than just one way artificial intelligence has been showcased on the silver screen.
I am sure that a big chunk of humanity has been introduced to the concept of artificial intelligence via sci-fi films. Thus, it was made imperative for me to discuss all the sci-fi films depicting AI in our AI special edition. I’ve made it clear that movies are far more than just a medium of entertainment and amusement, they play a vital role in shaping our consciousness and worldview. In simple words, movies educate us and spread vivid ideas more efficiently than a book.
The prominent reason why films are effective is due to them being a visual medium. The engaging medium binds people to their seats and immerses them in an experience like no other, of course, if done well. The content displayed on the screen is far more interesting than words printed on a book at least in my opinion. This explains why people now jump on YouTube and other visual stimulants like social media during their free time rather than reading a book. Films also allow people to attach concrete graphics to an idea like the Infinity Stones from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Lightsabers from Star Wars, and so on. Being a film buff, there’s no other way for me to explore the complexities of AI and machine learning but movies.
AI in films
Mainstream popular films have a love-hate relationship with AI. Sci-Fi films tend to exaggerate the evil of AI by presenting them as an extinction-inducing entity. Marvel fans surely know about Ultron from the second Avengers movie. Iron Man builds an AI to protect the world but it instead becomes hell-bent on wiping out humanity off the face of the Earth. On the other hand, AI is depicted as a helping hand to aching souls with its portrayal in the film Her, where Theodore Twombly ends up developing a relationship with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant similar to Apple’s Siri. This leaves us questioning the actual nature of AI when it comes close to its portrayal in films. In the future, will AI control and dethrone us to become the apex predator? It’s too soon to make that judgment now. But what I can do for the time being is to list down the best films with the portrayal of AI for your amusement and understanding of the concept in a rather fictitious take. Please note that the films mentioned below are discussed in detail including spoilers for the same. Read on:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Putting the best first! Everyone reading this article should mark this one as essential viewing. If you’re a film buff, am sure you have experienced or at least heard about this Stanley Kubrick directorial. Portraying the evolution of humankind and its journey beyond earth, 2001: A Space Odyssey efficiently depicts the complexities of AI with the H.A.L 9000 (short for Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer) which is an AI character on the film’s spaceship. The supercomputer in this film is basically in charge of most operations on a spacecraft heading to Jupiter. This leads to jaw-dropping events when the computer goes corrupt and decides to destroy the world as we know it. HAL kills off the crew members in the spaceship one by one thus reminding the audience that letting AI take control of operations could go wrong in a horrific manner. The film surely is a starting point for mainstream cinema to depict AI in a negative light as it set a course for mainstream films in recent times. The cult classic film dives deep into the reliance of humanity on technology and what happens when the said technology decides to go rogue. 2001: A Space Odyssey for me is a subtle commentary on humanity’s foolishness or let’s just call it innocence to depend upon technology without understanding its potential harm.
- Metropolis (1927)
The silent German film Metropolis is surely one of the first portrayals of AI in cinema. The 1927 film is not for everyone as the film is nearing a century since it was released but can make for compelling viewing for film enthusiasts. Watching Metropolis can allow people to understand what people back then thought of Artificial Intelligence and sentient robots. This film too paints the technology in a negative light as a robot decides to take over a city. The dystopian depiction of AI in this film has inspired everything from Blade Runner to modern iterations of superhero films. Besides AI and technology, the film also portrays a class divide between the working class and city planners. The film’s ‘False Maria’ robot was the first robot to be depicted on film and it also inspired the look of the beloved C-3PO from Star Wars.
- I, Robot (2004)
Before Will Smith slapped his way to his downfall, he was one of the prominent ‘Movie Stars’ in Hollywood. The man worked in all types of films ranging from sci-fi and romance where he charmed the audience with his acting chops and personality. One of the films from the peak Will Smith era was I, Robot. The film sets itself in 2035 where humanoid robots powered by AI are now a part of everyday life. Detective Spooner played by Will Smith hates robots cause he was in a car accident where the robot decided to let a 12-year-old girl die only cause she had lower chances of survival compared to him. The film revolves around a humanoid robot Sonny who has gone rogue after pushing his owner to death from the 50th-floor window. The AI humanoid robot goes against the three rules designed by humans to protect them which include – that robots shall not harm any human, shall obey any instruction given to them by a human, and that robots must avoid any and all actions or situations that could cause harm to themselves. The film starts off as a murder mystery but soon becomes a conspiracy flick revolving around enslaving the human race.
- The Matrix series
Long before Keanu Reeves featured in the Cyberpunk 2077 game, he was a part of the cyberpunk classic action flick, The Matrix. The first Matrix film is arguably one of the best sci-fi films ever made. The Matrix tells the story of a man named Thomas A. Anderson who spends his mundane life in New York working as a computer programmer. However, he spends his nights as a computer hacker known as his pseudonym Neo who tends to run into trouble due to his illegal activities. Neo grows suspicious of the superficial reality he is living in which leads him to meet Morpheus who makes him realize the truth about this world. And what is this truth about this world you may ask? Well, that nothing is real! I am sure you are aware of all the ‘We are in a simulation’ memes and conspiracy theories. The Matrix film series is one of the biggest reasons why this idea is so mainstream. There’s also The Matrix Revolutions and The Matrix Reloaded which followed the original film, completing the trilogy. However, the fourth film is what made it a perfect film series for me. The Matrix Resurrections which hit theatres in 2021 featured a plot that is eerily meta. The film actually takes a hit at the studios pushing for a fourth installment in the franchise by mentioning that Warner Bros (The studios actually behind the film trilogy) will move forward with the project with or without the original talent involved in it!
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
I did not feel like missing out on Avengers: Age of Ultron while talking about films that feature AI. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Iron Man’s personal AI assistant JARVIS actually inspired Mark Zuckerberg to build his own AI assistant, so it’s only natural that one film from the MCU makes it to the list. In the film, Tony Stark aka Iron Man and Bruce Banner aka Hulk join hands to build artificial intelligence that can act as a ‘suit of armor around the world.’ However, things quickly south when the AI becomes sentient and hacks his way into JARVIS and corrupts him. The evil AI then binds itself with one of Iron Man’s prototype robots to mobilize himself and eventually builds a strong alloy suit to take over the world and end the Avengers. Ultron also manages to get his hand on one of the infinity stones to build a vibranium-based android body for himself, but ultimately fails to do so. To the unversed, Vibranium is the strongest metal in the fictional Marvel universe across the films and comic books. The film can be easily discredited as ‘kids entertainment’ actually shares a profound narration on AI and its relationship with humans. Ultron, just two minutes after its creation connects itself to the internet and goes through the entire human history to quickly come to a conclusion that we need to go extinct. Now, that’s scary!
- The Terminator (1984)
Another bleak take by humans on AI and how it can suddenly turn evil and start killing everyone. If AI ever becomes as intelligent as portrayed in films and ends up watching the films mentioned in the list then am not sure what will be its reaction, interesting to say the least. The Terminator illustrates the possibility of AI becoming an existential threat to humans. In the film, Skynet, an AI system sends a cyborg assassin back in time to prevent the birth of John Connor who in the future will lead a rebel group against Skynet. This film is a warning to humanity about creating an AI which could potentially end us all! Terminator 2 is definitely one of the best sequels made by Hollywood, however, the rest of the Terminator films can be skipped as they tend to stretch a simple plot into multiple stories which just don’t work as effectively as they should.
So here we are at the end of the line, having seen some of the best AI films you can ever imagine. Some honorary mentions of this list include – WALL-E, Chappie, Tron: Legacy, The Iron Giant, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Superintelligence. Diving into these films to get entertained and amused is just fine, in fact, that is what films are primarily meant for. However, they also share a deep commentary on human beings and our dependence on technology. Whether AI takes over the world or ends up becoming the tool that allows humanity to grow into its next chapter is yet to be seen. But these films unquestionably put forward perspectives and asks questions about the future of the human condition.