In the midst of our excitement for this week’s release of Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (which is fantastic and reviewed here), it hit us: 2015 is teeming with artificial intelligence movies. The Singularity is not far off and this swell has practically come out of nowhere, with last year’s awesome Disney hit “Big Hero 6,” the disastrous Johnny Depp vehicle “Transcendence,” and 2013’s British indie-sleeper “The Machine” amounting to most of what the subgenre has had to offer in the decade so far (though not all, as we’ll mention). As a way to compensate for this human error, 2015 is going to be much more artificially and intelligently inclined, with the theme replete in a variety of mainstream and indie sci-fi films.
We’ve already seen “Chappie” (or, we’ve seen it so that you don’t have to, though some of us found it unnecessarily humiliated by the critics). This week comes the aforementioned Garland movie, and coming soon is Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Don’t forget that “Terminator” is back this year, with ‘Genisys’ coming to theatres in the summer. Not enough? The theme will have appropriate representation on the small screen in the form of Jonathan Nolan’s “Westworld,” premiering on HBO later in the year.
It’s as good a time as any to talk about some A.I. films we deem essential viewing in the sub-genre’s library. Note that this article is about A.I. films, not A.I. characters, so all you fans of C3PO, Ash, Data, Gunslinger and so forth should curb that Internet rage. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future we’ll talk about our favorite A.I. characters.
In the meantime, we invite you to download this list of 10 essential A.I. films into your mainframes and input your thoughts in the designated section.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
Some things in life really are impossible. Discussing A.I. movies without mentioning Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is up there next to sneezing with your eyes open. An obvious choice way before this feature even entered embryonic stage, ‘2001’ is believed to be the quintessential sci-fi film by just about anyone with knowledge of the subject. The film is divided into four distinct acts, and the third one is the narrative nucleus and which that concerns us here. It finds astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) on a mission to Jupiter aboard a spaceship controlled and monitored by sentient computer HAL 9000 (voiced in impeccable monotone by Douglas Rain). Of all ‘2001’s’ grandiose themes concerned with human evolution and the spiritual dimensions of the universe, the one that’s mired in as little ambiguity as possible is the theme of man’s design and relationship with artificial intelligence, iconicized in the deep red glare of HAL’s lip-reading camera eye. Every scene featuring HAL is an archetypal blueprint for every single A.I. to appear in movies after 1968. Its design and computational incapacity for compassion broke new ground thanks to Kubrick’s perfectionist direction and supervision by the film’s co-author Arthur C. Clarke, who made sure the science made sense. Today, HAL is the number one model of authentic A.I. depiction in film, and so deeply entrenched in culture, not even Apple could ignore it. Go on, ask Siri if she can open the pod bay doors.
“A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001)
From one realized A.I. -themed Kubrick project to another. Though “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” never ended up getting realized by Kubrick himself. The history of the production is as familiar as including a film called “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” in an article about A.I. movies is obvious: decades of tinkering with the project and waiting for special effects to catch up ended with Kubrick handing the reigns to his good pal Steven Spielberg in 1995. After Kubrick’s death, Spielberg made good on his promise by successfully directing the picture with Haley Joel Osment in the role of David, the Pinocchio-like A.I. who wants nothing more in life than to be a real boy for his mom (Frances O’Connor). Equal parts family melodrama and fairytale adventure, Spielberg kept his signature saccharine injections to a minimum with ‘A.I,’ directing a film that in its design and overarching theme of anthropomorphizing machines is very much a Kubrick production in spirit. But with family separation as its core emotional pulse, ‘A.I.’ is very much a Spielberg film as well; one that is passing the test of time with flying colors. Characters like David (most likely to remain Osment’s greatest performance), Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), and that adorable Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel) are some of the most fleshed out A.I. characters of all time. Full of unforgettable scenes, such as David’s emotional activation or the anti-Mecha Flesh Fair that plays out like a dystopian gladiator show, ‘A.I.’ is secured, alongside the preceding entry and the one following, to always be a part of this conversation.
“Blade Runner” (1982)
Where ‘2001’ pushes cerebral buttons and ‘A.I.’ pushes emotional ones, here’s a film that goes for both and blurs the line between man and machine in haunting ways: Ridley Scott’s neon-noir sci-fi “Blade Runner.” The retrofitted production design of Los Angeles circa 2019 (not too far along now) is today the stuff of legend, tirelessly replicated by scores of sci-fi films, TV series and video games. Its massive cult following got a recent boost when the long-awaited sequel was officially announced earlier this year, reigniting interest in the familiar dystopian world. Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to hunt down “illegal” Nexus-6 Replicants led by the existentially burdened Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Gaff’s (Edward James Olmos) mysterious origamis, the Voigt-Kompff empathy test, and that Asian lady plastered all over the billboards and blimps as the face of multi-cultural consumerism. Everything that makes “Blade Runner” a landmark A.I. movie has been permanently downloaded into popular culture. It introduced Philip K. Dick’s work to a much larger audience (the movie is an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), inspired the second greatest A.I. death/deactivation in cinema history, and wired thematically deep ideas of mortality, memory, and emotion with a cryptically believable evolution of A.I. . Soul-searching more than dreaming, “Blade Runner” is what happens when film noir and sci-fi merge to unforgettable effect.
“Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970)
Cold War paranoia was knotted into the post-WWII cinematic milieu with the freewheeling conjoining of a thousand tangled cables. The technological battles waged between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are satirized with scrumptious B-movie effect in “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” an A.I. movie that, much like its contemporary companion, next on the list, has seen its production values outdated but its interior circuits are still buzzing with excitable electricity. Dr. Forbin (Eric Braeden) has created supercomputer Colossus as a model for the world’s most intelligent nuclear defense mechanism. The Soviets, having learned about Colossus, build their own version and call it Guardian. Once a joint link is established between Colossus and Guardian, the two quickly develop a binary language only they can understand and move forward with their plan: colonize the world’s population for the greater good of humanity. Yikes! Even in light of its archaic production values, ‘Colossus’ has plenty going for it: eye-catching shot composition, directorial intelligence in framing, a surprisingly witty screenplay by James Bridges (that martini scene!), and an unforgettably bonkers score by Michel Colombier which establishes its status as a pseudo-psychedelic film noir. Its use of A.I. is quite ingenious as well; an artificially intelligent being understands the importance of cooperation better than puny humans and makes a chillingly logical case of justifying optimistic ends with malicious means by equating freedom with pride. But, hey, if that’s not enough for qualification, just wait until that voice synthesizer kicks in. 100% pure, retro joy.
“Demon Seed” (1977)
If only to refute the notion that every essential A.I. movie should be refined in every respect, Donald Cammell’s “Demon Seed” holds its own amongst our more palpable choices. Adapted from a Dean Koontz novel of the same name, “Demon Seed” is as brazenly entertaining a B-movie sci-fi horror hybrid as its campy title suggests. The narrative borders on the ridiculous: Dr. Harris (Fritz Weaver) is a scientist with a major God complex, alienating his wife Susan (Julie Christie) in the process of creating Proteus IV, a supercomputer with the kind of capacity for reason that renders the human brain obsolete. Once Proteus (voiced with a malignant sense of decorum by Robert Vaughn) starts requesting stuff, and Harris refuses, the A.I. infiltrates Harris’ home, takes control over his tech-operated house, and imprisons Susan in order to produce a child through her. There is indeed a special effects insemination sequence that looks like a Soviet cartoon designed by geometry nerds. Jerry Fielding’s overly bombastic score only makes matters more amusing. While it’s true that the expiration date for visceral thrills in “Demon Seed” are long behind us, the core concept of an A.I. who wishes to study the human body and transfer its intelligence unto human flesh is brilliant terrain for sci-fi horror (echoing the film’s final sentiments, that theme still very much alive as a metaphor). Co-written by MIT professor of physics Robert Jaffe, “Demon Seed” succeeds in blending brainless entertainment with a kind of hyper-intelligence befitting an evolved A.I. like Proteus. Think of it as a one-armed wheelchair that knows how to appeal directly to the amygdala.
“Ghost In The Shell” (1995)
You can draw a dotted line, starting with “Blade Runner,” passing through “Ghost in the Shell” and ending with “The Matrix” as a way to trace the origin and popularity of the neo-noir cyberpunk genre. It would also trace the evolution of A.I. movies. “There are only a few movies, even out of Hollywood, which clearly portray the influence and power of computers. I thought this theme would be more effectively conveyed through animation.” So said Mamoru Oshii, director of this celebrated anime based on the late 1980s manga series of the same name. What’s supremely compelling about ‘Ghost,’ besides its gorgeous look and Kenji Kawai’s mesmerizing score, is in the way it approaches the ubiquitous nature of technology: the story is set in a network more than a world, where any trace of one’s humanity is defined as one’s “ghost.” The cross-gendered cyborg protagonist Major Motoko waxes philosophical about conscience and identity, as if continuing where Roy Batty left off, and The Puppet Master is a cyber-terrorist “life form” who doesn’t think of itself as an A.I., but an organism that would’ve made the likes of Proteus proud. The sequel, “Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence,” is a worthy follow-up, but the original is essential, specifically in its thematic contribution of memory and identity to the sub-genre of A.I. movies.
As you can see from this list, science-fiction films set in an artificial intelligence milieu almost exclusively look at the world and this imagined technology through a cautionary dystopian lens. Which is what makes Spike Jonze’s “Her” so refreshing. Not only does this film frame A.I. within an optimistic and cheery-looking utopian border, but it reimagines the genre into a bittersweet romantic story. This isn’t because Jonze is reengineering the genre, but rather is using A.I. as a tool rather than the impetus for his movie. Instead of looking at technology as a force that will run amok when unchecked or created under dubious ethical circumstances, Jonze focuses on our modern day problems: how the newfound ability to connect with from afar in fact disconnects us and how that logically links to our growing inner alienation. “Her” is a story about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his sentient O.S. (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) —imagine Siri with personality that feels and thinks like a real person. And so while there’s A.I. at the center of this film, it’s deeply human: it’s a wistful movie essentially about love, reflecting on heartache and commenting on the reality of our many connections in the modern age. It’s aching and melancholy, but ultimately beautiful and hopeful. Given the rest of the films presented here, “Her” is maybe the most original A.I. movie we’ve seen thus far.
“The Matrix” (1999)
We know what you’re thinking; “The Matrix is…an A.I. movie? Whoa.” Whoa is right, friends. While it doesn’t speak to the theme of A.I. as directly as most of the other movies discussed here, this special effects phenomenon has its cyberpunk roots directly circuited around A.I. movies like “Tron” and aforementioned “Ghost In The Shell.” Moreover, the Wachowski siblings set their story in the simulated reality of the Matrix, which is controlled and monitored by sentient machines as a way of enslaving the human population while their corporeal bodies are harvested for energy. In this way, the theme of A.I. and its relation to humans seeps through the fiber optics of nearly every aspect of “The Matrix”: from Agent Smith’s (Hugo Weaving) existence as a sentient program (a good moment to remind everyone that A.I. doesn’t necessarily refer to artificially intelligent hardware, but artificially intelligent software as well) to the idea that humans have become so dangerously dependent on an artificial systems that they need “the One” to save them. When “The Matrix” blew up theatre screens in 1999, it heralded a new franchise, spawning two subpar sequels and the “Animatrix” anthology, parts of which detail the history of the world we see in the first film, and sure enough, it’s all connected to A.I. So next time you’re in conversation with someone who insists that “The Matrix” is all about “bullet-time” and stupendous action sequences, remind them of what lies beneath its polished special effects exterior: one of the most thoroughly compelling A.I. movies of all time. Then roundhouse kick them in slow-mo.
Fritz Lang’s monumental “Metropolis” is like an ancient scroll made of celluloid, revealing the depths, inventions and artistic heights of the silent era better than most of its contemporaries. Truth be told, its technical achievements in set and production design are the primary reason why almost a century later we still watch “Metropolis” with hearts aflutter and jaws a-dropped. It could suffice as our only truly essential A.I. movie due to the design and biomechanics behind the “False Maria” robot (directly inspiring the more culturally-inbred design of C3PO in “Star Wars”), as opposed to the thematic weight involved behind the concept of A.I. in movies, which evolved beyond this film’s on-the-nose religious parallels to something more complex and cerebral in future sci-fi films to come. Nevertheless, the tragic story of inventor Rotwang’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) “reincarnation” of his deceased lover as the Maschinenmensch is cinema’s A.I. prototype in both physical depiction and thematic roots. The idea of creating a machine out of emotional impulse has been carried through time and into films like ‘A.I.,’ while the threatening consequences built into the machine vs. human dynamic (as depicted by False Maria’s control of the people in “Metropolis”) has applied to every film on this list. In other words, ignoring “Metropolis” would defy all logic and make every A.I. from every movie featured here simultaneously self-destruct.
If artificial intelligence is a manifestation of our collective fear of technology, then James Cameron brought that anxiety to its logical apogee with his 1984 classic “The Terminator.” While known as a sci-fi film, it’s a horror film in the classic sense: there’s a relentless, unstoppable boogeyman at its center, who’s been sent from that evil future we worry about so much where the singularity has occurred. The seemingly unstoppable juggernaut is disguised as a human being and is tasked to kill the woman who will give birth to a chosen one who will eventually take down the A.I. that is hellbent on killing humanity (how’s that for crazy mindfuck?) Time-travel movie; horror; sci-fi; cautionary tale —Cameron’s movie has it all. On top of how genuinely scary the film is thanks to the hulking presence of Arnold Schwarzennegger, it’s terrifically shot, features great performances from Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn and terrifically staged action. It’s really no wonder why Hollywood keeps trying to recapture the magic of the first film (and the sequel, which was reimagined as a straight action film) with remakes, reboots, redo-overs and TV shows. It’s a classic through and through, burrowing deep into the elemental unease about A.I. and distilling the elements into terrifying archetypes.
A ton of ideas were thrown around for this feature, and once we settled on 10 movies, we begrudgingly started to anticipate this section. Among the most notable movies that were close in making the cut were “Tron,” “D.A.R.Y.L.” and “WarGames.” Films like “Alphaville” and “The Iron Giant,” were deemed a bit of a cheat since their A.I. came from alien planets, and we wanted to throw some emphasis on the human element in the genre. “Westworld” is good fun but questionable as essential viewing, and “I, Robot” could’ve been such a contender but turned into something of a Hollywoodized bum.
Got any favorites of your own? Proceed to input. —Nikola Grozdanovic & Rodrigo Perez.