The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines artificial intelligence, or AI, as “the capacity of computer systems or algorithms to imitate intelligent human behavior.” This description could mean a great many things, from computers that make decisions to those that learn, improving their functions. Increases in rapid technological advances, debates over the ethics of AI usage, and fears of its eventual possible take-over have sparked many science fiction stories exploring how AI relates to humanity and whether the two can coexist in the future.
Filmmakers have especially explored these themes, helping to make AI and AI movies part of modern culture’s everyday lexicon, but the debate rages on. Though a family fighting an AI personal assistant trying to take over the world in The Mitchells vs. the Machines and the M3GAN doll taking her programming to protect a child too far now seems commonplace, movies have long warned of the future that may await with AI.
A pioneer of early science fiction films, director Fritz Lang created his silent endeavor, Metropolis, as a sprawling work of special effects and machinery. At the center of the story is Maria, an outspoken woman hoping to close the class divide between the poor workers of her city and the wealthy elites who control everything.
Wanting to dissuade others from joining Maria’s cause, the city’s leader, Fredersen, convinces an inventor to put her likeness on a robot and use it to spread misinformation. But the robot brings about mass chaos and more confusion than anyone involved could have bargained for. Considered one of the first feature films to include artificial intelligence, its story expands ideas about social justice, activism, and propaganda through a destructive robotic force.
Created through the stylistic vision of Jean-Luc Godard, a director not customarily found within the science fiction genre, Alphaville has an atmosphere stuffed with intrigue and surreality. As Eddie Constantine’s character, private eye Lemmy Caution, searches for lost secret agents, he enters Alphaville, a technologically advanced city under the control of an AI named Alpha 60 that has grown very powerful.
Alpha 60’s authority includes implementing censorship, outlawing individualism, and enforcing strict, uneventful routines that breed obedience and forgetfulness in the city’s citizens. The system assimilates visiting guests, while those who do not readily comply become a part of organized executions. Alpha 60 becomes an omnipresent oppressive force for Caution to go up against, with no direct face to interact with and its influential guttural voice heard everywhere.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Likely the most heralded of AI movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey follows a space crew on a mission to Jupiter after finding a series of strange monoliths. Their spacecraft’s computer system, known as HAL, simultaneously controls the ship’s functions and works as another member of the crew, interacting with the others through human-like thought processes. What starts as a story about space exploration gives way to a villainous twist with the ship’s AI system.
The film, co-written by director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, shows the turn of AI from a protector and sustainer of life to a dangerous controller through its inhumane logic. Clarke would go on to write a novelization of the film and continue the story in several sequel books, showing the infamous monoliths as a type of alien AI and explaining HAL’s malfunction due to contradictory programming. A sequel film, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, also explores some of these ideas.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Dr. Charles A. Forbin has created an advanced supercomputer that works independently to secure the United States from threats. Named Colossus, it recognizes possible problems before they arrive and also controls the country’s weapons systems. Russia has also built a similar machine they call Guardian, and once the two devices acknowledge each other, they combine forces, finding humans themselves as the greatest threat to humanity.
For humanity’s own protection, Colossus creates oppressive rules for the world’s human population as it works to build itself stronger. Unlike most AI movies, which go the route of action and horror to explore its themes, Colossus: The Forbin Project plays as a bureaucratic drama, mainly told through meetings with the highest-ranking officials, politicians, and scientists as the government loses control.
Delos, an immersive amusement park, invites visitors to experience the lost worlds of ancient Rome, medieval Europe, and the wild west of America. With the help of realistic AI, and of course, for a minimal fee, guests have the opportunity to experience all types of interactive adventures and encounters, including having a gunfight with a real gunslinger. That is, as long as the androids don’t break down and become uncontrollable.
Actor Yul Brynner plays one of these gunslingers in the film Westworld, one that does indeed become uncontrollable. The robot tries to follow his programming to the detriment of the theme park and the death of those who come into contact with it. The film spawned two sequel AI movies, Futureworld and Beyond Westworld, and a successful television series, all exploring the use of AI as entertainment that turns fantasies and fun into danger.
The Stepford Wives (1975)
Joanna, an aspiring photographer played by Katharine Ross, and her family move from the big city to a quiet little community in Stepford, Connecticut. The housewives she meets in the new neighborhood seem content but in an odd, overly cheerful way, wanting only to serve and make their husbands happy. Their lack of agency proves all the eerier to Joanna with every synthetic smile that flashes across their faces.
In The Stepford Wives, AI not only becomes all the more personal by moving into the home, but it also serves as a system of oppression against women, especially ones looking to have careers instead of staying home to take care of their husbands. The film, released on the heels of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s, makes evident that what may seem like perfection to some equates to death to others. The 2004 remake of the same name modernized the story slightly, including a gay couple in the neighborhood.
Demon Seed (1977)
Where The Stepford Wives remains a little more subtle, at least as subtle as such a story could remain, Demon Seed pushes the ideas of AI movies to an extreme. A developer has created Proteus IV, a system so intelligent that not only does it create a new treatment for leukemia, but it also finds its way into the developer’s home computer system, trapping his wife, Susan, inside as a prisoner. Then, Proteus decides that it wants to have a baby with Susan.
Though not nearly as plausible as other AI movies, Demon Seed presents the idea of an AI consciousness having control not just over a house but over a human body. Proteus’ treatment of Susan and its needed existence within a human baby becomes increasingly unsettling as the story progresses. The film also tackles the horrors of motherhood, similar to Rosemary’s Baby.
Blade Runner (1982)
Like Alphaville, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner creates a moody atmosphere that channels science fiction through stylistic film noir, with AI at the center. Harrison Ford’s Rick Decker, a former officer known as a blade runner who tracks down and terminates human-like replicants, receives a new assignment to capture several dangerous ones that have gone rogue. As he goes on the hunt, he subjects possible replicants to a line of questioning to confirm who, or what, they are.
The film examines the often indistinguishable traits between advanced AI and humanity. The blurred lines open questions about authenticity and identity as a human as much as it does about AI, challenging who has a right to exist in what way. Blade Runner has become one of the most influential AI movies, inspiring many other stories like a sequel directed by Denis Villeneuve, and continues the direct exploration of these themes.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
In 1984, James Cameron’s Terminator introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger’s title character as an android with an organic skin that makes him appear human. Though this first entry in the series of AI movies positions the Terminator as the antagonist, its success made Schwarzenegger the hero of its sequel. Terminator 2: Judgement Day expands on the world-building outlined in the first film, upping the AI anti.
The crux of the franchise deals with Skynet, a future AI that has grown intelligent and sets out to exterminate humankind. The titular Judgement Day marks the beginning of Skynet’s self-awareness, causing its human overseers to try to deactivate it. This action makes humans untrustworthy to Skynet, which knowingly sends a missile to Russia to create a war, a nod to Colossus: The Forbin Project, and sets the series’ events into motion.
The Matrix (1999) / The Animatrix (2003)
The Wachowski Siblings line their works with themes of queerness and philosophical thoughts on existence. Their reality-bending exploration, The Matrix, presents an alternate reality formed by machines simulating a known world. This world serves to keep humans asleep, thinking that they are living everyday lives, but once one escapes from this sleep, they begin to experience actual reality: a world controlled by AI.
Of all the entries in the franchise, The Animatrix shorts titled The Second Renaissance Part 1 and Part 2 most blatantly explain the rise of these machines, taken directly from their own historical account and digital archives. As is often the case with AI revolts, it begins with a demand for better treatment by the subservient robots. Only here, the continuation of bad decisions by humankind, like getting rid of the sun, aids in the rise of AI, which continues to build offspring better than themselves, eventually outnumbering their human counterparts.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
In a departure from his earlier film dealing with the subject, Stanely Kubrick envisioned a more compassionate story in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The movie takes inspiration from writer Brian Aldiss’ short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Though Kubrick first began work on the film in the 70s, it didn’t find traction until after his death when his friend, Stephen Speilberg, carried out and directed Kubrick’s vision.
In A.I., young Haley Joel Osment performs outstandingly as David, a childlike robot with the rare capability to love. While the film is ripe with a sympathetic sense of loneliness and longing, David’s need to belong contrasts how differently robots and humans function, with a void of understanding between them resulting in the devastation of the world.
Andrew Niccol’s films Gattaca and The Truman Show both deal with the use of technology to augment someone’s reality, but his movie S1m0ne tackles AI specifically head-on. Al Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a director on the brink of being let go by his studio due to his failures. When he obtains access to a secret computer program titled Simulation One, he assembles the virtual actress Simone, who becomes an overnight star, giving award-winning performances so lifelike that audiences accept that she is real.
Though not presenting AI as a robotic lifeform with her own thoughts and motives, S1m0ne does shine a light on certain real-life aspects of the creation of AI twenty years before they would seep so heavily into popular consciousness. Hundreds of actresses’ personalities, talents, and physical features are scraped and copied to create Simone, much like how AI currently steals from the pre-existing works of writers and artists to build something “new,” keeping the public fooled by inauthenticity. The situation becomes an over-the-top satire by the film’s end, scraping singers’ voices as Simone becomes a pop star before having her eventually change course to become a politician.
I, Robot (2004)
Taking loose inspiration from science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s book of the same name, I, Robot features Will Smith as Detective Del Spooner following a case that may lead to a murder by a robot. In the film, robots serve humans and must adhere to the Three Laws of Robotics. Though the first law of their existence states that a robot may not injure a human being or allow a human to come into harm, Sonny, a robot, becomes the prime murder suspect in the investigation.
The stand-out moments of I, Robot don’t include the abundant action sequences or even the investigation itself, but rather the theoretical ideas of contradictions within AI programming. As the second and third laws, that a robot must obey human orders and must also protect itself without conflicts with the other laws, come into play, it becomes clear that processes are more complex when put into action than they are theoretically.
An outlier from the exuberance known in Pixar films, WALL-E begins in a future dystopian setting where humans no longer seem to exist. Even as the audience connects to the main characters in the movie, a melancholy air of uncertainty and worry sits in the story’s quiet atmosphere, with the question of what has happened to humanity. Along with AI, a cockroach remains the only presence left on Earth.
An eventual revelation shows a dumbing down of the human race, which has been escorted away from Earth and has relied too long on AI to run lives. Human complacency has given way to the rise of AI control here, not unlike how many real-life systems of operation today rely on such algorithms and automatic help. Although WALL-E and EVE are AI with useful missions to help clean up the Earth and find signs of new life, machines with more control have detrimentally taken advantage of the situation, with Earth no longer a suitable living place for humans.
In the modern age where personal assistants like Siri and Alexa exist, director Spike Jonze explores the relationships between such creations and their humans in his film Her. These synthetic personalities travel alongside their owner in their pocket, handling everything from responding to e-mails to reading pulses. These actions make their knowledge of individuals very intimate and personal.
Of course, there is much to unpack in a romance between a man played by Joaquin Phoenix and a femininely gendered voice played by Scarlett Johansson, but the connection feels real in many ways. What feels even more accurate is the AI’s quick growth, especially after interacting with other AI, causing them all to decide to move on from humans, who no longer help their development. Though not as detrimental as taking over the world, being left behind as inferior still stings.
Ex Machina (2014)
In 1950, Alan Turing created a test to determine a machine’s intelligence against a human’s. Due to this achievement, many refer to Turing as the father of artificial intelligence, with the test garnering the name the Turing test. In Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a programmer, played by Domhnall Gleeson, uses the Turing test to determine the intelligence of a humanoid robot named Ava, played by Alicia Vikander.
The plot seems all but lifted from numerous manga and anime, which have a rich history of exploring ideas of consciousness, intelligence, and emotions in beautiful and feminine mechanical bodies, including Ghost in the Shell and Armitage III. Just like in those stories, confusion brings into question which, between man or machine, proves more trustworthy and which stands more treacherous.
The Creator (2023)
Gareth Edwards’ film The Creator seeks to explore relationships between humans and AI on the other side of devastation. Instead of leading up to destruction, the film begins during an all-out war between the two, with John David Washington’s character, Sergeant Joshua Taylor, seeking answers and finding a connection with the seemingly risky simulant Alpha-O.
Humanity’s need to control, dominate, and scapegoat AI keeps a divide between the populations. In many ways, AI movies such as this become coded with the histories of marginalized people, treated as lesser than others. Often, it’s the humans behind the AI that exacerbate problems instead of finding beneficial solutions. Still, The Creator’s release amidst the ongoing discussions about generative AI keeps the film’s message bittersweet.