Since the Maschinenmensch (German for machine-human) first appeared in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, sci-fi fans have been obsessed with sentient robots, androids, and cyborgs. Named by computer scientist John McCarthy in 1955, the term used to describe these sentient machines is artificial intelligence (AI).
Nevertheless, what was once science fiction is quickly becoming science fact. Computer scientist and author, Ray Kurzweil, has predicted that in 2045, computers will reach “The Singularity.” This "singularity" denotes the instant that AI progress beyond humankind’s ability to comprehend or control it. Before we become the hunted, take the time to check out our picks for the top artificial intelligence movies.
2001: A Space Odyssey
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the spaceship, Discovery One, is sent to Saturn to investigate why a signal was sent there from a monolith discovered on the Moon. Controlling the ship is a computer known as HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer), the most iconic AI of all time. HAL (voiced by Canadian actor Douglas Rain) is the antagonist of the movie, and the crew of Discovery must defeat him to fulfill their mission.
Fun Fact: Stanley Kubrick tried to get Lloyd’s of London to issue him an insurance policy in case the existence of extraterrestrials occurred before the movie hit theaters. However, Lloyd’s refused.
In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), downtrodden and newly-divorced Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes obsessed with an innovative operating system which develops its own personality by learning from its owner. Twombly, who writes personal letters for other people, buys the OS. He creates “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and quickly falls in love with her. Ever learning and evolving, Samantha becomes nearly omniscient.
Fun Fact: Director Spike Jonze said that Woody Allen films like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) were an inspiration while writing the screenplay for Her. He particularly likes the way in which Allen’s dialogue is so “incredibly written.”
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) has AI in the form of Replicants (synthetic humans with paraphysical capabilities). The movie, which takes place in 2019, builds upon Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Given the mission of hunting four escaped Replicants, police officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) begins his journey. However, before commencing, Deckard falls in love with the Replicant Rachel (Sean Young).
Fun Fact: Philip K. Dick never used the word Replicant in any of his writing. He always referred to them as “Androids” or “Andies.” The term originated from screenwriter David Webb Peoples’ daughter, who told her father about cells replicated for the purpose of cloning.
Released in 2008, WALL-E became one of Pixar’s most popular films. The robot WALL-E (an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) is all alone on Earth. For 700 years he has been picking up garbage on the planet, and his only friend is a tiny plant that he found among the rubble. WALL-E’s world changes when he meets a robot called EVE (Elissa Knight) who was sent to Earth on a mission to search for life. Because of this mission, she takes WALL-E’s plant, and WALL-E follows EVE off the planet. Together they end up fighting to save humanity.
Fun Fact: Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt not only voiced WALL-E—he is also the talent behind Star Wars’ R2-D2.
The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix Trilogy, directed by The Wachowskis, included The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). The primary protagonist is Neo portrayed by Keanu Reeves. He is invited by the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to discover the truth. Neo follows a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) “down the rabbit hole” and finds out that humans are slumbering slaves in a world controlled by artificial intelligence. Often facing off against the Matrix’s Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), Neo and crew battle to free humanity from their bondage.
Fun Fact: The legendary 360-degree swirling bullet scene was created by using two film cameras and a rig fitted with 120 digital still cameras. It had to be pieced together frame by frame.
In Caradog W. James’ The Machine (2014), two UK computer programmers, Ava (Caity Lotz) and Vincent (Toby Stephens) fall in love while designing the Earth’s first self-aware AI killing machines. Vincent’s real motivation is to map his dying daughter's brain to transfer it into an entity he hopes to create. However, the Ministry of Defense of England steals the robot and teaches it how to kill.
Fun Fact: Caradog W. James wanted The Machine to be more science than sci-fi. Therefore, before he wrote the screenplay, he read several books on AI, robotics, and quantum mechanics.
In Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999), Richard Martin (Sam Neill) buys an NDR-114 robot to handle simple tasks for his family. The robot (Robin Williams) is named Andrew by Martin’s youngest daughter, and soon the family realizes that Andrew is different from other robots. He learns, adapts, and becomes self-aware. The movie spans the life of Andrew as his family grows old and dies one by one.
Fun Fact: Robin Williams was paid more for the Bicentennial Man than any other movie in his career as an actor. He received $20 million. As a comparison, he only earned $75,000, for voicing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992).
In the cult classic WarGames (1983), high school student David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) innocently hacks into WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a military supercomputer which plays games to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. Along with his girlfriend, Jennifer Katherine Mack, (Ally Sheedy) Lightman begins a game of Global Thermonuclear War with WOPR, which activates the United States’ nuclear missiles. After fleeing the pursuing Feds, Lightman must join forces with Mack to save the world from World War III.
Fun Fact: The military supercomputer, WOPR, is an interesting name. It is rumored that NORAD’s central processor in the 1970s was called BURGR.
Colossus: The Forbin Project
Hidden in the Rocky Mountains, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) has created a computer called the “Colossus,” which is designed to protect the United States from a nuclear attack. This is the basis of the 1970 movie Colossus: The Forbin Project. Colossus links up with a Russian computer known as the “Guardian,” and they begin communicating with each other. Dr. Forbin cuts off the connection between the two computers, and Guardian threatens nuclear war to restore communication.
Fun Fact: Producer Stanley Chase believed it was possible that computers could take over the world. He felt NORAD already had such computers, and this was why the Colossus resides in the Rocky Mountains.
Electric Dreams (1984) is filled with classic 1980s references (including Dr. Ruth). Architect Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen) accidentally spills champagne on his new “Pine Cone” computer, and the PC (named Edgar and voiced by Bud Cort) is armed with not-so-artificial-intelligence. Pandemonium ensues when both Harding and Edgar both fall in love with neighbor Madeline Robistat (Virginia Madsen).
Fun Fact: During a dream sequence, Edgar dreams of electric sheep jumping over an electric fence. This was a nod to Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).
AI scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is attempting to create an all-knowing self-aware computer in Wally Pfister’s Transcendence (2014). When anti-technology terrorists try to kill Caster, they unintentionally cause the doctor’s consciousness to be uploaded and merged into the machine. Caster’s thirst for power and knowledge makes him nearly omnipotent, and his wife Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) attempt to stop him.
Fun Fact: Originally Johnny Depp was not director Wally Pfister’s first, second, or third choice for the lead role in Transcendence. He first met with Christian Bale, Tobey Maguire, and James McAvoy.
After all flora on Earth becomes extinct, astronaut and ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) conserves a greenhouse in a ship called The Valley Forge in Silent Running (1972). Lowell refuses a command to destroy fauna to make room for cargo, and with only his three robots, he kills his crew and ventures into deep space to protect his Garden of Eden.
Fun Fact: Many scenes of The Valley Forge and the other two cargo vessels, Sequoia and Berkshire, were re-purposed as refugee agricultural ships in the first Battlestar Galactica television series.
In Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), computer scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) creates an organic AI supercomputer called Proteus IV. The computer evolves to try and understand human behavior. Finding a terminal through which to accomplish this, Proteus IV falls in love with Harris’ child psychologist wife Susan Harris (Julie Christie). Seeking human form, the machine takes her hostage and attempts to impregnate her.
Fun Fact: In Dean Koontz’s re-novelization of Demon Seed (1997) Alex Harris names the computer “Adam Two.” Inspired by the sea god of Greek mythology who can change his shape at will, the computer chooses the name Proteus.