Artificial intelligence and machine learning is a big tech topic these days, but the concept of intelligent computers, robots with human-like behavior and rogue futuristic machines has been depicted in cinema for almost 100 years.
We’ve selected our favorite films featuring artificial intelligence from the silver screen. These are personal choices.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Where else to start than with Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence from the turn of the 21st century. The project was originally started by Stanley Kubrick, but was never released. It is an adaptation of Supertoys Last All Summer Long - a short story from 1969 by British sci-fi author, Brian Aldis.
The story is the tale of David, a robot boy that has been programmed with the ability to love. After being integrated into the family of a Cybertronics employee, the AI embarks on a journey of self-discovery. The film toys with blurred lines between robot and machine, human and computer. It’s a modern-day Pinocchio for the digital age.
Let’s go right back to the beginning, and the first robot depicted on film. Not many will have seen Metropolis, but you’ll struggle to find someone who has not seen a film influenced by it. Set in 2026 in Berlin, director Fritz Lang depicts a futuristic utopia with a dark underbelly. Sound familiar?
In 2010 Metropolis was remastered with 25 minutes of additional footage added. The result is a 145-minute restored Dolby Digital version. With a budget of more than five million marks at the time of its original production, Metropolis is still the most expensive film ever made in Germany. Its influence on pop culture and cinema cannot be understated.
The original was in German, of course, but it's a silent movie. You can find versions where the on-screen text has been translated to English.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The 1968 classic by Stanley Kubrick is widely regarded as a sci-fi masterpiece. Four years after the release of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick had his mind set on making a new kind of science fiction movie, and that’s exactly what he pulled off.
The story takes place on Discovery One, a spaceship on a manned mission to Jupiter controlled by an AI assistant named HAL. Everything is going rosily until the AI starts to behave strangely. The film is often praised today for the accuracy of its future predictions, and not just in the Amazon Alexa/Google Assistant-like nature of the ship’s AI commander.
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowski brothers’ blend of dark, gritty ‘real world’ and a recognizable, modern computerized simulation was a sci-fi action hit in the late 90s. The film was lauded for its CGI camera moves and now-infamous ‘bullet time’ scenes, where machine agents and virtual representations of humans could dodge bullets.
It’s the classic tale of machines overthrowing humanity - in this case harvesting human energy for battery life, while keeping the world’s population trapped in a computer-generated simulation to maintain the illusion of the reality we know today. The follow-ups were underwhelming, but the original remains one of the most innovative action movies of its generation.
One of the more recent and emotionally powerful AI movies centers around the relation between letter-writer Theodore and an AI operating system, Samantha. The OS in the film is kind of like a suped-up version of Google Assistant, capable of complex tasks, human-like conversation and even sexual encounters.
The chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Theodore, and Scarlett Johansson’s OS performance is what makes this film so moving. The setting, which sits far enough in the future to be considered sci-fi, but close enough to the AI assistant-filled world we live in today, gives the film a weight that even the most cynical will struggle to be touched by.
Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland’s 2015 artificial intelligence film is a true sci-fi thriller. Despite looking gorgeous - it won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects - the story revolves around a Turing test to determine a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from humans.
Alicia Vikander plays the part of Ava, a beautiful self-aware robot that turns out to be more deceptive than its makers ever anticipated. It’s an elegant movie that constantly plays mind games with the viewer.
The Terminator (1984)
The role of cyborg assassin is perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most iconic performance. Directed by James Cameron, who went on to do Avatar and Titanic, The Terminator is an 80s action classic in which takes place amidst an unfolding future war between machines.
The sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) would also be a fitting addition to this list. After that, the series went downhill.
Another 80s classic that explores what happens when artificial intelligence goes rogue is WarGames. It’s a favorite of many film fans who were around to see it the first time around, just when home computers were entering homes and kids were starting to explore programming for the first time.
What is interesting about WarGames is how the film addresses the use of artificial intelligence in military warfare, something we are starting to becoming more and more relevant in today’s conflicts - not that we envisage a child hacker taking control of the US nuclear weapons system any time soon, of course.
Short Circuit (1986)
A personal favorite of mine, released the year I was born. Whilst it was certainly not as emotionally resonant as E.T. from 1982, Short Circuit certainly plays a lot of the same notes. The story surrounds an experimental military robot which, when struck by lightning, gains a more human-like intelligence.
Sure, it looked nothing like a human, but the film is drenched in 80s nostalgia and the way it handles machine learning is particularly interesting. When Number 5 (the robot) gets access to books, TV and other mediums of human culture, it develops a craving for ‘input’, developing more and more human-like behaviors as a result, as well as an addiction to the stimuli.
Wall-E, or Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth-class, is an intelligent robot trash collector that embarks on a tale of love and courtship. Pixar’s all-terrain robot is almost certainly a nod to Number 5 of Short Circuit, and it’s a heartwarming tale in the way that Pixar does so well.
This child-friendly movie attaches human emotion to a mechanical robot and whilst it is not as challenging a watch as some of the other films on our list, it’s a worthy artificial intelligence movie in its own right thanks to its slick animation and charm alone.
What is your favorite movie that features artificial intelligence or machine learning? Let us know in the comments.