From Robocop to WALL-E, cinema has spent decades imagining our wildest dreams and worst nightmares surrounding the limitless potential of artificial intelligence. Over the years, sentience on screen has taken a variety of forms - but as technological advances bridge the gap between science fiction and science fact, one thing remains clear: AI is already with us - and it’s here to stay. We’ve rounded up ten movies that will take you to an alternate reality. Not only that, but they perfectly encapsulate the raw power and thought-provoking nature of this world-changing technological breakthrough. Let’s jump in with a classic!
The Matrix. Dirs: Lana and Lilly Wachowski - 1999
It’s been more than two decades since Directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski invited us to take the red pill and enter The Matrix, a film that introduced the idea that real life isn’t what it seems. Set in a near future where the human race has been enslaved by a robotic AI, placed inside a computer simulation and used as a power source, its high concept story was matched by its eye-popping special effects, cementing its status as a modern day sci-fi classic. As slacker hacker Mr Anderson (Keanu Reeves) realises his true destiny as cyber saviour Neo, the reality-questioning nature of The Matrix struggles to stay inside the confines of the screen.
Ex Machina. Dir: Alex Garland - 2014
The plot of author-turned-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina reads like something ripped straight from tech site Wired. A billionaire genius invites a young programmer to his remote compound to spend a week testing the authenticity of his latest creation - a female humanoid robot named Ava. Kitted out with the latest synthetic consciousness technology, the end goal is to identify whether this artificial intelligence is indeed capable of independent thought. However before long the lines separating logic and emotion begin to blur, with deadly results. For his directorial debut, Garland presents us with an uncanny AI while inviting us to question what exactly constitutes as a living being.
The Terminator. Dir: James Cameron - 1984
Not only is The Terminator one of the most popular science fiction movies ever made, it may be responsible for sowing the seeds of society’s simmering fear of artificial intelligence. In it, soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is sent back in time to 1984 to stop a robot assassin from killing the woman who’ll ultimately give birth to the future’s only hope against a deadly robot threat. While James Cameron’s dystopian epic may be best known for introducing Arnold Schwarzenegger to mainstream audiences, it also brought a new existential anxiety to viewers across the globe. What happens when robots start thinking for themselves - and how would we react if they decide we’re no longer needed?
Blade Runner. Dir: Ridley Scott, 1982
Based on author Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Director Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir plunged us into a smog-filled, neon-lit future where humans and artificial intelligence co-exist. Superior in strength and almost indistinguishable from their biological creators, these robots - or Replicants as they’re referred to - are limited only by their short four year lifespans. However when a group goes rogue in a violent coup to secure equality, it’s up to Harrison Ford’s future cop Rick Deckard to stop them in their tracks. The longevity of Dick and Scott’s combined vision of the future is a testament to the raw power of its subject matter. Who gets to decide what consciousness really is? It’s a topic we’re still grappling with.
Short Circuit. Dir: John Badham, 1986
Artificial intelligence isn’t all doom, gloom and robotic uprisings. The wide-eyed Number Five, first introduced in Director John Badham’s 1986 comedy Short Circuit, proved that some sentient machines are content to live peacefully alongside humanity. Originally a high-tech weapon of war, a fortuitous lightning strike transformed this combat creation into a wise-cracking, high-spirited gadget with a newfound lust for life. Number Five (or Johnny Five as he later renamed himself) taught us that we don’t always have to fear man-made consciousness - sometimes all they want to do is read books and hang out with Ally Sheedy. Revisit Number Five in the trailer below.
Her. Dir: Spike Jonze - 2013
Director Spike Jonze pushed the potential of our relationship with computers to new and unexpected places with his tech-tinged romance, Her. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely introvert who develops a tender relationship with his AI virtual assistant Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johannson. While the two never physically meet, they strike up a deep bond that forces both Theodore - and us - to question the ingredients needed to curate a meaningful, emotional experience. Despite being set in the not-too-distant future, Her touches upon experiences that are already present in our everyday lives. Don’t believe us? Just ask Alexa.
WALL-E. Dir: Andrew Stanton - 2008
Another electronic love story, Pixar’s unapologetically sentimental animation WALL-E paints a romantic picture that skips humanity altogether. It’s the near future and, rather unsurprisingly, we’ve squandered Earth’s valuable resources. While we head to the stars in search of a fertile new home, a batch of cleaner robots are left to sort out our mess. It’s here where one such bot - the glossy eyed WALL-E - falls head over wheels for Eva, a drone sent to search for new biological life on Earth. Touching and tear-jerking, it’s an adventure that proposes the idea that AI’s ultimately won’t need humans at all as long as they have each other.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir: Stanley Kubrik - 1968
Our day to day lives are so intertwined with technology that it’s hard to know where we end and computer-thinking begins. However what happens when our increasingly intelligent helpers decide to stop following our orders? Visionary director Stanley Kubrick explored this very idea (alongside plenty of other equally-hefty existential chin-strokers) in his 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It showed us how our tangled reliance on tech can spectacularly backfire, as intelligent spaceship computer H.A.L 9000 turns on the very astronauts it was designed to serve. Emotionless and unblinking - never has a simple red light been so terrifying.
Robocop. Dir: Paul Verhoeven - 1987
By meshing humans and advanced robotics, the scientists in Paul Vehoeven’s gory 1987 shoot-em-up RoboCop created the chrome-plated future of law enforcement, inadvertently mirroring many of the military advancements we see today. However before they decided to transport doomed cop Alex Murphy’s (Peter Weller) body into its new robotic home, they created ED-209, the lumbering police machine that had a rather unflinching view on the differences between right and wrong. In the movie’s now-infamous boardroom scene, Verhoeven relishes in illustrating the resolute - and bloody - nature of artificial intelligence. See for yourself below - you have twenty seconds to comply...
AI: Artificial Intelligence. Dir: Steven Spielberg - 2001
Few films delve deeper into the profound questions posed by computer consciousness than Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence. Released in 2001, it follows David, a young boy robot designed to help a couple deal with the absence of their ill son. When their biological child makes an unlikely recovery, David is soon cast aside and embarks on a personal journey to become a real boy and secure the love from his adopted mother that he so craves. Throughout, Spielberg asks us to ponder our collective responsibility when it comes to creating artificial life and the tricky, real-world quandaries it would likely bring that aren’t as easily answered.