The human desire to procreate, to duplicate and to live beyond mortality is as old as humanity itself. From the oldest cave paintings to the latest 3D movie release, we have explored the nature of the human condition by expressing stories of who we are and the purpose of existence. With each passing generation, we pass on more than our DNA but our ideas, values and beliefs.
As technological understanding has progressed, so has our thirst for knowledge. Nothing has demonstrated humanity’s hungry ego more than our journey to become gods ourselves, to master the creation of life by creating a new species in the form of Artificial Intelligence. Below are the 10 best movies that explore the subject of A.I..
Part of the success of Tron is that it spoke to the audience’s imagination that perhaps the computer games they’re playing at the arcade have a life of their own and what would happen if you were pulled into the game? That simple premise is easy to identify with, perhaps more so today, so when the filmmakers designed the aesthetic of the film to resemble a city within a computer, they had created a winning combination.
Tron is the story of a man who finds himself trapped inside a computer game, where he has to battle digital characters and becomes embroiled in various chases, all in the hopes of thwarting a hostile take-over. The security program of ENCOM has become self aware and is doing all it can do to protect the company, this is meant to creat an online city where ‘programs’ resemble the human characters who created them.
It is a novel idea and difficult to explain but the film is effective in communicating this to the audience. The special effects were years ahead of mainstream filmmaking as this was one of the first films to be made almost entirely as computer generated.
The Tron characters, the programs, such as Clu, Sark, Ram, are fully self-aware sentient beings, they understand that they have been created but also understand they are not human beings. This is quite a complex notion, especially for a Disney production.
This is where we return to the idea of Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain as the programs are fully aware of the monotony of their position and like Sisyphus, they too accept their fate as, ‘this is just what life is’. This poses wider questions about the nature of existence because if these programs are aware that they have been created and that they have a difficult existence then who are we to say that our human lives are any different?
Tron caught the imagination of a generation and still resonates with audiences. The recent sequel took the initial idea even further and also pushed the digital effects to a new level of spectacle. Both films pose questions about the nature of existence and what is the real world, the one we live in or the digital one, or perhaps, just perhaps, there is no difference at all.
The independent science-fiction film, ‘Moon’, was released in 2009 to much critical acclaim, especially for its director, Duncan Jones. The British indie tells the story of Sam Bell, a solitary astronaut working on the moon.
Alone, that is except for the Artificially Intelligent GERTY, the station’s operating system. What at first appears to be a novel take on the SF genre turns into a paranoid identity thriller as Sam discovers that he isn’t who he thinks he is. It transpires that GERTY isn’t the only artificially created intelligence on the Moon station, as Sam is revealed to be a human clone.
Directed by first time feature director, Duncan Jones, ‘Moon’ is a love letter to the 60s and 70s philosophical science-fiction dramas that explored the human condition. Visually, it has taken a lot from films such as ‘Alien’, and ‘Logan’s Run’, especially in the use of white within the sparse mise-en-scene.
However, Moon takes more than just visual cues from those classics because at its heart, it is about what makes us human, essentially it is an exploration of the human soul. GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey together with his trademark dry wit, at first appears to be playing a paternal role to Sam Bell as he advises and cares. Sam is obviously reliant on GERTY and communicates with him as if he is human. However, as Sam begins to question his own identity, he also begins to doubt the integrity of his lunar companion.
Moon is a good paranoid sci-fi thriller and is effective at building an anxious environment for Sam, in fact at times it resembles Kafka’s The Trial. The AI character of GERTY is representative of the wider concerns many have of a corporation getting too big and greedy.
In a way, GERTY is just a puppet for others at ‘head office’, themselves robotic and unemotional in the way they treat their employers as they develop their business to resemble a factory. One worker comes in and another goes out.
The film acts as a reminder of the monotonous routine of factory or office work in that he eventually discovers he’s just a clone of a clone of a clone… Think of the film’s protagonist as Sisyphus reaching the top of the mountain with the giant rock only to see in the distance thousands of other mountains with poor souls pushing the same rock up the hill.
8. War Games
John Badham’s ‘War Games’ was released in 1983 and featured a storyline that was certainly ahead of its time. It features a young talented computer hacker who manages to hack into NASA and almost begins World War III with the help of an advanced computer program designed to control nuclear missiles called, NOPR.
A young Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, the genius high school hacker who manages to hack into systems he is not supposed to, who initially uses his skill to inflate his school grades. At first, David thinks he is playing an Artificial Intelligent computer in a game of chess.
What he doesn’t realise is that the game of chess is actually linked to NOPR and the outcome could result in a mass nuclear war which could destroy the planet. Unlike other films on this list, the Artificial Intelligence is portrayed as having more of a ‘childlike’ persona and eventually realises that ‘mutually assured destruction’ is an illogical way for a society to conduct themselves.
War Games appears quaint in its naivety, especially when placed in comparison to more recent films about hacking and computer viruses. But there is much to admire in War Games. Despite appearing a good ten years before even the early days of the World Wide Web, it is able to show a version of what would become known as the ‘Internet’.
It was also able to predict the rise of hacking and the role young, self taught programmers, would play in the development of Internet security and the paranoia that somebody, somewhere, is watching.
1973’s Westworld was Michael Crichton’s directorial debut and came just two years after his screenplay for the Andromeda Strain had been made by Robert Wise. Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park gone haywire, much the same storyline as his biggest smash, Jurassic Park.
However, in Westworld it is human looking androids which go on a killer rampage rather than genetically enhanced dinosaurs. It can be argued that Westworld is the first film to feature a computer virus as a narrative device as part of the android’s malfunction is referred to as a digital ‘infectious disease’.
The story is set in an environment where scientists have joined up with a high-tech theme park and created a place where everyday people can experience either medieval Europe, pre-Christian Rome or The Old West. Paying punters are able to experience what it would be like to live a real life in these bygone eras. However, due to a digital malfunction and the spread of a kind of ‘digital infection’, the androids begin to run riot, killing the paying tourists.
Of course what is great about Westworld is the casting of iconic actor, Yul Brenner, who plays the ‘Gunslinger’ who attempts to kill off the paying customers. Much like Arnold Schwarzengger would do ten years later in Terminator, Brenner plays the villain with a straight face and with barely any emotion. It is terrific casting and clearly a way for audiences to identify with the ‘old west’ and buy into the science-fiction aspect of the story but all this is part of the fun of the film.
6. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Kubrick worked on this film for many years but never bought his version to the screen. However, after his death in 1999 the duties were passed to American filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, who had collaborated with Kubrick on the film. Fittingly, Spielberg released the film in 2001.
Partly based on Brian Aldiss’ short-story, ‘Super-Toys Last All Year Long’, and partially on the classic tale of Pinocchio, the film revolves around the story of David, a prototype android boy.
David is placed in the home of one of the employees of the company who made him, but his new parents’ emotional connection for him falter and eventually David runs away with his Mecha robot Teddy. Throughout the course of the long second act, David meets a series other Mecha characters and overcomes various obstacles, but the emotional connection of the film is based around David’s journey to becomes ‘a real boy’.
Eventually, David meets his creator but the meeting is thwarted when he discovers that there are in fact an entire factory line of other ‘Davids’ in production, and that he isn’t unique at all. This is where the film makes an insightful comment on the nature of childhood intelligence, because as children grow up, they realise that the world in which they live in is far bigger than they first realised.
As we grow up and enter puberty we lose aspects of our childhood, mainly an innocent worldview and realise that the world is much harder and dangerous to be a part of. When David falls to the bottom of the ocean it is him shredding his childhood and entering the first stages of becoming a man.
The final act of AI sees David and Teddy resurrected thousands of years in the future by the evolved Mecha from earlier in the film. The original Mecha robots have evolved into an advanced species of intelligent life and have outlived their human creators. They view David as we would view neanderthal man as they realise they can learn about their creator through David and Teddy.
The film ends ambiguously as David is granted to live a day with his mother, whom they recreate from a lock of hair. As his mother falls asleep and presumably dies so does David, having finally lived a day as a real boy.
The advanced Mecha at the of the film have actually evolved past being ‘mecha’ and appear to have a silicon based form. At the beginning the of film, David is the most advanced form of intelligent life, but ends the film as an antique, the last of his kind. As an audience we are left pondering the nature of existence and what it means to be ‘a real boy’.