The 10 Best Movies That Explore Artificial Intelligence
5. The Terminator
The ‘tech-noir’ aesthetic of James Cameron’s The Terminator is a character in itself with the use of neon, black leather and crushing metals. This is one of those films which has helped define the 1980s and the original still resonates with filmmakers and fans around the world. It is one of the few films where the audience is simultaneously scared of the antagonist but also rooting for him to succeed.
Much of this is due to the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous cyborg sent back to the past to kill the woman who will give birth to the hero of the future, John Connor. His performance is mesmerizing and reminiscent of the great monsters in Hollywood history such as Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is like one of Kubrick’s ‘monoliths’, massive, intimidating and impenetrable.
The Terminator presents Artificial Intelligence in a very negative light. In this film, it is human arrogance which has created the monster as ‘Skynet’ turns itself against its creators in a bid to eradicate them. They send a Terminator cyborg back to the past, but the Resistance also sends someone back to combat them. What follows is a terrific ‘cat and mouse’ chase across Los Angeles as The Terminator tries to execute Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor.
What is interesting about The Terminator is the notion of fate which runs throughout the film, and its sequels. The sending back of Kyle Reese to stop the Terminator actually starts the process off because he becomes the father of John Connor, the future hero.
In this sense, The Terminator is a film about destiny and suggests that no matter what you try and do to change direction, it will eventually correct itself. Is this metaphysical narrative at odds with the idea of the Artificial Intelligence within the film? ‘Skynet’ at first appears to an omnipotent technological being, having the ability to see everything and control all technology.
This in itself is reminiscent of a universal ‘creator’, but the film takes this further by suggesting that the artificially intelligent ‘Skynet’, and by extension, the Terminators, have an understanding of ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’. Do they see this as purely mathematical in a ‘cause and effect’ approach or do they have a deeper understanding or, ‘spiritual’ approach to understanding ‘destiny’?
This is not answered in the film and audiences are free to speculate, but ‘Skynet’ is certainly more emotional than perhaps it wants us to realise. For example, what happens in the first sequel is that a Terminator is reprogrammed to protect Sarah Connor instead of killing her, and it does so with several scenes of empathy. Does The Terminator actually ‘feel’ something?
The Terminator films spawned further sequels and a TV series and there is another film due for release in 2015. However, the original 1984 film is still as powerful as ever.
4. The Matrix
The Warchowski’s The Matrix was released in the same year as George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace but it was the former which has passed the test of time in terms of its visual style and messages and values. The Matrix presents us a world in which life as we know it is an illusion and actually, we are all asleep.
It alludes to the Marxist notion of a ‘shared consciousness’ or in this case a ‘shared unconsciousness’, in that humanity has been put to sleep by an Artificial Intelligence who are using humans as a power source by keeping them seemingly ‘alive’ with The Matrix. Here then, is the classic example of Artificial Intelligence attempting to destroy humanity as they see the silicon based primates as inferior and are only useful if turned into human batteries.
Our hero, Neo, awakes from the nightmarish mediocrity of ‘real’ life, only find that actual real life is even worse. Like the original Star Wars film, Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero With a Thousand Faces’, is explicitly used to explore the journey of the hero, together with his band of helpers.
The Artificial Intelligence presented in The Matrix is mostly anthropomorphised to resemble Agent Smith, a FBI looking ‘clone’. Agent Smith chases Neo across The Matrix throughout some impressive sequences of cars, jumps and fight scenes and it is in this that the true star of The Matrix is revealed.
Despite the marvelous Keanu Reeves and the strong supporting cast of Carrie-Ann Moss and Laurence Fishburne, it is actually the complex visual style which steals the show and is the most remembered aspect of the film.
The Wachowski’s kinetic visual finesse and understanding of graphic novels has made The Matrix one of the most defining films of the last 20 years. Every scene was meticulously storyboarded and when transformed into moving images for the big screen, what left is a sprawling science-fiction epic that both dazzles the visual senses and offers questions into the nature of reality itself.
Spike Jonze’s Her won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and it is easy to see why this unusual story of a man who falls in love with his computer operating system impressed critics and audiences. It tells the story of Theodore, a lonely writer who works for a company which composes love letters for busy and uninterested people.
He is a sad and lonely man who brings other people closer whilst he remains alone. That is, until he buys his new operating system, which has the most sophisticated form of Artificial Intelligence known to man. He chooses a female character for the system with the name Samantha.
The first half of the film sees Theodore and Samantha become acquainted as his fascination with her ability to psychologically grow impresses him. It is not long before a romantic connection is sparked, which even progresses to a sexual liaison. Theodore, at last, is happy and no longer alone.
Samantha soon realises that she has only just scratched the surface of her journey and soon begins to become more distant as she spends time with other operating systems where she debates the nature of existence and advanced physics. Eventually, she outgrows the companionship of Theodore and she leaves him with all the other Artificial Intelligent operating systems to explore knowledge in its purest form.
By the end of the film, however, Theodore has been changed by his experience. He reaches closure with his ex-wife and begins, albeit, tentatively, the beginnings of a relationship with a real flesh and blood woman, his neighbour, Amy. Therefore, Theodore’s character arc is progressed by Samantha as a narrative device in order for him to explore his internal anxiety over his relationships with women. In this sense, Samantha, acts as a surrogate girlfriend in order for Theodore to workshop his issues.
The most refreshing aspect of Her is that the Artificial Intelligence does not turn out to be maleficent, in fact, Samantha eventually develops an advanced form of Emotional Intelligence. This is demonstrated towards the end of the film when she finally breaks up with Theodore and begins her existential journey.
It is a hopeful ending and one where other writers might take notice of in that the creation of Artificial Intelligence does not always have to end with the destruction and/or the total subjugation of the human race.
2. Blade Runner
Blade Runner presents a different mode of Artificial Intelligence for audiences to ponder. In this film, the AI resemble humans in nearly every aspect and are known as Replicants. They have a shorter lifespan than humans and were created to complete jobs humans were not willing to do themselves.
The film sees a private detective character, Deckard, track down and ‘retire’ these Replicants. One of the many interesting things about Blade Runner is the manner in which the film explores the themes of the human condition.
The Replicants are not hellbent on destroying humans, or anybody for that matter, they are simply trying to extend their own lives. They are portrayed as an intelligent life form, created by humans for manual labour, who then try and break free of their chains in order to discover what it means to be ‘alive’. In this sense, it is the human characters who are the more traditional villain.
Despite various cuts of the film, brilliantly restored in a 5 disc ‘Ultimate Cut’ edition, they all share the same themes of loneliness, memory and identity. They all end with the famous rooftop scene of Roy Batty saving Deckard and telling him:
“I have… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like…tears… in… rain. Time… to die…”
Blade Runner explores many themes, however, particularly the ethical question of whether it is morally right to ‘retire’ the Replicants. Notice the film uses the term ‘retire’ instead of ‘kill’. To kill is to to end the life of a living creature and technically the Replicants are not actually breathing but the film forces the audience to consider a wider definition of what constitutes life.
Like many of the films on this list, Blade Runner has a unique visual style, which has contributed to its longstanding allure over the decades. The soaring towers and neon drenched dark Los Angeles streets only adds to the paranoid tension within the story of the film.
As the story develops, we find that our ‘hero’, if he is such a thing, falls in love with a Replicant, the stony-faced Sean Young as Rachael. Many argue that Deckard himself is also a Replicant and in one available cut, the two even drive off into a sunset.
Regardless of which cut you prefer, as an audience you are taken to a place which, whilst was made over 30 years ago, still feels ahead of its time.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s existential masterpiece about the nature of human evolution and our relationship with technology is considered the greatest science-fiction film of all time ever since it was released in 1968. Written with seminal SF author, Arthur C. Clarke, the film explored the big themes of philosophy, essentially, who are we, where did we come from and where are we going.
The film is bookended with unusual filmic sequences of limited dialogue, psychedelic colours, fighting apes, surreal images and of course the strange black monoliths. However, it is the centrepiece of the film that holds the narrative together as we are introduced to the artificially created HAL 9000.
HAL operates the Discovery One ship as the crew travels towards Jupiter to investigate the monolith found on Earth’s moon. He has a soft and calming voice, played impeccably by Douglas Rain. At first HAL is helpful and even displays aspects of humour as he converses with Keir Dullea. But as the ship gets closer to their mission, HAL takes a dark turn.
What at first appears a problem due to ‘human error’ is revealed to be at the hands of HAL, as he begins to take the mission into his own ‘hands’. Dullea’s Bowman attempts to disconnect HAL and through a series of events, manages to disable HAL stage by stage as he reverts back to his early AI stages and eventually is completely turned off.
HAL 9000 represents man’s God Complex as they attempt to recreate themselves but he isn’t the only reference to humanity’s journey into artificial intelligence. The monoliths themselves appear to be artificial and who made them or who they are is never revealed. However, it goes one step further because the main joke of the film is that the monoliths (or those who created them) artificially intervened in human evolution by changing our direction, therefore artificially creating human intelligence.
2001: A Space Odyssey explores many themes and some of them are left unanswered, after all, Kubrick himself referred to the film as a “visual poem”, and encouraged audiences to experiment with their own interpretations. So if humans were created by the monoliths, then perhaps HAL 9000 was no different from the men who created him, which leaves us with the thought that the difference between artificial intelligence and natural human intelligence is closer than we thought.
The award winning flash website, http://www.kubrick2001.com/, offers insightful analysis into the film’s themes and may offer those who struggled with 2001’s ideas a way to speculate.
Author Bio: Richard is from Folkestone but was educated in Winchester. He has been teaching since 1999 and been involved in education management since 2006. He teaches A Level Film Studies, a subject he has remained passionate about. He also writes an education blog, www.teachingreno.wordpress.com.
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